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.

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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.

Netizen Report: Blackout Edition

This week’s Netizen Report on Global Voices Advocacy begins in Russia:

This week’s Netizen Report continues our coverage of the Russian government’s censorship of the Russian Internet (Ru Net), which could escalate to include a draft bill that would create a blacklist for websites dedicated to pornography, drugs, or extremist activity. Global Voices reported on Tuesday 10 July that this censorship effort could resemble the Great Firewall of China, and would require a website owner to delete content deemed controversial within 24 hours or risk being shut down. Wikipedia’s Russian website went dark on Tuesday in protest, mimicking a prior website blackout that helped galvanize criticism of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States. The Russian blackout coincided with a debate on the bill in the Russian parliament on Tuesday. More posts on this issue can be found at Global Voices’ RuNet Echo, a project that aims to expand and deepen understanding of the Russian language Internet and related online communities.

Click here to read the rest of our global roundup on the struggle for freedom and control of the Internet.

Foreign Policy: The War for India’s Internet

Protests against Internet censorship are taking place this weekend in several cities across India. People are already posting photos and updates to Twitter. Follow the #opindia hashtag keep abreast of latest developments.

On Wednesday Foreign Policy published my latest commentary on The War for India’s Internet. Why does this war matter for the rest of the world? I explain:

Escalating political and legal battles over Internet regulation in India are the latest front in a global struggle for online freedom — not only in countries like China and Iran where the Internet is heavily censored and monitored by autocratic regimes, but also in democracies where the political motivations for control are much more complicated. Democratically elected governments all over the world are failing to find the right balance between demands from constituents to fight crime, control hate speech, keep children safe, and protect intellectual property, and their duty to ensure and respect all citizens’ rights to free expression and privacy. Popular online movements — many of them globally interconnected — are arising in response to these failures.

Only about 10 percent of India’s population uses the web, making it unlikely that Internet freedom will be a decisive ballot-box issue anytime soon. Yet activists are determined to punish New Delhi’s “humorless babus,” as one columnist recently called India’s censorious politicians and bureaucrats, in the country’s media. Grassroots organizers are bringing a new generation of white-collar protesters to the streets to defend the right to use a technology that remains alien to the majority of India’s people.

Click here to read the full piece.

Foreign Policy: Google Confronts the Great Firewall of China

Last week I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy analyzing Google’s decision to roll out a new feature warning Chinese Internet users if they type a search term that could trigger censorship by the government’s network-level “Great Firewall.” In a nutshell:

For the first time, Google is making it crystal clear to Chinese Internet users that their frequent connection problems while using its search engine are caused by the Chinese government, not by its own systems. According to Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president for knowledge, the purpose of this feature is to “improve the search experience in mainland China.” Users are given the option to “refine their searches without the problem keywords” in order to “avoid connection problems.” What Google executives won’t discuss — at least publicly — is the obvious fact that they are exposing the Chinese government’s censorship tactics in an unprecedented way.

Read the whole piece here.

Meanwhile, in the week since it was published there have been some developments and reactions worth noting. Google has declined to publish a list of all the characters and phrases it has found likely to trigger censorship. But that did not stop different groups from reverse-engineering the list. It is now available on greatfire.org (explanation in English) and atgfw.org (explanation in Chinese).  It also didn’t take long for the engineers working on the Great Firewall to ramp up the arms race by another notch, blocking Google’s nifty pop-up alerts warning users about censored terms. Here is how the anonymous team at greatfire.org, a website that tracks Chinese Internet censorship from within China, reported on the situation:

Within a day, they disabled the new Google feature by blocking the javascript filethat contains the code altogether. This of course makes us wonder what Google’s next move will be. It would be very easy to rename the file or to embed it on the html page making it more difficult to selectively block features.

Going forward, there is much more that Google can do. Rather than just informing users that a search query has been censored, they could offer ways to get around it. The most obvious one would be to redirect users (automatically or manually) to the encrypted version of Google which is still not blocked in China (https://www.google.com.hk).

The fact that this functionality was rolled out, and not just on Google Hong Kong but actually any Google search engine that is accessed from China, shows that Google is actively working on ways to get around censorship in China.

Independent Beijing-based technology researcher Dave Lyons, who I interviewed for my piece, has a more cynical take about Google and its motivations over at the rectified.name blog:

While many people in China know that Google doesn’t always work because of government blocking, I’d bet that the vast majority of Internet users don’t know, or care for that matter, because if you’re planning a vacation to [丽江] [LiJiang, in Yunnan Province] where you want to stay in a [锦江之星] [MianJiang ZhiXing, the name of a hotel] which search engine are you going to use? The one that says: “Sorry, can’t use those words” or are you instead going to use one of those nice search engines that just deletes any politically sensitive search results and serves up those travel links? So while Google describes the move as “improving our user experience from mainland China,” from a user perspective this doesn’t really change anything unless you’re a political dissident trying to find the latest banned words, like a broken soda machine that always gives you Fresca no matter what button you push now has sign saying “In need of service: all buttons serve Fresca.”

