May 31, 2011

Blinded by the Light: The Internet Enemy Within

Truth can be painful. In a relative sense today, most of what you, I, and pretty much everyone else writes, says, and thinks about the Internet is, frankly, pretty much crap.

Please don't misunderstand!

I'm not saying that we're all wrong, or that the topics under consideration aren't interesting or even important in an absolute, individual sense.

But on the scale of importance and relevance given current events, we are largely whistling in the dark, missing the forest for the trees, and yes, being blinded by the light.

The scope of topics that divert us is enormous. We ponder the screen brightness, battery life, and cpu speed of the latest smartphones. We argue about cookies and Web ads and the ever growing streams of music and video. Search Engine Optimization (SEO), spam, and "follower" counts make for nearly endless speculation. We worry over ISP competition, bandwidth caps, and Net Neutrality. And then of course there's Lady Gaga.

All issues of interest and importance, to various people, and various organizations, in many varied ways.

Yet all of these -- even the policy issues such as net neutrality with which I've spent so much time -- pale into, if not insignificance, at least a pale shadow in comparison with the much more major and fundamental threats facing the Internet and its users today.

Around the world, the intentions of various governments as relates to the Internet and related technologies are becoming very clear.

Among the aspects now in play by national governments around the world:

  • Countries that legally perform confiscation and total data extraction of laptops, smartphones, and other devices from travelers, all without court orders or warrants of any kind
  • Countries demanding the right to inspect users' email and other data stored on "cloud" servers, again without warrants or court orders
  • Countries pushing for comprehensive data retention of users' Internet and other communications activities
  • Countries looking to require service providers to "decrypt and provide to government officials on demand" users' encrypted communications of all sorts
  • Countries that seize domain names -- even those of persons or firms in other countries -- without due process
  • Countries seeking to order DNS (Domain Name System) blocking of sites, even at the risk of major security and other technical collateral damages
  • Countries seeking to criminalize the mere linking to sites that the government declares to be illicit
  • Countries seeking to order government micromanagement and government censoring of search engine results to enforce government attempts to "bury" sites that the government prefers users be unable to access
  • And so on ...
Unfortunately, as you've probably already surmised, I'm not talking about, say, China for this list -- I'm referring to the United States of America under our current President and Congress (this isn't to suggest that there's a partisan skew in these issues -- both Democratic and Republican leaders of all stripes have become overwhelmingly equal opportunity offenders in these regards).

As the references below suggest, I've been writing about all of these topics, in various combinations, for quite sometime.

But when they're all listed together -- and remember, that's not a comprehensive list above -- somehow the forest starts to come into focus despite the trees that usually grab our attentions from day to day.

It's a very unpleasant list of government initiatives indeed, all of which can be argued to be of ostensible value to preserve order and security, and like so many of their historical brethren, especially when taken together, represent grave threats to free speech and civil rights, both on the Internet, and by extension, off the Internet as well.

This then is the complex of forces that represent a peak of importance on the "topic graph" -- a peak that pushes most of the other points down flat almost to invisibility.

This is the array of risks that renders so much of our daily technological chatter into so much relative insignificance.

Because without free speech on the Net, without communications and associated activities secure from government eavesdropping and interference, so many of our technology joys will be morphed into oppressive nightmares -- sadly at the hands of our largely well-meaning but often misguided and short-sighted leaders.

Lord Acton noted that, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He wrote this in 1887, but this has always been so, and this truism applies with force all through human history in every guise, and certainly not limited only to technology realms.

Yet technological power over speech and communications is arguably the highest order of "absolute" -- and in the context of the global Internet all the more omnipotent.

The other topics of our Internet joys and concerns, from bandwidth to broadcast, from social to SEO, from gambling to Gaga, are all still certainly worthy of discussion, consideration, and many words yet to be written and said.

But if freedom is lost on the Internet, ultimately none of these other issues will likely be more than memories -- historical artifacts at best -- assuming that they're not on the censorship lists of tomorrow and so relegated to nothingness squared.

Just something to think about, to muse upon, before you send that next email, compose that next blog posting, or as you settle down to watch the upcoming video stream with tonight's entertainment on high.

Pleasant dreams. Be seeing you.



Why PROTECT IP Web Censorship Will Fail - But Lead to Much Worse

"Let Them Eat Bits": How We Can Save Freedom On the Internet

Why the Internet is the Most Important Thing in the World

The New Campaign to Demonize Google for Their Protection of the Constitution

Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google

Posted by Lauren at 07:00 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 28, 2011

Video: "Internet Censorship Secret Planning Meeting"

As I've discussed in depth previously, including in Why PROTECT IP Web Censorship Will Fail - But Lead to Much Worse, organized efforts have been launched, in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere, to impose broad new censorship regimes on the Internet, even including the criminalization of linking to "forbidden sites" -- and the government-mandated deletion of associated search query results on search engines such as Google. The implications are vast, dangerous, and virtually impossible to overstate.

But have you wondered what goes on at the closed-door meetings where the plans for Internet censorship are discussed? We know that various censorship proponents are already playing hardball -- but just how ruthless are they?

Perhaps this brief video clip apparently smuggled out of an "Internet censorship planning meeting" gives some taste of the sensibilities and attitudes that may already be in play.

