What is the Internet?

Several things in the past few weeks have driven me into a Hulk-like frenzy of geek fury. One of those things was the new Hulk flick, but we'll let that one slide for now. You'll just have to banish Ang Lee's misguided movie from your mind as you imagine me getting greener and greener, madder and madder, until I'm finally several yards tall, the glasses have popped off my distended face, and I'm punching the Windows 98 boxes that litter my office, screaming, "NERD ANGRY!!! NERD SMASH!!!"

It all started, like so many geek rampages recently have, with a stupid Microsoft puppet company called the Santa Cruz Operation. My devious hacker friend Mason kept sending me links about SCO that he'd ripped off from Slashdot, which he would follow up with a phone call. "What have you done to hurt SCO today?" he'd ask. When I admitted I'd done nothing more than read the SCO story told using characters from "The Dukes of Hazzard", he would giggle evilly and say, "I've been crank calling them all morning on their 800 number! Mwah, mwah, mwah!"

Great. I'm not cool enough to crank call SCO and ask why its network has mysteriously crashed yet again. Unix vendor SCO has been having strange problems with its office computers ever since it decided to sue IBM for $3 billion.

You may be asking, What the hell is insignificant little SCO doing in a lawsuit like that? Well, SCO claims IBM yanked some proprietary intellectual property (i.e., lines of code) out of Unix (which SCO owns by virtue of some buyout shenanigans during the wild and woolly 1990s) and tossed it over to Linus Torvalds (the engineer responsible for creating Linux), who apparently smuggled that code into his dirty little operating system. Meanwhile, in a most amusing move, SCO has declined to identify exactly which pieces of the code in Linux were stolen from it.

Early in this whole shitstorm, Microsoft licensed SCO's Unix technology, thereby giving a hot cash injection to the flagging company and implicitly supporting its claim.

Basically, the whole damn circus is a plot to undermine the credibility of Linux, an operating system that Microsoft considers one of the greatest threats to its empire. And yet there might be some dangerous precedents set once the FUD vapor clears. SCO's high-powered lawyer, David Boies (who represented the federal government in its antitrust suit against Microsoft), intends to argue that SCO owns copyrights to parts of the Unix operating system, which would set all kinds of dangerous precedents in future litigation because so many operating systems have bits of Unix and Unix-like code in them. You see why Microsoft might be excited about this idea. It would lead to more lawsuits and could ultimately make it a lot harder for companies without deep pockets to adopt open-source systems based on Unix or Linux.

Musing disgustedly on all of this, I was interrupted by a call on my cell. "Is this Annalee Newitz?" an unfamiliar voice asked. Fuck if I wasn't getting a goddamn telemarketing pitch on my previously spam-free cell phone: "Hi, I'm Puke Licker from Comcast, and we're wondering if you'd like to sign up for our new digital Internet service for a special rate this month."

After a long pause, I asked, "What is the Internet?"

This question obviously wasn't on his script. "Well, it's like computers," he helpfully explained. "Do you use computers in your home?"

"Oh no, we don't do that at my house. Sorry," I replied, clicking off.

So there you have it, boys and girls, right from the mouth of some technoplebe at Comcast: the Internet is like computers. See, no matter what SCO says or what the courts decide or whose asshole Microsoft is ramming full of its giant splintery dildo this month, the people have spoken. The Internet, whose software infrastructure is almost entirely based on Unix, is computers. Can any single corporate entity claim copyright on computers? Nope. I mean, what are computers, after all? I'll bet they're like the Internet. And nobody owns that, right?

Yeah, right. This is one of those moments when I wish there were an emoticon for sarcasm.

Annalee Newitz (bleah@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who finally did something to hurt SCO today. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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