October 30, 2012

Superstorm Sandy, Google, France, and Saving the Freedom to Link

Even before the massive storm named Sandy battered the northeast U.S. last night, I was already planning a posting about the "link war" now brewing around the world.

A few days ago, newspapers in Brazil pulled out of Google News, claiming they wanted compensation for the indexing of their freely available public Web sites.

And in France, the government is directly threatening Google with laws that would require news indexing payments to public, freely available media sites in that country.

I had planned to write in detail of the value these newspaper and other sites receive from people being able to find relevant articles via services like Google News, of the terrible slippery slope engendered by the entire concept of "pay to link" regimes, and of how the major damage from such concepts would ultimately be to vast numbers of small sites as a twisted "you can't link to my public pages unless you pay me" sort of mindset took hold.

But as we look at the aftermath of devastation from Sandy, and our hearts go out to its victims, we're faced with another truth regarding the freedom to link.

Information saves lives.

As the storm spread inland with punishing winds, rain, and flooding, people around the world were using news oriented search services to stay abreast of rapidly developing events, including evacuation plans and other emergency information -- not only for the protection of their loved ones in the immediate area, but for people elsewhere to try learn what was happening to their friends and families in the disaster zone.

The immense importance of these kinds of search services come into play during all manner of events that can suddenly and dramatically impact large numbers of people. So it is impossible to honestly justify making it more difficult to find these news stories and related information on publicly available websites.

Yet, this is exactly the likely outcome of the "pay to link" concept being promulgated by Brazil, France, and others around the world. It is an abomination that would inevitably spread from news search to other forms of search, and throughout the Web to other linking, including by informational and educational websites at all levels.

This is a fundamental threat to the most basic concept of the Web -- the ability and right to index and/or freely link with context to the pages of other sites that are publicly available.

If sites -- newspaper sites or otherwise -- choose not to be indexed, the "robots.txt" control protocol has long been available for their use.

If these sites choose to put their contents behind paywalls and charge the public for access to their materials, that is certainly a choice they are free to make.

But if sites are offering pages for free public viewing, it is unconscionable for them to act in ways that will inevitably constrict and eventually block the ability of the public to find that content through search engines -- the very mechanisms whose creators devote enormous resources toward organizing the seeming chaos of the Web in ways that best serve the needs of the global community at large.

This is much bigger than the issue of French newspaper sites wanting to charge Google for indexing content that everyone else can read for free. It's about keeping the very concept of free linking to public materials alive and well. It's about making sure that people can find and access important information in times of need, whether a personal crisis or a regional disaster.

Nor should it take a disaster of Sandy's scope to remind us that access to information, and crucially, being able to find the public information we're looking for -- especially on the Internet in the 21st century -- are not luxuries to be held hostage, but rather key to the survival of individuals and even entire communities.

When we save the freedom to link on the Web, we are literally acting to save our families, our friends, our communities, and ourselves.

All the best to everyone affected by Sandy. Take care.


Posted by Lauren at 12:35 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 19, 2012

It's Time to Fix YouTube's Biased Copyright System!

To rather badly paraphrase the opening lines of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol...

"I vastly enjoy and appreciate YouTube. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing meaningful can come of the story I am going to relate ..."

I've written a lot about YouTube issues. Looking back just at my relatively recent blog entries, it appears that YouTube has had quite a starring role:

Turkey vs. YouTube (3 October 2012)

How to Destroy YouTube (23 September 2012)

Saving YouTube from the Choking Web of Rights (8 September 2012)

Mars vs. Copyright vs. YouTube (8 August 2012)

A perusal of those essays, and my various earlier missives on the topic, will reveal that I am extremely sympathetic to the dilemma that Google faces in operating YouTube, both legally and logistically, and I certainly recognize their moves to make incremental improvements to the Content ID and Copyright Strike notification and associated counter-notification mechanisms.

And I certainly understand that the utterly, totally, pervasively and perversely screwed up state of copyright law, both in the U.S. and globally, makes dealing with this entire area like walking a tightrope over the mouth of a very active volcano. And I know that Google has an extremely capable and skilled legal team that does their best to do the right thing in any given case. They're really good people.