Internet Censorship Secret Planning Meeting
(YouTube / 2 minutes)


Posted by Lauren at 08:38 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 26, 2011

Why PROTECT IP Web Censorship Will Fail - But Lead to Much Worse

The U.S. Congress is continuing its headlong rush toward Internet control, along at least two fronts (see: "Let Them Eat Bits": How We Can Save Freedom On the Internet).

Legislation that would require data retention by ISPs regarding their users (except for wireless users, an exemption in the current bill already causing anger at the Justice Department) is now moving through Congress. As usual, the sponsors of this legislation are playing the "name game" by titling the legislation to imply its main purpose is to protect children from exploitation, while the legislation itself would permit the collected data to be used for a much broader range of purposes -- including presumably the uncovering of whistleblowers and other critical anonymous speech that any party wishes to target.

And again demonstrating the degree to which entrenched entertainment industry interests such as the MPAA and RIAA have gained a stranglehold over our representatives, the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, on a bipartisan, unanimous basis, approved the free speech decimating PROTECT IP Act, and passed it to the Senate floor.

To his credit, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who opposes PROTECT IP in its current form, immediately put a "hold" on the bill, but my assumption is that it will eventually be approved by the full Congress, much or entirely as it exists today.

The text of the legislation appears to still contain such abominations as an easily abused "private right to action" and expanded outright censorship of search engines and other "information location tools."

But a key aspect of PROTECT IP may have been missed by many observers. As it stands, the legislation, which primarily mandates DNS blocking and search engine censoring of affected sites, cannot possibly be effective, especially against sites that do not charge for materials and so would be unaffected by the bill's financial transaction cutoff provisions.

Additionally, a group of DNS experts has now released a paper detailing their serious technical concerns over PROTECT IP's plans to mangle DNS operations.

I continue to strongly believe that the time has come to move beyond the existing Domain Name System for a variety of technical and policy reasons, either to a fully distributed environment like IDONS (Internet Distributed Open Name System) or something else that fulfills the same essential goals.

For now though, it is obvious to anyone who understands how the Internet really functions that PROTECT IP cannot possibly block access to sites to the degree that those who would trample free speech for their own economic gain will desire.

Even if specific sites' domain names are not resolved by ISPs, routes to those sites via other indices and direct IP addresses will continue to be available, and I would expect various associated workarounds to greatly expand. For those persons outside U.S. jurisdiction, the PROTECT IP "DNS mutilation" orders would not even apply in the first place -- their access would presumably continue completely unimpeded in most cases.

So what's the real point of all this? It's almost as if PROTECT IP is designed to fail.

And that may be exactly the plan. If PROTECT IP fails to control piracy as its proponents promise, even with its outright unconstitutional trampling of search engine free speech rights and the rights of many other Internet stakeholders, the pressure will be enormous to come back with even harsher and more punitive legislation.

I've already had the unnerving experience of recently hearing directly from Congressional staffers who have told me that language mandating phased moves toward what I'd view as a hierarchically controlled and government dictated, China-style Internet, is already being quietly worked on by certain legislators and their allies in the entertainment and national security realms.

I'm told that such legislation would of course be carried on a buffet of ostensible justifications, ranging from economics and security, to child protection. As close to total government control over Internet content -- and in particular search engine results -- as can be pushed through the courts is the ultimate goal.

But it is understood that such an endgame is unlikely to be reached except in smaller steps. And the first of those steps into this censorship pit is PROTECT IP.

There are some very smart people, at very high levels, doing very long-range planning on how to remake the Internet into a finely-tuned instrument for government control over virtually all aspects of technological communications.

Anyone (or any company) who speaks out strongly against such a scenario must be prepared to be falsely branded as pro-piracy, anti-American, pro-child abuse, and probably even worse by the enemies of free speech.

But just as few people would be willing to install government-controlled cameras in every room of their houses -- even though the law enforcement benefits might be significant -- we must fight the false assertion that the Internet should be essentially turned into an adjunct of government in the name of trying to protect outdated business models and the trampling of our most basic liberties.

Like Pandora's Box of legend, or the notorious "Puzzle Box" of the Hellraiser films, there are ideas that may seem attractive to many on the outside, but once engaged will lead inexorably to extraordinarily deep and nightmarish hells.

Such is PROTECT IP. Congress is preparing to open the PROTECT IP box. And in the process, they'll be damning free speech, and all of us, along with themselves.


Posted by Lauren at 11:52 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 24, 2011

"Let Them Eat Bits": How We Can Save Freedom On the Internet

I wish I had thought of it first. A few weeks ago when I wrote my Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google white paper, I spent some time trying to think of an appropriate image to accompany that essay, but nothing really struck home.

But today Ars Technica ran an article regarding French King ... oops, I mean French President Sarkozy (at the current e-G8 meeting next door to the Louvre) and his desires to "civilize" the Internet. Included with that article was a graphic of what I'd call an EtherFlogger.

That was the imagery I was looking for. Man, those connectors must sting!

Despite the fact that I write and speak a great deal about technical issues -- after all, my original background is techie in nature -- I'm actually of the opinion that most Internet technical issues will tend to be worked out over time.

