Thinking about machines that think

At the beginning of every year, literary agent, editor and publisher John Brockman asks his network of authors, scientists, and cross-disciplinary thinkers a big question, then publishes the answers at Edge.org. This year’s annual Edge Question was: “What do you think about machines that think?” He solicited answers from a broad range of people including many like myself who are not considered to be professional “artificial intelligence” experts, but who he though might have something interesting and provocative to say. My answer was titled “Electric Brains“, playing off the Chinese translation for computer. I focused on what I think are extensions of some of the questions and issues I addressed in Consent of the Networked. Here is how it begins:

The Chinese word for “computer” translates literally as “electric brain.”

How do electric brains “think” today? As individual machines, still primitively by human standards. Powerfully enough in the collective. Networked devices and all sorts of things with electric brains embedded in them increasingly communicate with one another, share information, reach mutual “understandings” and make decisions. It is already possible for a sequence of data retrieval, analysis, and decision-making, distributed across a “cloud” of machines in various locations to trigger action by a single machine or set of machines in one specific physical place, thereby affecting (or in service of) a given human or group of humans.

Perhaps individual machines may never “think” in a way that resembles individual human consciousness as we understand it. But maybe some day large globally distributed networks of non-human things may achieve some sort of pseudo-Jungian “collective consciousness.” More likely, the collective consciousness of human networks and societies will be enhanced by—and increasingly intertwined with—a different sort of collective consciousness generated by networks of electric brains.

Will this be a good thing or a bad thing?

Click here to read the rest.

The Cluetrain Manifesto’s “new clues”

16 years ago, four visionaries published the Cluetrain Manifesto, featuring a set of 95 theses about how the Internet has changed markets and relationships. The first thesis, “markets are conversations,” has become a mantra. Now two of the authors, David Weinberger and Doc Searls have published a set of new clues topped by a warning: “all the good work we’ve done together faces mortal dangers.”

Their “new clues” are meant to inform and spur a call to action:

We, the People of the Internet, need to remember the glory of its revelation so that we reclaim it now in the name of what it truly is.

The first set of “clues” are listed under the heading, “The Internet is us, connected.” In clue number 3 David and Doc give a shoutout to Consent of the Networked:

Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, and 中国电信 do not own the Internet. Facebook, Google, and Amazon are not the Net’s monarchs, nor yet are their minions or algorithms. Not the governments of the Earth nor their Trade Associations have the consent of the networked to bestride the Net as sovereigns.

Indeed. Which is why I’m so excited about Ranking Digital Rights project, which in late 2015 will release its inaugural ranking of Internet and telecommunications companies on the extent to which they respect users’ freedom of expression and privacy. The full list of companies will not be decided until we complete our pilot study, but it will definitely include at least some of those companies mentioned above.

Financial Times Commentary: Companies need to work harder to keep the internet open

My commentary published last week in the Financial Times begins:

Governments and companies are engaged in a battle to determine who can do what on the internet, and the outcome will reverberate around the world.Google’s troubles in Europe over privacy, antitrust and the “right to be forgotten” are one example of this struggle. Multinational companies’ tussles with the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ over access to user data are another.

At the same time some democracies and companies are working together against a coalition that includes most of the world’s authoritarian regimes in a struggle over how the internet should be governed, by whom, and to what extent states should be able to replicate physical borders in cyberspace. The outcomes of these clashes will affect everybody who uses the internet, determining whether it remains free and open as intended or whether we are left with a cyber space that is “Balkanised” and fragmented.

After explaining to the un-converted why a free and open Internet is important, I continue:

Democracies and multinationals (with Google vocally in the lead) have appointed themselves champions of a “free and open” internet, despite a widening trust deficit with the public exacerbated by the revelations ofEdward Snowden, the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower. They are working with experts and activists from around the world to promote what they call a “multi-stakeholder model” of internet governance and policy making. Here, business and “civil society” groups take a seat at the table on equal terms with governments to make decisions about the future of the internet.

