Blown To Bits

Archive for November, 2008

A New Form of Internet Censorship

Sunday, November 30th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

I’ve been writing about Internet censorship, not just in Blown to Bits but in the Boston Globe (The Dangers of Internet Censorship). In a fascinating piece entitled Blacklisted in Cyberspace, James McGrath Morris describes a form of censorship I hadn’t encountered, consciously at least.

Morris publishes a monthly newsletter about the craft of writing biographies. Hardly sexy stuff, you’d think.

He runs his copy through a spam-checking software tool, to see if the spam filters of his recipients’ email servers or personal computers are likely to discard the newsletter before it is even delivered. He was shocked to discover that his last issue had a spam score that was through the roof. Why? I’ll quote:

Three sets of words among the issue’s many articles could derail my e-mail: a reference to “young adult,” a common classification for books intended for adolescent readers; a sentence in my editorial — “Speaking of legal matters, it’s getting nasty out there” — referring to the growing number of lawsuits; and a distinguished biographer’s discussion of writing a book for children that included the following comment: “At my public library I queried the children’s division librarian — what works, what does not, who is ‘hot.'”¬†The inclusion of “young adult,” “getting nasty” and “hot” among the thousands of words in my publication was like poison.

What’s an author to do? “Write around” these everyday phrases to satisfy the demands of the spam-checking software? Perhaps — but if the next release of the software is even more censorious, where would it end?

Neat–And Possibly Criminalizing–Web Site of the Day

Sunday, November 30th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Ever get irritated that you have to register with a Web site to see something? When what you’re looking for is a one-off, and you have no reason to think you’ll ever want to go back to the site again, it’s annoying to have to supply an email address and other information with which you can be spammed and otherwise hounded later on.

Enter bugmenot. Type in the URL of a site requiring registration, and it gives you back a handle you can use to get into the site. A great privacy-preserver.

Ethical? You decide. But I’ll bet almost every heavy Web user has used some deceptive measure to avoid being tracked (for example, a fake name or an email address reserved only for these registration demands).

Ethical or not, it looks like using this site could set you up for doing some hard time in a federal penitentiary. Lori Drew was convicted of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act because the jury deemed that by creating a fake identity as a boy, she had gained “unauthorized access” to the servers of MySpace, whose Terms of Service state that registration information must be truthful. By that logic, anyone using bugmenot is setting themselves up for indictment on the same charge.

The implications of the Drew decision are breathtaking. It looks like the federal government is getting into the business of enforcing truth-telling even in purely social uses of the Web.

Keeping the Net Stupid

Saturday, November 29th, 2008 by Hal Abelson

Check out my review in the current issue of American Scientist of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop It, online at

And read Zittrain’s book.,

Closure For Jeffrey Berman

Thursday, November 27th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

In Blown to Bits we discuss not just the case of Lori Drew, but the case of Jeffrey Berman, who allegedly groped a girl on public transportation near Boston. Another teenager snapped his picture with a cell phone, it was on the evening news, and he was arrested the next day. I used this case as an example of the good side of digital little-brotherism.

Berman has now copped a plea to keep out of jail, if he behaves himself. (Three years, if he doesn’t.) The Boston Herald reports this story under the wonderful headline, Girl’s pluck, pic put pusillanimous perv in his place.

I have a weird relationship to this case. Ever wonder what happened to that red-headed kid you were in Mrs. Dowd’s kindergarten class with? In my case, he turned into the groper on the T. I hadn’t seen or heard of him in at least 50 years, until I read the original Herald story about the incident and noticed that the Jeffrey Berman who was arrested was exactly my age ‚Ķ. Sounds like a pretty sad situation, and I’m glad he was apprehended.

One-Hour Edited Version of the Intelligence Squared Debate

Thursday, November 27th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The debate in which I participated (and won!) affirming that “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto” has been edited down to an hour for radio broadcast. It is available on the NPR web site.

Lori Drew and Tom Paine

Thursday, November 27th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

So, as I feared,¬†Lori Drew has been found guilty. Not of the most serious charge, a conspiracy charge, but of three misdemeanor counts (for three separate times she posed as the fictitious “Josh Evans.”) Still, that’s a potential 3-year jail term.

But that’s a minor matter for the public, serious as it is for the Drews and Meiers. The important point is the one the New York Times quotes attorney Matthew L. Levine as making:

As a result of the prosecutor’s highly aggressive, if not unlawful, legal theory, it is now a crime to ‘obtain information’ from a Web site in violation of its terms of service. This cannot be what Congress meant when it enacted the law, but now you have it.

It wasn’t what Congress had in mind. Congress was legislating against hacking the databases of banks and credit card companies. The “unauthorized access” was password cracking and the like, not violation of the obscure terms in those multipage agreements we all click “I agree” on without reading them. The “obtaining information” was was getting credit card and bank account numbers, not the thoughts of teenage girls who happened to be expressing those thoughts on their MySpace pages.

In Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, Christopher Hitchens quotes an argument Paine made in France against the execution of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. It is chillingly apt:

[Paine] argued that ‘an avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty’ because it can accustom a nation ‘to stretch, to misinterpret, and to mis-apply even the best of laws. ‚Ķ He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his own enemy from repression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.’

Paine lost that argument, and the defense lost the Lori Drew case. Drew was convicted on charges completely unrelated to the awful fact that Megan Meier committed suicide. She would be just as guilty of having violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act if her daughter and Megan Meier had returned to being friends and all had lived happily ever after. The only difference is that the federal prosecutor would never have charged her under those circumstances. His interpretation of the law will give federal prosecutors enormous discretion about whom to put in jail simply because, as he said in about the Lori Drew trial,¬†‚ÄúThis was obviously a case that means a lot to me.‚Äù That should not be the standard for who gets prosecuted under a law and who doesn’t.

Postscript. Some commenters over at the Volokh Conspiracy have noted another interesting consequence of the fact that violation of a Web site’s Terms of Service can now be interpreted as a serious crime: When you agree to the typical ToS, you are agreeing that the site can change the ToS at any time and it is your own damned fault if you violate them because you didn’t check to see that they had changed! The relevant ToS in this case are MySpace’s, so let’s see what they say: may modify this Agreement from time to time and such modification shall be effective upon posting by on the MySpace Website. You agree to be bound to any changes to this Agreement when you use the MySpace Services after any such modification is posted. It is therefore important that you review this Agreement regularly to ensure you are updated as to any changes.

The federal prosecutor has apparently established his right to construe “unauthorized access” to include access in violation of terms to which the user never explicitly agreed, if a clause like this is in the original agreement. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to the other side of the looking-glass ‚Ķ.

What’s “Broadband”?

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Use of the term “Broadband” is unregulated in the US, but more and more people know they want it. Those conditions are ideal for shading the truth.

A new report in Great Britain states that more than 40% of “broadband” connections there are less than 2MB/sec. I’m not aware that any similar figures are available in the US, but I know some services offered as “broadband” are less than 1MB/sec. That’s still a lot better than dialup, which is limited to .06 MB/sec., but nowhere near the rates of at least 4MB/sec that make web surfing pleasant.

Another thing to realize is that ISPs split the channel capacity into upload and download speeds, generally allocating much more for download on the theory you shouldn’t be uploading movies (and they don’t care if you actually make your own). So they will give you two different numbers for the two directions — but it’s hard to be sure you can believe them anyway.

Pentagon Bans Flash Drives

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

A few weeks ago we noted a case in England where data giving access to the records of 25 million Britons was found on a flash drive that some clown dropped in the parking lot of a pub.

Now the AP is reporting that the Pentagon is banning all flash drives, and is collecting the drives that are in the hands of Pentagon workers, with no assurance they will ever be returned. The goal is apparently not to prevent data from leaking out, but to prevent viruses from being imported on infected drives that people plug into the USB port of their desktop machines.

Review of Blown to Bits

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

There’s a generally favorable review by Dan Clapper in the Asheville (NC) Citizen-TImes. (Or at least on the web site. You can never tell these days what’s actually printed on paper!)

YouTube Videos of the Debate about Google

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Last week’s Intelligence Squared debate (about which I blogged earlier) is now up for viewing on YouTube, in 13 parts. You can find them by searching for “intelligence squared google”. My initial presentation is #4, and I respond to a question from Larry Lessig in #8.