Having said all that, it's also true that complaints and concerns about YouTube copyright-related actions figure prominently in my inbox, from folks who have found my previous writings and hope (usually to their ultimate disappointment) that I can somehow help untangle their situations.

As you might guess, there are some specific recent events that have caused me to, uh, boil over on this today -- but we'll get back to those shortly.

Let's cut to the chase. YouTube's current copyright enforcement regime has become a horrendously biased nightmare.

There is a vast bias in favor of any entity who makes a YouTube copyright claim, whether it triggers a Content ID match (relatively innocuous) or a Copyright Strike (potentially devastating) on users' uploaded materials.

As YouTube has vastly expanded the scope of their video matching and analyzing system and an ever larger number of "partners" have joined the system, this bias has created a tightening net that is increasingly snagging "innocent infringement" or totally non-infringing materials (see my links above for some examples of how this occurs).

Perhaps worse, any material can be targeted at any time, even months or years after being uploaded. Copyright claims often come from entities that practically nobody has ever heard of, sometimes involving clips that at one time had fallen into the public domain -- or at least were widely reported as having done so.

There is little practical recourse for most users. The claim comes in, the user can counter-claim that the original claim is invalid, the original claimant confirms the original claim ... and the user loses. There's usually nowhere else to go, unless you're ready to hire a lawyer yourself and spend a bundle.

It's essentially a "guilty until proven innocent" system -- and for most people it's literally impossible to prove their innocence with available resources.

This is a situation that not only encourages what we might call copyright bullies, but also an expansive view of copyright claims that can easily push beyond the bounds of legitimacy. After all, there appear to be few if any meaningful penalties for claims that are successfully rejected, and since most accused users can't afford to fight back, it's like a football game where only one team is ever allowed to actually possess the ball. It's ripe for massive abuse by copyright claimants.

And the YouTube copyright penalty structure is decidedly inflexible and we could even say regressive in nature.

Content ID hits can result in someone else's ads displaying with the video, or the video might be blocked in some countries, or blocked globally. And this can all change at any time. At any moment, the status could change again, totally at the whim of the claimant.

Copyright Strikes are much worse. Three of those can kill your YouTube account without recourse, including all your videos, your associated community of users and comments, and all the rest.

I should also add at this point that this is all irrespective of how long videos have been present on YouTube, whether or not the user has tried to monetize them with ads, how many views they've ever obtained -- or pretty much anything else.

I have a large collection of historical videos related to computers and other technology topics. It is my pleasure to share some of them with the community for educational outreach purposes. I do not monetize my YouTube videos -- I don't run ads with or on any of them.

Before I put materials online that I have not produced entirely myself, I practice "due diligence" to try ascertain that they were either always public domain, fell out of copyright, or are eligible for statutory copyright exemptions.

This is almost never easy. There is no central database that can be referenced for such determinations, and the provenance of such items can be complex, especially for older clips.

But you do your best, because many of these items are otherwise lost to time if nobody can see them.

Since I started on YouTube five or so years ago, I've gotten occasional Content ID hits. Mostly these seemed to be the result of claimants including the same public domain clips in their productions that I used, and then firing off a complaint because my public domain clip matched the segment of their production that used the same clip.

Sometimes there are shady claims from various music publishing companies, claiming rights to classical works that are definitely public domain performances.

In dealing with these cases, I've sometimes just said "to hell with it" and deleted the videos, and in some instances filed counter-claims, with varying degrees of success.

But I'm not a lawyer, my resources are very limited -- like I said, I don't even try to make any money from this stuff -- and it's not worth the time and hassle for me to pursue most of these. I'm in the same boat as pretty much everyone else.

Now things have gotten worse. Right now I'm looking at two new Content ID hits and a Copyright Strike.

The CID hits are for a 2.5 minute and 1.25 minute pair of clips, one uploaded approaching two years ago, and the other uploaded almost three years ago. One of those creepy music publishing entities is after one of them, dating back to the 50s and in many public domain collections. The Copyright Strike is also from 50s material, was uploaded over a year ago, and was represented to me multiple times as being free of current copyright restrictions in this context.

