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February 15 2011

20:00

Clinton and the freedom to connect

In her second major speech on internet freedom, I’m delighted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood for the freedom to connect and recognizes the internet as a public space (as I will argue it is in Public Parts). The right to connect is first on my list of principles for our net society. I’m also delighted that she is calling for a discussion about those principles. But I will say that discussion should not come from her or from any government. The internet is not theirs. It is ours. The discussion must come from us, the citizens of the net.

She said:

To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that guide us. What rules exist‚ and should not exist‚ and why; what behaviors should be encouraged and discouraged, and how.

The goal is not to tell people how to use the Internet, any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public space, whether it is Tahrir Square or Times Square. The value of these spaces derives from the variety of activities people can pursue in them, from holding a rally to selling their wares to having a private conversation. These spaces provide an open platform‚ and so does the internet. It does not serve any particular agenda, and it never should. But if people around the world are going to come together every day online and have a safe and productive experience, we need a shared vision to guide us.

One year ago, I offered a starting point for that vision, by calling for a global commitment to Internet freedom to protect human rights online as we do offline. The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs‚ these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog.

The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace; in our time, people are as likely to come together to pursue common interests online as in a church or union hall. Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I have called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same.

Because we want people to have the chance to exercise this freedom, we also support expanding the number of people who have access to the Internet.

Amen to all that. I’m disappointed that she used this speech to once more attack Wikileaks (even as she praised other nations’ citizens’ efforts to use the net to bring transparency to their governments) and that the Administration has not taken the opportunity of Wikileaks to examine its own level of classification and opacity. They could still disapprove of Wikileaks while also learning a lesson about being more open. By not doing that, some of the high-minded words in a speech such as this come off as at least inconsistent if not hypocritical.

December 11 2010

02:04

Bill of Rights in Cyberspace, amended

I’m still refining my thoughts on a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace — the latest version in preparation for tomorrow’s PDF symposium on WIkileaks and transparency. The idea is to have principles we can point to when dealing with such events as Wikileaks, Google/Verizon, Google/China, and so on. Try this on for size:

I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak freely.
III. We have the right to assemble and act.
IV. Information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
V. What is public is a public good.
VI. All bits are created equal.
VII. The internet shall be operated openly.

Earlier versions are here and here. I’ve taken out the simplistic notions of controlling our data and identity, after realizing that we can’t control either. We should, instead, have access to information whenever possible, by default; I think that better covers both our needs to get to our information and our needs to get to information in our government and in business.

At the PDF event, I want to talk about the need to discuss principles we can point to when we see violations of these rights. If we do not set these standards, then we cannot hold governments and companies to them.

I will also talk about the idea that we are passing from a world organized around power-to-power transactions to one based on peer-to-peer engagement. I’ll argue that we in the press, especially, must defend Wikileaks’ right to free speech as it speaks truth to power. I’ll say that we must make transparency government’s default; we are far from that and risk moving away from that target rather than toward it.

Thoughts?

September 14 2010

14:59

Oh, those Germans

I was gobsmacked sitting on a stage in Berlin when the privacy commissioner for a German state erupted in an attack on Google—which, by the way, has the highest market penetration in Germany of anywhere in the world (97.4% there vs. 65.4% in the U.S.).

“As long as Germans are stupid enough to use this search engine,” he spat, “they don’t deserve any better.”

This from Thilo Weichert, privacy maven for Schleswig-Holstein, brought to the stage, with me, by the Green Party for a discussion about privacy last week, where we were joined by Renate Künast, head of the party’s delegation in parliament, and Konstantin von Notz, their MP overseeing matters digital.

Before I went to Berlin I asked why the Germans are so bonkers about Google and privacy. But now I wonder whether it’s the Germans or their media and politicians.

Witness that moment: Here a public official charged with representing and protecting the public so cavalierly—no, so hostilely—dismisses and insults his own constituents and thinks he should tell them what to do. I ask him what harm Google has done him. He has no answer. He complains that “Google uses information to manipulate me.” Any more than any marketer … or politician?

Weichert also stood on stage supporting the German government’s move to require digital ID cards with embedded RFID. The Greens don’t agree; they are worried about the card. But Weichert goes farther: He says the ID cards should be used to verify identity on the internet. Now he’s spooking *me* about privacy.

As I listen in German, I hear the card called an “Ausweis” and I shiver just a bit that no one seems to recognize the ghost in the word. In America watching war movies, there was never a more frightening phrase than “Ausweis, bitte” — “papers, please” (see this from Arizona). When I talk about going too far with privacy, Germans remind me about their Stasi and Nazi past. Yet here is the government instituting electronic ID with technology that makes some American go nutty if it’s attached anonymously to pants!

This is the other German paradox — or as someone said at the Re:publica conference in Berlin after my talk about publicness, this is the American paradox: Americans mistrust government more than Europeans even though we have arguably had better governments than they have. And we trust companies more than Europeans even though we have arguably had worse companies.

