My response to the “Netgain” challenge

Sounds like some kind of weight gain program, doesn’t it?

Actually, “Netgain” is a consortium of several philanthropic foundations hoping to support good work that will make the Internet open, free, compatible with social justice and democracy. They describe their purpose as follows:

The Internet has transformed how we connect and engage with the world around us, creating challenges and opportunities in every area of contemporary life. It can be used to foster enlightenment and learning, and to promote justice. It can also be used to exert control, stifle legitimate discourse, and concentrate power in the hands of a few. The web’s ubiquitous nature and power demands that we work together to ensure that it serves the common good.

The Knight, MacArthur, Open Society, Mozilla, and Ford Foundations have come together with leaders from government, philanthropy, business, and the tech world to launch an ambitious new partnership to spark the next generation of innovation for social change and progress.

They’re asking people to “submit your ideas using the form below and help us focus on the most significant challenges at the intersection of the Internet and philanthropy.”

Here’s mine:

The forces of repression have evolved to survive and thrive in a networked world. Philanthropy’s response must similarly evolve to meet the threat. Today, Internet-empowered civil society is under fierce attack on all continents. Those who control the means of physical violence have grown skillful at counter-manipulation of technology, law, and media. Democracies are not immune. In pursuit of security and self-interest, citizens and consumers unwittingly consent to their own repression. Politicians seek quick fixes to win elections. Companies rushing to meet market demand can be blind to collateral damage on legal and technical architectures that keep information systems – and by extension social and political systems – open and accountable. Let’s map out where abuses of power are occurring within the world’s information ecosystems. Pinpoint where accountability mechanisms fail and where they are completely absent. Then put together a strategy to hold power accountable in the Internet age.

You can submit yours here.

How not to kill the Internet when fighting terror

Yesterday I testified at a hearing titled The Evolution of Terrorist Propaganda: The Paris Attack and Social Media convened by the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. I am not a counter-terrorism expert but I do have a few things to say about how not to destroy Internet users’ right to freedom of expression and privacy. Below is my five-minute oral testimony as delivered, with links added. A pdf of my more detailed written testimony, along testimony of all other speakers can be found here. Video is here.

How do we fight terrorism and violent extremism in the Internet age while not undermining the core principles and freedoms of democratic and open societies?

Terrorists are not the only people who are using social media powerfully and effectively. Yesterday I returned from the Philippines where I participated in a conference of bloggers, activists, and citizen journalists from all over the world. People who believe in freedom of expression, the open Internet, and multicultural tolerance. Many people connected to this community face serious threats of censorship and imprisonment when they write about subjects or advocate policy positions that their governments find threatening. In countries like Ethiopia, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, China and elsewhere some have even been charged under broad anti-terror laws that are habitually used as tools to keep incumbent regimes in power.

In response to the tragic massacre in Paris, the French government has called for UN member states to work together on an international legal framework that would place greater responsibility on social networks and other Internet platforms for terrorist use of their services. In addressing the problem of terrorist use of social networking platforms, the United States should adhere to the following principles:

First, multi-stakeholder policymaking. The US opposes UN control over Internet governance because many UN member states advocate policies that would make the Internet much less free and open. Instead the US supports a multi-stakeholder approach that includes industry, civil society, and the technical community alongside governments in setting policies and technical standards that ensure that the Internet functions globally. In constructing global responses to terrorist use of the Internet we need a multi-stakeholder approach for the same reasons.

Second, any national level laws, regulations, or policies aimed at regulating or policing online activities should undergo a human rights risk assessment process to identify potential negative repercussions for freedom of expression, assembly and privacy. Governments need to be transparent with the public about the nature and volume of requests being made to companies. Companies need to be able to uphold core principles of freedom of expression and privacy, grounded in international human rights standards. Several major US-based Internet companies have made commitments to uphold these rights as members of the multi-stakeholder Global Network Initiative. Guidelines for implementing these commitments include: narrowly interpreting government demands to restrict content or grant access to user data or communications; challenging government requests that lack a clear user basis; transparency with users about the types of government requests received and the extent to which the company complies; restricting compliance to the online domains over which the requesting government actually has jurisdiction.

Third, liability for Internet intermediaries including social networks for users’ behavior must be kept limited. Research conducted around the world by human rights experts and legal scholars shows clear evidence that when companies are held liable for users’ speech and activity, violations of free expression and privacy can be expected to occur. Limited liability for Internet companies is an important prerequisite for keeping the Internet open and free.

Fourth, development and enforcement of companies’ Terms of Service and other forms of private policing must also undergo human rights risk assessments. Any new procedures developed by companies to eliminate terrorist activity from their platforms must be accompanied by engagement with key affected stakeholders and at-risk groups.

Fifth, in order to prevent abuse and maintain public support for the measures taken, governments as well as companies must provide effective, accessible channels for grievance and remedy for people whose rights to free expression, assembly, and privacy have been violated. Thank you for listening and I look forward to your questions.

The above recommendations were informed by my years of work on Internet free expression and privacy issues, the Global Network Initiative’s principles and implementation guidelines, standards for Internet and other ICT sector companies currently under development by the Ranking Digital Rights project, and a new report published by UNESCO titled Fostering Freedom Online: The Role of Internet Intermediaries.

In the Q&A session, in response to a question about why companies don’t do a better job of working with the government and others to take down terrorist speech, I tried to remind the committee that we have a bit of a trust deficit between Silicon Valley and the national security community these days. In the wake of Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations, U.S. companies are already under fire for how NSA has used them for surveillance. The lack of trust, accountability and transparency about the relationship between Internet companies and the US government is a barrier to constructive dialogue. If I’d had more time to comment, I would have suggested that an overhaul of this country’s surveillance laws might be a good place to start in building trust between companies, government, and Internet users. Calling for back doors and opposing encryption doesn’t help either.

Here is the full video:

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.

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