And because something like this happened to me just a few days under six months ago (Copyright Strikes can expire after six months in the absence of additional strikes), I now have two Strikes on my account, and am threatened with total deletion of my account if a third should appear for any reason.

Remember, since as a practical matter it's virtually impossible for average users (that definitely includes me!) to fight back against such claims effectively, it instantly becomes very much a Sword of Damocles scenario. The basket ready to collect the bloody heads is apparently already in position.

It is certainly possible to argue the copyright status of any given video. And copyright abuse is a real problem, in need of practical -- but also fair -- solutions.

Yet the current YouTube copyright structure is not only enormously biased toward assumed guilt without truly meaningful recourse for most accused parties, but implements what amounts to a "one size fits all" penalty regime that in significant ways is like the now widely discredited three-strikes sentencing laws, that have filled our prisons with non-violent inmates whose most recent infraction was shoplifting a candy bar.

YouTube's bias toward claimants; the lack of practical means for ordinary users to fight back realistically against false claims; the tightening of automatic detection systems with an attendant increase in false positives; the lack of meaningful appeal and escalation mechanisms; and the failure to incorporate a sufficient range of signals, extenuating circumstances, and associated proportionality into penalties, are rapidly turning YouTube into a very unfriendly place for anyone but the media elite.

I am sorely tempted to simply delete my videos and close my YouTube account myself, say "Thanks, but no thanks YouTube" -- and stop sharing. Period.

I'm frankly weary of explaining to people that not only don't I have the power to help them with their YouTube conflicts, but that I don't even have useful suggestions of how they can proceed that are likely to do anything but waste their time and money.

But even while stipulating the legal minefields that exist in this area, I am totally convinced that Google is capable of vastly improving this currently rapidly deteriorating situation, if they choose to apply sufficient resources to the admittedly complex problems and issues involved.

So, I'm not clicking Delete. At least not right now, not this hour, not tonight.

We'll see how I feel on the morrow.

And we'll see if Google steps up to the plate for the benefit of the entire YouTube user community.

Take care, all.


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

October 18, 2012

An Internet Monster, Reddit, and Free Speech

There are some topics that I just can't wait to write about. This isn't one of them. In fact, I've been putting this off for days, basically because I find the underlying theme so personally repugnant and disgusting. But the topic is important, and proceed we will.

I don't use the term "monster" lightly. But in the case of Michael Brutsch, the recently exposed uber-troll of Reddit, the label seems to rightly apply.

I will not here delve into the details of his activities. This new CNN article gives a pretty good summary. Research him further at your own risk, and be prepared to possibly be picking pieces of vomit out from your keyboard for days to come.

Regular readers know that I write a lot about free speech -- and also about responsibility. The unholy alliance of Brutsch-Reddit provides us with some immensely painful, but extraordinarily valuable, insights into the meanings of both terms, especially in the Internet age.

Some observers are spending considerable verbiage arguing about who is most responsible for Brutsch's long rampage -- the man himself or Reddit.

For me, the answer seems clear enough -- it was a team effort, with Reddit acting as the enabling agent for Brutsch's nauseating fury.

But in fairness to both, let's dig a bit deeper.

Is it possible to reasonably argue that without Reddit in its current form, Brutsch would not have engaged in similar activities elsewhere? The answer is unknowable, but it does seem apparent that Reddit provided a large audience and the kind of feedback reinforcement on which minds like Brutsch's thrive.

And what of Reddit itself? Let's leave aside their business model and possible ways that their income stream may have been enhanced by encouraging, or at least tolerating, most of Brutsch's activities.

Should we accept the protests of Reddit moderators and others that Reddit couldn't reign in Brutsch significantly without violating free speech?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer takes us to the heart of what free speech really means.

We all know that "yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater" is not an accepted form of free speech. And we also know -- as I've discussed many times -- that various governments around the world are now attempting to vastly expand their notions of unacceptable free speech, mostly for their own political control purposes, in a wide variety of ways that we should most strongly resist.

