Ranking Digital Rights and new TED talk

This blog has not been updated since April 2105, mainly due to the fact that I’ve been so busy with my main job running Ranking Digital Rights (RDR). (I also got married!!)

I’ve decided to revive this blog as a platform on which to share work I continue to do that goes beyond RDR’s scope and which might not be appropriate to share on the project website.

In brief, the main things I’ve done since I last wrote on this blog was to launch the Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index in November 2015.  After some funding uncertainty in early 2016 we managed to secure the support to launch a new research cycle for the next Index scheduled for release in March 2017, and to continue the project for at least a couple more years.  If you’d like to learn much more about the Index and its result check out the video and summary of the Index launch. You can also download the full report and related materials here. To get a sense of the impact we’ve been having on companies in collaboration with advocacy partners, read this. Watch the project website for more updates on our research and related activities.

The other major thing I’ve done since this blog went dormant was to give another TED talk at the TEDSummit in Banff, Canada this past June. It’s about why the protection of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press is essential if we are going to succeed in fighting terrorism.Earlier in 2016 I wrote a piece for CNN.com and spoke at South By Southwest Interactive on the same theme. A CSMonitor piece about it is here and a video is here.

 

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.

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.

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.

Index on Censorship: Don’t Feed the Trolls

In September, an anti-Muslim video demonstrated how politics of fear can dominate the online environment. In an essay that I co-wrote with my dear friend and former colleague Ethan Zuckerman for the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine, we argue that concerted action must be taken to dis-empower and discredit those in the global information and media ecosystem who profit from fear and hate. Here is how the piece begins:

In September 2012, the trailer for the film The Innocence of Muslims shot to infamy after spending the summer as a mercifully obscure video in one of YouTube’s more putrid backwaters.

Since then, there has been much handwringing amongst American intellectual, journalistic, and political elites over whether the US Constitution’s First Amendment protections of freedom of expression should protect this sort of incendiary speech, or whether Google, YouTube’s parent company, acted irresponsibly and endangered national security by failing to remove or restrict the video before provocateurs across the Islamic world could use it as an excuse to riot and even kill.

Supporters of internet censorship argue that posting The Innocence of Muslims online is the equivalent of yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. The analogy is not entirely off-base – the director of the video hoped to provoke violent reactions to his work. But we make a mistake if we focus on the man yelling fire and not on the crowded theatre.

The Innocence of Muslims was successful in sparking violence not because it was a particularly skillful – or even especially offensive – piece of filmmaking. Instead, it had a dramatic impact because it was useful to a small group who benefitted from a violent response, and because it exploited the ugly tendency of media outlets to favour simple narratives about violence and rage over more complex ones.

Increasing censorship in the name of fighting hate speech will do nothing to address the broader environment in which hate is incubated and nurtured.

Even if the US had a more narrow interpretation of the First Amendment, or if YouTube and other internet companies had more expansive definitions of ‘hate speech’, combined with more aggressive censorship practices, that would not have solved the more deep-seated problems which made it so easy for people – most of whom had never even seen the video – to riot outside the US embassy in Cairo. And any number of offensive videos or web pages could have served the authors of violence as a convenient flashpoint.

The danger of increased control of online speech is that we will not guarantee the elimination of flashpoints of violence, but we will almost surely make it a more difficult environment for those who use the internet to reduce hate and increase understanding. But if the argument for free speech is to be won, we must make more concerted and deliberate efforts to strengthen the world’s immunity against the virus of hate – both on social media and in the mainstream media.

Click here to read the rest.

Mediapolicy.org: China’s Digital Evolution

(This blog post was originally published at the Open Society Foundation’s Mediapolicy.org)

The Chinese Communist Party may have completed its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, but the future of media in China remains as unclear as the rest of China’s political and economic future.

Since Xi Jinping was anointed as China’s top leader last week, a close reading of the freshly-brewed political tea leaves favors gradual, messy evolution over any sudden Internet-led revolution. Those who prefer to read research reports instead of tea leaves will draw similar conclusions after reading OSF’s recently-published Mapping Digital Media China report – even though it was completed well before the leadership transition. According to the report’s authors, the emergence over the past decade of a “vibrant online civil society” in China provides grounds for optimism in the long run. Yet this vibrant online world will continue to coexist with a “sophisticated party-state propaganda and control system” whose grip on broadcast media, licensing of digital services, spectrum allocation, and professional news content production shows few signs of loosening.

Indeed, analysis of last week’s 18th Communist Party Conference indicates an intention to maintain as firm a grip as possible. In a thorough examination of the of the new CCP Standing Committee, Cheng Li, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, pointed out that key liberals in the Politburo, particularly Li Yuanchao who is known to support liberal intellectual demands for rule of law and greater government accountability, were not promoted to the Standing Committee as expected. Cheng concludes that “China’s much-needed political reform may be delayed.” And without political reform, meaningful media reform is unlikely.