China and Russia lead the camp asserting the sovereignty of governments. Both have made clear that using the internet to organise political opposition is a threat to “national security”. China’s internet is in effect an “intranet” that connects with the global system only at controlled choke points. Iran is working to build a “halal” or “pure” internet. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is moving in a similar direction.

But..

If the “free and open” camp cannot do better to align words and deeds, it will lose. Further damaging revelations will emerge as long as people have reason to suspect their rights to privacy and freedom of expression are being violated.

Democracies and companies that claim to champion a free and open Internet are not doing enough to earn public trust. The piece concludes:

For companies, the first step is to make public commitments to respect users’ rights, then implement those commitments in a transparent, accountable and independently verifiable manner. A grouping of democracies including the US and the UK, known as the Freedom Online Coalition, should implement policies that support a free and open global internet. These encompass greater transparency about surveillance practices, with genuinely “effective domestic oversight”.

Democracies’ pursuit of short-term political interests can contribute to fragmentation. Take Europe’s recent “right to be forgotten” ruling allowing citizens to request sensitive information be omitted from search results. Activists from Egypt to Hong Kong fear copycat steps in their countries will strengthen barriers to global information flows.

If even democracies cannot be trusted as stewards of an open internet, the power of all governments must be kept in check by companies and civil society through processes based in a common commitment to keep cyber space free and interconnected.

But if companies are to win civil society over to their side, activists must be able to trust them not to violate their privacy or restrict speech. Strengthening trust in public and private institutions that shape the internet should be a priority for anyone with an interest – commercial, moral or personal – in keeping global networks open and free.

World Policy Journal: Joining Zone Nine

In the latest issue of the World Policy Journal, I write about the absurd “terrorism” trial of Ethiopia’s “Zone 9″ bloggers and point out that the crackdown in Ethiopia against online speech is part of a disturbing global trend.

Governments are fighting back against the Internet’s empowering, decentralized character. They are upgrading their own institutional, military, and technical power.  They are passing laws criminalizing various forms of online speech and enforcing those laws with police, security, and intelligence forces. Law enforcement and intelligence services of democracies, as well as dictatorships, are pushing their powers of surveillance to the limit. Many governments are also finding new and creative ways to control through their legal and technical powers what people can and especially cannot do on the Internet and with mobile devices.

The piece concludes:

As we think globally, those of us lucky enough to live in democracies must not forget that Internet freedom starts at home. If we cannot figure out how to constrain government and corporate power over digital networks people depend on, prepare to join our Ethiopian friends in Zone 9.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Ranking Digital Rights: Help decide how to rank companies on free expression and privacy

The following post is featured on the London School of Economics “Measuring Business and Human Rights” blog:

Ranking Digital Rights: How can and should ICT sector companies respect Internet users’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy?

Vodafone’s blockbuster Law Enforcement Disclosure report, published last week, reveals greater detail than any telecommunications company has previously shared about the extent and nature of government surveillance demands all over the world.

Vodafone is certainly not alone: the problem is rampant across the entire sector. Norway’s Telenor isunder pressure from Thailand’s new military leaders who just seized power in a coup to help monitor and censor any content that might “lead to unrest.” Human Rights Watch recently questioned the French company, Orange, about its operations in Ethiopia whose government jails bloggers for political critiques.

Censorship is also a serious and growing problem for the ICT sector. On the 25th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, LinkedIn blocked mentions of the tragedy for its users in China. Last month, Twitter came under fire from free speech activists for agreeing to censor several tweets in Pakistan at the government’s request. Earlier this year, The Atlantic reported that “the Syrian opposition is disappearing from Facebook” – and not by choice.

Clearly, the policies and practices of Internet and telecommunications companies have real impact for the free expression and privacy of people around the world. Are they living up to their responsibilities? Are they doing everything they can to respect the rights of their users?

Some companies are trying – to varying degrees, publishing “transparency reports,” signing up for assessment processes through membership the Global Network Initiative, and making joint commitments as part of the Telecom Industry Dialogue. Others are doing little more than public relations window-dressing, while yet others are making little or no discernible effort to respect their users’ digital rights.