Chinese internet users truly committed to seeking banned or sensitive information for the most part already have circumvention tools, and will use the regular Google.com like they did before, so this doesn’t really help them much unless they want vague confirmation from Google that a term is blocked. And this isn’t likely to earn Google any new friends in the Chinese government, which it already sees as in cahoots with the US State Department. If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools, but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but in the halls of Internet governance organizations like the ITU and global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech. Good luck with that.

Foreign Policy: The Rise of Europe’s Private Internet Police

This week in Foreign Policy I examine the debate in Europe over whether and how private Internet companies should be expected to police people’s activities on the Internet. An excerpt:

European governments may not have intended to create a “privatized police state,” but that is what digital rights activists in Europe warn is happening, due to growing government pressure on companies to police themselves. As Joe McNamee, director of the Brussels-based nonprofit European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRI), puts it, “We are sleepwalking further and further along a road on which we’ve decided that our right to communication and privacy shall be put in the hands of arbitrary decisions of private companies.”

Read the whole commentary here.

Foreign Policy: The Shawshank Prevention

In Chapter 3 of my book I described how Internet censorship works in China. Foreign social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and many Google services are blocked by the “Great Firewall” of China, so most Chinese Internet users spend their time on social media services run by Chinese companies which are required to carry out heavy political censorship. Most recently, the name of the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng  has been censored on the Chinese social media platform Weibo – and so was the name of the Hollywood movie Shawshank Redemption. Why? Because once it became impossible to mention Chen’s name directly, Chinese netizens used the movie about a prison break to allude to Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest.

In Chapter 12 I described the political fights in Washington that came to a head in 2010 and 2011 over  the State Department’s “Internet freedom” policy and, specifically, which projects should receive U.S. government funding to build tools that help people in China and elsewhere circumvent Internet censorship.  My latest article published Wednesday on ForeignPolicy.com gives an update on how circumvention tools are used in China. I conclude:

Whether or not the U.S. government funds circumvention tools, or who exactly it funds and with what amount, it is clear that Internet users in China and elsewhere are seeking out and creating their own ad hoc solutions to access the uncensored global Internet. In China today, thanks to the government’s success in nurturing a domestic commercial walled garden, circumvention technology has not been a direct driver of political change. Yet circumvention tools of various kinds have provided a lifeline for a small core of tech-savvy liberals who are becoming more active online as political uncertainty grows. Meanwhile, the recent political uncertainty is driving new demand for circumvention technology, which could make it just that much more difficult than in the past for the government to control what the Chinese public learns — or believes — about Chen Guangchen and this week’s delicate diplomatic dance between Washington and Beijing.

Read the whole thing here.

The Not-So-Great Firewall of China

My latest piece in Foreign Policy discusses social media as a battlefield for public opinion in China. An excerpt:

China’s censorship and propaganda systems may be complex and multilayered, but they are obviously not well coordinated. Writing in the Guardian this week, dissident artist Ai Weiwei declared that while China’s Internet censorship system may be the envy of autocrats worldwide, China’s leaders need to understand that in the long run “it’s not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off.” He was half right: While the Chinese government’s tactics may be ham-handed and likely doomed to failure in the long run, they are working well enough to keep the Communist Party in power for the short to medium term.

You can read the whole thing here.

Fighting the Great Firewall of Pakistan

Foreign Policy has published my latest contribution, Fighting the Great Firewall of Pakistan, featuring an interview with Sana Saleem, Global Voices contributor and founder of the Karachi-based social justice organization, Bolo Bhi. Here is how the article begins:

It takes a strong stomach and a thick skin to be a female activist fighting online censorship in Pakistan. Sana Saleem has both.

The 24-year-old founder of a Karachi-based free expression group Bolo Bhi has been accused of supporting “blasphemy.” On Twitter, a chilling message made the rounds last month: “this @sanasaleem is a prostitute who feature in porn movies #throwacidonsana.” Her photo was posted in pornography forums.

None of this has fazed Sana, who in conjunction with several other young Pakistani blogger-activists had launched a successful campaign that has shamed the government into halting plans for a national Internet censorship system. A long-time contributor to the international bloggers network Global Voices Online, in March Saleem joined forces with other groups including the Pakistan-based social justice group Bytes For All and other activists like the dentist-blogger Awab Alvi, a.k.a. “Teeth Maestro,” who has been campaigning against censorship since 2006. Their success is a victory for free speech, and not only in Pakistan. It holds lessons for activists around the world who are fighting uphill battles against censorship schemes initiated by governments that claim to be acting in the public interest, and who have support from influential political constituencies.

