“The Internet, the Perpetual Beta, and the State: The Long View of the New Medium”

Studies in Conflict & Terror, the foremost peer-reviewed journal in its field (edited by Bruce Hoffman), has just published my article “The Internet, the Perpetual Beta, and the State: The Long View of the New Medium”. This follows on from an earlier article I published in the journal in 2007, and introduces what I believe is an entirely novel dimension to the field of terrorism research.

Source: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/section?content=a924326329&fulltext=713240928

To cite this Article: Ryan, Johnny ‘The Internet, the Perpetual Beta, and the State: The Long View of the New Medium’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33:8, 673 – 681

Abstract

Though fecund as a medium across which subversive ideas can be propagated, the Internet is also hazardous to these ideas. By virtue of the perpetual beta and the increasing under-dominance of Internet content, which effectively means there is no last edit on the Internet, all ideas, including militant ones, are subject to the scrutiny of Internet users. The hazard of the perpetual beta and the new plasticity of information is atomizing the violent militant memes associated with Al Qaeda.

Each year Europol releases an aggregated Terrorism Situation and Trend Report [TE-SAT] terrorist situation report drawn from information contributed by the police and security agencies of the twenty-seven EU Member States. For the past two years the TE-SAT has shown a worrying trend. The 2008 report noted that:

More terrorism propaganda is being produced and distributed over the Internet than ever before. … [The] al Qaeda media campaign during 2007 produced propaganda in a number of European languages, indicating increasing efforts to reach non-Arabic speaking Europeans.1

The following year TE-SAT 2009 reiterated this trend for the second year in a row, noting that “2008 has witnessed an increase in Islamist extremist websites in western languages as part of a strategy to reach western audiences.”2 The Internet remains a factor, although a mercurial one,3 in the European security picture. Yet this is merely part of the first shocks in a seismic change that will have an impact on security and society for decades to come.

This article presents a long-term view of the challenge to the State from the emerging digital culture on the one hand, and the opportunity and hazard that the increasingly user-dominated Internet represents for militant Islamist information campaigns on the other. Moreover, it argues that in the emerging digital era offline action across society becomes more, rather than less, important.

 

The Perpetual Beta and Plastic Information

This article advances a broad, macro perspective of the emerging digital culture and the challenge that will face the State online in the coming decades. The first and most obvious aspect of this change is that the passive audiences of the twentieth-century television and radio broadcast age are transforming themselves into the masters of content on the Internet in the twenty-first. Users, random and anonymous, are in control of the new medium.

This was not necessarily apparent in the days and weeks after 11 September 2001. Speaking in an interview with the Urdu media, Karachi Ummat, only weeks after 11 September 2001, bin Laden said “Our silence is our real propaganda. Rejections, explanations, or corrigendum only waste your time … pulling you away from your cause.”4 Yet conditions had changed by 2008 to the extent that Ayman al- Zawahiri decided to submit to an online question and answer exchange with Internet users in 2008, and adopted an open and accommodating tone:

I hope that those who sent in their questions have not become upset by the passing of some time between the posting of the questions and the giving of the answers. Allah knows that I did my best to make the answers come close after the questions.5

The humble tone of the introduction in which he apologized for his delayed responses suggests that he understands better than most the growing power of the Internet user to proliferate, distort, or reject his message.

The dramatic growth of sites such as Wikipedia shows the increasing dominance that users rather than professional content producers have over the medium. From just under 20,000 user-created and edited articles in January 2002 the English language version of Wikipedia grew to over 2,500,000 by January 2009.6 By late 2007 a Pew survey reported that 64% of online teens in the United States had created and uploaded photos, artwork, or videos to the Internet.7 In early 2009 most of the fifty most popular websites in the world were reliant on Internet users to create their content: 24 were entirely dependent on users’ content; 16 were merely portal sites; and only 10 were conventional one-to-many broadcast sites.8 Thus in the majority of cases what Internet users read and view has been written, filmed, or at the very least critiqued by other Internet users.

