Censorship 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

In the analogue world, censorship was relatively straightforward…

Read on

Sweeping the Net for… [take your pick]

From Ron Deibert:

The LGBTQ news website, “Gay Today,” is blocked in Bahrain; the website for Greenpeace International is blocked in the UAE; a matrimonial dating website is censored in Afghanistan; all of the World Health Organization’s website, including sub-pages about HIV/AIDS information, is blocked in Kuwait; an entire category of websites labeled “Sex Education,” are all censored in Sudan; in Yemen, an armed faction, the Houthis, orders the country’s main ISP to block regional and news websites.

What’s the common denominator linking these examples of Internet censorship? All of them were undertaken using technology provided by the Canadian company, Netsweeper, Inc.

In a new Citizen Lab report published today, entitled Planet Netsweeper, we map the global proliferation of Netsweeper’s Internet filtering technology to 30 countries. We then focus our analysis on 10 countries with significant human rights, insecurity, or public policy issues in which Netsweeper systems are deployed on large consumer ISPs: Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, and Yemen. The research was done using a combination of network measurement and in-country testing methods. One method involved scanning every one of the billions of IP addresses on the Internet to search for signatures we have developed for Netsweeper installations (think of it like an x-ray of the Internet).

National-level Internet censorship is a growing norm worldwide. It is also a big business opportunity for companies like Netsweeper. Netsweeper’s Internet filtering service works by dynamically categorizing Internet content, and then providing customers with options to choose categories they wish to block (e.g., “Matrimonial” in Afghanistan and “Sex Education” in Sudan). Customers can also create their own custom lists or add websites to categories of their own choosing.

Netsweeper markets its services to a wide range of clients, from institutions like libraries to large ISPs that control national-level Internet connectivity. Our report highlights problems with the latter, and specifically the problems that arise when Internet filtering services are sold to ISPs in authoritarian regimes, or countries facing insecurity, conflict, human rights abuses, or corruption. In these cases, Netsweeper’s services can easily be abused to help facilitate draconian controls on the public sphere by stifling access to information and freedom of expression.

While there are a few categories that some might consider non-controversial—e.g., filtering of pornography and spam—there are others that definitely are not. For example, Netsweeper offers a filtering category called “Alternative Lifestyles,” in which it appears mostly legitimate LGBTQ content is targeted for convenient blocking. In our testing, we found this category was selected in the United Arab Emirates and was preventing Internet users from accessing the websites of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (http://www.glaad.org) and the International Foundation for Gender Education (http://www.ifge.org), among many others. This kind of censorship, facilitated by Netsweeper technology, is part of a larger pattern of systemic discrimination, violence, and other human rights abuses against LGBTQ individuals in many parts of the world.

According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all companies have responsibilities to evaluate and take measures to mitigate the negative human rights impacts of their services on an ongoing basis. Despite many years of reporting and numerous questions from journalists and academics, Netsweeper still fails to take this obligation seriously.

An existential threat for the digital giants?

This morning’s Observer column:

So now we find ourselves in a strange place where huge corporations are in a position to determine what is published and what is not. In a working democracy, this kind of decision should be the prerogative of the courts. It’s as if society has outsourced a critical public responsibility to a pair of secretive, privately owned outfits. And it raises a really interesting question: why have two companies that have hitherto always maintained that they are mere conduits for free expression suddenly become conscientious censors?

The answer is that they fear that if they are not seen to be doing something about it, then the lawmakers will act. Until recently, this didn’t seem very likely. But things have changed…

Read on.

The real secret of China’s mastery of the Net: distraction

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

If you ever want to annoy western policymakers or politicians, then here is a surefire way to do it. Tell them that the only government in the world that really understands the internet is the Chinese communist regime. And if you want to add a killer punch, add the assertion that almost everything we think we know about Chinese management of the net is either banal (all that stuff about the great firewall, paranoia about keywords such as “Falun Gong”, “democracy”, etc) or just plain wrong. Having thus lit the fuse, retreat to a safe distance and enjoy the ensuing outburst of righteous indignation.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an apologia for the Chinese regime, which is as nasty and illiberal as they come. But it’s best to have a realistic view of one’s adversaries. China’s leaders have invented a new way of running society. It’s been christened “networked authoritarianism” by Rebecca MacKinnon, a noted scholar of these things. President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are followers of Boris Johnson in at least one respect: they believe that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it too…

Read on

Why the Chinese really get the Net

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s a proposition to make you choke on your granola: the only government in the world that really understands how to manage the internet is China’s. And I’m not talking about “the great firewall of China” and other cliches beloved of mainstream media. Nor, for the avoidance of doubt, am I saying that I approve of what the Chinese regime does: I do not. It’s just that I think it is better to deal with the world as it actually is, rather than as we fondly imagine it to be.