Matters get much more complicated when dealing with policy issues though, and especially the intersections of policy and technology concerns.

Net Neutrality issues are an example of this, where the related controversies can be significantly viewed in some respects as the results of real (or artificially induced) bandwidth limitations and associated anticompetitive environments.

But even topics as contentious as Net Neutrality are likely to be dealt with successfully in the end, either through regulation, bandwidth increases, or some combination of both. Coordination and sensible international regulatory harmonization -- of often widely disparate rules regarding the implementation of opt-in vs. opt-out and cookie management for example -- could go far to ease the "Mad Hatter" landscape that currently exists for Web services operating internationally.

Undoubtedly though, the most significant threats to the Internet that are now in focus are attempts to -- for all practical purposes -- change the Internet from the greatest tool for individual empowerment ever created by humanity, into a weapon for societal control ruled from above by an unholy alliance of powerful governments and entertainment industry interests.

The work products of this chimera take different aspects in various parts of the world.

Around the planet, government pushes for encryption controls and extended-period user activity data retention are widespread.

In the U.S., Senator Patrick Leahy's abominable and dangerous PROTECT IP Act -- that could criminalize mere linking and search engine results -- is rushing forward with widespread bipartisan support, demonstrating the depth to which traditional entertainment industry forces such as the RIAA and MPAA have co-opted Congress.

The attitude regarding the Internet and free speech that we see oozing from France's President Sarkozy, and many other leaders around the world, seems much like that of traditional kings, perhaps willing to allow the serfs some access to technology, so long as the absolute power of the ruling class and their minions is not threatened in any significant way.

By continuously portraying the Internet as some sort of wild west or untamed jungle in need of strong hands to "civilize" the natives, our leaders also attempt to draw public opinion to their side, while suggesting that only a tightly controlled and censored Internet will be safe for the relatively unwashed masses of peons -- that's us.

Do not believe it.

As I implied in Why the Internet is the Most Important Thing in the World, governments are now seizing the moment for their own advantage, not for ours -- even in democratic countries where -- in theory at least -- the government is controlled by the people.

We can fight back, in at least a couple of ways.

Where possible, we can use our at least nominal control over our governments via the ballot box and other means, to make it clear to our "representatives" that we are not willing to see the Internet become a "wholly owned subsidiary" of the government and their traditional entertainment industry sugar daddies.

But we can also use the Internet itself, the fundamental technology of the Net that is so difficult to truly control, to prepare for the worst. We can work toward decentralized mechanisms that are much more difficult for governments to censor, especially in ad hoc manners without full-blown court approvals. We can build distributed naming systems and encrypted environments that use the end-to-end natures of the Net to their best advantage.

Of course, these are exactly the kinds of capabilities that tend to so upset many governments. We should expect attempts to control their use as well, especially to make it as difficult as possible for non-technical persons to employ such techniques. But we should certainly endeavor to make the best and most effective use possible of those distributed technologies that do exist.

We may discover that some of the very large Web services companies are very much our friends in these battles. After all, they're not all thrilled with the prospect of having their speech muzzled by government edicts, and their users angered by the resulting government-ordered perversions of search results and other data. These companies can all quite reasonably be expected to follow the law wherever they choose to operate -- but unreasonable government attempts at control may force some to withdraw various or all services from affected countries. This isn't to the advantage of these firms or their users.

Most important and fundamental of all, we need to decide for ourselves what we really want the Internet to be. Do we want a 21st century version of Ma Bell's phone network, fused with the Orwellian elements of government dictated surveillance and censorship?

Or do we wish to keep the Internet open, a beacon of free speech and interpersonal communications controlled by the people, not by rulers on high?

The "Kings" -- with their EtherFloggers held firmly and ready in hand -- believe that they have found a path to wrest control of the Internet from the people, and deliver it directly to their government suites and the darkly paneled corporate boardrooms of their powerful allies.

We shall see.


Posted by Lauren at 04:46 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 21, 2011

Why the Internet is the Most Important Thing in the World

Today is the day the world ended. At least it was scheduled to end according to another in an endless chain of "end times" prophecies. I'm not usually a gambling man, but I'll take a chance that I can finish this posting before the Apocalypse arrives to ultimately still my fingers, heart, and blood.

I'm not a big believer in doomsdays, except of the human-created kind. Oh yes, it's certainly possible that a giant asteroid, an errant comet, or some other natural catastrophe totally beyond our control spells the end to mankind and roaches alike.

But of much more immediate concern are those aspects of our world and lives that we do architect and control. For those are where the onus falls squarely on our own shoulders, where we can't rightly blame God, the universe, and everything except ourselves.

Over the years I've probably written and spoken millions of words about the Internet, related to technical issues, policy matters, and the intersection of those two complex domains. In retrospect, I've probably done this to the neglect of other issues that at times probably should have taken precedence. C'est la vie -- the choices are our own.

When I started working on the Internet's ancestor ARPANET in the early 70s, most other students at UCLA only had computer access of any kind via punched card batch input systems -- just like you see in those grainy old clips in computer history films. You want to feel really old in a hurry? Try watching grungy old footage like that and realize that back then you routinely used every piece of antique equipment being shown.

Much has changed since those early days -- and a perhaps surprising amount has not.