The second aspect of this change is that Internet users are making information and narratives plastic and malleable. Speaking four years before al-Zawahiri’s Q&A in an entirely different context, Tim O’Reilly outlined a new approach to software development that exemplified a new approach to user domination and anticipated what might be called the increasing plasticity of information.9 The audience he was speaking to were familiar with the conventional software development cycle in which progressive versions from an initial “pre-alpha” build to a penultimate “beta” version that is released for a period of testing by a small number of users before the final release candidate. Yet from now on, O’Reilly told the gathered developers, Web 2.0 meant that the conventional development cycle was obsolete. Software now would remain in “perpetual beta,” constantly undergoing improvement by the inputs of a global community of assertive Internet users who suggest refinements and highlight snags. Web 2.0 implied that there could be no final cut, no definitive version. The input of the empowered online audience of users would enrich those products that remained flexible and open. Software, and much else besides, would all be, at least to some extent, under the sway of their audience.

Increasing user-domination is making information increasingly plastic and malleable. The perpetual beta applies particularly strongly to controversial issues on the Internet. The Wikipedia article on George W. Bush has been edited 40,723 times as of 15 June 2009.10 Heated editorial battles centered around his idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word nuclear, his national guard service, and whether it was appropriate to categorize him under the heading “alcoholic.”11 The Wikipedia entry on George W. Bush may in fact be one of the most edited pieces of text ever distributed in human history. This remarkable plasticity is evident in other controversial issues on the Internet, in the interplay of ideas among people on Internet forums, and in comments on blog posts and video sites.

The perpetual beta and the attendant difficulties that the State faces in projecting preferred narratives online is part of a seismic shift in communications. Taken in a broader context, the information environment is reverting to a model last experienced six centuries ago, before the printing press with movable type and printer’s ink enabled the distribution of rigid, inflexible information.

 

The Long-Term Perspective of Subversive Digital Culture

To fully comprehend the seismic scale of this change, and the challenge it poses to State narratives in the emerging environment of the perpetual beta and the user driven Internet, consider the communications problem faced by the Roman Church in the centuries before the advent of the printing press. The following example, unusual perhaps in the context of an article intended for a policy and specialist readership, is directly relevant to Governments contesting the information space in the emerging digital era.

In 382 A.D. Pope Damascus commissioned Jerome to compile an edition of the Bible that became known as the “Vulgate” edition.12 Almost 1,200 years later, in 1546, the Council of Trent decreed that St. Jerome’s Vulgate should “be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.”13 In other words, the full weight of Rome was behind this particular text and no Catholic should deviate from it. Yet in the absence of the print technology this kind of inflexible communication of information was simply not possible. Even a text as important as the Bible, whose content underpinned the belief system of a continent and which was maintained by a centralized church with a cohort of highly disciplined monks, underwent repeated alterations and reedits. It was impossible to relay accurate information across Christendom for as long as the Church had attempted by relying on manual transcription. Thus by the time the Council of Trent made its decree the original text of the Vulgate Bible had suffered generations of human error in transcription causing Erasmus to complain that there were as many Vulgates as there were Bibles.14

The difficulties experienced by States now in their information campaigns against militant radicals should be seen in their wider context: as part of a readjustment in the ability to control and manipulate information, and as a shift in the balance of power between state and networked citizen.15 The difficult lesson for the State is that the comparatively brief spell of the print era has been the anomaly in human history. Web 2.0 and the perpetual beta mark a reversion to normality. This is a challenge that States will continue to face in the very long-term future.