I heard much mistrust of companies — well, especially one company: Google — in Berlin. “Google is the worst example of openness and transparency and the willingness to serve the democratic needs of society,” Weichert said on stage. He had what seems to be a legitimate complaint, saying that Google refused to meet with him an other privacy commissioners. But then again, a friend in the audience this night was twittering with a Google public affairs person in Germany who was watching the event on the web and was wondering why he hadn’t been invited to respond. Nonetheless, it’s unquestionably the case that Google has a PR problem in Germany.

You’d think Google would be better at PR given that Weichert insisted the company’s decision to end its censorship in China was “nothing but a PR trick.” He went farther, equating Google as an unsurveilled surveiller with China and Iran! “Google’s only interest is to earn money,” he said, as if shocked. That was a theme of the night: Google dares to make money. A Green journalist in the audience complained that Google uses data “to sell me.” I asked what newspaper doesn’t do that. Google, he said, “misuses my data to become too big.” Show me the line marked “too big,” I asked.

So is Google’s problem hostility to business or to America? Weichert denied both. But he complained that “no secret service is more secretive than the Americans’.” (I suspect the CIA would take that as a compliment.) He said the U.S. is focused too much on freedom of information and openness and not enough on privacy.

There may be nascent anti-Americanism but I don’t think that’s the root of this. Is it a misunderstanding of the
ways of the new digital world? Perhaps. Künast, whom I found to be a reasonable politician, launched into an odd discourse on taking pictures of the Bundestag and whether, if those pictures are sold in a souvenir shop online, a share of the profits ought to go to the German people and government since they own the building. Eh?

Maybe the problem is the concept of the public and the idea of control over the public. Künast is talking about controlling ownership and use of what is public. Weichert’s talking about limiting what’s public in public; he gets mad at me mocking the German movement toward a “Verpixelungsrecht” — a right to be pixelated, even for buildings! Weichert says we should all default to private and I ask whether we should default to public. I think that publicness is defined by openness and a lack of restriction. When you diminish what’s public you take from us, the public. For we own what’s public.

There’s additional historical irony having this conversation in Germany, where Jürgen Habermas is credited with defining the concept of the public sphere, though in my book I’ll argue that Habermas corrupted an earlier concept of making publics — plural. The internet returns us to the idea of making public gives us all the power to do so — and I don’t want to see that taken for granted or taken away.

So I argue that we need to protect our tool of publicness. That’s what we should be talking about. There, at last, there is some agreement: to the need to have a discussion about a charter of rights online. I propose mine, knowing it’s inadequate. Künast says government should begin by legislating essential rights.

Well, OK, but I said on stage that, with all due respect, I didn’t want either government or business claiming dominion over the public’s tool of publicness, our internet. I called on John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace. I don’t want Google and Verizon carving up the internet like the Sudetenland without us, its citizens, at that table. I sure as hell don’t want Herr Weichert telling me how I should use his internet. I implore the crowd to take charge of this charter themselves.

If they don’t, if the internet gets locked down and cemented up, I fear it will look like this bunker that — oh, photographic irony — stands just outside the Heinrich Böll Foundation where we are speaking:

That’s a World War II bunker now owned by a millionnaire who built a penthouse on top and put an art gallery into the floors below behind doors that are opened for guided tours by appointment. The metaphor is too obvious even for an American.

What gives me some hope is that folks in the audience — digital folks — are fighting the good fight and they’re doing it with humor. Jens Best started a movement to shoot photos of all the pixelated buildings in Google Street View and link them to those addresses. And here’s a video (watch to the end) about the pixelated man:

At the start of the evening, Künast says that “freedom can comprise anonymity.” Yes, but freedom also comprises publicness. Publicness may be our highest right of freedom — to stand up and say what we think and be who we are and join together and act without fear of oppression. Surely, that should resonate here. That is just the sort of balancing discussion we must have so people know they have a choice and protect that choice. We need to protect their right to be private. But we also must protect the rights of the public.

I challenge Künast — who, rumor has it, may next become the mayor of Berlin (she says nothing) — to make the city a model of openness, a monument to the public and I suggest that her party should call a conference to begin discussion of our rights. Just make it our discussion.

April 06 2010

16:23

Bill of Rights in Cyberspace, amended

I’ve amended my proposed Bill of Rights in Cyberspace thanks to a suggestion in the comments from Jeff Sonderman: All data are created equal. I made that all bits are created equal, which broadens it somewhat and is quite relevant today in the discussion of net neutrality that will explode because of an Appeals Court decision in Washington that told the FCC it did not have jurisdiction to tell Comcast to stop discriminating on bits.

Here’s the rub: On the one hand, I do not want government regulation of the internet. On the other hand, I do not want monopoly discrimination against bits on the internet. I see it as a principle that all bits are, indeed, created equal. But how is this enforced when internet service is provided by monopolies? Regulation. But I don’t want regulation. But… That is the vicious cycle of the net neutrality debate.

At a Union Square Ventures event a few years ago, Tom Evslin said that regulation is a temporary necessity until the marketplace and technology open up internet access to competition. In a competitive environment, we won’t tolerate the ISP that hampers our service. Now, we’re stuck.