Obviously, the speed of our computing and communications capabilities has vastly improved since the time that the Net backbone itself ran at what would be dial-up modem speeds today. Yet oddly, the subjective experiences of waiting for responses from online systems then and now seem very similar. One might be tempted to partly blame software "bloat" for at least part of this effect, but we'll let that pass for now.

The obsession with sex on the Net is not a new phenomenon, except in quantity and perhaps degree of explicitness. From the earliest ARPANET days, line printers were being used to generate giant nude images for display (always of women -- then as now the computer science field has to its detriment been dominated by us boys). And if you knew the right sites and port numbers, you could obtain at any time a bawdy limerick or a happily obscene "tingle" quote. I still have online the source databases for both the original ARPANET limerick and tingle servers -- even today I could not post them publicly without triggering upset.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the ARPANET and Internet that has not significantly changed is the hacker culture.

I'm not using the word hacker here in its popularized evil, "black hat" sense of computer break-ins and damage. Rather, I'm referring to the term as we originally used it decades ago, and how it is still used today by many aficionados of computer science and related technologies.

This positive form of hacker, both then and now, are those persons, young or not, variously over the years sitting at keypunches, TV-style CRT terminals, or modern displays, often up to the wee hours ingesting endless cups of coffee. Their "hacking" has produced prodigious amounts of code to extend and organize the reach of knowledge, to improve communications around the world, and as the Net has extended to become a foundational basis of our technological societies.

And of course, much positive hacking has always been done for the sheer joy of creation, sometimes -- often in fact -- not even knowing exactly where you'll end up. Many of computing's most important developments have sprung forth from very much these kinds of efforts.

It has been suggested that a sort of "hippie" freedom-loving, free speech promoting, "end-to-end" philosophy has traditionally existed on both the ARPANET and Internet --- at least partially rooted in the counterculture mindset of the late 1960s. After all, while ARPANET was a U.S. Department of Defense project, its actual implementation in many respects was largely in the hands of university professors and students.

The Net as counterculture? Perhaps not explicitly, but rather implicitly under the surface. Though most of us hacking on the Net back then spent far too much time in basement computer rooms to actually have participated much in the more colorful aspects of counterculture sensibilities, perhaps a bit to our social detriments.

But yes. There is a strong current of freedom running through the Internet since its inception, a strong sense that it should foster communications and knowledge without itself "getting in the way" by attempting to punitively control -- or censor -- information, knowledge, or speech.

As I've suggested in The New Campaign to Demonize Google for Their Protection of the Constitution and various essays linked from that posting, it is this very sense of freedom that has so pervaded the Internet throughout its genesis and development, that is now so greatly at risk.

While it's easy to point fingers at various corporate Internet entities for lapses of one sort or another, I have come to believe that the ultimate enemy of freedom on the Internet is governments themselves -- often (but not always) well meaning, but always carrying the potential for enormous damage.

For the Internet is now arguably the most important thing in the world.

How can I possibly say this? What of life, love, energy, famine, disease, global warming, and the rest of a seemingly infinite list of human desires, concerns, and travails?

Individually, in isolation, those issues are indeed more important than the Net.

But in our modern world, all of these concerns are increasingly fundamentally entwined with the triumvirate of communications, information, and knowledge. And our abilities to perform functions as basic as phone calls or as far-ranging as complex medical or other research increasingly are dependent on the Internet and its connected resources, with "offline" alternatives decreasingly useful or available.

Government control and surveillance over Internet content -- especially government-mandated censorship, blocking, and eavesdropping regimes -- are in some ways more dangerous than nuclear weapons. They all have the ability to cause destruction on an enormous scale. One hopes that the utter decimation of life that can result from nuclear weapons will continue to further restrain their use.

But few if any such restraints seem apparent on governments' desires to control and surveil the Internet, even though this could be as ultimately damaging to the human spirit, as fusion bombs are to human life.

By controlling, monitoring, and spying on Internet content, governments around the world will have the ability to observe, influence, or control almost every aspect of our lives -- how we communicate, how we research, where we go, what we say.

At no previous time in human history has a technology existed that has become as pervasively crucial to so many aspects of our individual and collective experiences.

But the Internet is that very technology. It is, in this crucial sense especially, the most important thing in the world. For so much else that makes us human, so much that is critical to our future lives and societies, is or will be dependent in one way or another on the Internet ecosystem.

Government efforts to restrict, monitor, and control the Internet, its services, and its users are the most serious threat to freedoms of our time, perhaps ultimately of any time in history. For abuse of the Internet in such manners could set the stage for a future of dictatorial surveillance and restrictions on communications, knowledge, and speech that simply would not have previously been technically possible.

Except in hindsight, it sometimes is not very obvious when humanity reaches a momentous crossroads. But when it comes to the Internet today, the choices we face are stark indeed, and require that now -- right now -- we choose the path forward that we desire not only for ourselves, but for our children as well. In the process, we will either be promising freedom to the future, or alternatively be relegating freedom only to the annals of history.

Take care, all.


Posted by Lauren at 11:56 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 20, 2011

The New Campaign to Demonize Google for Their Protection of the Constitution

Who cares about the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution?

Judging from recent events, it's very clear that Google does. On the other hand it's also increasingly obvious that many politicians, and in significant respects the RIAA and MPAA, apparently do not.