Meanwhile, investors have begun to ask questions about the materiality of companies’ policies and practices related to freedom of expression and privacy. One concrete example is the addition of freedom of expression and privacy criteria to recommended SEC reporting standards by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

As Internet users, or as investors who care about social value as well as financial returns, what should we be asking of these companies? How do we benchmark and compare companies’ policies and practices affecting free expression and privacy? What should be considered “best practice” in a world where governments are making unreasonable demands of companies, whose staff risk jail or worse in many cases for non-compliance?

The Ranking Digital Rights project is working on answers to those questions, developing a system rank the world’s most powerful ICT sector companies on free expression and privacy criteria. We have just released a draft methodology on which we are now inviting public comment until July 7th. After further revision followed by a pilot study, we aim to start ranking up to 50 Internet and telecommunications companies in 2015. (We will add up to 50 more device, software, and equipment companies in 2016.)

The project is modeled after other efforts by investors, universities, NGOs and international organizations that measure companies on other human rights, social responsibility and sustainability criteria – from conflict minerals to labor practices to carbon disclosure. Many rankings efforts such as the Access to Medicines Index and the Corporate Equality Index have had real impact on corporate practices.

Thus we believe that if the methodology is well constructed, a ranking focused on the policies and practices of ICT sector companies affecting free expression and privacy can have a substantial, measurable impact on the extent to which companies respect and protect Internet users’ rights.

The current draft methodology is the product of more than a year’s worth of research and stakeholder consultation. The first step came with a stakeholder consultation in the Fall of 2012 to ascertain whether there was sufficient interest among investors, advocates, and technologists to proceed with the project. After some initial funds had been secured and partnerships forged, an April 2013 workshop at the University of Pennsylvania brought together a group of researchers from around the world, technologists, experts in business and human rights, and experts on rankings. Out of that meeting came a set of draft criteria in the summer of 2013: an initial list of questions that stakeholders believe are relevant to understanding how and whether Internet and telecommunications companies are making genuine efforts to respect Internet users’ freedom of expression and privacy. We then used the draft criteria as the basis for a set of case studies examining companies in the United States, Europe, Brazil, India, China, and Russia. The results of the case study in turn enabled us to make key decisions about the methodology’s scope and focus, and to publish a first draft in February. We then carried out another round of consultations with companies, investors, technologists, experts on business and human rights, and experts on rankings. After absorbing their feedback and carrying out further research, we were able to publish Version 2 of the draft methodology late last month.

Public consultation on the current draft runs through July 7th, after which we will make another round of revisions and produce Version 3. That version will be used as a basis for a pilot study focusing on up to 10 of 50 companies we are likely to rank in 2015. This pilot study will enable us to improve the methodology and make final decisions about scoring and weighting for the full ranking to be implemented in 2015. It will also enable us to identify adoption and advocacy strategies for investors and civil society, so that we can ensure that the ranking is produced in a manner that is as useful to these stakeholder groups as possible.

But first, in order to make sure that our methodology is as solid and credible as possible, it is important that we get feedback on our latest draft from experts on digital privacy and freedom of expression, anybody who might want to use our data when it comes out, as well as companies who may be candidates for ranking.

If you think you might be one of those people – or if you just care about these issues and want to weigh in – please click here, read the methodology, and help us improve it.

Where is Microsoft Bing’s transparency report?

On Friday The Guardian published an opinion piece I wrote on a tricky  issue related to Chinese Internet censorship and the role of multinational companies.  It begins:

Microsoft was accused this week of extending the Chinese government’sinternet censorship regime to the rest of the world through its Bingsearch engine. I don’t believe that Microsoft intended to do that, but the company is by no means off the hook.

After conducting my own research, running my own tests, and drawing upon nearly a decade of experience studying Chinese internet censorship, I have concluded that what several activists and journalists have described as censorship on Bing is actually what one might call “second hand censorship”. Basically, Microsoft failed to consider the consequences of blindly applying apolitical mathematical algorithms to politically manipulated and censored web content.