 

Roots of Subversive Culture

To understand how this challenge might evolve, first consider the subversive elements of digital culture. Although the Internet is a comparatively recent feature of daily life, the subversive elements of its culture were already well formed before it became popular in the mid-1990s. As early as in November 1994, only a year after the first development of the World Wide Web, Wired magazine published a feature on a phenomenon almost exactly like militant Islamist violent radicalization, but which was occurring within another, very different, community:

Just 10 years ago, most queer teens hid behind a self-imposed don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy until they shipped out to Oberlin or San Francisco, but the Net has given even closeted kids a place to conspire. … AOL’s [America Online] gay and lesbian forum enables him to follow dispatches from queer activists worldwide, hone his writing, flirt, try on disposable identities, and battle bigots—all from his home screen.16

But for its dramatically different subject group Wired‘s feature could be easily rewritten to describe Al Qaeda sympathizers in post-11 September Western Europe. In both cases the Internet allows a connection to an amorphous community to discuss matters regarded in wider society as subversive, to find mentors, seek out justification, and learn methods and mores relevant to their chosen lifestyles.

That this pattern will continue, whether perpetuated by militant Islamism or other subversive groups in the future, is almost a certainty for a simple reason: popular network technology has since its very beginnings facilitated underground, amorphous communities. This includes the so-called phone “phreaks,” who hacked the U.S. telephone network from the 1960s onward,17 some elements of the homebrew clubs of the 1970s,18 and the network hackers and pirates of the 1980s and 1990s.

Not only does the Internet facilitate amorphous communities but it has a culture of initiative that facilitates individual activism. This evolved from the “hackers” at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from the late 1950s,19 and the rise of a community of phone phreaks that spread and evolved into network hackers and software pirates. By the 1980s a new breed of phreaks was so defined and self-aware that it had established norms and conventions to which its members loosely adhered. One such convention, according to two phreaks called “Taran King” and “Knight Lightning,” was that “real phreaks can think up a creative name.”20 Since the criterion for admission to this community was the capacity to phreak the phone system, all participants shared a common interest in learning more about that technology: it was both the enabler and focus of their community. Within the phreak community, as with the earlier hackers at MIT, a meritocracy reigned. Individuals with the most refined mastery over the phone system enjoyed elevated prestige. The underground culture’s focus on prestige and expertise naturally attracts self-starters, individuals applying their initiative to contribute to a broader shared purpose.

The same underground digital culture gave the now well-known convict Younis Tsouli (Irhabi 007) his status, nickname, and identity, the norms he observed online, a willingness to use his initiative, to think differently and practically like a hacker, and a meritocracy in which to operate. Like the phone phreakers from the 1950s onward, Irhabi 007 found online a community of common interest in which he could invest himself, and through which he could gain respect for his talents.

To understand why this culture of initiative will continue to attract a niche of individuals willing to challenge the State, whether associated with militant Islamism or some future subversive group, consider the words of “The Mentor,” a young network hacker writing in 1986:“The Mentor” was the handle of twenty-one-year-old Loyd Blankenship, who also went by the name of “the Neuromancer.” He was part of a loose community of network hackers directly descended from the phone phreaks and elements of the earlier hacker culture. In the “Hacker’s Manifesto,” which he wrote following his arrest in 1986, he described his feeling upon encountering the online world: “This is where I belong. I know everyone here … even if I’ve never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again … I know you all.”22

then it happened … a door opened to a world … rushing through the phone line like heroin through an addict’s veins, an electronic pulse is sent out, a refuge from the day-to-day … a [bulletin (online discussion)] board is found.21

To be part of an elite network, particularly a conspiratorial one, might be a large part of a person’s social existence. For Joe Engressia, a blind phreaker who had discovered how to control the phone network as a young boy, this was so central to his being that he adopted his hacker nickname “Joybubbles” as his name by legal deed poll in 1991. Engressia’s obituary in the New York Times described how “every night he sits like a sightless spider in his little apartment receiving messages from every tendril of its web.”23 The image of Engressia as a spider at the center of a web linking the various isolated individuals within a broad, amorphous community is uncannily like Tsouli, who was convicted for fulfilling a similar function in militant Islamist circles. The appeal of subversive communities on the Internet has deeper roots than the present focus of militant radicalization can encompass.

