Blown To Bits

Archive for July, 2010

A File With 100 million Facebook Users’ Data

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

So some clown, sorry, security researcher has done a scan of every Facebook profile his robot could reach and assembled a file of all their public information, and posted it for download. 100 million profiles.

I could have done it. You could have done it. No need to bother, though, because Ron Bowes did it for you.

This is one of those things that is not a technology story. It’s an ontology story, or a spiritual story, or something.

Facebook reports that it’s all public information, public because the users wanted it public. So there is no news here, in their view.
“No private data is available or has been compromised,” as they say. And they are correct technically. Why is it creepier to have your data in a file with 99,999,999 other profiles, on everybody’s laptop, when the same information about you would have turned up in a Facebook query, or a Google search for that matter? Public is public, right?

The aggregation sure makes it feel different. But that is a matter of feelings, and Facebook’s response was written by its legal team. For lawyers, everything is a binary. Things are either black or white. But privacy has lots of grey.

The Telegraph has a good report on it.

Speech control news from all over

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

More than a year ago, when the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s authority to fineFox Television Stations for “fleeting expletives” uttered by Bono and others, we noted that the court made only a technical ruling and some of the opinions were sympathetic to Fox’s position on the underlying and more important First Amendment question:  was the rule the FCC applied too vague, capricious, and uncertain so that it chilled speech? Technology has changed, we noted, and perhaps it is time for the rules to change too, since they were always premised on an argument that television and radio were exceptional technologies, by comparison with books, for example.

The case went back to the lower court, which took up the constitutional question, and ruled against the FCC. (New York Times story.) The judge in the case made a number of correct observations–why should the standards be different for cable TV than for broadcast TV, for example. She did not rule out the possibility of the FCC adopting rules that would be constitutional, and noted that she was bound by the Supreme Court’s 1978 Pacifica decision which made that FCC authority clear. But for the moment, the networks can relax a bit about prosecution for the occasional cuss out of the blue — for example, the one in a discussion of Middle East policy that was spoken by a US President to a British Prime Minister, and which the broadcast networks had to bleep out.

It will be interesting to see what the government does now. It could appeal, but the case seems like a loser, and an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court could backfire, since Justice Thomas signaled that there may well be five votes for overturning Pacifica and costing the government all of its regulatory authority over televised speech.

In other speech control news:

A judge in Pennsylvania signed an order, drafted by a defense attorney, requiring newspapers to expunge their archives of all mention of the defendants’ arrest. The defense attorney actually has part of the logic right: “What’s the sense in having your record expunged if anyone can Google you and it comes up?” He’s right that expungement orders have been blown to bits. He’s just wrong that the way to fix that problem is retroactive censorship of the printed word. It’s a problem that can’t really be fixed, in the U.S. anyway. What was this judge thinking?

Also, a couple of notes on anonymity. I was reading Richard Clarke’s book Cyber War, which makes a compelling case for a more controlled version of the Internet by riding roughshod over civil liberties concerns. Having described the Internet as basically a hippie invention (“the Internet as we know it today is deeply imbued with the sensibilities and campus politics of [the 1960s]“), Clarke scornfully distances himself from any respect for anonymous speech, or reading.

The “open Internet” people believe that if you wish to read The Communist Manifesto, or research treatments for venereal disease, or document China’s human rights violations, or watch porn online, your access to that information will not be free if anyone knows that you are looking at it.

So much not just for Vint Cerf, but for the professional and legal standards governing libraries in most states in the U.S. He comes off sounding just like the Chinese government in its latest “explanation” about how it will control the Internet. “We will make the Internet real name system a reality as soon as possible,” a Chinese official said recently, referring to a requirement that Chinese will in the future have to use their actual names in all Internet communications, no anonymous postings or emails allowed. Just what Clarke would like to see happen here.

The News on Internet Censorship

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Either it’s an election year, or the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor don’t understand how the Internet works. Or both.

Close readers of this blog will remember my discussion back in February of a case in Massachusetts where some creep got off the hook for sending lewd text messages to a child, because the relevant statutory definition of “matter” not to be disseminated did not include text messages. At the time, I said that the definitional problem was easily remedied.