Western media coverage of China is a mixture of three parts fantasy to one part misinformation. The fantasy bit has deep ideological underpinnings: it asserts that the Chinese are embarked upon a doomed enterprise – to build a modern economy that is run by an authoritarian regime…

Read on

The Paris massacre: journalism is in the front line, but what kind of journalism?

Interesting comment by Charlie Beckett.

What struck me was how weird it is that these people — and they do deserve the label ‘terrorist’ — have struck against cartoonists. Not drone manufacturers or military bases, diplomats, politicians or financiers, but satirists. It shows what we should have already known. That journalism is part of the ideological war. It is the front-line.

That makes it all the more important that journalists respond thoughtfully and responsibly. I am not going to tell editors what they should publish in relation to this story. But it would be good if their response is in the best tradition of liberal, positive journalism and not just an angry, lashing out that feeds the fear that helps sustain those who perpetrate the violence.

On the other hand, commenting on the firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2011, the Time Bureau Chief in Paris at the time wrote this:

It’s obvious free societies cannot simply give in to hysterical demands made by members of any beyond-the-pale group. And it’s just as clear that intimidation and violence must be condemned and combated for whatever reason they’re committed—especially if their goal is to undermine freedoms and liberties of open societies. But it’s just evident members of those same free societies have to exercise a minimum of intelligence, calculation, civility and decency in practicing their rights and liberties—and that isn’t happening when a newspaper decides to mock an entire faith on the logic that it can claim to make a politically noble statement by gratuitously pissing people off.

Google privacy ruling: the thin end of a censorship wedge?

This morning’s Observer column.

Sooner or later, every argument about regulation of the internet comes down to the same question: is this the thin end of the wedge or not? We saw a dramatic illustration last week when the European court of justice handed down a judgment on a case involving a Spanish lawyer, one Mario Costeja González, who objected that entering his name in Google’s search engine brought up embarrassing information about his past (that one of his properties had been the subject of a repossession)…

Read on

LATER

Three interesting — and usefully diverse — angles on the ECJ decision.

  • Daithi Mac Sitigh points out that the decision highlights the tensions between EU and US law. “This is particularly significant”, he says, “given that most of the major global players in social networking and e-commerce operate out of the US but also do a huge amount of business in Europe.”

Google’s first line of defence was that its activities were not subject to the Data Protection Directive. It argued that its search engine was not a business carried out within the European Union. Google Spain was clearly subject to EU law, but Google argued that it sells advertising rather than running a search engine.

The court was asked to consider whether Google might be subject to the Directive under various circumstances. A possible link was the use of equipment in the EU, through gathering information from EU-based web servers or using relevant domain names (such as google.es). Another suggestion was that a case should be brought at its “centre of gravity”, taking into account where the people making the requests to delete data have their interests.

But the court never reached these points. Instead, it found the overseas-based search engine and the Spain-based seller of advertising were “inextricably linked”. As such, Google was found to be established in Spain and subject to the directive.

The message being sent was an important one. Although this ruling is specific to the field of data protection, it suggests that if you want to do business in the EU, a corporate structure that purports to shield your activities from EU law will not necessarily protect you from having to comply with local legislation. This may explain the panicked tone of some of the reaction to the decision.

  • In an extraordinary piece, “Right to Forget a Genocide”, Zeynep Tufekci muses about how (Belgian) colonial imposition of ID cards on Rwandan citizens was instrumental in facilitating genocide.

It may seem like an extreme jump, from drunken adolescent photos to genocide and ethnic cleansing, but the shape, and filters, of a society’s memory is always more than just about individual embarrassment or advancement. What we know about people, and how easily we can identify or classify them, is consequential far beyond jobs and dates, and in some contexts may make the difference between life and death.

“Practical obscurity”—the legal term for information that was available, but not easily—has died in most rich countries within just about a decade. Court records and criminal histories, which were only accessible to the highly-motivated, are now there at the click of a mouse. Further, what is “less obscure” has greatly expanded: using our online data, algorithms can identify information about a person, such as sexual orientation and political affiliation, even if that person never disclosed them.

In that context, take Rwanda, a country many think about in conjunction with the horrific genocide 20 years ago during which more than 800,000 people were killed—in just about one hundred days. Often, stories of ethnic cleansing and genocide get told in a context of “ancient hatreds,” but the truth of it is often much uglier, and much less ancient. It was the brutal colonizer of Rwanda, Belgium, that imposed strict ethnicity-based divisions in a place where identity tended to be more fluid and mixed. Worse, it imposed a national ID system that identified each person as belonging to Hutu, Tutsi or Twa and forever freezing them in that place. [For a detailed history of the construction of identity in Rwanda read this book, and for the conduct of colonial Belgium, Rwanda’s colonizer, read this one.]

Few years before the genocide, some NGOs had urged that Rwanda “forget” ethnicity, erasing them from ID cards.

