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January 23 2012

22:34

Public Parts on Reding’s four pillars

Since European Commission VP Viviane Reding’s proposal for internet regulation — under her four pillars — are the topic of discussion this week at DLD in Munich and in Europe, here is what I wrote about them in Public Parts:

* * *

I fear the unintended consequences that may come from regulation. Take, for example, European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding’s four pillars of data protection, which she proposed in 2011. I have no argument with one of them: transparency. Companies that collect data should be open about when that is done and how information will be used.

Another pillar sounds attractive: “the right to be forgotten.” But how far does that go? If I post something about you on my blog or write about you in a news story—a quote I heard, the fact that I saw you somewhere, the fact that you did something in the open—can I be forced to erase—to forget—that? What then of my freedom of speech?

Another pillar is rhetorically appealing: “privacy by default.” But is that how we wish society to operate—closing in by reflex when we have so many new ways to open up? Flickr became a success, as I said earlier, because it was set to public by default. On a service designed for ­sharing—Facebook—what does complete privacy mean? Isn’t completely closed communication just email?

Reding’s last pillar would require EU-level protection no matter where a service operates or where data are held. That sets a dangerous precedent. It could mean that we would all be ruled by the most stringent controls in place anywhere in the world—the high-water mark of control. Can we bear China claiming the same right as the EU? We see a related problem today with so-called libel tourism in the U.K. Because its libel laws are unfriendly to defendants, targets of published criticism go there to file suit against writers and publishers. In a global internet, the EU’s effort to become privacy’s sanctum could affect us all.

On the one hand, I argue against regulation. On the other hand, I argue that the government should enforce net neutrality, and that is a form of regulation. Am I hypocritical? At South by Southwest in 2011, Senator Al Franken delivered a ringing endorsement of net neutrality. He argued that proponents of net neutrality are not trying to change the internet but to keep corporations from changing it, from making the net less free than it has been since its birth. “This is a First Amendment issue,” he said. “The internet is small-d democratic. Everyone has the same say.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, too, delivered a rousing defense of internet freedom in two speeches in 2010 and 2011. “In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet,” she said in Washington just as the Tunisian revolt was brewing. “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas…. The internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them.”

The following year, in 2011, she delivered another speech extolling transparency and attacking censorship. But in the same speech, she also condemned WikiLeaks for its release of cables from her agency. “Let’s be clear,” she said, “this disclosure is not just an attack on America—it’s an attack on the international community.” The leaks “tear at the fabric” of government, she argued. Indeed, they soon tore at the fabric of Tunisia’s corrupt government.

January 12 2011

12:24

A portal for European government data: PublicData.eu plans

The Open Knowledge Foundation have published a blog post with notes on a site they’re developing to gather together data from across Europe. The post notes that the growth of data catalogues at both a national level (mentioning the Digitalisér.dk data portal run by the Danish National IT and Telecom Agency) and “countless city level initiatives across Europe as well – from Helsinki to Munich, Paris to Zaragoza.” with many more initiatives “in the pipeline with plans to launch in the next 6 to 12 months.”

PublicData.eu will, it says:

“Provide a single point of access to open, freely reusable datasets from numerous national, regional and local public bodies throughout Europe.

“[It] will harvest and federate this information to enable users to search, query, process, cache and perform other automated tasks on the data from a single place. This helps to solve the “discoverability problem” of finding interesting data across many different government websites, at many different levels of government, and across the many governments in Europe.”

What is perhaps even more interesting for journalists is that the site plans to:

“Capture (proposed) edits, annotations, comments and uploads from the broader community of public data users.”

That might include anything from cleaner versions of data, to instances where developers match datasets together, or where users add annotations that add context to a particular piece of information.

Finally there’s a general indication that the site hopes to further lower the bar for data and collaborative journalism by:

“Providing basic data analysis and visualisation tools together with more in-depth resources for those looking to dig deeper into the data. Users will be able to personalise their data browsing experience by being able to save links and create notes and comments on datasets.”

More in the post itself. Worth keeping an eye on.

December 14 2010

20:30

Brussels Leaks Tries to Build on WikiLeaks Idea in EU

A new site, Brussels Leaks, modeled after WikiLeaks, launched out of the blue last Thursday to much excitement in the European capital and the Twittersphere. This follows the announcement of OpenLeaks, a spin-off from WikiLeaks from former workers there. But Brussels Leaks doesn't plan to run the documents that are leaked to it, but rather rely on the media to distribute the best material.

"We will mainly look at act as an intermediary, passing information to responsible parties," says a note on the Brussels Leaks site. "We think we are in a good position to do this because we live, work and to a certain extent breathe Brussels. And trust us, Brussels has both poor air quality and transparency."

I recently conducted an exclusive email interview with an anonymous representative of Brussels Leaks. This exchange is among the first media interviews granted by the fledgling European whistleblower organization.

Q&A

Why did you feel the need to set up a Brussels/EU focused WikiLeaks-type site? What do you want to achieve?

Brussels Leaks: We have all worked in Brussels for a while and have constantly seen, or heard about, documents floating around which 'would be great if they could get out in the open.' People didn't know how to do this most of the time. In our day jobs we did this, using our networks and contacts, but there were a lot of limits. Having personal connections with 'people in the know' means their jobs could be on the line if we revealed the information.

Brussels is a powerful place full of over 15,000 lobbyists who all impact big, international decisions. It's naïve to think things do not happen behind closed doors (such as European Commission President Jose Barroso attending a plastics lobby dinner -- weird?).

This isn't really for media as much as to help society, and perhaps namely civil society, get their hands on the right information to make their jobs easier.

What do you plan to focus on?