 

Reed’s 3rd Law and the Long-Term Challenge

What might be particularly worrying to governments is that the laws that govern the value of networks apply also to militant groups. In the era before digital networks, David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC, stated that the value of a broadcasting network was determined by the number of its viewers. By virtue of the media with which it dealt Sarnoff’s Law conformed to a limited, centripetal logic. Yet in the 1980s Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet computer local area networking (LAN), coined a loose definition stating that the benefit or value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system. Computer networks, Metcalfe argued, created “a critical mass of creativity after which the benefits of a network grow larger than its costs.”24 The utility of such a network is obvious for militant radicals.

Metcalfe’s Law referred to early network technologies when simple functions such as e-mail and file transfer represented significant new capacities to organizations previously connected only by telephone, fax, and letter. However, in the years since new services such as social networking have changed the conditions that the law sought to describe. David Reed, one of the early contributors to the Internet protocol, expanded Metcalfe’s Law with the “Group Forming Law” also known as Reed’s 3rd Law. This observes that the value of networks that allow their participants to form groups and collaborate on common goals scales upward in a far more dramatic way.25 Groups forming networks such as online communities and discussion groups, argues Reed, scale not linearly, as Sarnoff’s broadcast networks did, or by the square number of the total number of participants as Metcalfe’s Law suggests, but exponentially.

If you add up all the potential two-person groups, three-person groups, and so on that those members could form, the number of possible groups equals 2n. So the value of a GFN increases exponentially, in proportion to 2n.26

This is because “any system that lets users create and maintain groups creates a set of group-forming options that increase exponentially with the number of potential members.”27 Thus where N equals the number of participants in the network the value of a network conforming to Sarnoff’s Law is simply N; yet the value of a network conforming to Metcalfe’s Law is N(N-1) or N2; and the value of a network conforming to Reed’s 3rd Law is 2N. Furthermore, the 2N of Reed’s formula may start very small, but grows exponentially.28 Herein lies the promise of the Internet for militant Islamists.

Reed’s 3rd Law suggests that loose amorphous communities of common interest on the Internet can create unforeseen benefits for their participants. This might, for example, include the appearance of new recruiters and coordinators to act as focal nodes, which puts a context on the spontaneous appearance of self-starter nodal individuals such as Tsouli. Yet despite this alarming conclusion, it is important to bear in mind that militants must expose their narrative to the same distorting forces that frustrate States in order to leverage this value from the Internet.

 

The Hazard of the Perpetual Beta for Militants

If the value of networks scale exponentially upward then the objective in countering online radicalization should be correspondingly narrow: to disrupt the wider proliferation of militant ideas29 beyond the hard-core locked militant forums. The happy irony here is that the very factors that made the Internet so amenable to subversives also now make the militant Islamist call to violence vulnerable to distortion and dilution. To grow one’s network and appeal to prospective self-starters, one must expose one’s message to the hazards of the Internet—rendering it plastic and subject to the perpetual beta. Thanks to the perpetual beta, everything, whether a product of states or militants, is open to challenge on the Internet.

As Rupert Murdoch told the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in April 2005:

I’m a digital immigrant. I wasn’t weaned on the web. … Instead, I grew up in a highly centralized world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know. My two young daughters, on the other hand, will be digital natives.30

The perpetual beta, and the critical and irreverent nature of “digital natives,” poses a challenge to any effort to enforce a rigorous and authoritative position on any subject. Once militants engage in discussion in the wider, open Internet beyond the locked web forums where their own devotees congregate, they fall prey to the same Internet phenomenon that frustrates state narratives. Thus the new trend of user-driven communications both renders militant information campaigns possible but vulnerable too. The Internet therefore is a new high ground for which governments can compete.

 

The Strength of Society in a Networked World and the Importance of Offline Action

Online radicalization is a symptom of two factors: first, that the Internet is a medium of networks and relationships; and second, that there is a fundamental problem within society. Taken together, they point to a solution.

