Blown To Bits

Archive for the ‘Censorship and free speech’ Category

Google “leaves China” … for Hong Kong

Monday, March 22nd, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Finally closing the loop on its refusal to self-censor its search results in mainland China, Google has flipped the switch. The site is now being served, uncensored, from Hong Kong. In principle, that is, they are providing uncensored search inside China, since Hong Kong is part of China. Google has also put up a page, which it updates every day, indicating which Google services are available, blocked, or partially blocked from the mainland.

The Chinese government has responded with anger and contempt, claiming (for reasons that are a bit unclear to me) a double-cross on Google’s part.

See Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog for the most cogent summary of the present state of affairs and the choices now available to the Chinese government. She argues, correctly I think, that the government’s bluster is only going to make the Chinese people more aware of what they are missing, causing many more to learn about circumvention tools. She quotes a tweet coming out of China summarizing the irony beautifully: “One Google, On World; One China, No Google.”

Legislative Sanity

Sunday, March 21st, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Tamar Lewin of the New York Times reports that some state legislatures are showing some common sense about sexting. They are recognizing that it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to prosecute a teenager on child pornography charges for snapping a cell phone photo of herself and sending it to her boyfriend. If the perpetrator is the same as the victim, it’s like prosecuting a failed suicide as attempted murder.

Legislatures are so often happy to have old laws applied to new technology as long as they expand the scope of criminality. Perhaps in these cases they recognize that the kids doing the sexting could be their own children — as many as 20% of teens may have done something similar. Nice to see the pattern reversed, and for the problem to be treated as one of education and parental responsibility. The criminal justice system is not the vehicle for fixing whatever is going wrong here.

Also on the child pornography front, Japan, which apparently does not take real child pornography very seriously, is cracking down on Manga (cartoon) child pornography. A weird inversion of values. The Economist reports that an American court recently convicted someone for possessing Manga child pornography, which I should have thought was hard to do in the US, given the emphasis on harm to the victim. Apparently the grounds are obscenity, which is still illegal, though rarely prosecuted, in the US.

How We Could Know Less #1

Friday, March 5th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I have been thinking for awhile about the myriad ways in which we could wind up knowing less, not more, as a result of the digital explosion. So this will be the first in a series. Feel free to post or email others you’d like to suggest.

The editor of the European Journal of International Law is going to stand trial in criminal court in France, because a book review on a web site associated with the journal displeased the author of the book. The book’s author demanded that the review be taken down; the editor wrote a thoughtful response, inviting the reviewer to alter his review if he wished, and inviting the author to post a comment of her own if she wished. (These are book-review innovations that could not have happened in the pre-Internet world.) The reviewer chose not to alter his review, and instead of posting a response, the author sued the editor, personally, for libel. Apparently, under French law, this ball, once rolling, can end only in the courthouse. The editor, not even a Frenchman I think, has to show in Paris in June to defend himself.

This is madness. Without pretending to any expertise about French law, it seems that the European prioritization of personal dignity over free speech as a human right here has crazy, and more importantly censorious, consequences. Who will dare to write a critical book review on a blog if it means the expense and risk of defending oneself in France?

The editor’s telling of the tale is here. The review itself is here.

Hard to know where this case could end. Even if the editor spends a lot of money, gets a good lawyer, goes to France, and wins his case, who, in the future, will dare either write or publish a critical review of anything by a French author? What sort of system of liberté is this? Is this really what the French fought their revolution to protect?

The editor invites help of two kinds. First, and this applies particularly to scholars who are themselves editors,

You may send an indication of indignation/support by email attachment to the following email address Kindly write, if possible, on a letterhead indicating your affiliation and attach such letters to the email. Such letters may be printed and presented eventually to the Court.

The editor asks that letters not be sent to the book author. And second, the editor asks,

it will be helpful if you can send [to the same address] scanned or digital copies of book reviews (make sure to include a precise bibliographical reference) which are as critical or more so than the book review [linked above].

If you have links to reviews that meet that condition, let me know and I’d be glad to pass them along.

Iran Bans Gmail

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

In a move that is remarkably aggressive even by the standards of totalitarian regimes, Iran has announced that Gmail will be banned and that a government-run email service will take its place. The Wall Street Journal explains,

An Iranian official said the move was meant to boost local development of Internet technology and to build trust between people and the government.

I get it. People will trust the government more if they know the government is watching all their email and there is nothing they can do about it. Wait, no, I don’t get it. Could you explain that again?