Brussels Leaks: Obviously it's EU focused which is as broad as you can get. At the moment we'll try the best with what we get, but obviously anything social or environmental takes priority. We'll see.

Can you give us a clue as to what leaks, if any, you have in the pipeline?

Brussels Leaks: Transport and energy.

What kind of people leak information on the EU to you? What are their motives?

Brussels Leaks: We meet people all the time working for EU institutions, lobby and industry groups and even NGOs who want to get information out there. They're often good people who see something they know is wrong, and want to get it known whilst keeping hold of their jobs.

Do you have any direct connections/contact with WikiLeaks? Have they or similar whistleblowing/hacker organizations been in contact with you, or given you advice or assistance?

Brussels Leaks: No, not yet but we are very open to advice and assistance.

What has been the response so far to Brussels Leaks from the institutions/organizations you plan to 'leak' information about?

Brussels Leaks: Very quiet publicly but we have heard they have at least half an eye on us.

How do your security and technical capabilities match up to the organizations who may try to stop you?

Brussels Leaks: At the moment, it's hard to tell. We're not really anticipating in the short-term anything which would put us under the kind of pressure WikiLeaks witnessed, as many of the leaks we have so far are quite low key. This is Brussels after all. Of course we want to build, improve and develop over time -- we have a plan and we won't overstep our capacities.

Is there anything you would not publish?

Brussels Leaks: We are a small group of people who will try to work to a moral code. We're not interested in gossip or slander. We are doing this because we want to get important information out in the open, but if it looks to endanger somebody, i.e. lives or jobs, then we will not. We also have high level media contacts outside of this who we can refer leaks onto. We're not here to get publicity, just to get the information out there.

Are any of you journalists?

Brussels Leaks: Yes, all are either journalists or worked in communications capacities in Brussels.

What is your code of ethics?

Brussels Leaks: Obviously as we are staying anonymous we need to build credibility and a reputation. We will always be truthful, accurate, and fair and want to hold everything up to public accountability.

What can people do to get involved with Brussels Leaks?

Brussels Leaks: We particularly need technical help, which is always appreciated. Otherwise, we'd just want people to be patient with us. We're probably not going to bring down EU global diplomacy or anything like that, so we just need time.

Emma Brewin is a writer, online/multimedia editor and social media manager currently based in Europe. Her areas of interest include media and journalism, Central and Eastern Europe, and alternative and sustainable travel and living.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

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November 30 2010

14:30

Lock up the kids, here comes the EU

If you want a sign that Google is past its prime, you got it today: The EU is investigating it for antitrust.

Remember Microsoft: The EU took 11 years investigating it — during which time, the web was born — and by the time it finished in 2004 and brought its mighty hand down upon the mighty Microsoft, the market had already done the job, thank you. Microsoft was a has-been, a joke as a monoplist, a laggard legacy company left behind by new technology, a threat to no one but itself.

Now the EU is going after Google. No surprise. One thing that has surprised me lately is the anti-Googlism (read: anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism) I’ve seen reflected in the nasty rhetoric over Google’s Street View. In my trips to Germany and talks there, I regularly heard that Google is too big (can someone please send me to the statute that defines big and thus too big?) — not too big to fail but too big to live in Europe. I’ve also heard people say they don’t want Google making money on them (but it’s OK for the corner store or the local newspaper to?).

Now the crows come home to roost with this EU investigation. But as Danny Sullivan argues in a wonderfully smart-assed and logical post, the EU is going after this search engine for acting like a search engine. When he searches for cars, Google has the audacity not to point to other search engines. It points to car sites! Bad Google, Bad.

And what if Google does point to its own businesses: YouTube, shopping comparison, Gmail, whatever. That’s business. Yahoo points to Yahoo; I’ve sat in meeting with them back in the early days of the web when they bragged about how they could point their “firehose” at their own stuff. The New York Times points to The New York Times. Microsoft links to Microsoft. So?

Remember that it was Google that created the ethic of search results untainted by business. Its model before that was GoTo/Overture, which *sold* search position. Analysts thought they were nuts — Commies, maybe — when Google decided *not* to tell search position out of some strange sense of ethics.

So now the EU wants to take Google’s own standard and interpret it against Google? Where the hell does this?

Last night, someone said to me something I also hear a lot: that search is a utility and utilities need to be regulated. Europeans reflexively regulate.

But Google isn’t a utility. There are plenty of other, competitive search engines. The fact that Google has 90+% penetration in Europe is the choice of the market, nothing Google did through unfair advantage.

And — shades of the Microsoft case — Google is being challenged now by other means of discovery: namely us sharing links through social means. Google is no longer the all-powerful Oz of the internet. The EU’s timing is impecable.

Now there is one arena in which Google does have much power: advertising. It’s not as effective to market on Bing as it is on Google. And I’ve said before — just yesterday — that I think Google would be wise to establish a Constitution and Bill of Rights and channel of appeal of its decision on advertisers so it cannot be accused of manipulating things behind the scenes through its sole power.

In that sense, Google is not a utility. It is law. And laws require principles and means of appeal. That’s what I said yesterday and what I’ll argue again in this case. Google would be wise to be more transparent about its advertising rules and decisions (not its algorithms but its judgments) and open up that process to trusted outsiders. Google needs a court.

But now the EU is looking to take them to court. Oh, boy.

October 08 2010

07:35

Interview: Ton Zijlstra on open data in the EU (audio)

A couple weeks ago I spoke at the PICNIC festival in Amsterdam. While I was there I grabbed an interview with Ton Zijlstra, who has been following open data developments across EU governments very closely. You can find the interview embedded below:

November 08 2009

12:49
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