Click here to read the rest.

Playing favorites across a bordered Internet

Earlier this month Guernica magazine published the first article I’ve found time to write in over a year. (The Ranking Digital Rights project and related work has been keeping me incredibly busy.) It’s about Internet companies as gatekeepers across an Internet on which national borders are more powerful than many people (especially in the West) realize. It begins with a description of the video above:

Last November, volunteers with a group called Pakistan for All filmed a man wandering the streets of Karachi wearing a cloth-covered cardboard box over his torso. The box was painted on four sides with YouTube logos, a silver TV antenna affixed to the top. He held a hand-painted sign: “Hug me if you want me back.”

Using The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” as a soundtrack, filmmaker Ziad Zafar created a short and cheeky video featuring men, women, and children hugging the YouTube mascot in locations around Karachi. “God, please let them open YouTube,” one young man said to the camera. Another complained that his personal channel was now inaccessible: “I used to have so many videos.”

After explaining why YouTube is blocked in Pakistan I continue:

Public frustration over YouTube censorship in Pakistan is just one of many points of worldwide friction between old and new information sovereignties: sovereign nation-states versus globally networked commercial “sovereigns” of cyberspace. These commercial sovereigns like YouTube’s parent company, Google, are the new arbiters—sometimes censors, sometimes champions—of a large and growing percentage of citizen speech all over the world.

To find out how and what it all means click here to read the full article.

Ranking companies on whether and how they respect your digital rights

Recent revelations about NSA surveillance and the demands placed on U.S. Internet and telecommunications companies have certainly highlighted a central theme of this book: How communications technology companies can serve as an opaque extension of state power if the public is not vigilant in holding both governments and companies accountable for how they collect and share our personal information.

For the past eight months I have been working on addressing a specific part of this problem in a very concrete way. I have published no articles and written few blog posts this year because I have been spending all my time launching a new start-up research and advocacy project called Ranking Digital Rights. Here is our mission statement from the project website:

Internet and telecommunications companies, along with mobile device and networking equipment manufacturers, exert growing influence over the political and civil lives of people all over the world. These companies share a responsibility to respect human rights.  The Ranking Digital Rights project brings together a group of international researchers and advocates. We are developing a methodology to evaluate and rank the world’s major Information and Communication Technology (ICT) companies on policies and practices related to free expression and privacy in the context of international human rights law.

Our work aims to a) inform companies, individual users, civil society, academics, investors, governments, and the public about the relationship between the ICT sector and human rights; b) encourage companies to develop, deliver and manage products and services in a manner consistent with international human rights norms; c) identify what specific legal and political factors prevent or hinder companies from respecting users’ and customers’ human rights.

For more detailed information please see the About page,Work Plan and Timeline, and other Project Documents. You can also go to the front page and subscribe to updates about the project’s progress.

Freedom Online Conference: Keynote Speech on Surveillance

Remarks at the opening ceremony of the Freedom Online Conference

Tunis, Tunisia. June 17, 2013.

(As written prior to delivery,  UPDATED ROUGHLY AS DELIVERED, relevant hyperlinks added.)

Thank you so much Moez.

It is a real honor to be invited as the only non-governmental speaker at this opening ceremony – and the only woman!

Congratulations to the Tunisian government organizers and to you Moez, for all you have done to make this conference possible, and thank you also Moez for all the important work you have done for the new Tunisia – and for the global Internet community.

Congratulations also to the people of Tunisia.

Those of you who have connected to the wireless Internet in this room will notice that in addition to the Sheraton wifi signal there is another signal, “openwireless.org.” That signal is generated by a group of hackers and activists from a room called the #404lab – in reference to the 404 browser error associated with censorship under the old regime. In fact, that lab is in a building that was once a private home of the dictator Ben Ali.

Speaking here today is especially meaningful for be because the first time I came to Tunis was in 2005 – for the United Nations World Summit for the Information Society. The Internet was censored. Tunisian civil society groups critical of the previous government were kept far away from the conference hall.

I came because I was invited to moderate a panel sponsored by the Dutch organization, Hivos, on the theme of  “Expression under repression.”  Our panel was almost canceled. Some of the people in charge at the time said the subject matter was unrelated to the designated theme of the conference’s NGO forum: “ICT for Development.”

We were able to proceed only after a diplomatic intervention by the Netherlands. Bloggers form China, Iran, Malaysia, and Zimbabwe spoke about the challenges and threats faced by citizen media in their countries. Then a member of the audience stood up and criticized our motives: Our topic, freedom of speech, was not relevant she said to developing countries.

Governments, she said, must first solve the problems of feeding, clothing, and housing before addressing other demands. I asked the panelists to respond to her critique. Taurai Maduna of Zimbawe immediately said: “Without freedom of speech, I can’t talk about who is stealing my food.”

The people of Tunisia have made it very clear that they agree.

Tunisia – like any new democracy – is now struggling to figure out how to balance all kinds of conflicting economic, social, cultural, and religious interests. It is inevitable that there will be never-ending tensions between the government’s duty to protect national security and fight crime, and the imperative of protecting civil liberties and human rights.

The world’s oldest modern democracies continue to struggle with that tension. The Internet has extended that tension into a new, more challenging and often confusing dimension. In fact my own country the United States is now facing something of a crisis over how to balance the government’s national security responsibilities with respect for fundamental – universal – human rights.

For those of you on Twitter, you may have noticed that one of the participants pledged to have a drink every time the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance program, PRISM, is mentioned in the plenary. So: prism, prism prism, prism, prism. Now if you see somebody stumbling around the corridors you’ll know who that person is.

The responsibility of a government to protect human rights relates not only to its own citizens but to people everywhere in the world who are using the Internet services that are based in or pass through its jurisdiction.

The governments that joined the Freedom Online Coalition deserve the world’s praise in taking two vital steps: recognizing that human rights extend to the Internet; and making a shared commitment to preserving and nurturing a free and open, globally interconnected Internet.

But without a third step that effort will fail. We are not going to have a free and open global Internet if citizens of democracies continue to allow their governments to get away with pervasive surveillance that lacks sufficient transparency and public accountability – mechanisms to prevent its abuse against all Internet users wherever they are connecting from.

Nobody will have good reason to trust any networks or platforms run by foreign organizations or companies – or trust any service whose communications traffic might cross through any jurisdiction whose government is not committed to being accountable and honest about its surveillance practices.

The Internet’s balkanization is inevitable unless and until we make a shared commitment to mechanisms, norms and standards that will hold government surveillance – and corporate business practices including compliance with surveillance demands – appropriately accountable to universal human rights standards.

A minister from one of the Freedom Online Coalition countries recently remarked on a conference panel that surveillance is not an obstacle to Internet freedom because it is discrete. That’s like saying execution by lethal injection is humane because it is painless.

Certainly, there is a real difference between countries where public debate about surveillance is made impossible by censorship and repression – facilitated of course by surveillance – and countries where it is in fact politically and legally possible for journalists and bloggers to report on government abuses, or write commentaries criticizing their leaders, in response to revelations about the abuse and over-extension of government surveillance powers.

But human history is a story of how un-checked power has always been abused, whatever good intentions those in power may hold at the beginning.

If surveillance is so discrete that there is no meaningful way to hold the abusers accountable, then democracy will be degraded and corroded.

The breakdown of democracy under pervasive unaccountable surveillance will happen subtly and gradually – unobtrusively – like a frog in a pot with the temperature rising so slowly the frog doesn’t notice until he’s nearly cooked.

Meanwhile governments of all kinds of political systems all over the world will point to the widespread deployment of unobtrusive and pervasive surveillance by the developed democracies to justify their own surveillance states as so-called “standard international practice.” Thus making it harder for citizens to use the Internet to expose government officials who may be stealing their food without being caught and punished immediately.

A recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue could not have come too soon. In it he presented examples from all over the world of exactly how pervasive and unaccountable surveillance threatens freedom of expression – and how this reality holds true for democracies and dictatorships alike.

He made several recommendations that will require effort but should be achievable. They include:

  • Updating and strengthening laws and legal standards to ensure that surveillance is conducted only in a manner that is publicly accountable.
  • Allowing and facilitating private, secure and anonymous communications.
  • Regulating the commercialization of surveillance technology.
  • Educating the public on the facts and implications of surveillance.
  • And making sure that international human rights mechanisms and frameworks are up to the task of identifying and constraining abuses by private and public entities alike.

Given the globally interconnected nature of the Internet it will not be enough if one or two enlightened democracies stand up and implement these recommendations while everyone else carries on as they presently do.

It is equally vital that the companies on whose platforms and services we depend – for practically everything in our lives these days – commit to technical and design standards, as well as business practices, that are consistent with universal human rights principles and standards.

Here in Tunis, the governments of the Freedom Online Coalition, civil society and private sector companies should commit to a multi-stakeholder process, working with civil society and the private sector, to determine how Mr. La Rue’s sensible recommendations can be implemented, along with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other related principles like the Global Network Initiative‘s principles for the ICT sector on free expression and privacy. These must be implemented across the Freedom Online Coalition community and beyond. Here in Tunis we should come up with a plan and timetable for doing so.

That process will not be easy. It will make the efforts we have made thus far on behalf of a free and open Internet look like a walk in the park compared to the mountain we must now climb.

But we must start immediately. Winter is coming.

The window of opportunity to salvage our shared vision of a free and open Internet is closing fast. Our way forward could soon be blocked – unless we get moving. Right now.

May the force be with you – always.

[Note: Some of the most iconic Star Wars scenes for many of the movies were shot in Tunisia, and the Dutch foreign minister’s speech at the beginning of the opening ceremony contained multiple Star Wars references.]

Afterword to the Paperback Edition: Confronting surveillance

The paperback edition of Consent of the Networked came out in late April. I wrote the Afterword last December. It begins:

I ended Consent of the Networked with a call for action, and in 2012 netizens around the world proved they are willing to act, as demonstrated by the movement’s recent successes. But while we have gained momentum, we face continuing challenges in the pursuit of digital liberty that will not easily be overcome.

The most difficult challenges, I argued, are posed by the already well-entrenched, pervasive, unaccountable surveillance in the United States and other democracies. That argument has been vindicated, unfortunately, by recent news about the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.

Writing in December I concluded:

Citizens of democracies, companies that understand that they can build long-term global value for their brand by earning trust with their users, and politicians who understand the need to protect and strengthen the digital commons (even if mainly out of self-interest) must unite to demand a national and global reconsideration of already deeply entrenched surveillance laws, technologies, and corporate practices. There needs to be a more robust public debate about the facts of digital surveillance in democracies, the implications for accountable governance and social justice—and what can be done now that the surveillance state has already been allowed to reach too far, too fast. That debate requires data and information that companies as well as democratic governments have so far been reluctant to share. Companies claiming to support a free and open Internet and that benefit from the existence of a robust global digital commons are doing the commons no favors unless and until they agree to publish systematic and useable information about their relationships with governments.

Furthermore, governments that want their citizens to believe that their support for global Internet freedom and citizens’ digital rights is genuine—and not shallow political rhetoric—must make sure that laws are not preventing companies from releasing such information. All governments that intend to keep calling themselves “democratic” with a straight face should publish their own transparency reports so that engaged citizens can see enough of the whole picture that they can grant or withdraw consent for, or divest from, the surveillance systems and procedures governments and companies have built. Until these things happen, Western democracies and Western companies will remain net exporters of surveillance technologies, legal norms, and business practices that facilitate political abuse of surveillance powers by repressive regimes—and that will ultimately corrode existing democracies.

Getting governments and companies to do these things will make the fights against ACTA, SOPA, and ITU Internet incursion look trivial in comparison. The global movement for digital liberty spread its wings and took flight in 2012, but the real tests of its strength and agility have yet to come.

The whole chapter is available online here.

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