I have gotten two unsolicited emails over the past year from Iran. One was from a Gmail address, enclosing a manuscript about teaching for me to read. When I responded that we all think about the people of Iran and their struggles, the unguarded reply was “That is why I chose green for the cover of my book.” I hope that did not get him into trouble. Another, from a Yahoo mail address, asked for my help in locating a relative. Apparently the person writing thought the relative had gone to Harvard. I could find no evidence of that but I did find the fellow’s Facebook page, for which my correspondent was very grateful

These experiences left me wondering how thorough the surveillance is, and today’s announcement leaves me wondering if people will put up with it being heightened.

Hilary Clinton on Internet Freedom

Sunday, January 24th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I’ve now both listened to and read Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom. (That’s a link to the State Dept. home page, where it is still featured. I imagine it will move off shortly.)

It’s a good speech, I think. At least it was good enough to annoy the Chinese. A columnist for the People’s Daily snorted that Google had been reduced to an “ideological tool” of the US government and noted, correctly, that Google is losing the competition with the native Chinese search engine, Baidu. (Note: You can compare for yourself the search results returned by the US version of Google, the Chinese version of Google, and Baidu. But be aware that the link for Chinese Google takes you to servers inside the US, while the link for Baidu takes you, I think, to China. The result is that you may not see, the Chinese version, as the Chinese experience it. When I tried Googling “Falun Gong” inside China, I lost the Internet connection to my hotel room.)

The China Daily simply denies that Clinton is telling the truth. [A Foreign Ministry spokesman] “said the speech indicated China restricts internet freedom. ‘It is a far cry from the truth,’ he said.” And the People’s Daily accuses the US of hypocrisy. “It is common practice for countries, including the United States, to take necessary measures to administer the Internet according to their own laws and regulations. The Internet is also restricted in the United States when it comes to information concerning terrorism, porn, racial discrimination and other threats to society.” The paper goes on to cite Steve Ballmer as one of the good guys. “Noting that most countries exert some sort of control over information, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said Friday his company must comply with the laws and customs of any country where it does business.

In fact, in her speech, Clinton, after stirring invocations of the US First Amendment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, conceded the point about Internet freedom having its limits. Here is the crucial paragraph:

Now, all societies recognize that free expression has its limits. We do not tolerate those who incite others to violence, such as the agents of al-Qaida who are, at this moment, using the internet to promote the mass murder of innocent people across the world. And hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is reprehensible. It is an unfortunate fact that these issues are both growing challenges that the international community must confront together. And we must also grapple with the issue of anonymous speech. Those who use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities. But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.

Now that passage contains a remarkable juxtaposition. A grand buildup.  A concession that there are limits to expressive freedom. A citation of the example of mass terrorism. OK, I’m listening. The next examples are the usual nondiscrimination categories, presented as hate-speech categories. Now I am getting worried; what counts as hate speech is so often in the ears of the listener. To be sure, it is easy to imagine a Tibetan rant about Chinese oppression that the Chinese could reasonably tag as ethnic hate speech. This is beginning to sound like a list of exceptions to freedom big enough to put almost anyone in shackles. Then there is the “issue” of anonymous speech. Secretary Clinton has nothing good to say about it, and then in a flat declaration puts Osama Bin Laden in the same box with millions of American teenagers—in the box of “those use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property.” At this point I think the speech loses its operative edge. It leads inevitably to the conclusion that the speech control tools aren’t the problem—they are necessary in fact—only the way they are used.

So I finished the speech feeling good; it’s certainly better than a speech that emphasized cooperation at all costs, and that might have been expected. On the other hand it leaves me unconvinced that the administration actually has a consistent point of view on cyber-freedom.

One ironic footnote. The streaming video comes via a service called Brightcove. If you click on the “Information” icon on the video window while the speech is playing, you get Brightcove’s who-knew? privacy policy, which explains that “By using the Site, you agree to the terms and conditions of this Privacy Policy. If you do not agree to the terms and conditions of this Privacy Policy, please do not use the Site.” Much of the privacy policy does not apply to visits to the site, which requires no login and hence generates no personal information. But of course viewing the Internet Freedom video does send Brightcove your IP address, which Brightcove treats as “Non-Personal Information.” And, it says, “we reserve the right to share Non-Personal Information with affiliates and other third parties, for any purpose.” So Brightcove could, for example, sell Harvard University the information that I watched the Internet Freedom video via the wired jack in my Harvard office. Freedom does have its limits, but I might have hoped they fell a bit farther out than that.

Private Censorship

Monday, January 18th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Google’s stated rationale for threatening to pull out of China is the withering barrage of cyberattacks it has experienced, apparently aimed at getting access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents. In an article that appeared this morning, Rebecca MacKinnon presses on another aspect of the Google-in-China drama: China’s insistence that Google censor its search results. That was, of course, what created the dilemma for Google in the first place, and caused the initial controversy. A part of me thought that pulling out because of the cyber-attacks—happy though it made me—was a bit of a cop-out, suggesting that it would be happy to keep on censoring if only the Chinese crackers would cut out their attacks.

