Archive for the 'Censorship' Category

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

[link] Sunday, May 18th, 2014

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

[link] Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

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

[link] Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

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?

Time to dump the “Great Firewall” metaphor

[link] Sunday, July 14th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column — about a new way of looking at the way the Chinese government deals with the Net.

We need different imagery to communicate the essence of this more sophisticated approach. Rebecca MacKinnon, one of the world’s leading experts on “networked authoritarianism”, suggests that a Chinese scholar, Li Yonggang of the University of Hong Kong, has come up with a better metaphor: the internet as waterworks. He thinks that the regime’s efforts to deal with the internet can be best described as a hydraulic project. Water, in this view, is both vital and dangerous: it has to be managed.

In a blogpost about this approach, MacKinnon wrote: “If you approach internet management in this way, the system has two main roles: managing water flows and distribution so that everybody who needs some gets some, and managing droughts and floods – which if not managed well will endanger the government’s power. It’s a huge complex system with many moving parts … there’s no way a government can have total control over water levels. Depending on the season, you allow water levels in your reservoir to be higher or lower … but you try to prevent levels from getting above a certain point or below a certain point, and if they do you have to take drastic measures to prevent complete chaos.”

Given that almost all of the ruling Chinese elite are engineers, you can see why this approach would make sense to them. It’s both rational and feasible. And it provides such an instructive comparison with GCHQ, whose pet project for hoovering the network is codenamed – wait for it! – “Mastering the internet”. Interesting metaphor that, eh?

On not giving the clock to the monkey

[link] Sunday, November 25th, 2012

This morning’s Observer column.

Given that WCIT-12 is being seen by some as a conspiracy in which Russia, China, Iran and other repressive regimes use the ITU as a Trojan horse to begin the process of bringing the internet under adult supervision, you can see why people are becoming agitated about it. Secretive horse-trading between governments is not what created the internet. Cue Google’s efforts to launch a global campaign involving internet users. “A free and open world depends on a free and open internet” declares the front page of the campaign website. Which is true, and the fact that Google’s prosperity likewise depends on that selfsame net doesn’t undermine its veracity. “But not all governments support the free and open internet,” it continues. And “some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the internet. Add your voice in support of the free and open internet.”

Right on! As we ageing hippies say. The basic complaint is that while an outfit like the ITU, whose voting members are all nation states, might be OK for deciding the allocation of international dialling codes, it’s completely inappropriate to allow it to regulate the internet. The argument is that entrusting the governance of the network to an organisation in which Robert Mugabe’s vote counts for as much as the UK’s would be like giving a delicate clock to a monkey.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a serious problem here. The old adage — if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it — isn’t entirely helpful. The difficulty is that the present system of Internet governance — which, for largely historical reasons, gives the US an unduly large role in Internet governance — works pretty well. But now that the Net is a genuinely global system, then it’s getting harder and harder to justify. Given that the main system for international governance that states recognise is the UN, then it’s understandable that they would turn to a UN agency — the ITU — to take on the governance task. But that’s misguided for several reasons, only one of which I had room for in the column: that UN agencies are states-dominated and therefore top-down decision-making institutions. Other good reasons are that: the ITU is essentially a technical-standards organisation, not a governance one — and governance is about freedom, human rights and politics; government-dominated organisations tend to be secretive rather than open; and the RFC-IETF method for discussing and deciding on Internet technical issues has an impressive track record.

So whatever the question is, the ITU is not the answer. The problem is that those who dislike — or are rightly fearful of — it need to come up with a more imaginative solution that meets some demanding criteria. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Respect, preserve and enhance the openness of the Net
  • Protect the network’s integrity and technical effectiveness
  • Prevent the Balkanisation of the network
  • Ensure that technical decisions about the network are made on technological and not political or ideological grounds
  • Increase the availability of the Internet to the poor people of the world
  • Embody governance principles which do not privilege any one country or bloc
  • And they’re just for starters.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    [link] Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

    This morning’s Observer column.