They were not listened to.

During the genocide, it was those ID cards that were asked for at each checkpoint, and it was those ID cards that identified the Tutsis, most of whom were slaughtered on the spot. The ID cards closed off any avenue of “passing” a checkpoint. Ethnicity, a concept that did not at all fit neatly into the region’s complex identity configuration, became the deadly division that underlined one of the 20th century’s worst moments. The ID cards doomed and fueled the combustion of mass murder.

  • Finally, there’s a piece in Wired by Julia Powles arguing that “The immediate reaction to the decision has been, on the whole, negative. At best, it is reckoned to be hopelessly unworkable. At worst, critics pan it as censorship. While there is much to deplore, I would argue that there are some important things we can gain from this decision before casting it roughly aside.”

What this case should ideally provoke is an unflinching reflection on our contemporary digital reality of walled gardens, commercial truth engines, and silent stewards of censorship. The CJEU is painfully aware of the impact of search engines (and ‘The’ search engine, in particular). But we as a society should think about the hard sociopolitical problems that they pose. Search engines are catalogues, or maps, of human knowledge, sentiments, joys, sorrows, and venom. Silently, with economic drivers and unofficial sanction, they shape our lives and our interactions.

The fact of the matter here is that if there is anyone that is up to the challenge of respecting this ruling creatively, Google is. But if early indications are anything to go by, there’s a danger that we’ll unwittingly save Google from having to do so, either through rejecting the decision in practical or legal terms; through allowing Google to retreat “within the framework of their responsibilities, powers and capabilities” (which could have other unwanted effects and unchecked power, by contrast with transparent legal mechanisms); or through working the “right to be forgotten” out of law through the revised Data Protection Regulation, all under the appealing but ultimately misguided banner of preventing censorship.

There is, Powles argues, a possible technical fix for this — implementation of a ‘right to reply’ in search engine results.

An all-round better solution than “forgetting”, “erasure”, or “take-down”, with all of the attendant issues with free speech and the rights of other internet users, is a “right to reply” within the notion of “rectification”. This would be a tech-enabled solution: a capacity to associate metadata, perhaps in the form of another link, to any data that is inaccurate, out of date, or incomplete, so that the individual concerned can tell the “other side” of the story.

We have the technology to implement such solutions right now. In fact, we’ve done a mock-up envisaging how such an approach could be implemented.

Search results could be tagged to indicate that a reply has been lodged, much as we see with sponsored content on social media platforms. Something like this, for example:

Forgotten

(Thanks to Charles Arthur for the Tufekci and Powles links.)

Exclusive! NSA and Homeland Security lack sense of humour

nsa-lawsuit-1
Photograph from CBS.

This comes to us via the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have issued “cease and desist” letters to a novelty store owner who sells products that poke fun at the federal government.

Dan McCall, who lives in Minnesota and operates LibertyManiacs.com, sells T-shirts with the agency’s official seal that read: “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens,” Judicial Watch first reported.

Other parodies say, “Spying on you since 1952,” and “Peeping while you’re sleeping,” the report said.

Federal authorities claimed the parody images violate laws against the misuse, mutilation, alteration or impersonation of government seals, Judicial Watch reported.

I particularly admire the crack about the NSA being “the only part of the government that actually listens”.

Brian, who told me about the first link, also pointed me to a fuller account about the artist, Dan McCall who came up with the tee-shirt.

What McCall meant as pure parody, apparently wasn’t very funny to bureaucrats at the NSA.

While he calls it parody they call a violation of the spy agency’s intellectual property.

“Because when you’re pointing straight at an organization or making fun at it, turning it on itself, that is classic parody,” he said.

The agency ordered him to cease and desist and forced his T-shirts off the market.

Hmmm… I’d have thought that he’d have a good First Amendment and Fair Use case. But maybe m’learned friends think not.

So Facebook thinks that videos of beheadings are ok, but exposed nipples are not

Facebook has just made an idiotic decision — that videos of beheadings can be shown on the site. Jonathan Freedland explains why Zuck & Co have got it spectacularly wrong.

Which brings us to the nub of the matter. Facebook and the other social media giants are reluctant to be thought of as akin to news organisations or even publishers. They want to be seen as something looser and vaguer, a mere arena for others. There are good reasons for that: social media are indeed different.

But there is a less noble motive behind that reluctance too. Publishers are responsible for the content they publish and Facebook and the others don’t want that level of responsibility: for one thing, maintaining standards requires people, which costs money.

But it’s getting harder and harder to maintain the pretence that Facebook doesn’t make editorial judgments, including ones that have serious consequences. It does – and it’s just made a very bad one.

Personally, I’m baffled by the decision. Facebook isn’t a public space: it’s like a shopping mall — i.e. a space controlled by its proprietor. Would any sane such proprietor allow public executions — or representations of same — in its space?