In China, if companies fail to track and remove content or block conversations that regulators deem violate laws or regulations (a court or judge is almost never involved), they risk heavy fines at best and permanent shutdown at worst. …

To operate in China, Google’s local search engine,, had to meet these “self-discipline” requirements. When users typed words or phrases for sensitive subjects into the box and clicked “search,” was responsible for making sure that the results didn’t include forbidden content. …

Ever since launched in 2006, I’ve occasionally run tests to see how its compares to its homegrown competitor Baidu. consistently censored less than Baidu did. This is how Google executives justified the ethics of their presence in China: Chinese users, they argued, were still better off with than without it.

Things changed for Google in 2009, however. Regulators demanded that it ramp its self-censorship up to Baidu’s level. The Chinese state-run media attacked Google numerous times for failing to protect youth from smutty Web sites when — horror of horrors — those innocent kids happened to type in smutty words and phrases.

Now the important message in MacKinnon’s column is the effectiveness of self-censorship, and how hard it is to fight—and that for that reason, other countries are trying their own versions.

From France to Italy to the United Kingdom, the idea of holding carriers and services liable for what their customers do is seen as the cheapest and easiest solution to the law enforcement and social problems that have gotten tougher in the digital age — from child porn to copyright protection to cyber-bullying and libel.

“Not Your Father’s Censorship,” to use the title of a piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Ed last year. The argument for open publication, and holding the intermediaries blameless for the sins of the authors, is not an easy one. Before anyone goes down that path in search of a safer society, it is worth taking the Chinese example to heart.

Vaidhyanathan on China

Thursday, January 14th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the forthcoming book The Googlization of Everything, has posted on his blog what seems to be the entire text of one chapter, about Google in China. So it was frozen well before Google’s decision to stop censoring and perhaps abandon ship. It is a nuanced, balanced argument, with some compelling detail. He notes that censorship is not as simple as the “great firewall” metaphor would suggest, and that absolutist no-business-with-oppressive-regimes postures are not actually productive. Siva replays the debate in which he, I, and Esther Dyson participated, with an honest assessment of the two sides of the argument.

During that debate on National Public Radio in November 2008, Harvard computer science professor Harry Lewis accused Google of violating its “Don’t be Evil” motto by creating along the very lines that the Chinese government demanded. “Their choice was, to accept the Chinese ultimatum or to go home. They could have gone home but they didn’t. They stated and built the engine as the Chinese wanted it.” Lewis concluded, “Google didn’t choose the lesser of two evils when faced with the Chinese ultimatum. It chose the more profitable of the two evils.” Now, Lewis was making a debater’s point because, well, this was a debate. The question before the two panels was not whether Google on balance does more bad than good or good than bad. It was whether Google lived up to its motto. The Chinese deal gives Google critics – and my debating team – an easy shot. Perhaps it’s a cheap shot. But that is what debating is all about.

Esther Dyson responded to Lewis. Dyson is known as one of the central visionaries of the information age. She has been present at the creation of many of the most important initiatives of the Internet, including the gestation of several search engines. She is one of the brightest and most influential thinkers about digital technologies and their effects on the world. Dyson understandably believes in the transformative, perhaps revolutionary, power of information technology. “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power, it sucks power out of the center, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over people, while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives. Google is part of that. It’s one of these things that shines light on everything, it enables people to find stuff out, it enables them to question what their governments are doing, and it’s absolutely wonderful,” Dyson told the debate crowd in New York City. “Google by its very presence and its operation, even if it’s incomplete, creates increasing expectations for transparency, it starts people answering questions. It gets them to expect to be able to find out stuff.”

As I wrote in Chapter 1, I was sitting at the opposite table to Dyson. I was on Harry Lewis’ side of this constructed event. If the question at hand was whether Google violated its motto, I have to come down on Lewis’ side, as I was in fact on Lewis’ side. But in the real world, debates like this don’t matter much. To the people of China, Google’s fidelity to its motto doesn’t make a bit of difference. In the real world, Dyson has a much stronger point. Google might raise expectations. Google might spark some young person in China to ask one more question about why she can’t read this or watch that. Some Google is probably a little better for China than no Google.

You can listen to the debate here. The front page includes a nice picture of Siva and me, ecstatic (and a bit surprised) at the moment the audience declared our team the winner.

So it is time for me to fess up. Siva’s description and assessment are accurate. In fact, when I was invited to participate in the event, I said I could argue either side. They wanted me on the pro side, which was fine with me—as Siva says, in the rhetoric of a debate, it’s the easier argument about which to wax oratorical. But the argument requires a great deal of subtlety, and Siva’s chapter gives the nuanced view.

