Blown To Bits

Archive for March, 2009

Best wishes, Chris Soghoian

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Chris Soghoian is a smart, relentless privacy advocate and activist. I’ve cited him half a dozen times in this blog (use the search box). He has done a lot of dirty work for print media as well. He’s a grad student at Indiana and a Fellow at the Berkman Center, where I have gotten to know him. He’s a guy you definitely want on your side in an argument. For example, he just took on the recording and movie industries in an FTC hearing about the loss that consumers can suffer if their cloud music or movie supplier goes out of business and takes the bits down with them.

A few weeks ago he pointed out that the decision of the Obama administration to use YouTube had privacy consequences — there was a risk that Google could track who was watching presidential addresses, for example. The first post on this subject was called¬†Why Obama should ditch YouTube, and several others followed. Both the White House and Google were apparently furious, but the White House changed its practices shortly afterwards.

Now CNet, the online news service that sponsored Chris’s blog, has fired him. No explanation, but it’s almost surely because he annoyed some powerful institutions. Here is Chris’s own comments on this, and here is a comment by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This is not good. We’ve lost an important voice. Even more, the case raises big worries about the independence of the new media. Chris’s stuff is edgy, and it’s no surprise that his exploits irritate people. But what did CNet think it was getting when it published a blog entitled “Surveillance State”? And on this story at least, the denouncements that followed were denials of things that Chris’s stories never said. I am not aware that he was caught making any mistakes. So please imagine the Washington Post firing Woodward and Bernstein after they started printing embarrassing stuff about the Watergate burglary.

I wish him well. We’ll be hearing from him again, I’m sure. And on the bright side, maybe he’ll finish his PhD now. But I wish he were still up on a visible site making trouble in his informed, funny way.

Twitter Evolves

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Things change so fast.

People use Twitter to broadcast short text messages about what they are doing. Pretty vain, but it does have its uses — as David Pogue notes, if you’ve got a question that is hard to Google but has a simple answer, thousands of human beings may be out there, waiting to tell you the answer.

Then people started losing track of the fact that other people were actually reading what they were writing, maybe people who aren’t nice. A US Congressman forgot that his diplomatic mission to Baghdad was supposed to be secret, and that guys with guns and bombs might like to follow his movements.

Now we have people who, having splattered their 140-character-max tweets all over the place, want to assert copyright in what they’ve written. There are only 27^140 possible tweets, can I just copyright them all and then sue anybody who uses Twitter?

Seriously, I can’t think of a reason why these claims of copyright in tweets wouldn’t be valid. But who would worry if somebody passed along his or her tweet to somebody else? Isn’t twittering psychologically in the same space as opening a cage of doves, freeing them to the world?

Or hawks maybe. People are also filing libel lawsuits because they’ve been called dirty names in other people’s twittering. Hmm — certainly could be false and damaging, and certainly is communicated to third parties. Sounds like that claim could hold water too.

Huge Cyber-Spy Ring

Sunday, March 29th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A remarkable report was released yesterday by researchers at the University of Toronto. A very sophisticated malware distribution has been reporting from hundreds of infected computers for at least a year now. Among the computers affected are those of groups allied with the Dalai Lama, and the reports appear to be going to China. The malware has the capacity not only to send documents back, but to turn on the computer’s camera and microphone so everything that his happening in the vicinity of the computer can be observed. John Markoff has an excellent summary in the New York Times, and the full report is available for download here.

This is scary stuff, and no laughing matter. Other sites that were part of the network included a computer in an Indian embassy.

AT&T Broadband Customers: You Are Being Watched

Friday, March 27th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

AT&T has announced that it is teaming up with the Recording Industries Association of America to fight illegal music downloading. Subscribers to AT&T Internet service will have their traffic monitored, and will receive warning letters if their activities are suspicious. This is the other shoe dropping after the RIAA’s announcement in December 2008 that it would no longer go after individual downloaders (mainly young, music-loving individuals) with draconian threats. It’s the roll-out of a plan that has long been expected: the RIAA, unable to staunch the leakage of bits by using legal methods to punish the guilty or educational methods to persuade the population at large, has instead persuaded a private corporation to presume all of its customers guilty and worthy of unwarranted surveillance. The only surprise, perhaps, is that a major ISP is leading the way.

Bad as the RIAA’s previous system of extortion letters was, this is, in its way, even worse. The odds were heavily stacked against anyone alleged to have downloaded a song illegally, and the private police force the RIAA hired was beyond the scrutiny of the people it was policing. But at least there was some reason to believe that someone had downloaded something before the demand letter went out. The RIAA might get wrong who and what, but the letters were, presumably, triggered by actual events.

Not so with the new program. Now, apparently, all customers will watched all the time. It is as though the RIAA had worked out a deal with FedEx to open all packages looking for compact disks, and to send a warning letter if you seemed to be receiving too many of them.

[AT&T executive Jim] Cicconi told attendees of the Leadership Music Digital Summit that the notices, which are sent via e-mail, are part of a “trial.” AT&T wants to test customer reaction, he said.

I hope any AT&T customers out there will freely offer AT&T their reactions, and I hope those reactions are furious. Surveillance is not OK and no one should put up with it.

There seems to be some confusion on the part of the various spokespeople about what AT&T may or may not do about terminating accounts. Of course they don’t want to drive business to other ISPs — but many locations do not have competing ISPs in the first place.

In any case, the fundamental problem is that broadband services should be treated as common carriers. The fact that the ISPs own the “wires” should not give them the right to pick and choose who uses the wires, on the basis of private surveillance and unproven allegations. They can’t legally do it on their long distance lines, and they shouldn’t be able to do it on their Internet service either.

5 Seconds to Change Your Mind After Pressing “Send”

Thursday, March 26th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Google is offering a five-second delay feature in Gmail, giving you a chance to retract an email. We’ve all had that experience of having our blood run cold when we realize, even while our finger is still on the key, that we sent a message to the wrong person. I generally don’t like restrictive technologies designed to save us from ourselves, but this one sounds like a good idea!

More Internet (and Cell Phone) Sex Policing

Thursday, March 26th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

There is a move afoot in Massachusetts to — well, it’s hard to tell from the early reports what exactly the legislation would do. Perhaps to punish people who abuse the elderly and the disabled; perhaps to ban pornography involving the elderly and the disabled. Who knew? I certainly didn’t, but an accompanying sidebar in the Herald reports that 20% or more of Japanese porn involves the elderly, and says ‚Ķ well, I will just quote the headline: “‘Wheelchair vamp dwarf’ porn is big business online.”

The problem is the casualness with which the officials quoted — one District Attorney, one a state representative — are ready to lump these forms of pornography in with child pornography. “Kind of a no-brainer,” says the state rep. Maybe a law is needed here somewhere, but please DO try to use your brain. Child pornography has extremely serious penalties, and is illegal to possess, on the logic that a child can never be a willing participant in the creation of the pornographic material — something plainly not true for the elderly and the disabled. (If child pornography is purely synthetic, so no children were abused to produce it, it may actually be legal. Unless it’s obscene, the problem with child pornography is not with adults seeing it, it’s with what had to be done to produce it.) Frankly, I doubt that any more laws are warranted. Harvey Silverglate has it right:¬†‚ÄúIt seems to be the latest in a long effort to broaden the definition of obscenity. We‚Äôve already got (laws) against coercion. Why is that not adequate?‚Äù

Certainly the morals police are at work in Pennsylvania, where schools are seizing cell phones, looking for naughty photos on them, and then coercing the students depicted in those photos into re-education camps about sexual evils. Some students are fighting back:¬†Students Sue Prosector in Cellphone Photos Case. These students are taking some risks, because of the severity of child pornography laws; like defendants in copyright cases, there is an overwhelming incentive to accept whatever deal is offered rather than go to trial, even if — as this story claims — the photos are in some cases nothing worse than a couple of girls at a slumber party, shown from the waist up, wearing bras. (Ah, says the prosecutor, but he, at least, found the photos “provocative.”)

And do we really think it should be part of the schools’ job in “protecting” its students to go through everything on their cell phones? Of course, that is nothing less than any U. S. border guard could do, under orders issued by the Department of Homeland Security under the Bush administration. (How about repealing that one, Mr. Obama?) Is this the way of life we want our children to grow up accepting as normal — even as good?

Google, Tweaked

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Google’s search engine isn’t perfect because it can’t read minds. In a sidebar in Chapter 4 we note that a search for “spears” returns few results that aren’t about Britney or her little sister — anyone looking for weapons was pretty much out of luck when we tried it. Google tended to give the results that most people want most of the time, and that is far more likely to be Britney than a pointed pole.

In recent weeks — I first noted it a month or so ago — Google’s search results seem to be less monotonous and the results pages have started to include some phrases at the bottom pointing to less common interpretations of the search phrase. (See¬†Google tinkers with ‘special sauce’ for searches.) So the top page of results for “spears” now leads with Spears Manufacturing (a maker of PVC piping) and includes a link to the Wikipedia page for the pointy kind of spears. And the links across the bottom of the page offer you searches for “spears weapons,” “greek spears,” and also “spears flash,” “spears underwear,” and “spears no underwear,” all apparently common searches for a particular subcategory of Britney material. Not sure if these links are intentionally to subsets rather than alternatives to the tyrrany-of-the-majority favorite.

In other Google news, StreetView has been rolled out in England, to much greater interest than I remember it exciting in the US. Reaction on privacy grounds has been strong (e.g. Who allowed Google to put my big knickers online?), as has voyeurism (e.g. Google Streetview Captures British People Drunkenly Vomiting). The Times (London) notes archly that the head of Google UK lives on a gated lane inaccessible to the Google Streetview camera ….

The Chinese Censors are At It Again

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

They’re completely blocking YouTube. No official explanation given, but it’s probably not unrelated to the fact that official sources are accusing the Dalai Lama of producing a phony video allegedly showing Chinese police beating Tibetan independence protesters.

Aside from the obvious moral that the Chinese government feels quite at ease getting tough when it tires of playing games, there is a larger moral for the rest of us: If you want to make what you think will be an important point, don’t worry about over-blocking. We tend, quite properly, to get outraged about the suppression of the isolated instance of offending speech, but in doing so we lose sight of the far more outrageous fact that the entire haystack is shrouded in darkness so that the needle won’t be seen.

Department of Justice Supports the RIAA in the Tenenbaum Case

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

We reported for the first time back in October on the case of RIAA v. Tenenbaum. The Recording Industries have taken one Joel Tenenbaum to task for downloading a few songs while he was a BU student, and Mr. Tenenbaum wants a trial. He is being defended by Prof. Charles Nesson of Harvard Law School. Prof. Nesson has challenged the very constitutionality of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, on basis that the statutory penalties are so disproportionate to the actual damages that the law functions as a criminal statute even though it is a civil statute. That the DMCA is (for the most part) a civil statute has many consequences — the standard of proof is lower, and the defendant has no right to public defender, for example. The result is that defendants in copyright cases almost never contest; instead they settle up with the RIAA out of court.

There has been some suspense over whether the Obama administration’s Justice Department would enter into this controversy. On the one hand, the new administration prides itself on being the friend of the little guy. On the other hand, both the Vice President and several senior members of the Justice Department have reputations as friends of the copyright industry.

Today we have our answer: the Justice Department has indeed entered the argument, and sides unequivocally with the Recording Industries. The DOJ brief (pdf, 31 pages) urges the judge not to deal with the constitutional question if she can avoid it, and then dismisses every constitutional argument put forward by the defense. According to this summary by Recording Industry vs. the People, the Justice Department memo makes no response to the arguments put forward by the¬†Free Software Foundation in support of Tenenbaum’s case — citing various cases and authorities to the effect that the statutory damages set by the DMCA are unconscionably high.

It’s a disappointment — the DMCA is bad law, as we detail in Chapter 6, and we might have hoped for better from the new administration. But previous Justice Departments had sided with the Recording Industries, so perhaps this should have come as no surprise — even with the enlightened Elena Kagan as the government’s top lawyer.

Slashdot has a good precis, and almost 500 comments as of this writing.

The Week in Internet Censorship

Saturday, March 21st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Americans can learn a lot about what not to do with the Internet by observing what happens abroad. Unfortunately we too often take exactly the wrong lesson and decide that gee, if people in country X can try to control some social ill that the Internet has facilitated, we’d better try too.

For example, shortly after the Mumbai attacks, there were reports that the terrorists had used Google Earth to plot their path through the city. An Indian court called for a ban on Google Earth itself — to kill the technology, no matter how useful for good, because it had also been used for evil. Not to be outdone by the Indians, a California legislator last week introduced legislation that would require the blurring of Google Earth images. The rationale? To give Californians “the same level of protections that foreign governments extend to their own citizens.” As though we were in a protection competition with every nation of the world, and no other American value, such as freedom of information, was at stake.

An interesting game of cat and mouse has been playing itself out in China. Stirred to resist censorship of the Web, inventive Chinese technophiles have flooded it with cartoons and children’s ditties about grass-mud horses and river crabs. These are parables about censorship — the Chinese words for these creatures resemble, on the one hand, a dirty curse and the official euphemism for “censorship.” For awhile it looked like the perpetrators were untouchable — who could object to a little music video with some alpaca-like creatures romping through the grass? Alas, late last week China laid down the law — no more talk of river crabs on the Internet, or else. Will it work? We shall see. In the very same issue of the New York Times there is a story about a famous Chinese artist who is using the Web with apparent impunity to protest the suppression of information about official malfeasance in response to a terrible earthquake that killed many people.

But that’s China. Back to the world of democracies, for a taste of what may be coming our way. Australia adopted very severe anti-Internet-pornography rules, which are now being implemented. The list of banned sites has now been revealed, and it includes several legal sites, including one for a dental surgeon, one for a legal gambling site, and one for a tour operator. (Follow the link if you want to get to the full list on Wikileaks, but be warned that most of the sites in the list are pretty sketchy places.) A pretty furious reaction seems to be afoot, but the mistakes could easily have been predicted. How many false positives, that is, legal information mistakenly banned from the nation, are the Australians willing to tolerate in order to shut out the material that is officially illegal? Who is deciding on which sites are illegal, anyway (apparently these decisions are being made without any process at all in Australia). And how will American lawmakers respond when such measures are, as they have been and inevitably will be again, proposed in order to protect Americans?

Added 3/22: I should have included a reference to the micro-storm over Britney Spears’ new song “If You Seek Amy,” as in “all the boys and all the girls are begging to if you seek Amy,” pretty much the same trick as the Chinese are doing with the mud horses and river crabs. The Parents Television Council is outraged and claims that radio stations are violating the laws about broadcast indecency if they play the song before 10pm. We tell the tale of broadcast indecency in Chapter 8 — one of these days a case like this is going to work its way up the federal court system, and we’ll see if our judicial system follows the model set by Chinese authorities.