Chinese proponents of free expression and media reform are also disheartened by the elevation of Liu Yunshan, head of the propaganda department, known as a faithful enforcer of party discipline on the media. His efforts to bring the Internet to heel have included a licensing system for online service providers and a requirement that microbloggers register their accounts with their real names and ID numbers. As dissident writer and former journalist Dai Qing recently lamented to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper: “Liu’s appointment has reduced our hopes that citizens will be allowed to monitor their government and spread information freely over the next decade.”

Yet online social media – particularly the home-grown microblogging services known in Chinese as “weibo” – are nonetheless forcing more transparency and accountability upon Chinese bureaucrats and news media. Despite strict controls on news media coverage of the party congress, combined with elaborate attempts by social media companies to block the most edgy words and phrases from their services, netizens nonetheless managed to analyze and criticize the proceedings on Sina Weibo, the most popular of China’s Twitter-like social media platforms. Government offices at all levels now recognize the need to engage with the public on weibo: According to the state-run Xinhua News Agency there were over 51,000 government micro-blog accounts by the end of September.

The authors of the MDM China report place these developments in a broader, more sobering media context. They cite government survey data indicating that roughly 30 percent of the internet-using population – about 10 percent of the nation’s total population – actively participate in online discussions or post their own opinions and observations online. The report also reminds us that the majority of Chinese people have yet to use the internet at all: “the internet is still beyond the reach of 800 million Chinese who rely almost exclusively on television for their information and entertainment, in particular the mammoth state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).”

China’s news organizations – particularly the more commercially-oriented ones serving local and regional markets – like news organizations everywhere, are working hard to innovate through creative use of digital technologies. However their ability to conduct independent investigative journalism, and actually publish or broadcast these investigations in their newspapers or on television, is severely constrained by strong party and government controls. Individual journalists have been able to use blogs and microblogs as an alternative distribution channel for some news and information, though the result is that news organizations do not directly benefit from their staff’s most cutting-edge investigative talents. Meanwhile, websites that are not part of government-approved news organizations are not allowed to conduct original news reporting – although online media companies are constantly seeking ways to subtly get around the strict rules about who can report news under what circumstances, particularly on local stories.

When it comes to television – which remains the most important and powerful form of media for the majority of Chinese – the government naturally controls the switchover process from analog signal to digital. It also controls which companies are allowed to participate in the provision of bundled internet, voice, and digital TV services – as well as who is allowed to create what sorts of content disseminated through these services. The same of course goes for mobile services of all kinds. When it comes to allocation of spectrum, politics “plays a decisive role in spectrum allocation policies.” There is no notion of “public service media” independent of party and state which “view themselves as the overseers of the public interest.” Yet there is no process by which the bureaucracy – often a patchwork of different agencies and departments – determines the broader public interest as they go about creating and enforcing rules and regulations.

The report makes a number of recommendations:

  • Media literacy. With “hundreds of millions of people with little knowledge or understanding of how the media are used and how they might use the media,” greater media literacy education for all ages would “help educate people to participate in public life so that the opportunities which digitization brings can be more widely enjoyed.”
  • Relaxation of government and party controls on media. This would make it more possible for journalists to carry out independent, investigative journalism that would hold authorities accountable to the public interest.
  • Constrain local government abuse of power over media. The central government should take “measures to end the pattern of violent retribution, harassment and victimization meted out to journalists or whistleblowers by local offcials angered by critical media coverage.”
  • Passage of a press law. This would be consistent with existing national policy of governance based on rule of law. A specific press law “can help prohibit administrative control and interference in the media.”
  • Official tolerance and support for press freedom organizations. Such organizations would “defend press freedom and the independence of media from the government and help address a crisis of ethics in the profession.”
  • Independent public service media. A “non-commercial, non-profit, public radio and television system” would help to “guarantee the dissemination of education, science, health, and other content to feed an information-hungry populace.”
  • Better coordination and stakeholder collaboration on the digital switch-over process. There is currently no clear process for mediating different bureaucratic, economic, commercial, and public interests. The report argues that “there should be the means for collaboration between industry players, especially broadcasting companies and mobile operators. Close collaboration between the principal stakeholders— the government, regulators, broadcasters, transmission providers, receiver manufacturers and retailers, and consumer representatives—is essential.”

The results of this month’s leadership transition provide little reason to expect that these things will happen in the near or even medium term. In the long run, however, the report’s authors remain hopeful. The internet, they write, “cannot change China’s political life in a dramatic way. It can, however, enhance the existing social capital, so that social forces that are operating independently of the state can have a chance to grow and prosper.”