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.

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Kudos and Concerns for Google

Earlier this week, Google published an update of its Transparency Report, which among other things discloses the number of government requests received for user information as well as requests to remove content. The latest report contains more granular data than ever before, including the number of actual users targeted by the government requests. (China remains a black hole because releasing the data would break China’s “state secrets” law and expose Chinese employees to prosecution.) As The Guardian points out, the data show a 70% increase in requests by the U.S. government or police. The company has also refused some takedown requests, including video of police brutality.  In the first half of 2011, Brazil topped the list with the most requests for content removal, followed by Germany, the U.S., and South Korea.

In the book I argue that inadequate transparency and accountability at the nexus between state and corporate power is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. All Internet and telecommunications companies should be required to report regularly and systematically to the public on how content is policed, and under what circumstances it gets removed or blocked and at whose behest. All companies serious about building public credibility and trust should waste no time in following Google’s lead.

Google still has a long way to go, however, when it comes to managing the development and rollout of its various services in a way that does not hurt its most vulnerable users. As Chapter 10 described, the implementation and enforcement of the real-name identity policy on Google Plus has thus far been a fiasco, resulting in dissidents and other vulnerable users around the world being booted from the service. Google’s Senior VP of Social Vic Gundotra recently announced that the social network will “soon” provide support for pseudonyms and other forms of alternative identity not tied to people’s government-issued ID. However it remains unclear what “soon” means.

Meanwhile, Google has announced that it will soon make major changes to Google Reader (an RSS reader used by many people to follow, manage, and share content from a large volume of news and blog feeds). Some of the social sharing functions will be eliminated and Reader will be integrated more closely into Google Plus. What Google staff apparently did not anticipate is how these changes will hurt some users including Iranian users struggling to share information despite harsh censorship. Because Google Reader is encrypted with https, it is harder for the Iranian government to block than most other overseas sites and services. As one Iranian blogger explains:

Google Reader acts like a news spreading website. Easy access to Google reader made it suitable for Iranian community and through all these years, specially after June 2009 election, developed an strong community for spreading the news.

Elimination of Reader’s sharing functions will put an end to this. Even worse, if Reader is integrated with Google Plus before the company finds a way to accommodate pseudonymous users and other forms identity not tied to people’s government-issued identity, Iranian users will be left even further in the cold.