We've also much discussed the important roles of anonymity and pseudonyms in various contexts, both of which can help assure that people are not attacked or otherwise persecuted for honest whistle-blowing, health questions, alternative lifestyle discussions, sexual status, and so on.

But free speech does not include the right to speak anywhere and anytime you might desire. And it is not a requirement for every possible venue to accept and distribute any and all speech that may be submitted to it.

Newspapers normally don't publish every received letter or op-ed. Book publishers don't accept every manuscript.

I have a very active Google+ presence. I choose to make a concerted effort to assure that the comments users append to my postings there are civil and on topic. This means that I delete what I consider to be inappropriate comments, I block those persons I consider to be trolls, and I enforce my own view of what I consider to be acceptable overall.

Am I violating anybody's free speech rights? Of course not. I'm simply acting as the editor and moderator of my own space, and anyone is free to comment on other threads on Google+, or Facebook, or ... wherever. It's a big Internet.

Similarly, the powers-that-be at Reddit, irrespective of the autonomy they've traditionally chosen to provide their users, were not required by law to shut down Brutsch (unless he crossed the line into illegal activities), but they were also not required to permit his monstrous hate spew to continue unabated.

Not everything that is merely legal is necessarily reasonable. And while we certainly don't want laws infringing unnecessarily on free speech, we also must accept the fact that we need to take responsibility for our speech and actions. If we don't do so, we are playing directly into the hands of those politicians who would very much like to make examples -- such as the one under discussion here -- the basis and excuse for draconian legislative crackdowns on free speech that would be disastrous.

Ultimately, it appears to me that both Brutsch and Reddit made the same kind of fundamental error. They behaved as if they were operating in a parallel universe, a place where normal concepts of ethics and responsibility simply didn't apply, didn't matter, didn't have any actual impact on the real world.

They're wrong.

Protests of some "Internet philosophers" notwithstanding, the Net is very much a part of the real world of cause and effect, of national governments, of laws and penalties.

To pretend otherwise is not to protect or enhance free speech, but rather to put free speech at enormous risk from the enemies of liberty, who are always ready to pounce with their own oppressive and nightmarish agendas.

If the saga of Reddit and Brutsch teaches us nothing else, it should remind us that free speech is not a natural law flowing without effort. Free speech is about more than simply having something to say. The endurance of free speech relies on our taking responsibility to use such a powerful idea both wisely and well.

Otherwise, we and our children may come to painfully rue our selfishly allowing such crucial freedoms to slip away through our fingers.


Posted by Lauren at 07:22 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 14, 2012

CNN: The "We Even Censor the 'Space News' Network"

In the pantheon of cable TV news, CNN has managed to stay at least relatively centered in the "neutral" zone, largely away from the pure right-wing propaganda of FOX News, and the liberal leanings of outlets like MSNBC.

But today, CNN demonstrated that they've clearly become hypocritical, self-serving censors, as they utterly mangled the amazing free fall jump of Felix Baumgartner from the edge of outer space.

While YouTube and other online venues followed every minute of the jump and interactions with mission control, CNN cut away from the 20-second delayed action before Felix even jumped, and then aired virtually nothing of the feat for the rest of the descent.

Key events -- sound barrier, spinning and recovery, parachute deployment, mission control commentary and communications, amazing visual shots -- CNN showed none of this. They simply cut back to their talking heads "in an abundance of caution," they claimed.

Not until Felix's chute could be seen from the ground did CNN deem to show another glimpse -- and then only briefly -- cutting away again until he was safely on the ground.

CNN, the same folks who wallow in high-speed car chases, military bombardments, and all manner of other potentially gory spectacles, has now demonstrated itself to be -- possibly forever -- not a news network at all, but a pitiful excuse even for an entertainment channel.

CNN's programming has been degrading for years. Their ratings have plunged through the floor. And yet, ironically, they've been the only real hard news cable alternative to the political spin channels. So watching CNN fall further into the abyss should not be amusing, but rather should be a matter of great concern.

For now at least, CNN can be honestly branded the Censored News Network.