Where the defining pattern of the industrial age was the single, central dot to which all strands led, the emerging digital age is different. The defining pattern of the digital age is the absence of the central dot. In its place a mesh of many points is evolving, each linked by webs and networks. In short, it is society and citizenship that is at issue. The defining pattern of the emerging digital age and the currency in which counter radicalization strategies must trade is society and relationships. At the same time, the prospect that a small proportion of citizens should be willing to kill their peers is a problem within society, rather than one of technology. It may surprise policy readers who have struggled to develop an online counternarrative strategy to consider that the existence of the Internet actually reinforces the importance of taking action offline.

That is not to deny that it is essential to challenge the call to violence at the point of dissemination on the chatrooms and Web forums, where government is unable to reach. Yet to do so, ironically, this strategy suggests a local, lo-fi approach to a global communications problem.31 To avoid the future radicalization of young militants to violent action against their peers, the State must focus on the offline health of society. Counternarratives need not necessarily be online, nor need they be Internet focused. Measures that succeed offline will necessarily make an impact online.32 It might seem too obvious to state, but the perpetual beta means that the more individuals across society that subscribe to the values of the State offline, the more vulnerable the militant message is to distortion online. Although the challenge is online radicalization, the focus on offline society must not be obscured.

A counternarrative to avert the next generation of violent radicals could perhaps be as broad and non-specific to the radicalization problem as a school curriculum that instills a sense of citizenship. While this might not have an impact on the kernel of committed militants, the focus of this strategy is the wider population of prospective sympathizers occupying chatrooms and Web forums. One example emerged in 2007 from a study in the United Kingdom that recommended a school history curriculum to tackle the delicate issue of British colonialism, thereby giving minorities a clear sense of how and why they belong within British society.33 A student more secure in their role in their wider society is more likely, one might presume, to have doubts when confronted with violent ideas on the Internet. At a minimum it might be a sufficient outcome to give pause for thought to Internet users who might otherwise accept militant rhetoric as fact. Moreover, a young Internet user who questioned militant rhetoric online might become an agent of the perpetual beta and contribute to the degradation of the militant call to violence online. The more such agents that are active online the greater their impact would become under the terms of Reed’s 3rd Law.

It is crucial to recognize at this early stage of the Internet’s development that the Net, like the high seas, is part of the global commons, and any official approach to it at this early stage in its development must be considered from the long-term perspective of building up a strong society of digital natives rather than from the short-term imperative to act in the wake of a terrorist event. In the emerging digital era the State will be unable to control information as it has done in the past. Instead it must increasingly rely on its citizens and on the strength of its society so that the plasticity of information can work in its favor. Subversives will persist online, but the more people in society who understand and oppose the violent narratives that threaten their society, the harder it will be for isolated militants to appeal with a consistent message across the wider Internet.

 

Acknowledgments

The ideas in this article were first presented by the author at the Intelligence Seminar at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, 30 January 2008.

 

Notes

1. “TE-SAT: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report,” Europol, 2008, p. 42.

2. Ibid.

3. MI5 briefing note, “Understanding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism in the UK,” made available to Alan Travis, The Guardian, 20 October 2008. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/aug/20/uksecurity.terrorism (accessed 30 October 2008); “TE-SAT: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report,” p. 22.

4. ‘“Exclusive” Interview with Usama Bin Ladin on 11 Sep Attacks in US,” Karachi Ummat, 28 September 2001, translated in Compilation of Usama Bin Laden Statements 1994—January 2004, FBIS, p. 178.

5. “First Part of Responses by Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri to Open Meeting Coordinated by al Fajr Center and as-Sahab,” 2 April 2008. Available at http://www.archive.org/details/Responses-1 (accessed 1 November 2008).

6. “Size of Wikipedia,” Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Size_of_Wikipedia (accessed 15 June 2009).

7. “Teens and Social Media,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, 19 December 2007, p. i.

8. Alexa Web service rankings. Available at www.alexa.com (accessed 24 January 2009).

9. Tim O’Reilly, “What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software,” 30 September 2005. Available at www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html?page=4 (accessed 12 August 2009).

10. Wikipedia most frequently edited pages. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Most_frequently_edited_articles (accessed 15 June 2009).

11. Wikipedia, archive of talk on George W. Bush page. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:George_W._Bush/Archive_index (accessed 15 June 2009).

12. H. F. D. Sparks, “Jerome as Biblical Scholar,” The Cambridge History of the Bible: Vol. 1, From the Beginnings to Jerome (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 513.

13. “Decree Concerning the Edition and the Use of the Sacred Books,” Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, The Fourth Session, Celebrated on the eighth day of the month of April, in the year 1546. Available at www.bible-researcher.com/trent1.html (accessed 29 April 2009).

14. John Sandys-Wunsch, What Have They Done to the Bible?: A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), p. 6.

15. See Johnny Ryan, Countering Militant Islamist Radicalization: A User Driven Strategy to Recover the Web (Dublin: Institute of International & European Affairs, 2007).

16. “We’re Teen, We’re Queer, and We’ve Got E-Mail,” Wired, November 1994. Available at www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.11/gay.teen.html (accessed 30 October 2008).

17. For accounts of the Phreakers, see Ron Rosenbaum, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” Esquire, October 1971; also John T. Draper, “The Story so Far.” Available at www.webcrunchers.com/crunch/story.html (accessed 1 May 2009).

18. See “Homebrew Newsletter,” issue 1, 15 March 1975; also Steve Wozniak, “Homebrew and how the Apple came to be,” in Steve Ditlea, ed., Digital Deli: The Comprehensive, User-Lovable Menu of Computer Lore, Culture, Lifestyles and Fancy (New York: Workman, 1984).

19. See Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2001).

20. Taran King and Knight Lightning, “Real Phreakers Guide Vol. 1,” 6 October 1985. Available at artofhacking.com/IET/RAGS/PHREAKS.REL (accessed 28 April 2009).

21. The Mentor, “The Conscience of a Hacker,” Phrack 1(7), 8 January 1986, phile 3 of 10. Available at www.phrack.org/issues.html?issue=7&id=3&mode=txt (accessed 9 January 2009).

22. Ibid.

23. “Joybubbles, 58, Peter Pan of Phone Hackers, Dies,” New York Times, 20 August 2007.

24. Bob Metcalfe, “Metcalfe’s Law Recurses Down the Long Tail of Social Networks,” VC Mike’s Blog. Available at vcmike.wordpress.com/2006/08/18/metcalfe-social-networks/ (accessed 13 January 2009).

25. David Reed, “That Sneaky Exponential—Beyond Metcalfe’s Law to the Power of Community Building,” Context, Spring 1999. Available at http://www.contextmag.com/archives/199903/digitalstrategyreedslaw.asp (accessed 31 October 2009).

26. David Reed, “The Law of the Pack,” Harvard Business Review 79(2) (February 2001), p. 24.

27. David Reed interviewed in Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, 19 January 2001. Available at http://www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-jan19-01.html (accessed 31 October 2009).

28. David Reed, “That Sneaky Exponential.”

29. Johnny Ryan, “The Four P-Words of Militant Islamist Radicalization and Recruitment: Persecution, Precedent, Piety, and Perseverance,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30(11) (November 2007).

30. Rupert Murdoch, speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors Conference, 13 April 2005. Available at http://www.newscorp.com/news/news_247.html (accessed 2 June 2005).

31. Johnny Ryan, “User-Driven Strategy,” OSCE Experts Workshop on Violent Radicalisation on the Internet, Vienna, 16 November 2007. Available at https://johnnyryan.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/oscesummary.pdf (accessed 20 October 2009).

32. Gilbert Ramsay, “Relocating the Virtual War,” Defence Against Terrorism Review 2(1) (Spring 2009), pp. 37, 42, 47.

33. An idea put forward in Pauline Neville Jones, “Uniting the Country,” Conservative Party Policy Review Mid-term report, January 2007.

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