He doesn’t say how he would revise it now that Google seems to have gotten fed up with Chinese shenanigans …

Google: We’re Re-Thinking China

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I wrote in Blown to Bits about Google’s decision to do business in China, in spite of the need for censorship at the direction of the Chinese regime, notwithstanding Google’s mission statement about making information universally accessible. I thought this was the wrong decision, and I have argued that position publicly (winning against Esther Dyson, among others).

Google has now announced that in light of massive cyber-attacks on its servers from China, including attacks aimed at compromising the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents, it is reconsidering its decision to censor, and is even asking whether it can continue doing business in China at all.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

This is a huge decision. While I disagreed with Google’s decision to cooperate with the Chinese censors, I respected the fact that they couldn’t lightly walk away from the biggest business opportunity in the world. I also respected the fact that even the limited search they were offering enlightened many people about things of which they would not otherwise be aware (except that they could always use Baidu, the Chinese search engine).

So Google gets lots of credit for their promise to monitor the information freedom conditions in China and for standing on the principle that even if cooperation with evil is sometimes justified in the interest of a larger good, there are limits, and China has breached those limits.

In the war for digital liberty, chalk this up as a battle won for freedom.

Not a Good Beginning to the Decade for Information Freedom

Monday, January 4th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Let’s see.

1) A cartoonist in Denmark is nearly killed for drawing some pictures of a guy with a beard.

2) In Ireland, a law took effect banning blasphemy. A person can be found guilty if “he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” By that standard, the cartoonist would have been guilty, I imagine. Some atheists are challenging the law; other parties are taking it as a model to be urged upon the U.N. Actually, the UN Human Rights Council had already voted to condemn the “defamation of religions.”

3) In India, just as in China, Google is cooperating with the law by censoring politically objectionable content. In this secular democracy, the line between religious and political speech is thin, and the fears of mass riots are real.

“If you are doing business here, you should follow the local law, the sentiments of the people, the culture of the country,” says Gulshan Rai, an official in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, who is overseeing implementation of the new law. “If somebody starts abusing Lord Rama on a Web site, that could start riots,” he said.

Note the pattern here. The first case would be an easy call for many Westerners, but the other two plainly involve friendly democracies suppressing a wide variety of speech that most Americans would take for granted as constitutionally protected. I wonder if the U.S. is going to become an outlier state in this way also, or if the strong conservative religious forces in the U.S. will start persuading legislatures to chip away at free speech rights in the name, ironically, of respect for differences.

4) On the good-news side, not only does opposition video footage continue to get bootlegged out of Iran, but film-making culture continues to thrive through underground distribution networks.

Will digital control or digital liberty be the more powerful force in the next decade? I’m betting on liberty, but it sure isn’t going to be obvious.

Search Engine Neutrality?

Monday, December 28th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Adam Raff, a founder of Foundem, an Internet technology firm, makes the case in today’s New York Times for “Search Engine Neutrality,” which is kind of like network neutrality except that the nondiscrimination policy would apply to the way search engines return their results. As Raff states it, search neutrality means that “search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.” He objects, for example, to Google favoring its own map service over competing map services. And he objects to the way Google down-ranked his company’s product comparison service, which, he says, severely impacted its business.

Many of the points Raff makes are versions of thoughts in Chapter 4 of Blown to Bits, where we discuss the distorting lens phenomenon and an extreme case of search oblivion at the hands of Google’s ranking. (We also make the point, as Raff notes, that some of Google’s keyword auction technology was the invention not of Google but of Overture.)

But can search “impartiality” and “relevance” really be defined statutorily? I doubt it, or rather, I doubt we would want the hash that Congress or a regulatory bureaucracy would make of an attempt to regulate the semantics of the entire English language (and not just English). And lots of things affect Google’s rankings –see the Webmaster Help page, which includes advice such as not creating pages with little or no original content. I don’t think we want a legal entity judging whether pages were downranked for these or other reasons, or whether Google’s Safe Search filter has improperly omitted someone’s web page entirely.

In the presence of competition, none of this would be a worry. People would choose a search engine based on whether they liked the results it delivered, or perhaps on the basis of quality ratings by an organization such as Consumers Report. They could move if the search company changed their policy. The same is true with net neutrality, actually — the demand would not be so compelling if the number of choices of Internet services were not limited to one or two in so many places.

Monopolies are always dangerous, and this op-ed drives home that point. Not sure I am persuaded about the remedy, though.

Note: Any account written by an agent of a company unhappy about where its name turns up in Google searches should be regarded skeptically. There are lots of possible reasons for Google to downrank a site that have nothing to do with Google trying to gain an advantage in a new business sector, and Foundem’s web page design certainly doesn’t dazzle. Would love to know the full facts here, but I don’t.