And that's very, very sad.


Posted by Lauren at 11:34 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 10, 2012

Putting a Stake in the Coffin of "Do Not Track"

I could have predicted this. Actually, I *did* predict this.

The latest report from ZDNet confirms that the always Kafkaesque Web advertising "Do Not Track" effort is flying off the rails in all directions.

And while I have my own overall take on these issues that is not the same as that article's in key respects, I do agree with it's ultimate conclusion:

It's time to kill Do Not Track.

Yes, end it. The sooner the better.

For ages now, the Do Not Track standardization effort has been looking like a plot arc from the surrealistic old TV series Green Acres.

Over a year ago, in my Do-Not-Track, Doctor Who, and a Constellation of Confusion white paper and other essays, I noted that there haven't even been really viable definitions of what tracking in these contexts even actually means.

This is not a simple matter. There is an entire complex of issues involved -- technical, policy, and even political in nature.

An example of how utterly messed up things have gotten is exemplified by the meltdown triggered when Microsoft recently (and fully in character) decided to duplicitously pander by ignoring the user choice component of the developing Do Not Track standard, and instead substitute its own decision, causing an immediate and appropriate rebuke from Mozilla.

And cookies. Ah yes, cookies. Whenever someone mentions "tracking" they usually toss the cookies in their next breath. But Web cookies -- so necessary to the fundamental operations of most websites, have been turned into political pawns, resulting in bizarre operational effects that make Federico Fellini look like a staid documentary filmmaker.

Google is raked over the coals and massively fined for implementing cookie handling for the Safari browser in a manner necessary to make basic functionalities operate correctly, and in a manner that was explicitly understood to be necessary by Safari developers.

Meanwhile, regulators in Europe jumped the shark completely, imposing a useless requirement that sites display a "will you accept our cookies?" banner that won't go away unless you accept the cookie that holds the status of your choice regarding whether you will or won't accept cookies! Huh? Say what?

Yep, you have to accept a cookie to reject the cookies, and if you don't accept any cookies, you'll usually keep seeing that banner query every time you visit the sites, and in some cases can't even get deeper into the sites at all.

Welcome to Bozo Web! Let's see how many Web regulators pop out of that teeny, tiny car in the center ring!

But don't laugh too hard. While politicians on one hand tout their crackdowns on the usually anonymous advertising systems that help keep so many Web services free, many of the same politicos are pushing for massive government data retention programs, vast warrantless wiretapping projects, deep surveillance of financial and commercial transactions, encompassing CCTV camera nets, vehicle license plate readers, automobile driver monitoring, and on ... and on ... and on.

Golly, it's almost as if someone were trying to divert our attention from genuine, serious privacy concerns, by waving the advertising cookies Do Not Track red cape in front of our faces -- like a toreador preparing a bull for the coup de grāce.

The current Do Not Track effort is yet another example of hype masquerading as reality. We see enough insane hype in our ongoing political races. It's horrible enough there, and in the technical realm can cause a different form of devastation as well, with broad collateral damage likely on many fronts.

It's long past time to get our priorities straight. There are many critical privacy concerns -- but ad display Do Not Track isn't one of them.

Use a stake. Use a silver bullet. Solemnly intone "Klaatu barada nikto."

But let's focus on real privacy issues that affect our fundamental freedoms, and let's put the ad display Do Not Track effort out of its misery.


Posted by Lauren at 11:43 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 07, 2012

The Congressional Web Ad Campaign from Hell

There's a political war in progress here in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. And it's been so strange, so bizarre, that what would normally be a fairly local matter has been getting piles of national press attention.

And now, it has spilled en masse onto the Web at large, like a volcano pouring out searing lava in all directions.

The battling parties are two long-time Congressmen, who traditionally have each represented a portion of L.A. (including parts of the Valley). But when California redrew its Congressional districts recently, there was only a single district left between them, and they've been fighting it out ever since. To make matters worse, California also (unwisely on balance, in my opinion) changed its laws so that the top two primary "vote getters" would face each other in the general election, even if they are of the same party. In this state, that will usually mean Democrat vs. Democrat, and that's what's happened with Brad Sherman vs. Howard Berman.