The other path to fixing this is legislation. But, of course, that is another form of regulation of the internet: a claim of sovereignty by government over the net that I want to avoid.

All this, I believe, is all the more reason to have a set of principles and standards we, the internet nation, can point to, all the more reason to have a Bill of Rights for Cyberspace. Here is mine, amended:

I. We have a right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble.
IV. We have the right to act.
V. We have the right to control our data.
VI. We have the right to control our identity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet shall be operated openly.

March 27 2010

19:27

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

In my Media Guardian column this Monday, I will suggest that we need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace as a set of amendments to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Note that I do not suggest the establishment a Constitution of the Internet; I think that would violate the tenets Barlow so eloquently if grandiosely sets forth. We don’t need government in cyberspace; we need freedom.

This Bill of Rights attempts to establish the fundamental freedoms of our internet that must be protected against abridgment by governments, companies, institutions, criminals, subverters, or mobs. I suggest in my column that in its confrontation with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet to the old world under its own (rediscovered) principles. So we would be wise to establish our principles. I ask the column’s readers to come to this post to suggest and discuss articles.

Here are mine:

* * *

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

I. We have the right to connect.

This is a preamble and precondition to the American First Amendment: before we can speak, we must be able to connect. Hillary Clinton defines the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” It is this principle that also informs discussion of net neutrality.

II. We have the right to speak.

No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves operating under a lowest common denominator of offense. Freedom is our default.

III. We have the right to speak in our languages.

The English language’s domination of the internet has faded as more languages and alphabets have joined the net, which is to be celebrated. But Ethan Zuckerman also cautions that in our polyglot internet, we will want to build bridges across languages. We will want to speak in our own languages but also speak with others’.

IV. We have the right to assemble.

In the American Bill of Rights, the right to assemble is listed separately from the right to speak. The internet enables us to organize without organizations and collaborate and that now threatens repressive regimes as much as speech.

V. We have the right to act.

These first articles are a thread: We connect to speak and speak to assemble and assemble to act and that is how we can and will change the world, not just putting forth grievances but creating the means to fix them. That is what threatens the institutions that would stop us.

VI. We have the right to control our data.

You should have access to data about you. And what’s yours is yours. We want the internet to operate on a principle of portability, so your information and creations cannot be held prisoner by a service or government and so you retain control. But keep in mind that when control is given to one, it is taken from another; in those details lurk devils. This principle thus speaks to copyright and its laws, which set the definitions and limits of control or creation. This principle also raises questions about whether the wisdom of the crowd belongs to the crowd.

VII. We have the right to our own identity.

This is not as simple as a name. Our identity online is made up of our names, addresses, speech, creations, actions, connections. Note also that in repressive regimes, maintaining anonymity — hiding one’s identity — is a necessity; thus anonymity, with all its faults and baggage and trolls, must also be protected online to protect the dissenter and the whistleblower. Note finally that these two articles — controlling our data and our identities — make up the right to privacy, which is really a matter of control.

VIII. What is public is a public good.

The internet is public; indeed, it is a public place (rather than a medium). In the rush to protect privacy, we must beware the dangers of restricting the definition of public. What’s public is owned by the public. Making the public private or secret serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

IX. The internet shall be built and operated openly.

The internet must continue to be built and operated to open standards. It must not be taken over or controlled by any company or government. It must not be taxed. It is the internet’s openness that gives it its freedom. It is this freedom that defines the internet.

* * *

More: Bruce Sterling on the state of freedom of information.

February 24 2010

14:18

Italy endangers the web

Italy is endangering the web. It convicted three Google executives for privacy violations for a video that was posted on YouTube that Google took down when it received a complaint. By holding Google liable for the actions of a user, the Italian court is in essence requiring Google and every other web site to review and vet everything anyone puts online. The practical implication of that, of course, is that no one will let anyone put anything online because the risk is too great. I wouldn’t let you post anything here. My ISP wouldn’t let me post anything on its servers. Google wouldn’t let me post anything on YouTube. And that kills the internet.

In America, we have a First Amendment for the web called Section 230, which every nation needs. Section 230 say, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It gives a provider safe haven to take down content that violates laws without finding the provider liable. The American Congress and courts knew — with impressive foresight — that such protection was necessary to protect discussion and free speech online. Of course, the interpretation of the law is an evolving beast, but the principle is vital.

Google says of the Italian decision:

It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.

In the global, interconnected web, we live in constant danger of the lowest common denominator, of one court, legislature, or regime opening up liability that affects risk and behavior everywhere — like the U.K’s libel tourism, which enables miscreants to sue publishers if only one person saw the publication in the U.K.

This is why we need a set of principles protecting our freedom of speech on the web: not a law, not a treaty, nothing from government — see John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence for cyberspace. In the Google/China situation — in which Google acted as a quasi-state to protect rights (albeit belatedly) according to its principles — Rebecca MacKinnon argues for a constitution for cyberspace but I worry that it would become overloaded with clauses and conditions. In American historical terms, I say we already have a Declaration of Independence and I’d skip over the Constitution to get a Bill of RIghts that begins with its First Amendment: governments shall make no law no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble. Start there.

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