    The first thought to strike anyone stumbling upon the now-infamous Innocence of Muslims video on YouTube without knowing anything about it would probably be that it makes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian look like the work of Merchant Ivory. It’s daft, amateurish beyond belief and, well, totally weird. So the notion that such a fatuous production might provoke carnage in distant parts of the world seems preposterous.

    And yet it did. In the process, the video created numerous headaches for a US administration struggling to deal with the most turbulent part of the world. But it also raised some tricky questions about the role that commercial companies play in regulating free speech in a networked world – questions that will remain long after Innocence of Muslims has been forgotten…

    Snooping and state power

    [link] Sunday, April 8th, 2012

    This morning’s Observer column:

    The basic scenario hasn’t changed. Because of technological changes, we are told, criminals and terrorists are using internet technologies on an increasing scale. Some of these technologies (eg Skype) make it difficult for the authorities to monitor these evil communications. So we need sweeping new powers to enable the government to defend us against these baddies. These powers are as yet unspecified but will probably include “deep packet inspection” as a minimum. And, yes, these new measures will be costly and intrusive, but there will be “safeguards”.

    The fierce public reaction to these proposals seems to have taken the government by surprise, which suggests ministers have been asleep at the wheel. My hunch is that the proposals were an attempt by the security services to slip one over politicians by selling them to senior officials in the Home Office, who, like their counterparts across the civil service, know sweet FA about technology and are liable to believe 10 implausible assertions before breakfast. In that sense, the Home Office has been “captured” by GCHQ and MI5 much as the health department has been captured by consultancy companies flogging ludicrous ICT projects….

    Consent of the Networked

    [link] Saturday, February 25th, 2012

    I’m reading Rebecca Mackinnon’s excellent new book — Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. It’s a sobering, readable, thought-provoking work which, I’d say, will find its way onto a lot of reading lists in the next year or two. She’s had an interesting career — starting as a mainstream (CNN) journalist specialising in China, and moving later to become a scholar of cyberspace. Her work on China’s special brand of “networked authoritarianism” is the best thing we have on that phenomenon. For those who are too busy to tackle the book, this lecture and the Q&A that followed it provide a good introduction to her views. And there’s a good critical review of the book by Adam Thierer here. Rebecca Rosen also has an excellent interview with Mackinnon in The Atlantic.

    In the Hague, Clinton urges countries not to restrict Internet

    [link] Saturday, December 10th, 2011

    Well, hooray! I wonder if she means it? Is this just the position until the next WikiLeaks-type crisis looms?

    Opening a two-day conference on digital freedom here sponsored by Google and the Dutch government, Mrs. Clinton warned that restrictions on the Internet threatened not only basic freedoms and human rights, but also international commerce and the free flow of information that increasingly makes it possible.

    “When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled and people constrained in their choices, the Internet is diminished for all of us,” Mrs. Clinton said. She added: “There isn’t an economic Internet and a social Internet and a political Internet. There’s just the Internet.”

    Mrs. Clinton and others cited examples in which autocratic countries — often with the assistance of international technology corporations — cracked down on access to the Internet or the use of it, including Syria, Iran, China and Russia. But increasingly some democratic countries have tried to restrict information, a development that underscores the complexity of controlling an essential part of modern life.

    If Assange were a print man, would he be called a terrorist?

    [link] Sunday, November 13th, 2011

    This morning’s Observer column.

    When a fellow MP once observed to Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary in the postwar Labour government, that his cabinet colleague Herbert Morrison was “his own worst enemy”, Bevin – who loathed Morrison – famously replied: “Not while I’m alive, he ain’t.” I keep thinking of this every time Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, appears in the news. The man does indeed appear to be his own worst enemy – alienating all but the most sycophantic supporters, repudiating his “authorised” biography, and so on. The impression one gets from conversations with people who have worked with him is that, as a colleague, he makes the late Steve Jobs look like St Francis of Assisi. But the truth is that Assange has far more formidable enemies than himself. And many of them work for what we might now call “old media”.