It gets worse. Berman is the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has the backing of virtually the entire Democratic establishment, and is constantly flying around the world in this role. Sherman is also on the same committee, may well move up to Berman's slot if Berman loses, and is very much the local guy -- hardly ever traveling, holding local "town hall" meetings seemingly hourly, and being well known for helping constituents with local problems.

Both of them have taken policy positions with which I agree ... and other positions with which I disagree. So I really hadn't decided which of them I was going to vote for in the upcoming election.

That is, perhaps until Berman's insane saturation ad campaign hit the Web.

It seemed to start a few days ago. Various forms of what appear to be basically the same Berman ad, featuring a particularly unflattering photo of Brad Sherman and accusing of him of improprieties, started flooding my Web viewing. They appeared over videos, they appeared as big banner ads, box ads, sidebar ads. In some cases, the same ad appeared in two or even three locations (in different sizes and aspect ratios) on single Web pages -- on a very wide variety of sites.

And when I came back to those pages, or reloaded, they'd come up again ... and again ... and yet again. And the nightmare continues today.

It's the Howard Berman zombie ad apocalypse!

Now, before anyone jumps in with helpful "just run an ad blocker" advice -- I've been very clear about this in the past.

I don't run ad blockers. I consider at least viewing reasonable ads a completely fair proposition in exchange for getting the range of useful services available on the Web without charge. As someone who has watched the Net grow from its infancy, I am frankly amazed at what value we get in terms of search, email, information, and so much more without paying fees to those services. (My position on this is made pretty explicit in my past blog posting Blocking Web Ads -- And Paying the Piper.)

Sure, there are some Web ads that go beyond the pale for me -- mainly ads that start blaring audio without explicit permission. This includes those inane "harmonic hum bar" ads that start buzzing if you so much as mouse over them accidentally.

But up until now, I've never been so inundated with one obnoxious "conventional" ad that it really drew my attention and associated wrath. Howard Berman has now accomplished this milestone.

Exactly how he's done this is not currently clear.

The big ad serving networks are usually very careful to try not deploy inventory in manners likely to trigger irritating "ad fatigue" -- a perfect description of what Howard Berman is doing to me. Even when certain ads are aimed at particular ISP ip address zip codes or congressional districts -- likely in the case of these ads -- they're not supposed to flood you with the same ad like a tsunami.

Some ad networks actually give Web users remarkably fine-grained control over ad presentations, like Google's Ad Preferences settings.

But Berman and his "Sherman's head" ad deluge have been like Godzilla on a rampage. Nothing seems capable of stopping it as it sweeps across the Web, smashing other advertisements to dust in its wake. Clearly the plan is to show that uncomplimentary photo of Sherman so often that voters will associate it with stomach distress and vote against Sherman on that basis if nothing else.

Again, I don't know how Berman managed to game the ad display systems to this degree. Did he so vastly outbid other ads that algorithmic controls gave up in disgust? Is there a "Bermanworm" infecting servers? Is he cleverly leveraging the phase of the moon?

I don't know. I'm trying to find out.

But I'll tell you one thing for sure. Deciding my vote in that contest this November has become one hell of a lot easier, and almost certainly not in the manner that Howard Berman had in mind.


Posted by Lauren at 08:07 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 02, 2012

Turkey vs. YouTube

So just now I was starting to wind down serious work for the day, when my "topic alarm" fired. I run a homemade filter on my email inbox that watches for a sudden influx of messages with "similar" subject lines. When a certain threshold is reached over a specified period of time, an alert goes out to various devices, warning me of this circumstance via an audio clip from one of my favorite old television series, which shall remain nameless here.

The topic that triggered this evening was from various people sending me references to a Reuters piece from earlier today, noting that Google had agreed to create an instance of YouTube under Turkey's ".com.tr" domain, and to redirect YouTube users coming from Turkish ip addresses to that "version" of YouTube.

Primarily, people are asking me if this represents a capitulation of Google to Turkey's continuing censorship demands.