So the Commonwealth remedied it, by including not just text messages but the entire Internet. The new clause in the definition reads as follows:

any electronic communication including, but not limited to, electronic mail, instant messages, text messages, and any other communication created by means of use of the Internet or wireless network

This definition certainly plugs the legal loophole through which that creep escaped after sending little Johnny a text message. Unfortunately the clause also captures Johnny finding his way to the online edition of Fanny Hill, or Memoir of a Woman of Pleasure, or to a site such as Dr. Marty Klein’s “sexed.org,” which gives “Straight Talk on Sex, Love, and Intimacy.” It may also include this site, since I just linked to that 18th century novel and that 21st century advice site. And maybe it applies to any social networking site where someone posts a comment linking to any of the above.

The problem, as ArsTechnica explains, is that “disseminate” is a term carried over from the days when one obtained information by going into a bookstore and buying it. The clerk at the book store could look at Johnnie and tell he was 13, or ask him for an ID if he looked like he might be 17 rather than 18. It also nicely covered sending obscene stuff telephonically or by postal delivery, since those are person-to-person media. The way information flows through the Internet makes it impossible to know where it is going. And there is nothing in the statute that restricts the crime to cases in which you actually know that you’ve reached a minor. You just have to reach a minor, and to know that what you disseminated is harmful to minors.

Dr. Klein, the ACLU, Harvard Book Store, and several other plaintiffs have asked for an injunction blocking the law, which took effect yesterday. The complaint (pdf, 44 pages) makes a number of strong points, of which perhaps the most disturbing is this:

The United States Congress and the states of Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia previously enacted laws which, like Sections 2 and 3, applied the harmful to minors test to Internet speech. All of them were either held unconstitutional or enjoined on First Amendment grounds. Ohio and Utah also passed such laws. The Ohio statute has been narrowed by the courts to constitutional dimensions. The Utah statute is being challenged in federal court and has been preliminarily enjoined.

This is where I begin to wonder about the effect of the election cycle. Why enact a censorship law pretty much identical to others that have been ruled unconstitutional, if not because it will be politically popular to do so?

In the same vein, the National Review offers an article by Jonah Goldberg and Nick Schulz, Gated or X-Rated? The authors ridicule the open-Internet gurus, and defend Apple for its effort to create a walled garden with no porn. They encourage legislative measures that will support private-sector solutions to the problem of children seeing bad stuff–their particular proposal is the creation of a .kids domain, where only child-friendly stuff would appear. (And where apparently it would be impossible for any 17-year-old to find a link to sexed.org.) The authors specifically call out Free Press and Public Knowledge for transforming the Internet’s “sensible design principle into something approaching an ideology.” “… [T]he culture of the Internet is to oppose anything approaching actual culture. Strong cultures edit and constrict,” they say. Well, it depends what you mean by “culture.” What is the culture of paper, or of books? There isn’t any. Anything goes. Of course society can control what gets printed–except that the culture of the U.S., as defined in its constitution, is that it can’t be controlled very much–and not in ways, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, that would unreasonably restrict what adults can legally see.

Nonetheless, Goldberg and Schulz argue, we should have more edited, constricted, walled-off parts of the Internet. They use the metaphor of the “frontier” to describe the goal of the Internet utopians, suggesting that their real agenda–Noam Chomsky gets a shout, of all people–is anti-corporate.

In addition to the practical problems of keeping a big part of the webby structure sterile, the problem is that every attempt to legislate Internet safety has proved to be over-inclusive, to violate the plain language of the First Amendment. And relying on private parties would be a lot less frightening if the world were not converging on a few private information monopolies. If Google and Apple and a handful of media companies control all the content and all the pipes, the private sector “alternatives” become the sole sources.

Recommended reading: Closing the Digital Frontier, in the Atlantic, by Michael Hirschorn. It is an apt metaphor, but it leaves one thinking that Goldberg and Schulz have nothing to worry about. All the digital land is going to be owned and controlled by a few private players anyway, and they will make sure that the Internet provides just what best suits their business purposes.

It is always sad to see conservatives, who ought to be the biggest worriers about information freedom, find common cause with the nanny-staters such as our Massachusetts legislators.