Click here to read the rest.

Stop the Great Firewall of America

Last month the U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk sent a letter to the Chinese government requesting information about its censorship practices. The middle kingdom’s response: a polite middle finger. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu declared that Chinese censorship follows “international practice.”

Her response is specious given that China operates the world’s most elaborate and opaque system of Internet censorship, as I describe in Chapter 3. Yet Congress has been hard at work to bolster its legitimacy, however inadvertently. The reality is that the PROTECT IP Act now in the Senate, and a new House version called Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), would bring key features of China’s Great Firewall to America. Read my opinion piece in the New York Times for more details on how these bills would implement technical and legal solutions that would have the unfortunate result of making the Internet everywhere more like the Chinese Internet.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on SOPA at 10am on Wednesday morning (a few hours from now). It will be webcast live on the committee website. The video should also be archived there after the event.

Opposition to SOPA is widespread, bipartisan, and international. The Center for Democracy and Technology is collecting links to blog posts, articles, as well as letters of opposition from human rights groups, Internet engineers, law professors, Internet companies, public interest advocates, consumer rights groups, among others. Allan Friedman at the Brookings Institution has an excellent paper explaining how SOPA and PROTECT IP will make the Internet less secure, sabotaging engineers’ long-running efforts to increase the level of security in the global domain name system.

The New America Foundation (where I am a senior fellow) has signed an open letter to the House Judiciary Committee, along with a list of human rights, civil liberties and public interest groups. It argues:

We do not dispute that there are hubs of online infringement. But the definitions of the sites that would be subject to SOPA’s remedies are so broad that they would encompass far more than those bad actors profiting from infringement. By including all sites that may – even inadvertently – “facilitate” infringement, the bill raises serious concerns about overbreadth. Under section 102 of the bill, a nondomestic startup video-sharing site with thousands of innocent users sharing their own noninfringing videos, but a small minority who use the site to criminally infringe, could find its domain blocked by U.S. DNS operators. Countless non-infringing videos from the likes of aspiring artists, proud parents, citizen journalists, and human rights activists would be unduly swept up by such an action. Furthermore, overreach resulting from bill is more likely to impact the operators of smaller websites and services that do not have the legal capacity to fight false claims of infringement.

In Chapter 7 I describe my experience testifying at a March 2010 House Foreign Relations Committee hearing chaired by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). Berman happens to be one of SOPA’s key sponsors. While the hearing’s stated purpose was to discuss Google’s decision to halt censorship in China and how the United States can support global Internet freedom, committee members devoted considerable time to chastising a Google executive for failing to sufficiently police uploads to YouTube for infringing content. By their standards, YouTube and other similar user-driven sites clearly fall short of SOPA’s requirements. As I point out in the book, The cognitive dissonance on display at that hearing highlighted an inconvenient reality: politicians throughout the democratic world are pushing for stronger censorship and surveillance by Internet companies to stop the theft of intellectual property. They are doing so in response to aggressive lobbying by powerful corporate constituents without adequate consideration of the consequences for civil liberties, and for democracy more broadly.

The public interest letter details some of those consequences:

Relying on an even broader definition of “site dedicated to theft of US property,” section 103 of SOPA creates a private right of action of breathtaking scope. Any rightsholder could cut off the financial lifeblood of services such as search engines, user-generated content platforms, social media, and cloud-based storage unless those services actively monitor and police user activity to the rightsholder’s satisfaction.

In my op-ed I conclude:

The potential for abuse of power through digital networks — upon which we as citizens now depend for nearly everything, including our politics — is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. We live in a time of tremendous political polarization. Public trust in both government and corporations is low, and deservedly so. This is no time for politicians and industry lobbyists in Washington to be devising new Internet censorship mechanisms, adding new opportunities for abuse of corporate and government power over online speech. While American intellectual property deserves protection, that protection must be won and defended in a manner that does not stifle innovation, erode due process under the law, and weaken the protection of political and civil rights on the Internet.

I am not against copyright or intellectual property protection – I’m about to publish a copyrighted book. I hope that people will buy it. Its quality owes a great deal to the editors and other professionals whose job it was to help me shape and refine my argument, and to improve my prose. But I don’t believe that the defense of my copyright should come at the expense of civil liberties. It is a moral imperative for democracies to find new and innovative ways to protect copyright in the Internet age without stifling the ability of citizens around the world to exercise their right to freedom of speech and assembly on the Internet.