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October 2018
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Tim Berners-Lee Moves Forward With His Big Plan To Fix The Web By Bringing Back Its Original Decentralized Promise

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Here we go. For years I've been talking about how we really need to move the web to a world of protocols instead of platforms. The key concept is that so much of the web has been taken over by internet giants who have built data silos. There are all sorts of problems with this. For one, when those platforms are where the majority of people get their information, it makes them into the arbiters of truth when that should make us quite uncomfortable. Second, it creates a privacy nightmare where hugely valuable data stores are single points of failure for all your data (even when those platforms have strong security, just having so much data held by one source is dangerous). Finally, it really takes us far, far away from the true promise of cloud computing, which was supposed to be a situation where we separated out the data and the application layers and could point multiple applications at the same data. Instead, we got silos where you're relying on a single provider to host both the data and the application (which also raises privacy concerns).Despite some people raising these issues for quite some time, there hasn't been much public discussion of them until just recently (in large part, I believe, driven by the growing worries about how the big platforms have become so powerful). A few companies here or there have been trying to move us towards a world of protocols instead of platforms, and one key project to watch is coming from the inventor of the web himself, Tim Berners-Lee. He had announced his project Solid a while back: an attempt to separate out the data layer, allowing end users to control that data and have much more control over what applications could access it. I've been excited about the project, but just last week I commented to someone that it wasn't clear how much progress had actually been made.Then, last Friday, Berners-Lee announced that he's doubling down on the project, to the point that he's taken a sabbatical from MIT and reduced his involvement with the W3C to focus on a new company to be built around Solid called inrupt. inrupt's new CEO also has a blog post about this, which admittedly comes off as a bit odd. It seems to suggest that the reason to form inrupt was not necessarily that Solid has made a lot of forward progress, but rather than it needs money, and the only way to get some is to set up a company:

Solid as an open-source project had been facing the normal challenges: vying for attention and lacking the necessary resources to realize its true potential. The solution was to establish a company that could bring resources, process and appropriate skills to make the promise of Solid a reality. There are plenty of examples of a commercial entity serving as the catalyst for an open-source project, to bolster the community with the energy and infrastructure of a commercial venture.And so we started planning inrupt - a company to do just that. Inrupt's mission is to ensure that Solid becomes widely adopted by developers, businesses, and eventually everyone; that it becomes part of the fabric of the web. Tim, as our CTO, has committed his time and talent to the company, and I am delighted to be its chief executive. We also have an exceptional investor as part of the team.
I'm certainly hopeful that something significant comes of this, as it truly is an opportunity to move the internet into that kind of more distributed, less centralized/silo'd world that shows off the true power of the web. I have heard some grousing among some people that this is just Tim Berners-Lee just rebranding the concept of the Semantic Web that he started pushing nearly two decades ago, without any real traction. And, of course, there have been plenty of other attempts over the decades to build these kinds of systems. As it stands right now, there are a few other projects that are getting some traction, including the more distributed social platform Mastodon or some of the ideas that have come out of IndieWeb.That said, we may finally be entering an era where both users and companies alike are recognizing the benefits of a more distributed web and the downsides of a more centralized one. So it really does feel like there's an opportunity to embrace these concepts, and it's good to see the founder of the world wide web ramping up his efforts on this. If it produces real, workable solutions, that would obviously be fantastic, but at the very least if it gets more people just thinking about these concepts, that would also be useful. So, this should be seen as big news for anyone concerned about the powers of the largest internet companies (especially if you're skeptical about government trying to step in to deal with those companies when they don't know what they're doing). While the details and implementation will matter quite a bit, it's exciting to see more movement towards a world in which the data layer is not just separated out, but where end users will be able to fully control that layer themselves, and potentially choose which apps can access what (and for how long). It certainly opens up a real opportunity to bring back the early promise of a truly decentralized web... and that would be a web built on protocols rather than centralized, silo'd platforms.

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posted at: 12:47am on 06-Oct-2018
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Philly Cops Face Criminal Charges For Performing An Illegal Pedestrian Stop

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Weird stuff is happening in Philadelphia. Things have changed drastically since Larry Krasner became District Attorney. Anyone who enters this office and immediately earns the undying hatred of the local police union is probably someone actually serious about accountability.

Right after taking office, DA Krasner secured 33 resignations from prosecutors and staff who weren't willing to get on board with his reform efforts. He went after the bail system, pointing out it did little else but ensure the poorest Philadelphians spent the most time in jail while still presumably innocent. Then he pissed off the police union by daring to tell incoming police cadets force deployment -- especially deadly force -- is a power to be used only when necessary and handled with the utmost of respect.

Accountability INTENSIFIES. A bogus pedestrian stop performed by two cops has led to [rubs eyes in disbelief] the arrest of the two cops who performed the stop. (h/t Max Marin)

The statement [PDF] issued by the DA's office says two Philly PD officers, Matthew Walsh and Marvin Jones, stopped a citizen for "apparently using narcotics." This citizen filed a complaint, resulting in an Internal Affairs investigation.

The narrative delivered by the two cops on their report was undone completely by video obtained by Internal Affairs.

Based on video surveillance recovered during the course of the IAD investigation, Police Officer Walsh and Police Officer Jones could not have seen the citizen "apparently using narcotics." In addition, the citizen was fully compliant at the time of the stop. Moreover, the search of the citizen (which resulted in the removal of a prescription pharmaceutical from the citizen's pants pocket) was not noted on the "Vehicle/Pedestrian Investigation Report" prepared and submitted by the officers.

Normally this sort of behavior would result in a halfhearted investigation and officers being cleared of any wrongdoing. In extreme cases, someone might be suspended with pay. Lies and illegal stops rarely result in anything more than stern words and civil rights lawsuits. They almost never result in the arrest of the officers involved.

But not here. Officers Walsh and Jones have both been arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy, false imprisonment, tampering with records, obstructing administration of law, and official oppression. Rather than force the citizen to fight this abuse in court, the DA's office has taken steps that will result in far more deterrence of future unconstitutional policing by making it clear abusive actions will be punished severely.

Unbelievably, there's more. Another near-impossibility was achieved only a few weeks earlier.

Today, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is charging former 15th District Philadelphia Police Officer Ryan Pownall with Criminal Homicide (18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2501), Possession of an Instrument of Crime (18 Pa.C.S.A. § 907), and Recklessly Endangering Another Person (18 Pa.C.S.A § 2705). Pownall voluntarily turned himself in today.

The Investigating Grand Jury (IGJ), whose members completed a review of the evidence and events leading up to the shooting death of David Jones, recommended that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) issue charges against Pownall.

Officer Pownall shot David Jones in the back three times while he was running away from the officer. Jones was carrying a gun, which Pownall found during his search of Jones, but following a brief altercation, Jones tossed his weapon away and ran from Officer Pownall. Perhaps Pownall could have justified his actions (or attempted to) if he felt Jones was still carrying his gun, but his own statements to responding officers made it clear he'd seen Jones throw his weapon away before running. Video recovered from the scene showed Jones was unarmed, never turned towards Officer Pownall or acted in a threatening manner at any point during his brief flight.

As the grand jury sees it, this killing was completely unnecessary.

The IGJ (Investigative Grand Jury) found that by firing his gun in the direction of traffic, Pownall recklessly endangered other people in his vicinity, that at the time of his flight, Jones was not a danger to anyone and that Jones’s death was not necessary to secure his apprehension.

True, it doesn't take much to secure a conviction from a grand jury. But when the target is a cop, prosecutors -- despite playing on a completely-skewed playing field -- rarely seem to be able to talk grand jurors into returning charges. Officer Pownall is innocent until proven guilty, but he'll get to see firsthand what that presumption actually means once a trial's underway.

This has been a big month for police accountability. Hopefully, this trend continues... and expands much further than one DA's office in Pennsylvania.

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posted at: 12:47am on 06-Oct-2018
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