This controversy has now come to something of a head due to remarks a couple of days ago by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, regarding U.S. government attempts to impose Internet censorship and blocking regimes via the new PROTECT IP Act currently being considered in Congress.

Already, the RIAA and MPAA are distorting his remarks with bellicose public statements in retort.

Unfortunately, local circumstances currently prevent me from posting in as much depth as I would prefer, but for some very recent background on this entire area, please see from my blog:

Knowledge as Sacrilege: The Criminalizing of Links and Search Engines [15 May 2011]

"Free Speech Be Damned!": Congressional Bill Would Censor Search Engines [11 May 2011]

Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google (White Paper) [4 May 2011]

I believe those essays make it pretty clear where I stand on these issues!

One portion in particular of Eric Schmidt's remarks earlier this week have been receiving the most flak from various parties apparently interested in undermining the Constitution for financial gain:

"If there is a law that requires DNSs to do X and it's passed by both houses of congress and signed by the president of the United States and we disagree with it then we would still fight it," he added. "If it's a request the answer is we wouldn't do it, if it's a discussion we wouldn't do it."

The MPAA, RIAA, and their various political minions have jumped on this statement claiming that it represents the intention of "corporate imperialist Google" to violate the law.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Google has made it quite clear that they support reasonable and appropriate efforts to fight piracy on the Internet, as they should. But it is also clear that they do not support proposals that would create censorship and blocking regimes such as those currently being proposed -- that would inevitably undermine free speech in very much the same manner that the U.S. has decried in other countries.

Here's my interpretation. Google isn't saying that they'll violate laws. Obviously, Google has to obey valid laws.

What Google is saying is that if asked to voluntarily participate in what they consider to be inappropriate blocking/censorship regimes they will refuse to do so. And I interpret Eric's remarks to mean that Google will fight in the courts against those laws in this area that they feel to be inappropriate, rather than just letting free speech rights go merrily down the drain.

Google's stance in these regards is entirely befitting and commendable. And I believe it is very much in keeping with various of their past actions to push back via the legal system against overreaching attempts by government to access our data.

My worn and battered crystal ball saw this day coming for years. I've long been concerned that government would attempt to subjugate free speech on the Internet by subverting key Internet functions such as DNS and search engines, and by attempting to brazenly, shamelessly, and falsely brand associated functions as active collaborators in criminal activities.

Now that day has come. And now we must fight back, or watch much of the promise of the Internet be mercilessly sacrificed on the altar of those specters who view the Net not as a tool for the blossoming of knowledge and speech, but rather as a threat to their traditional business models and financial fiefdoms.

The red pill or the blue bill? Freedom or servility?

The future of the Internet is in our hands.


Posted by Lauren at 10:46 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 18, 2011

Skyhook vs. Google Lawsuit: The Missing Evil

I've been pouring through the newly released emails and other documents related to the Skyhook Wireless vs. Google lawsuit, searching for the "smoking guns" that many people sending me messages have assured me are there.

I have no inside information about this matter. But after reading through the mass of (generally lightly redacted) correspondence several times, I've been unable to find a reasonable basis for a lawsuit in Skyhook's concerns relating to this case.

To be sure, I personally might not have handled every aspect of this situation in exactly the same manner as Google did, but the overall thrust of events in context does not seem unreasonable, and in fact in significant ways is actually reassuring.

There are complex technical and policy aspects to all this, but let's start with a basic fact -- email archives are a highly imperfect mechanism for understanding the full scope of most situations.

Typically email represents only a portion of the whole scope in any decision-making process, with offline communications such as phone calls, video conferences, face-to-face communications, and so on also being involved.

And email is very easy to take out of context -- that's why I would urge anyone interested in really understanding this matter to take the time for a careful perusal of the entire email archive that's been made available, not just the "selected highlights" emails that have been getting most of the attention.

The importance of context is especially highlighted when we consider another important facet of email transcripts. Any healthy corporate decision-making process will often by definition include a complex give and take of ideas submitted but ultimately rejected, as participants better understand the issues and "home in" on formal positions.

In the Google case under discussion, this is what happened, and that's exactly as it should be.

By contrast, it's when complex questions instantly yield a chorus of compliant "yes, sir!" responses that one really needs to be concerned about corporate processes.

Skyhook's accusations essentially revolve around claims that Google unfairly acted to keep Skyhook's geolocation system off of Android mobile devices.

It's important to note at the outset that while Android is almost entirely an open source environment, "open" can't reasonably be used as an excuse for "chaos" when we're talking about extremely complex software and services ecosystems, interacting with complicated mobile hardware platforms and cellular networks.

This is especially true with Android, since most Android users don't view the operating system in isolation, but in conjunction with desirable Google-provided services such as Gmail, Google Maps, and various others.

Google doesn't charge manufacturers to use Android, but Google has a completely justifiable interest in not seeing Android fragment in ways that would significantly damage the user experience.

Similarly, it seems utterly reasonable that if manufacturers are going to make use of underlying Google-provided services (such as geolocation back-end processing), reasonable Google compatibility standards for the handling of associated data should not be undermined by those manufacturers.

This gets us to the heart of Skyhook's complaints. Since I want to keep this as non-technical as possible I'll be simplifying a bit, but hopefully the chronology will stay relatively clear. Again, this is my own interpretation, based solely on the released emails and associated docs.

Google became concerned when it suddenly learned -- reportedly primarily through public channels and without earlier warning -- that a major Android phone manufacturer was planning to alter a key part of the Android geolocation system to mainly use (or at least usually favor) Skyhook's Wi-Fi location system rather than Google's similar system that is already part of the Android environment.

There was also a public implication that Skyhook's geolocation technology was more accurate than Google's.

Google felt blindsided by this, and Google engineers argued that recent improvements and testing showed that Skyhook was not superior to Google's own system, and that Google had perhaps not been sufficiently proactive in terms of making this fact known.

There was also a major concern that the mechanism of this manufacturer's Skyhook integration into Android would continue to use the Google geolocation back-end processing services, but cut off Google from key data that was crucial for Google to continue providing and improving these services. There were also concerns that the Skyhook integration would commingle two different types of location information -- Skyhook Wi-Fi data and GPS data -- potentially contaminating Google's back-end database. These are valid technical issues.

The released emails show discussions among the various involved parties regarding how to best resolve this situation. Google apparently had not originally anticipated a manufacturer using a non-Google geolocation system in conjunction with the Google back-end processing, and felt that if a manufacturer wanted to use non-Google geolocation, they should not use the (expensive to provide) Google geolocation back-end in conjunction with the non-Google data, given the cutoff of important data to Google and the data contamination risks noted above. Google asserted that uses violating these principles was not in keeping with Android compatibility requirements.

It is important to note at this point that while Google employees involved in these discussions realized that compatibility requirements could exert strong controls over manufacturers' behaviors, it is clear in the full context of the emails that Google wanted to be sure that requirements had a strong engineering basis and would not be arbitrary.

Matters appear to have come to a head when it turned out (as I understand the events), that a different manufacturer was in a similar situation, and had already shipped a relatively small number of handsets that included a problematic Skyhook integration. When Google reportedly granted a "waiver" to the second company (which had agreed to quickly update the affected devices with new code), the other firm became upset that Google didn't want to grant a waiver for handsets that were not yet shipped (obviously, recalling already shipped phones is a much more expensive proposition than dealing with phones that have not already been shipped).

The first company didn't want to delay their shipping, and apparently decided that the most prudent course was to drop Skyhook for the time being, and get their devices out to market.

Skyhook was upset by this, so they sued Google.

That's my interpretation of the sequence, anyway.

Obviously, this is a complicated and multifaceted technical, policy, and even public relations situation. For me, the primary question is whether or not there is evil afoot, or bad faith behavior by any of the involved parties -- and I don't see any of these in this case.

What I do see is an extraordinarily educational example of the intricate and interrelated complexities of these technology ecosystems -- and of how the dynamics of corporate decision making and communications can be taken out of context in ways that in isolation may be spun to seemingly show bad faith when in reality none is present.

Above all, this matter demonstrates that even with the best efforts of everyone involved, these highly technical intercompany relationships will sometimes yield results that are not to the liking of all involved parties. Life doesn't always work out the way that we might have hoped.

I strongly believe that in many such situations in general, and in the case of Skyhook's complaints regarding Google in particular, such litigation is unnecessary, unwarranted, and in the end, likely to be highly counterproductive.

All the best to you and yours. Please take care everyone.


Posted by Lauren at 04:08 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 15, 2011

Knowledge as Sacrilege: The Criminalizing of Links and Search Engines

"The slaves were killed, and the soldiers who killed them
were also slain, so that no unholy person should ever know
the exact location of the burial site."

-- The Mummy (1932)

In the classic 1932 film The Mummy, the character of Imhotep, portrayed by Boris Karloff, commits what is considered to be a terrible sacrilege, and is condemned to be mummified and buried alive. In an attempt to assure that his grave is never found, all of the slaves who conducted the burial were killed by soldiers, and those soldiers were themselves killed, despite the fact that none of them had in any way participated in Imhotep's supposedly blasphemous acts.

All except Imhotep were slaughtered not for actions taken, but for "forbidden" knowledge possessed.

In the Orwellian world of 1984 even "wrong thinking" was theoretically punishable as "thoughtcrime" -- but in the real world of the United States at least, punishable crimes are usually associated with specific acts intended to break the law. Mere knowledge, and in most cases even the dissemination of knowledge when a crime is not intended, are typically not punishable.

Some persons -- including various important and powerful politicians -- now appear to have forgotten, or are simply ignoring, these key principles of free speech.

While the reactions to my recent discussions regarding link criminalization and government-imposed search engine results censorship ("Free Speech Be Damned!": Congressional Bill Would Censor Search Engines and Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google [White Paper]) were overwhelmingly positive, I did receive a few responses that suggested significant confusion regarding the differences between knowledge and crime.

Quoting from one message that arrived a few days ago, from a book author upset that it was possible to find torrents containing his work:

"Most ring leaders and people at the center of organized crime are just
talkers. They're just moving their lips, but somehow the crime is
completed. Should all prosecution be treated as 'censoring' the lip
movers? Is Google much different from the other ring leaders?"

The implications of that statement and question are both incorrect and dangerous, in that they attempt to directly equate knowledge itself with the commission of crimes.

In the non-Internet world, despite occasional government attempts to exert broad censorship control over ideas, the very "high bar" appropriately set for any government intrusions on free speech in the U.S. have been quite clear.

It's illegal in most places to pimp prostitutes. But if someone casually asks if you know where they can find a call girl, you do indeed happen to know, and you then provide that information -- have you committed a crime?

Back in the days of phone phreaks, friends would occasionally ask me if I knew how to build a so-called "blue box" for making free long-distance calls. I was a student of the telephone networks. I knew how to build blue boxes and much more. Did I commit a crime if I simply told someone how to construct such a device?

In 1971, Abbie Hoffman published Steal This Book -- a veritable cookbook for illicit activities ranging from cheating AT&T to building pipe bombs. The book ended up on Best Seller lists. Was it criminal to publish that knowledge?

In all of these cases, and innumerable more that I could list, the answer is no.

Economically participating with a call-girl ring may be a crime. Actually using a blue box to commit toll fraud was clearly illegal. Detonating a pipe bomb could be a major offense.

But simply discussing these topics would virtually always appropriately fall under free speech protections, unless those discussions were part of an intent to make actual use of that knowledge in a criminal manner.

When we apply these concepts to Web links and search engine results, we move even further away from any possible automatic association with criminality, particularly in the latter case. Now we're normally not even talking about directly providing information that might be used in "illicit" ways, we're dealing with where information perhaps can be found.

With major search engines, their indices can include link references to billions of Web pages on every conceivable topic. It would be ludicrous in the extreme to suggest that search engine query results could somehow rise to the level of criminal intent and participation.

What's happening today is that various players, in government and assorted interest groups, are attempting to leverage Internet technology and the centrality of search engines such as Google, to try impose censorship regimes on the Web that they could not successfully impose in the "brick and mortar" world.

It is doubly ironic that the most visible of these efforts now are attempting to use intellectual property economics as the means to impose massive government censorship, rather than, say, national security concerns -- though perhaps this particular prioritization could be explained by "following the money" of political campaign contributions back to their sources.

As I've mentioned before, depending on the courts to block such egregious censorship attempts may be a risky proposition at best. Ultimately, it's up to Internet users themselves -- around the world -- to fully understand what is at stake in this battle, and how much they each individually, and all of us collectively, have to lose. As both history and current events teach us, ultimately the people, not governments alone, really do have the final say.

There are forces who desperately wish to use government censorship of links and search engines to impose their own version of eliminating "undesirable" knowledge -- just as brutally as was done to poor Imhotep.

In our case, however, we still have time to fight back. If we really do care about free speech on the Internet, we will not permit it to be buried in the desert of totalitarianism like a struggling mummy, its witnesses mangled by the spears of those who would restrict knowledge for their own distorted ends.

We must not allow censorship to become the Internet's tomb.


Posted by Lauren at 12:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 12, 2011

Facebook Embraces J. Edgar Hoover: Anti-Google Lie Campaign Revealed

UPDATE (12:15 PM): Facebook's PR firm (Burson-Marsteller) is now publicly blaming Facebook for this entire fiasco, saying that the assignment was against Burson's policies and should never have been accepted.

Yesterday, in Attempt to Involve Me in Anti-Google "Astroturf Lies" PR Campaign, I expressed my strong interest in finding out who was behind the effort last week that (unsuccessfully) attempted to suck me into a lies-based PR campaign aimed at Google.

While the list of potential suspects seemed quite short, public speculation in the absence of specific facts in this regard was inappropriate, so I made no accusations in this regard in that posting.

Today The Daily Beast has revealed that Facebook instigated the campaign, a fact that Facebook (and their PR firm that deployed the plan) have now both admitted.

Needless to say, Facebook was most certainly a featured entry on my suspect list. But the incredibly clumsy manner of their anti-Google mudslinging project would have put the incompetent Richard Nixon/Watergate "White House Plumbers" break-in team to shame.

C'mon guys, if you're gonna play the dirty tricks game, at least bring your antics up to Three Stooges competency levels -- no offense meant to the Stooges!

Facebook of course is attempting to spin this event not as an anti-Google campaign of lies, but rather as something of an "information gathering" effort. Yeah ... right ... information gathering -- sort of like the way J. Edgar Hoover used his FBI COINTELPRO "information gathering" program to try smear Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. No, not the same scope, but seemingly a similar sort of intrinsically evil mind-set.

My overall level of respect for Facebook has long been at bargain basement levels. After these new shenanigans, it's going to take an oil rig to drill a hole deep enough for their new ranking.

A journey to the center of the Earth? In the end it will be Facebook's users who ultimately -- get the shaft.


UPDATE (12:15 PM): Facebook's PR firm (Burson-Marsteller) is now publicly blaming Facebook for this entire fiasco, saying that the assignment was against Burson's policies and should never have been accepted.

Posted by Lauren at 11:38 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 11, 2011

"Free Speech Be Damned!": Congressional Bill Would Censor Search Engines

In my Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google white paper that I released a week ago, I based part of my analysis on statements by U.S. politicians, last year's attempt at horrible COICA (Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act) legislation, and various events occurring in other countries around the world.

I had hoped we would have some time to discuss and prepare for major new censorship threats before any related U.S. legislation had crystallized.

Unfortunately, it appears that Congress' "hell bent to censor" effort is already in high gear, as word (and now complete text) of a proposed PROTECT IP Act have leaked out.

While it could be argued that PROTECT IP (another one of those warped acronyms that I won't even bother to expand here) seems on its face to improve on certain aspects of COICA, most of those changes appear to be illusionary when viewing PROTECT IP as a whole.

And in a concept taken straight from the Orwellian playbooks of dictatorships throughout history, PROTECT IP contemplates the direct censorship of Google and other search engines, to excise search result entries that the government prefers that you not see. Terrible on its face, and obviously the proverbial slippery slope right down the side of Mt. Everest.

An alternative DNS - Domain Name System (more properly, an alternative naming/identifier system for Internet sites not subject to centralized control), whether IDONS or something else entirely, would certainly be a major step in the right direction toward helping to limit censorship via domain name control.

However, it's important to note that PROTECT IP appears to propose outright and direct censorship of Google (and other search engine) results, that could be implemented via a wide range of criteria not necessarily tightly bound to IP addresses or even specific common names or identifiers.

The sorts of search engine results censorship that PROTECT IP advocates would be a direct attack on freedom of speech and the First Amendment -- direct government interference. And in the vast majority of related cases, there wouldn't even be any "public safety" aspects that could be invoked ... unless illicit downloads of Nude Nuns with Big Guns have somehow become a major national security concern.

One might hope that U.S. courts -- at least -- would block egregious efforts to flog and censor search engines, and other Internet services, via such outrageous government decimation of basic civil and free speech rights.

But in today's exceedingly toxic political environment, making any such assumptions might be very risky -- particularly given the big money intellectual property interests who seemingly believe that their music and film properties are worth turning the Internet into a virtual police state. Funny how that works, huh?

Search engines are the key gateways to information and knowledge discovery on the Internet, and so for the entire planet and its vast population. The ability of Google and other search engines to display search results free from government interference is absolutely crucial.

That Congress is even contemplating such legislation that would censor search engine results is an utter disgrace to them and to basic American values.

This must not be tolerated. The battle for freedom of knowledge is now truly and most righteously joined.


Posted by Lauren at 10:43 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Attempt to Involve Me in Anti-Google "Astroturf Lies" PR Campaign

Blog Update (May 12, 2011): Facebook Embraces J. Edgar Hoover: Anti-Google Lie Campaign Revealed

I originally had not planned to say anything about this publicly -- as I've mentioned previously I'm in the process of scaling back as many non-high priority activities as possible until such a time as the situation here can somehow be improved, but this is worth noting.

A story is blowing up now about an apparent covert "astroturf" campaign to plant a false privacy-related anti-Google story in the mainstream media.

A good backgrounder on this is: BUSTED: Former CNBC Tech Reporter Jim Goldman Caught Spreading Lies About Google For Unnamed PR Client.

In fact, a direct attempt was made to suck me into this about a week ago. I received email from a CNBC Producer asking, essentially, if I had any privacy-related dirt regarding the Google "Social Circle" feature for a story CNBC was working on.

I told him that other than my feeling that the related features could be better explained in ways that would help avoid user confusion (in general, I'm on record as believing that Google needs to do a better job in the documentation and user support areas, as you probably know), I did not see any intrinsic privacy problems with "Social Circle," and in fact I believed it was a user-positive feature to help people understand the social connections that they had already created.

I also offered to provide him with more details about how the Google social features related to all this worked and were actually of benefit to users.

Uncharacteristically for most media contacts, I never heard back from him, not even a "thank you" note.

Shortly thereafter, word started coming in that some sort of "astroturf" lie-spreading campaign was apparently in progress. In the week since, it has become obvious that this was much more organized than it may have appeared at first glance.

As far as I know, the actual identity of the client who triggered all this through the Burson-Marsteller PR firm has not yet been revealed.

I really don't appreciate attempts to involve me in fake stories or false pretenses. Some of you may recall back in 2004 when Viacom (Comedy Central, as it turned out) directly lied to me in a (nearly successful) effort to get me onto what I discovered to be a fake debate show (from my blog: Viacom/MTV Networks' "The Debate Show" Fraud, and detailed chronology here. USA Today's take on that story is here.)

I have a very similar feeling about this current case as I did with those Viacom lies. I am extremely interested in finding out who was the attempted astroturf "puppet master" behind this new false propaganda effort.


Blog Update (May 12, 2011): Facebook Embraces J. Edgar Hoover: Anti-Google Lie Campaign Revealed

Posted by Lauren at 09:38 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 04, 2011

Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google (White Paper)

Executive Summary: Governments around the world have become frustrated by their inabilities to control their populationsí access to information on the Internet as easily as was traditionally possible in the pre-Internet era. Their new hopes for regaining control are the micromanagement and censorship of search engines such as Google, through the criminalization of Web page linking, laws limiting the ability of Internet users to upload content, and related attacks on free speech and the open dissemination of knowledge.

Web (HTML) Version: "Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google"

PDF Version: "Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google"


Posted by Lauren at 06:07 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein