Blown To Bits

Archive for the ‘Censorship and free speech’ Category

If You Will Ever Want a Government Job, Don’t Peek at WikiLeaks

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

The US Government has announced that federal workers should not be looking at the government secrets. Fine; I suppose your employer can tell you what you can’t do. But several experts are extending the logic, saying that succumbing to the temptation to look at the site may permanently disqualify you from ever getting a security clearance, because you could be asked whether you ever looked at classified information you were not authorized to see.

Would they really do that? This article in the Washington Post says they would.

The Career Services Offices of several universities have sent their students warnings about this danger.

This seems crazy on the face of it. Do we really want our future diplomats and intelligence officers to be the only people in the country who haven’t found out what those cables say? Should these universities be telling their students also not to read the New York Times, which has published some of this classified information?

By the way, if you want to risk your future security clearance by listening to the cables rather than looking at them, this site will give you audio versions.

Oops! No security clearance for me now; I just clicked that link.

Short Course on Privacy, Secrecy, and Censorship

Thursday, October 28th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I will be teaching a 2-day course, 9-5 on January 10 and 11, on Privacy, Secrecy, and Censorship. This Harvard Division of Continuing Education Professional Development course is for anyone who wants to learn about the digital explosion in one short burst, for either professional or personal reasons.

Several of my colleagues are also teaching fascinating short courses in January, listed on the same web page. There are links for inquiries and registration, or just shoot me an email, to if you want to get info from the horse’s mouth!

You Saw It Here First

Thursday, October 28th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

The Massachusetts Statute that was the subject of my last blog entry has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

My guess is that this ruling sticks if it is challenged. The legislature was given the opportunity to fix a problem and instead did what it figure would be politically popular, to legislate safety over free speech. Back to the drawing board, folks.

Censorship in Massachusetts

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Some time ago I blogged about the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that the state’s definition of “matter” did not include text messages. For that reason some creep avoided a conviction for texting a minor with some material that would have been criminal had the material been printed.

The state legislature rushed in to fix the definition. Here are the before and after definitions of “matter” taken from the state laws:

[ Definition of “Matter” effective until July 11, 2010. For text effective July 11, 2010, see below.]

“Matter”, any handwritten or printed material, visual representation, live performance or sound recording including but not limited to, books, magazines, motion picture films, pamphlets, phonographic records, pictures, photographs, figures, statues, plays, dances.

[ Definition of “Matter” as amended by 2010, 74, Sec. 2 effective July 11, 2010. For text effective until July 11, 2010, see above.]

“Matter”, any handwritten or printed material, visual representation, live performance or sound recording including, but not limited to, books, magazines, motion picture films, pamphlets, phonographic records, pictures, photographs, figures, statues, plays, dances, or 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, whether by computer, telephone, or any other device or by any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system.

Now that is certainly inclusive, but probably too inclusive. At least that is the argument being put forward by civil libertarians in challenging the constitutionality of the revised law. From the Associated Press (Washington Post — the Boston papers seem not to have picked up the story):

The content providers say the recent amendments amount to “a broad censorship law” that would ban from the Internet a variety of information that could be seen as harmful to minors, including material about contraception, pregnancy, literature and art that adults have a First Amendment right to view.

Michael Bamberger, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the way the law is written, adults cannot speak freely in chat rooms “out of fear that minors will see that as well.”

Nonsense, says the Attorney General’s office.

Assistant Attorney General Jessica Barnett said the new law only prohibits the dissemination of matter that is obscene to minors under a standard set in a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, that is, when the person sending the material specifically intends to disseminate it to someone under the age of 18.

“Absent intent to specifically send it to a minor, there is no crime,” Barnett said.

The problem is you can’t tell who is viewing a web page; nor can you control what web pages Massachusetts children are viewing that come from way beyond the horizon of Massachusetts Law. This all looks like yet another quixotic child-protection statute that will not protect children but will arm prosecutors with a handy tool to go after people saying things they don’t like.


Monday, September 6th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I am happy to jump the gun on a bit of a blog-a-thon in which a number of us are taking up topics related to Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, a masterful analysis of the forces at work to control the Internet.

The Internet disintermediates. It breaks the grip of the middlemen we used to rely on for a variety of services. I don’t need a publisher for my ruminations about the digital world; I can self-publish on this blog. I don’t need a travel agent, or a stock broker; I can make my own travel reservations and buy my own stock picks. Whether I do a better job now at these tasks than I used to have done for me, and who is getting the financial benefit of my doing the work that I used to hire someone to do for me, are nice questions, but the power shift is the important thing.

Which brings us to the interesting story of Craigslist and its Adult Services (née Erotic) section. After a horrible murder here in Boston in which a woman was killed after setting up shop in a nice hotel and receiving paying visitors there, Martha Coakley of MA, Richard Blumenthal of NY, and a number of other Attorneys General started pressuring Craigslist to remove the Adult category. This weekend, Craigslist did exactly that, replacing it with the word CENSORED. (Only in the U.S.)

A number of good stories appeared about this. I thought the Boston Globe had the money quote, from Harvey Silverglate, a noted defense attorney and civil libertarian. “They do not have the legal power [to shut down adult services on the site], so instead they’re abusing their office by intimidating private citizens,’’ he said. ’’I think it’s cowardly.’’ David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post got a good quote from Blumenthal, who may have a hard time remembering his athletic career at Harvard, but knows right from wrong. “They lack either the will or the wherewithal to effectively screen for prostitution ads. Which is why we [said] to them, ‘Shut down the site.'” (Fahrenthold also quotes Zittrain. Full disclosure: David Fahrenthold is my son-in-law.)

What is going on here is CDA Section 230 in action. “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.” The same law that protects the Globe and the Post if one of their online commenters says something libelous also protects Craigslist. As law professor M. Ryan Calo told the New York Times, “What’s happened here is the states’ attorneys general, having failed to win in court and in litigation, have decided to revisit this in the court of public opinion, and in the court of public opinion, they have been much more successful.”

I have a question for the Attorneys General: Why don’t they go after the prostitutes for prostitution, rather than, lacking any legal basis to go after the web site on which they advertise, bullying the site? It’s not like the prostitutes are hard to find. Have one of your gumshoes answer the ads and make a few arrests. Not rocket science. Just not headline stuff. Before you start lobbing Congress to change the law about what people can say online, why not make some arrests for the act you are actually supposed to be worried about and which already is a crime?

But the story of the day is in Boston’s “other” newspaper, the Boston Herald. “Hub Escort Service Cheers Craigslist Ad Shutdown,” reads the headline. “With Craigslist, there’s no middleman,” says the madam, who expects her business to surge if it becomes harder for willing customers and willing service providers to connect to each other directly. Now there is a businesswoman who understands the Internet. This story isn’t over yet — some of those adult ads are reappearing under other rubrics — but I can’t help feeling we are seeing world-historical forces clashing over information control right before our eyes.

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.

Privacy and Petitioning

Friday, June 25th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

A fascinating case has been before the US Supreme Court this spring. Opponents of a gay civil union statute in Washington state petitioned to place its repeal on the ballot so voters could have the last word. Backers of the law asked the Secretary of State to declare the names of the petitioners a public record and post the names on the Web. The petitioners sued the state to prevent publication, saying they feared harassment.

It’s a wonderful puzzle. Both sides claim their free speech rights are at stake: the one side holding that the names are really part of the legislative process for which transparency is essential; and the other side arguing that their capacity to speak freely requires a level of anonymity. It’s an Internet-created issue, because although petitions have been around for centuries, until now it would have been impossible to publish them quickly enough to influence an election, and to sort and analyze them effectively enough to be a serious privacy threat.

The court’s decision is at once one-sided and inconclusive. By an 8-1 vote the court decided the immediate question before it: Petitions are, generally speaking, public. But the near-unanimity is only superficial, and may not even settle the question of the case at hand. Most, but not all, of the 8 allowed that there might be circumstances—some credible risk of harm, for example—under which petitioners would have a right to keep their names from being published. So the case goes back to a lower court, but may rise back up again.

What is most interesting is that the views of the justices cut obliquely across the usual liberal-conservative lines. In fact, the justice who is the most dismissive of any privacy right, and the sole justice who would have made privacy the norm, not the exception, are the two most conservative justices, Scalia and Thomas, who rarely split their votes on anything. Scalia called for “civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,” and added that he does “not look forward to a society which … exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism.” Thomas held with equal conviction that routinely publishing the names of petition signers would unacceptably chill free speech through a loss of “associational right to privacy.”

A case of the Internet confusing the traditional alignments on free speech issues.

Another “How We Could Know Less”: South Africa Wants to Ban Internet Porn

Saturday, May 29th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Democracies are remarkably ready to adopt the censorship technologies of nations they claim to loathe. Our example du jour is the government of South Africa, which proposes to ban Internet pornography. All of it — not just bad stuff like child pornography.

And why not, say the social arbiters within the government? A deputy Home Minister says, “Cars are already provided with brakes and seatbelts… There is no reason why the internet should be provided without the necessary restrictive mechanisms built into it.”

There are a few problems with this idea, to say the least. First is that it won’t work. Any filter will fail to detect encrypted images — though of course you could outlaw encryption. Problem is, you probably want your banking transactions encrypted.

So any porn detector is going to have lots of false negatives.

But there are the false positives too. This is the old problem of figuring out what the government censors will consider pornographic. Perhaps South Africa has figured out how to define it, but I doubt it. Will anatomical atlases be banned? Breastfeeding guides? Sex manuals, for that matter? What about The Ecstasy of St Teresa? Somebody has to decide, and where there is legal liability for guessing wrong, a great deal of worthwhile material will be redacted. Self-censorship works rather well, actually.

The (North Carolina) Government Wants to Know What You Bought

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Massachusetts has started to get a bit more insistent about collecting MA sales taxes on goods purchased out of state–including over the Internet. This year’s return invited me either to list the actual amount paid and pay the Massachusetts rate on the total, or to pay a “safe harbor” tax on my income. Pay the safe harbor rate and I am exempt from harassment for my out of state purchases, even if I get audited and it turns out I would have owed the state much more based on my actual purchases.

I found this annoying. But actually it seems to me correct. I don’t imagine people were paying those taxes until the safe harbor was introduced, and if I don’t like the safe harbor, I can keep track of all my Amazon purchases and whatnot and pay the 6.25% on those. I can object to the whole notion that stuff I buy out of state and bring or have shipped in state should be taxed, but until somebody changes the rules, that is the way the rules read.

Now the state of North Carolina has done Massachusetts one better and has handed its comparable tax collection problem to Big Brother. The state has demanded that Amazon turn over to its tax authorities detailed, itemized records of everything shipped to anybody in the state. (Amazon has no business address in North Carolina. Only customers are there.)

That’s a lot of data, but of course that’s not the problem. Amazon has it, not just for billing purposes but so it can pitch you different suggestions on rainy Tuesday nights if it notices that you particularly like ordering steamy romances on evenings like that. The granularity of the data is extremely fine, and the state wants it all. Amazon provided some anonymized information — not sure I am happy even with that, given how easily apparently anonymized data can be re-identified — but it doesn’t matter, because the state was not content with that. It wants names and addresses.

Amazon is resisting, thank goodness, on First Amendment grounds–citing individuals’ right to read anonymously. But aren’t there Fourth Amendment issues, too? Given constitutional guarantees of security against unreasonable searches, what possible justification could the government have for demanding to know the shoppings lists of ordinary citizens, not under suspicion of anything?

HWCKL #3: The Resurgence of “Hot News Misappropriation”

Sunday, March 28th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Facts can’t be copyrighted. So if I know something is true, in general I can publish it, no matter how I learned it. But there are limits. Publishing “hot news” that was gathered by professional journalists is freeloading on the labor of others, and can be illegal as a matter of unfair competition. Sam Bayard has an excellent run-down on the legal history of “hot news misappropriation,” which he describes as a doctrine that was in decline only a few years ago, scorned by jurists and nearly useless in practice. But the Internet has given the concept new life. News organizations, faced with bloggers’ newfound ability to skim the cream off a variety of sources and publish the gist almost instantly, are being sued by the original news gatherers. And, in at least one recent case, winning on the basis of hot news misappropriation.

The case involves a site called Fly on the Wall, which was sued by Barclays Capital, Inc. Fly’s creator, Ron Etergino, claims he does not simply steal the news coming passed on to him by Barclay’s clients. Instead,

According to Etergino, he checks first to see what Recommendations have been reported on Bloomberg Market News.  Then he checks Dow Jones, Thomson Reuters, and Fly’s competitors such as TTN,, and  Next, he visits chat rooms to which he has been invited to participate by the moderator. . . . Etergino also receives “blast IMs” through the Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, or IMTrader messaging services that may go to dozens or hundreds of individuals.  Finally, Etergino exchanges IMs, emails, and more rarely telephone calls with individual traders at hedge funds, money managers, and other contacts on Wall Street.

As Sam says, that “looks a whole lot like good-old fashioned journalism.  And it largely relies on information that is publicly available through mainstream and Internet media reports, IM blasts, and what appear to be open chat rooms.”

A federal judge has nonetheless required Fly to delay publication for long enough to give clients of Barclays and the other market researchers a head start. And what could be wrong with that?

What could be wrong with that is that it is another way for owners of knowledge, already well protected by copyright laws, to prevent others from publishing the truth. Barclays would have used the simple expedient of a DMCA takedown against Fly if it had been available, but the facts Fly reports can’t be copyrighted. As Bayard says, the hot news misappropriation doctrine “creates a pseudo property right in facts that copyright law says are in the public domain.”

And the problem with that is Google News and its kin, “news aggregator” sites that link to a variety of primary news sites. These have been contentious as newspapers continue to decline, since the ad revenue on the aggregator sites goes to the aggregator, not the news organizations themselves. And when you click on a link at Google News and get directed to the St Louis Post-Dispatch or some other newspaper site, you are unlikely to pay much attention to the ads there, much less to wander into other parts of the newspaper.

All of which argues for sympathy with the beleaguered organizations that create, in the words of Alex Jones’s stirring book Losing the News, “the iron core” of the news, the hard facts that are costly to dig out and for which the news organizations need compensation. But using the hot news misappropriation against the aggregators raises serious First Amendment issues, since as Bayard quotes a relevant precedent, “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.”

I don’t know exactly where the balance should be struck, but every time I see a plaintiff win a reasonable-sounding judgment against a publisher by means of a creative application of a legal principle that was meant to cover a different situation, I cringe to think how that principle will be used in the future to curtail the free flow of knowledge.