July 26, 2011

Real Names, Guilt, Self-Censorship, and the Identity War

"Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."
    -- William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, circa 1760s

- - -

In the mere month since the public launching of Google+, it has become clear that this innovative and highly useful service -- that I've been happily using since its initial availability on June 28th -- has triggered a growing controversy over foundational issues of identity on the Internet.

Yet make no mistake about it, Google+ itself is not the real issue here at all.

Complex issues involving real names, nicknames, pseudonyms, anonymity, verified identity, and more have been pulled into the spotlight by this launch, largely due to Google's desire that users' associated public profiles include their real (or at least their "commonly used") names, and questions regarding how users' adherence to this requirement are being evaluated.

These are all issues that not only predate Google+, but that in fact involve all manner of non-Google Internet-related services as well -- obviously including other social media sites like Facebook, but also much more broadly in terms of public discourse, government involvement in identity systems, and an almost endless of array of associated aspects.

In two earlier postings regarding identity and Google+ (Google+, Privacy, and Balancing Identity and Google+'s "Identity" Controversy: No Easy Answers), I've attempted to provide some sense of the highly complex, interrelated, and often conflicting factors involved in these matters, and suggested some possible "balancing" paths forward for consideration. If you haven't seen those postings, you might wish to glance over them before proceeding below.

Google+ is very new and evolving rapidly. We can expect various changes to an array of aspects involving the service -- I anticipate that these will ultimately involve profiles and naming requirements as well.

Yet we continue to see various arguments associated with Internet identity being driven significantly by what I personally believe to be incomplete and inappropriately skewed examples and reasoning.

An example of this is an article that appeared a couple of days ago in the UK publication Guardian, titled "How the internet created an age of rage."

The article comes down very hard against anonymity (and by extension, pseudonymity), blaming these for the "coarsening" of discourse on the Net. The piece ends with "Generally, though, who should be afraid to stand up and put their name to their words? And why should anyone listen if they don't?" -- saying in essence that anonymity and its ilk should only be acceptable in a small set of very limited circumstances.

Hundreds of years ago, the English jurist William Blackstone made the statement I quoted just above at the start of this essay, commonly called "Blackstone's formulation" today, about the need to protect innocents even when that means that some guilty may go free.

While this concept is usually applied to matters of criminal law, as exemplified by pronouncements such as "innocent until proven guilty," I believe that Blackstone's words may also speak to us across the centuries regarding identity issues on the Internet.

Because the point of view expressed by that Guardian article, various Congressmen, and other authorities, who have been publicly castigating anonymity/pseudonymity and equating these concepts with criminal and antisocial behaviors, is very much in keeping with a "guilty until proven innocent" mindset.

One way to see this clearly is to examine one aspect that I consider to be among the most important in these debates -- the chilling self-censorship that can occur when persons are forced to reveal their identities in situations where this really should not be necessary.

I definitely feel that knowing persons' real names in social media does generally have very positive aspects -- but that there are also many situations where this can indeed be quite problematic.

Many arguments (such as those made by the Guardian and others) against anonymity are phrased in terms of the perceived abilities anonymity provides "bad actors" to be impolite, nasty, ugly, or even behave in criminal manners.

These are all decidedly negative behaviors. But I would argue that persons who truly want to "anonymously" comport themselves in these manners will always find ways to do so. Absent draconian and absolute government-linked Internet access identity requirements, not only will these persons create real-appearing false identities, but in practice they may find themselves tracked down anyway by IP addresses or other means in serious cases of abuse (or at least accused abuse).

This points out an important truth -- what most people think of as "anonymity" on the Internet tends to usually be something much less if enough resources are directed at finding the sources of specific posted materials.

So in all honesty, I believe the focus on persons who wish to abuse "anonymity" is something of a red herring.

What we should instead be focusing upon is what I believe should be the default case -- how identity issues impact innocent persons who have justifiable reasons for not wanting to be identified with particular Internet postings and the like.

I've previously discussed obvious cases such as whistleblowers, political speech, and persons living lifestyles that might be viewed "skeptically" by current or potential employers, insurance companies, and other entities.

But there are many more cases where persons who could have useful information and insights to contribute to online discussions, will self-censor themselves into silence to protect themselves or others, to the detriment of the community at large that might otherwise have benefited from that discourse.

Here's just one "thought experiment" example. Imagine someone who has a disease with an associated social stigma, or even more to the point, who has a child with such a disease.

Is it reasonable to require a parent to reveal their own identity -- and so effectively in many cases reveal the identity of their children -- in order to participate in a social media discussion about that disease?

Remember, the Internet has a long memory, such materials will likely remain online indefinitely.

Similarly, should an adult taking care of a parent with Alzheimer's disease be required to identify themselves (and again, by extension likely their parent as well) in order to seek out advice on a social media thread, or to author a potentially useful public comment on an article or blog posting?

I would argue no in both cases.

Think about it for a bit and I'm sure you'll be able to visualize many similar situations, some even more serious. Remember, it's not just a question of identifying yourself, but in many cases you also end up effectively (by association) identifying your friends, co-workers, family members and others without their permissions, in discussions that may persist online for years or decades.

These are the affected innocents of whom I spoke earlier.

And this also helps to explain why I feel that an optional mechanism that holds concerned users' "real names" in a sort of "escrow" -- not publicly visible under normal circumstances -- could be a potential way out of this dilemma in many cases.

The bad guys are going to falsify everything they can anyway. But the innocents as in the parental/child examples above -- who feel that they cannot publicly discuss key matters when identified by their real names -- do not have evil motives, and so there should be no harm to the Internet in permitting their public nomenclatures to be something other than their real names in the vast majority of situations.

I am certainly not claiming that the logistics of making this work in practice would be simple. There would be a lot of details and work involved in bringing such a system to fruition.

Many of the debates regarding Internet identity have dangerously skewed into a "presumed guilt" sort of prejudice, asserting that applying rules to everyone that are appropriate for the bad actors, for the guilty, is somehow necessary even though most persons do not fall into such nefarious categories.

I prefer using my real name on postings -- but as I've mentioned previously, I have also self-censored myself regarding some sensitive, personal matters where I felt there simply was no need for me to be identified, and questions that I could have answered (e.g., on sites using the "real identity required" Facebook commenting system) were left unanswered as a result.

We seem to have turned the assumption of innocence on its head, and have allowed fears of abuse to create an atmosphere were everyone is treated as if they are likely abusers.

If nothing else, this is not in keeping with the best traditions of Anglo-American jurisprudence, is fundamentally just not fair, and is potentially damaging to society at large in the long run.

I believe that jurist William Blackstone, if he were alive today, would feel very much the same way.


Posted by Lauren at 12:32 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 25, 2011

Telecom Blast From the Past: "ZZZZZZ" Recordings

One of the great things about Google+ is all the wonderful folks popping up on it now. Having noticed that a number of old "ancient telecom enthusiasts" (aka "phone phreaks") were starting to appear, I posted earlier today references to a couple of my essays about the beginnings of "telephone entertainment" and "ZZZZZZ" (one written in 2009, the other back in 1991).

This triggered (see the comments on that Google+ link referenced above) a reader posting several FTP archives of old ZZZZZZ recordings. Though I have my own locally recorded ZZZZZZ tapes buried somewhere, it was fun to see these online in any form.

Those archived online recordings mostly date to around the early 70s or so, and I remember writing a number of those scripts. In fact, two of these very brief recordings that happen to be in that collection really struck a cord, and I've extracted them as a single MP3 file playable right here [~1.26 MB].

The first of the two (I wrote both) is especially interesting due to the pops and clicks over the playing of "Jingle Bells." These were caused by notes of the song hitting 2600 Hz and triggering the "SF" in-band signaling system (the same frequency as the infamous "Captain Crunch" phone phreak whistle). In fact, the party who taped that segment for the archive actually edited out several seconds of silence during "Jingle Bells" before the SF filters dropped and restored the audio path. A brief pop at the end of the segment is present for the same reason.

In that first segment -- "Eddie discovers the truth about Christmas" -- the father is voiced by the late Bob Bilkiss, the creator of ZZZZZZ who ran "Z" from his home throughout its entire duration. The voice of "smart aleck" Eddie is, uh, well, you can guess.

The second segment is a parody of a series of detergent commercials that was popular at the time. The obnoxious guy trying to make a deal with the poor housewife to trade detergents is voiced by the same joker who performed Eddie.

It's hard for me to believe that these were made around 40 years ago! Bizarrely, I find that I can still do those voices, too. Scary.


Posted by Lauren at 02:39 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 16, 2011

Google+, Privacy, and Balancing Identity

Blog Update (July 26, 2011): Real Names, Guilt, Self-Censorship, and the Identity War

A few days ago in Google+'s "Identity" Controversy: No Easy Answers, I briefly discussed why identity issues -- especially related to Google's excellent new Google+ product, but by no means restricted to Google -- are so complex. I also explained various aspects of Google's policies regarding identity issues associated with Google+ and Google Profiles as I understand them, based on my recent conversation with Google representatives on this topic.

Reaction to my posting could best be described as "comprehensive." There are lots of strong feelings about identity, anonymity, pseudonymity, and associated issues, and there are many hopes and concerns regarding Google's getting these "right" for the presumably very long-term Google+ project.

There are a variety of reasons to encourage the use of "true names" (or at least "commonly known by names") in social media such as Google+, Facebook, and others.

One advantage of this approach is that it tends to foster polite discourse, since we're more likely to view other participants as actual human beings, not simply as nebulous icon-based artificial "life forms" of one sort or another. All else being equal, this is a highly desirable attribute for a social networking environment.

However, there are other aspects to use of true or real names, which do not necessarily have only positive characteristics.

Businesses might be interested in knowing what their employees are saying publicly about them -- or about other firms, and may be wary of potential or current employees engaging in "unusual" lifestyles.

Insurance companies may find monitoring their policy holders' social postings about personal and health issues -- or "risky" behaviors -- to be advantageous to the companies' underwriting procedures.

Authorities can use social media postings to build dossiers (legally or not) on individuals, with or without court orders.

Politically repressive governments can use identity information to find and target dissidents.

Estranged partners may seek to locate their ex-mates for various negative purposes.

And so on.

Fundamentally, many of these identity issues revolve around personal choice and "need to know" parameters.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was dead wrong when he suggested that having "multiple identities" (on the Net) showed a lack of integrity.

In fact, separation of the personal, public, office, home, and other other aspects of our lives is entirely normal, and most of us would not routinely expect to share details broadly between these categories. This is especially true as we get older, and accumulate more "life baggage" as we go along.

Already in the almost three weeks that I've been using Google+, I've had the experience several times of refraining from commenting on threads where I could have imparted potentially useful information, because I did not feel comfortable drawing attention to myself publicly relative to the topics under discussion. Perhaps 99% of the time I have no problem with being fully identified in my public postings. But that remaining 1% is still a significant concern nonetheless.

This sort of self-censorship regarding legitimate matters, where no fraud or other bad intent is involved, should be a red flag regarding the possibly stultifying effect that "true identity" can bring to some situations.

There are all sorts of identity-related issues to be dealt with on large-scale social media platforms.

Special systems may be employed to handle "celebrity" signups, but often even those names are not globally unique, and it is not necessarily reasonable for celebrities to have priority over anyone else with the same names.

Calls for government-linked ID systems such as NSTIC would go much farther toward verifying identities, but the supposedly "voluntary" nature of these systems would rapidly become de facto required at many major sites, and a host of free speech and other concerns related to government involvement with Internet IDs has made NSTIC and similar proposals understandably highly controversial.

Are there perhaps better balanced ways to approach these issues on social media?

First, we should keep in mind that even when persons claim to use their real or common names on these systems, we don't normally have any way to routinely authenticate or verify those names, and as I noted just above, government involvement in this process could be quite problematic in key respects.

In fact, we know that many completely honest persons concerned about revealing their true identities online frequently simply create accounts and profiles under assumed names that appear real, as pseudonyms for postings that won't be used in any unlawful manner, only as a mechanism to keep discussions regarding personal issues from becoming publicly linked to their true identities.

Ironically, the creation of an environment where users may feel pushed to creating seemingly legitimate false identities, to avoid using obviously "unreal" pseudonyms by which they may be more commonly known online -- but that are much more likely to be deleted in profile purges -- would seem to be a decidedly suboptimal situation both for the firms providing the services and for their users.

We really do need to move beyond the false arguments that any use of anonymity indicates criminal or antisocial behaviors, and acknowledge that there are a range of situations where anonymity or the use of arbitrary pseudonyms should not only be permitted on social media networks, but in fact are fundamental aspects of basic free speech rights, recognized as legitimate back to the founding of this country and beyond.

So the question becomes, how can we encourage the use of real or common names in systems like Google+ and other social media -- for the real benefits that such usage brings -- but still foster a balance that permits other, less tightly identified forms of participation in legitimate ways for honest users who feel a need for such options.