To try answer that, let's look at this situation first from the standpoint of the Turkish government, then from the Google side, keeping in mind that of course I don't speak for Turkey or Google.

Looking at the Middle East, Turkey and Iran (both non-Arab countries) have the largest Muslim populations.

We hear a lot about Iran these days, but much less about Turkey.

Turkey has been relatively secularized for many years, but is dealing with a resurgence of fundamental Islam. This appears to have made them increasingly willing to push back against a wide swath of Internet materials that they view as potentially destabilizing from a religious or (intertwined) political standpoint. In fact, Turkey's escalating restrictions on the Net have been of increasing concern for quite some time. Back in 2008, Turkey blocked (or rather, tried to block) all access to YouTube for over two years.

Google abides by valid orders to block individual countries' access to materials, but Turkey apparently feels that the existing process up to now does not give the government sufficient direct say. By forcing Google to operate under a Turkish domain, they feel they will have more direct control. At least, that's their ostensible argument.

I say ostensible because statements by the Turkish government suggest that another motive is money. Turkish officials have been making expansive claims about the need for Internet companies to have in-country presences, and how this will force firms to pay a range of fees to the Turkish government.

The money aspect of the situation is perhaps given even more credence by the reality -- surely known to Turkish officials by now -- that vast numbers of Turks have long been using proxies to bypass the Internet restrictions imposed by the government. These proxies should continue to be just as effective for reaching the global YouTube site, despite the YouTube changes demanded by Turkey and now (we can be sure reluctantly) acceded to by Google.

The options on the Google side are not unfamiliar in this era of governments attempting ever more broadly to restrict their populations access to the Internet.

Google naturally also knows that Turks can still use proxies to access the conventional YouTube site, unrestricted by Turkish government edicts. Google also realizes that if the Turkish government imposes additional attempted total YouTube blackouts, this is at the very least a major hassle for a great many YouTube users in Turkey.

So given continuing Turkish government intransigence relating to the Net, Google's decision to agree to the government's demands in this case can certainly be viewed as entirely rational.

A broader question many people asked about in their emails this evening, was if this situation creates a slippery slope that could lead to many other countries making similar demands, and to what extent this differs from the situation in which Google found itself in China regarding government attempts there to micromanage Google's search results, leading to Google's exit from experimental cooperation with the Chinese government in that sphere.

The attendant risks do exist. But we must also come to terms with the sad fact that a varied and increasing number of governments around the world are trying to block (or considering trying to block) various aspects of the Internet right now, even right here in the U.S. As the old saying goes, that cow is already out of the barn.

Even more to the point, it's clear that attempting to judge these situations from a basis of moral absolutism are (as a purely practical matter at least) doomed to failure, given the political, legal, and other realities facing anyone, or any firm, offering services around the world.

So we're increasingly facing a depressing, but still very real, continuum of censorship issues. On one end, we might place countries with fairly narrow laws restricting particular imagery, such as French laws related to the Nazi era. At the other end, we might specify China, with a vastly broader and pervasive censorship regime. And of course, then there are nations that attempt to block the Internet pretty much entirely (except for the chosen few).

What we see is a mosaic of related complexities, of sharp edges that don't easily fit together, and that might cause considerable bleeding all around -- for both these firms and their users -- if not handled with the understanding that no "one size fits all" response to these concerns is practicable. And notably, this holds true even as we condemn government censorship itself in very strong terms.

So no easy answers, no magic wands -- only a tough slog as we work our way through what is sure to be an accelerating series of attempts by governments to remake the Internet in their own images, and efforts to muzzle many aspects of the Net that are among its most important and socially valuable attributes.

The fundamental technology involved pretty much assures that these attempts to shackle the Net will fall far short of their goals.

Still, the period we are entering will certainly be one of great challenges, and we will likely not be able achieve the sort of totality of global, open Internet speech that many of us would ideally prefer.

But to paraphrase a famous singing philosopher, even when we can't always get what we want, it is still worthwhile to try very hard to achieve what we need.

That effort alone will be keeping us very busy for quite some time indeed.


Posted by Lauren at 11:49 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein