December 27, 2012

The White House Online Petition Joke Has Worn Thin

Back at the beginning of September last year, when the White House announced their upcoming "We the People" e-petition system to great fanfare, it was heralded in many quarters as a shining example of e-democracy in action, a force for the people to influence the federal government in an organized and logical manner like none that had been available previously.

I'll admit I was highly skeptical. At the time, in Worse than useless award: White House launches "e-petition" system, I declared the project essentially a publicity stunt that would not actually affect policy, but could be easily manipulated through its rudimentary sign-up system -- it seemed obvious that it couldn't even provide statistically meaningful polling data.

It turns out I was not entirely correct. The White House e-petition system hasn't proven itself to only be useless, but to be something of sick joke as well, making itself a global laughingstock on what seems like an almost daily basis now.

There were early signs that this would be the case, when the focus of petitions initially seemed to focus on drug legalization. Think what you will about the topic, it's obvious that almost any group can pull together vast numbers of "signatures" (representing real people or not) for such a petition, and it's also clear that its impact on actual policy would be essentially zero.

The White House, which originally promised to respond promptly to petitions once they crossed 5,000 "signatures" in 30 days, quickly raised that threshold to 25,000, and then established a common modus operandi of not responding to many petitions substantively for longer periods -- even after that threshold was reached (indeed, they had said they would respond, not exactly when they would respond).

But it's hard to blame them for such reticence to engage, given how the petition system quickly spun off into the fodder for late night comedians, as every interest group in the country organized tens of thousands of their minions to sign an increasingly bizarre set of petitions -- and that's not even counting the folks for whom the entire petitions process was specifically for laughs.

So we've now seen "We the People" e-petitions gather large numbers of signatures calling for Texas to be permitted to secede from the nation, for the USA to build a "Death Star" like that from the "Star Wars" film series, to deport CNN host Piers Morgan because he spoke out forcefully in favor of gun regulations, and now to arrest NBC "Meet the Press" host David Gregory because he showed on air (with police permission) an empty 30 round ammo clip during an interview that was generally seen to be embarrassing to NRA executive VP Wayne LaPierre (the latter two petitions being pushed by fringe components of the gun lobby, apparently).

But it's the White House that really should be embarrassed at this point. It's clear that the worst predictions about the petition system have not only come true, but been far exceeded.

"We the People" has become a focal point for snarky jokesters and pressure groups not to change policy, but rather to try capture media attention. Perhaps worse, when topics crucial to our future like the gun policy debate are brought up in this context, we see that it's done in ways that are so asinine that they don't actually advance the meaningful arguments of anyone on either side of such complex matters.

Most of this ends up making the White House look like a willing partner in the jokes, and the jokes just aren't funny anymore. There are too many important issues at stake.

As far as I'm concerned, there should be only one more White House e-petition -- calling for the immediate shutdown of the "We the People" petition system itself, and an end to what has become a humiliating farce.

That's one e-petition I'd be willing to happily sign.


Posted by Lauren at 09:24 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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December 14, 2012

Beware Godzilla Sleeping: The ITU's Internet Fiasco

A mainstay of science-fiction and horror films is the monster that you're led to believe has been vanquished, but reappears in even more horrific form (sometimes bringing along "friends" as well) in the final scene, or the sequels, or often both.

Godzilla appears to sink back into the sea to leave a battered Tokyo in peace, but he's merely snoozing, dreaming happy dreams of future destruction.

It's worth keeping Godzilla in mind as we scan reports of the ITU's new telecom treaty, which despite a glowing ITU press release was quite properly not signed by the U.S. and many other countries, rendering the entire exercise not even a Pyrrhic victory for the ITU.

The result is that we stand today regarding the open Internet in much the same place we stood a couple of weeks ago before the ITU's WCIT meeting in Dubai even began.

But like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, we had to do an awful lot of running to end up very close to where we started. And while this can be celebrated in the short run, in the long run it is a very worrisome place to be.

Virtually all of the dangerous dynamics that we've talked about many times in the past -- which led us to this point -- still remain in play.

The existing DNS (Domain Name System) continues to be a focal point of contention. ICANN's escalating mismanagement of the Internet's naming resources, culminating in their extortionist, damaging, and nightmarishly mutating gTLD expansion scheme -- designed to enrich the existing domain-industrial complex -- has driven a stake through the heart of any possible global cooperation in this area.

The DNS has been warped from a simple addressing tool into a truncheon of copyright and censorship enforcement -- with the U.S. leading the way with both related police actions without normal due process, and the insane filings of millions of often hilariously inaccurate takedown demands with Google and others, made all the worse since there usually are no effective penalties for false takedown filings.

Governments around the world continue to eye the Internet and the open communications it fosters to be primarily a threat, with its technology ripe for surveillance, and its users to be controlled, censored, flogged, imprisoned, and even worse. The ITU's newfound fetish for DPI -- Deep Packet Inspection -- makes the wet dreams of tyrants and others in this sphere all the more explicit.

These dynamics are continuing going forward. The risks of Internet censorship, fragmentation, and other severe damage to the Internet we've worked so hard to build will continue to be exacerbated, despite our holding the ITU pretty much at bay this time around.

It's not as if better paths forward have not been suggested in the past. But in answer to most such suggestions, the response has usually been fear of tampering with the status quo, tied to concerns that any changes might end up being worse than the de facto situation in which we find ourselves today.

But as we've now seen with dramatic clarity, the current situation is not likely to be stable in the long run. It is in fact highly unstable, and the risks of this instability ripping the Internet apart in fundamental ways are now worse than ever.

In the past we've talked about the possibility of creating new, purpose-built multi-stakeholder organizations to better serve the entire Internet community -- not just the relatively few lucky entities currently suckling the bulk of the bucks from the DNS gravy train.

Alternatives to the existing DNS -- secure, fully distributed systems for Internet naming and addressing -- such as IDONS and others -- have already been proposed, and could potentially eliminate billions of dollars in associated waste, while simultaneously ending the kinds of naming and DNS abuse problems that now seem synonymous with the existing DNS ecosystem.

Pervasive Internet encryption systems -- that would make Internet connections routinely far more secure from attacks and surveillance abuses -- are possible but resisted, often in concert with much the same kinds of arguments that tyrants have spouted since the dawn of civilization.

The despicable behavior of ITU leadership at WCIT is but a shadow of what the future may be like, unless we seriously take proactive actions now to protect the global, open Internet -- and the open access to information and communications that it engenders -- against those forces who would turn the Net into a tool of political, economic, and other forms of oppression.

The Internet Godzilla may be heading off to sleep for now. But he'll be back, along with his brethren and multitude of minions as well.

And if we haven't prepared, if we haven't taken action by then -- woe to us all.


Posted by Lauren at 11:25 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 07, 2012

A Radio Prank, a Dead Nurse, and "The Right to be Forgotten"

I will not here attempt to assign blame for the death of 46-year-old Jacintha Saldanha, a married nurse and mother of two children, who apparently committed suicide after being "pranked" by Australian shock jocks Mel Greig and Michael Christian, in connection with the Duchess of Cambridge's hospitalization in London.

Obviously this pair did not intend to seriously injure or kill anyone. On the scale of pranks, there are far more dangerous stunts -- a series of "terrify the passengers" fake "elevator" hoaxes currently making the video rounds seem far more malicious and potentially harmful.

Then again, nobody was actually physically hurt, much less killed, in the elevator videos. A woman did die in the name of ratings for Greig, Christian, and Sydney station 2Day FM.

I will make no apologies for my distaste of radio shows and personalities that use the humiliation of innocents as the currency of their supposed entertainment value.

Yet we cannot know with any certainty the complex of personal circumstances that led to this likely suicide. We can, however, perhaps make some pretty good guesses.

While the hospital involved and the royal family assert that they did not heap scorn or punishment on the victim, the level of humiliation in any case must have been extraordinarily high.

In the age before the Internet, even a story with such drama would not likely have had a very long shelf life, a fact that might have limited the sense of humiliation felt by the victim, and also limited, as we shall discuss in a moment, the long-term impacts on the perpetrators of the prank.

But this is indeed the age of the Internet. Such events not only will be broadcast and published globally to an extent unimaginable just decades ago, but will also be -- for all practical purposes -- permanently archived.

When anyone searches for the names of those shock jocks in the future, the odds are very high that at or near the top of the results will be their roles in the tragedy of this death. There will be no escape for them, just as there is no way to resurrect the victim.

This is, in fact, as it should be. The death and their involvement are events that are inexorably associated, real and irrevocable, they are very much the stuff of reality.

Reality. It's a critical concept. It's a concept through which these events may also be viewed as an extraordinarily tragic -- but extremely important -- "teachable moment" related to the ill-conceived and dangerous censorship regime of the so-called "Right to be Forgotten" being pushed onward by the EU, despite their own study group calling it technically impossible to effectively implement.

It may seem harsh to some observers that in the future, searches for information about any of the parties impacted by this death will very likely prominently feature links to the associated sites and pages describing these days in detail. It also seems likely that if they could, many of these same parties -- the living ones, that is -- might like to "erase" or somehow de-emphasize these events from Web sites and search engine results.

However, just like attempting to change reality on the Web in any other cases through what amounts to a "right to censor what actually did occur" concept, this would be both wrong and incredibly damaging to our own "right to remember what has actually happened."

For it takes little imagination to visualize the vast numbers of players -- inside and outside governments -- who would joyously grasp the ability to slice pieces of reality off from public discovery or view, very much like Winston Smith's daily task in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Actions have consequences. And the Internet has a very long memory. Those are the realities of the world in which we live. They cannot be wished away. Nor should we desire to treat actual events as if they were merely mutable phantasms or fantasies.

For reality is always important. All too often, and of course not just in the tragic case today, it truly is a matter of life and death.


Posted by Lauren at 07:52 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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