There are various possible approaches, but very briefly, one useful avenue for exploration might be permitting the use of anonymous or arbitrary pseudonyms (that are reasonable and not abusive) either posting-by-posting or "full time," so long as the users involved have provided their real name information on their profiles on a "not for public display" basis.

This would potentially help to at least somewhat allay concerns regarding potential abusive use cases. It could be argued that users likely to abuse are also likely to provide false data even for this "private" identity field -- and this is true. But such users are currently likely to post under potentially even more disruptive fake identities that appear real and are not easily identified as pseudonyms in the first place.

On the other hand, I believe that there is a far larger community of honest and polite users who would prefer to use pseudonyms on postings, who will be unable to make full use (or perhaps any use) of social media where pseudonyms are not permitted, and who would be willing to provide their real name information as a private profile field in exchange for pseudonymous posting capabilities.

This is just a thumbnail description of course. Actually designing and deploying a system to permit and encourage an appropriate balance between full identification and total anonymity is a decidedly difficult task. But if we genuinely care about free speech, we must not permit fears of potential abuse to prohibit the use of anonymity and pseudonymity in furtherance of solving legitimate individual privacy concerns.

As I noted earlier, these concepts are by no means restricted to the world of Google+. They should also apply to Facebook and virtually all other general usage social media platforms.

However, Google+ is newly born, with various features in flux and rapidly evolving. I firmly believe that the people of Google very much want to get these issues right in ways that will encourage optimum usefulness (and fun!) from the environment for the most people possible.

If any firm can find the path to "balancing identity" as I've described, I'm convinced that Google can do so with Google+.

If nothing else, it deserves the old college try -- both for the sake of Google, and for the Internet and global community at large.


Blog Update (July 26, 2011): Real Names, Guilt, Self-Censorship, and the Identity War

Posted by Lauren at 02:50 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 14, 2011

The Netflix Price Increase and "New Coke": Marketing Fails 101?

By now you've probably heard that many Netflix subscribers are more than a bit peeved over the sudden 60% increase in the cost of maintaining an Internet streaming (comparatively limited selection) and full DVD-by-mail subscription.

Netflix's customer service lines are overloaded, their blog maxed out on comments, and some of the language that upset subscribers are spouting isn't at all pretty, and sounds like it may more commonly be reserved to describe child molesters.

Given the various alternatives available, it's unclear how this will all shake out, but it does appear that Netflix either forgot (or chose to ignore) a primary rule of marketing and brand protection: When you take something away from people that they've already come to expect, the backlash can be enormous.

In this case, Netflix subscribers had come to expect streaming and DVD access at a known price point, and the relatively large, sudden increase triggered what should have been a predictable upset among a significant proportion of their subscribers.

This isn't to say that a $6/month increase is a lot of money in an absolute sense. But most of us tend to react more emotionally to large relative changes, often almost irrespective of absolute numbers in many cases.

So while Netflix can try argue that the costs involved in shipping DVDs are going up, and that the new price remains an excellent deal -- the emotional reaction is still likely to be "Why should I pay 60% more for the exact same service next month than I did this month?"

A somewhat similar situation, though not involving price, occurred back in 1985, when the Coca-Cola Company suddenly replaced their regular Coke product with a sweeter, more Pepsi-like "New Coke" formulation.

Blind taste testing prior to this change demonstrated that the new formula should be greatly preferred. The company was sure that they had a winner in their perpetual battle against Pepsi, which had become a formidable competitor. But when New Coke was launched, the reaction was almost entirely negative, with an intensity similar to what might have happened if the American flag had been abruptly replaced with the Soviet version.

The original Coke started appearing on the black market. Protests and boycotts were organized. It was a public relations disaster.

Within three months, Coca-Cola Company restored the "old Coke" -- which would be branded thenceforth as "Coca-Cola Classic" (until 2009, when the word "classic" was removed from the main product title entirely).

In the case of Coke, consumers reacted very negatively to the removal from the market of a product with which they were already familiar, even though the new product likely would have tasted better to most consumers (at least in controlled test situations, which of course do not encompass the totality of the normal consumer "user experience" in this regard).

But like with so many aspects of life, the moral to the Coke story isn't entirely one-sided, and the same may prove to be true for Netflix.

The Coca-Cola Company ultimately ended up with an even larger market share than they had prior to their New Coke fiasco. Netflix's price increase may have the effect of driving some subscribers to competitors, but in the long run may be highly beneficial to Netflix's bottom line -- their investors seem to be betting that this will indeed be the case.

But in the short term at least, if gaining negative PR is your goal, go ahead and vastly increase your relative price for the same services, start charging any amount for services that used to be free, or suddenly remove from the marketplace products that consumers have come to know and love over a long period of time.

If you're lucky, you may still come out ahead in the end.

Then again, you may find yourself in long-term residence deep within the Pit of Despair.

My own preference would be to avoid alienating customers in the first place whenever possible, rather than treating them as disposable commodities to be cynically manipulated solely for one's own gains.

But then again, I'm just an old-fashioned guy that way.


Posted by Lauren at 02:45 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 12, 2011

Google+'s "Identity" Controversy: No Easy Answers

Blog Update (July 26, 2011): Real Names, Guilt, Self-Censorship, and the Identity War

Blog Update (July 16, 2011): Google+, Privacy, and Balancing Identity

In the mere two weeks since Google+ began becoming available to the public, reactions to the service (including from yours truly) have been overwhelmingly positive.

But judging from queries I've been receiving, one concern -- user identities -- has been rising significantly in its intensity, reaching the level of an article included in the New York Times today. Examples of concerned bloggers' takes on this topic can be viewed here and here.

There are some issues where analysis and answers seem relatively obvious. Identity is not one of these "easy" topics.

I am a strong supporter in general of the right of persons to be anonymous so long as they aren't using that anonymity in fraudulent, criminal, or similarly antisocial ways. For example, I am very concerned that the Facebook commenting system now used on many sites may allow for the unnecessary and potentially dangerous linking of (for example) users' public, work, and personal lives by external parties.

I spoke to Google representatives at some length this afternoon about identity issues in the context of Google+. I think it's fair to say that we all appreciated that the intricacies of this area are still very much evolving.

Practically speaking, there really aren't any differences at this time (as I understand the situation) between Google+ policies and Google Profile polices. Some of the expressed concerns about these are based on misconceptions or misunderstandings, others are not.

For example, it is not true that Google Profiles/Google+ require that you use your legal name. In fact, in an effort to avoid fraudulent identity proliferation, Google wants people to use the name by which users are generally known by their family, friends, and so on -- which is not necessarily a formal name in the legal sense.

Some observers have pointed to a February 2011 Google Public Policy Blog posting The freedom to be who you want to be…, and have suggested that the Google+ policies contradict that posting.

This also appears to be a misunderstanding. That posting did not assert that Google would support "unidentified" or "pseudonymous" usage for all Google services, rather that different levels of identification would likely be appropriate for different services. You can be fully unidentified (as described in that posting) when using Google Search, for example.

Another related issue has been concerns about the use of non-anonymous identities by persons dealing with sensitive situations such as alternative lifestyles or oppressive governmental regimes.

Addressing specifically the latter point, Google says that -- at this time -- they do not consider Google+ to be an appropriate discussion platform for persons in situations where not being anonymous might put them at risk of harm.

If you sense that we don't yet have full "closure" on some of these specific concerns you'd be right -- but this is a reflection of the fundamental complexity and sometimes contrary nature of these matters, not an indication of bad faith.

How does one allow arbitrary pseudonyms and still avoid the fraudulent impersonation of celebrities and other individuals who aren't so well known? How can a user's assertion that they are "commonly" known by a particular pseudonym be validated in a timely and practical manner?

Keeping in mind that crooks will use any opening to perpetuate crime -- with identity-related exploits high on the list these days -- getting identity issues "right" in these systems is of paramount concern.

For now, we're faced with the reality that even with the best of intentions all around, broadly "correct" answers to many of these questions simply do not yet fully exist. The wide scope of identity policy parameters and associated technologies to implement them are in many key aspects still in their infancies.

But even in this rapidly evolving landscape, there are positive suggestions we can make regarding Google+/Google Profiles and other systems with similar identity-related aspects.

It is clearly the case that users need to fully understand what names are or are not acceptable for their use. When other than "legal" names are permitted, users need to know that a logical and fair process is in place to determine which other names will be permitted, how these users can demonstrate that their usage of those names are legitimate, and that when names are rejected, be assured that users are fully informed as to why rejections took place. Additionally, there should be a formal appeals procedure that users may invoke if they feel that a name was unreasonably rejected.

All of this will mean more "hands-on" and potentially more costs as well. But identity in general, and the "names we go by" in particular, are among our most personal of attributes, even when we choose to use them in public.

It is unreasonable in the extreme to expect Google to untangle the enormously thorny questions of identity and anonymity as if with a magic wand, especially only two weeks into Google+'s limited public availability.

Luckily, we are at the beginning of this road, not the end. There is a great deal of work yet to be done toward understanding, designing, implementing, and deploying the kinds of identity policies and tools that we'll need to cover a very wide range of situations.

But this is indeed the path toward helping to make sure that the Internet ultimately respects identities of all sorts as legitimately used, rather than abuse or unnecessarily restrict them.

In the context of the Net, we're now only really taking the first steps in that direction. There's a long way to go.

Let's make it a journey well spent.


Blog Update (July 26, 2011): Real Names, Guilt, Self-Censorship, and the Identity War

Blog Update (July 16, 2011): Google+, Privacy, and Balancing Identity

Posted by Lauren at 07:14 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

$5 $10 $20 $50 - How to Get Fake Credits on the Web

This isn't a saga of cosmic significance, but perhaps a cautionary tale nonetheless. Earlier today over on Google+ (a great service on which I've lately been spending far too much of my time), a user posted a wonderful photo composed of four images of U.S. paper currency, each apparently held up in Washington D.C., in such a manner that half of the bills mated perfectly with the actual monuments pictured on the reverse of those notes. Very impressive.

The poster labeled this "U.S. Bills mission complete." In short order this posting became possibly the most widely shared I have seen in the brief life of Google+ (now approaching 1000 shares last time I checked), and is continuing to accumulate vast numbers of congratulatory and laudatory comments. The speed with which this image has been spreading through Google+ is extraordinary.

There's only one problem. Evidence suggests that despite the original poster's description implying that he did the work of creating that image, evidence strongly suggests that this was not the case.

In fact, it took me all of 30 seconds with Google's great Image Search to find many exact copies of that image going back for years, and pointing at the page of the original image's apparent creator, dated 2008 and including a detailed discussion of how he had taken the photos in D.C. that had such dramatic results.

But as I quickly saw, any attempt to mention this fact on existing Google+ threads associated with that photo were immediately swamped by the continuing flood of new shares and comments oblivious to the photo's apparent actual authorship.

As I said at the outset, this isn't a big deal in a relative sense given the scope of Internet issues on our plates. But I find it offensive when someone appears to claim credit for someone else's work, and given the availability of tools like Google Image Search, it doesn't take a lot of effort to conduct a quick check before triggering an avalanche of incorrectly attributed sharing.

OK, I've gotta get back to Google+ now ...


Posted by Lauren at 03:08 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 10, 2011

Video: The Daleks Meet Google+

It appears that even the Daleks of Dr. Who fame already know about Google+.

The Daleks Meet Google+
(YouTube / 48 seconds)

Posted by Lauren at 01:55 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 05, 2011

Empowering Evil Through Search and Surveillance: Why Corporate Ethics Matter

Here in the U.S., we've just celebrated our Fourth of July holiday -- Independence Day. It's actually rather complex in nature, a celebration not only of revolution and independence, but also of our foundational documents, the Constitution and the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.

These are remarkable written works from many standpoints. We have not always been true to their ideals. But the men who wrote them were able to create proclamations that have remained relevant for almost two and half centuries, through our evolution from agrarian society to a technological nation beyond the wildest imaginations of virtually anyone living at the time (except, perhaps, my personal hero, Benjamin Franklin!)

The Bill of Rights and Constitution together suggest an ethical path for this country, but no documents, no laws, can successfully legislate ethics or morality. We can ban government interference in free speech, as does the First Amendment, but we cannot assure that freedoms will be wisely used. This is in the nature of laws, men, and women throughout history.

Still, it's difficult not to feel disappointed when our ideals are subverted for commercial gain, and during this past holiday two examples of this were thrust into the media.

As I criticized yesterday, Microsoft has now formally partnered with Chinese search giant Baidu to provide Chinese government-censored English language search results in China.

And now comes word that Cisco will be providing the networking gear for a massive Chinese surveillance system, that will almost certainly be used primarily to target political dissent. Perhaps most alarming in this case is the reaction of Cisco to questions about the ethics of the contract. "It's not my job to really understand what they're going to use it for," was the reaction of Cisco's executive VP in charge of their China strategy.

I know I'm not the only observer invoking the lyrics of the great satirist Tom Lehrer regarding Wernher von Braun in this context: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun." Nor am I the only one who remembers the dark history of IBM's involvement with Nazi Germany in the name of technology sales bottom lines.

A common meme is that corporations are amoral, unconcerned with ethics, uninterested in anything but maximizing profits. This is sadly often true, but certainly is not always the case.

Yes, questions of ethics and business are complex, and different situations may be easily confused.

For example, if a company chooses to do business in a particular country, they must obey that country's laws. They can challenge what they don't feel is appropriate, but ultimately if they don't obey the laws they will very likely be subjected to sanctions of some sort, civil and/or even criminal in nature. And they may be denied access to those countries entirely.

Yet companies can also choose not to extend their products and services into countries where laws and government actions are obviously in conflict with our own ethical considerations. Firms can choose ethics over profits, if they care enough about the former, not just the latter.

And so we saw Google's decision to stop censoring its search results in China -- censorship demanded by the Chinese government -- after a period of compliance during which Google hoped Chinese sensibilities about access to knowledge -- and freedom of speech -- would improve, a test that China unfortunately failed.

Google initially and understandably gave China the benefit of the doubt. Yet China -- and I'm speaking of the Chinese government, not the people themselves -- then chose to be even more belligerent on these issues, not less. Google rightly made the decision that in light of these developments, participation in China's censorship regime was not good for the Chinese people or for Google, and ceased participation. Google made the ethically correct choice, one that should be roundly congratulated.

In light of this, it's difficult to accept Microsoft's new move to not only provide censored search services in China, but to go one giant step farther and actually partner with the Chinese search giant Baidu within the Chinese censorship regime. By this action, Microsoft allies itself directly with the Chinese government's information oppression, and becomes not just a bit player in that regime, but a full-fledged comrade in censorship.

Microsoft can't claim ignorance of China's modus operandi in these regards. Not only the Google experience dealing with China and search, but other recent Chinese activities, have provided concrete examples. So without a doubt, money has won out over ethics for Microsoft when it comes to China. No excuses, no mitigating circumstances.

And similarly for Cisco. Like IBM and their dealings with German National Socialism in the WWII era, Cisco appears to be purposely, directly, and explicitly "averting its eyes" from knowledge of how its technologies will certainly be abused.

It can indeed be argued that our actions as a nation have not always been in keeping with the ideals and hopes of our Founding Fathers. Our government and businesses -- and we the people -- are not perfect. Nobody is.

But the fulfillment of our ideals is ultimately a tapestry of individual actions at all levels, and past mistakes do not justify present or future unethical behaviors.

This applies not only to each of us, but also to our governments, to Microsoft, to Cisco, and to every other corporation and organization.

While Microsoft's and Cisco's couplings with China may reap benefits for their shareholders, these specific dealings are still a fundamental betrayal of ethics, and of our fundamental values -- especially given what we know today about Chinese government behaviors and reactions in these realms at this time.

The Chinese people are not our enemies. And in the long run, a closer relationship between China and the U.S. would be of immense value to both countries. But an ethical path to that goal cannot be reasonably paved with direct U.S. entanglements with the most oppressive aspects of China's government today. An unethical path merely serves to help perpetuate those very abuses that most slow any progress toward our best and finest aspirations.


Posted by Lauren at 01:59 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 04, 2011

Microsoft Joins with Chinese Search Giant Baidu to Provide Censored Search

Chinese search giant Baidu (80% of the Chinese search market) now has a willing partner to officially provide its censored English-language search results -- Microsoft's Bing.

In a carefully worded statement, Baidu explained that Microsoft was not submitting to "any further" censorship or restrictions on its English search results "than they already do." In other words, the same level of censorship that Microsoft servilely performs now to maintain its Chinese presence, will continue under the new deal.

Microsoft's ethical vacuity in this area is no surprise. A year and a half ago, in Microsoft's Ballmer to China: Forget Google -- If You Want Censorship, Come to Bing!, I noted that Microsoft had made its willingness to kowtow in the face of China's censorship demands very clear indeed.

But by officially joining with Baidu in this way, Microsoft has now become a full partner in China's oppressive censorship regime.

Microsoft's business reasons for this coupling are clear enough. What they are doing is perfectly legal, and viewed strictly in terms of their bottom line, arguably makes sense, at least in the short run.

But on the Fourth of July in particular -- a day steeped in meaning with its connections to our Bill of Rights and free speech -- it's difficult to paint Microsoft's deal in this case with other than a thick coat of shame.

Have a happy and safe Independence Day!


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