Archive for April, 2012

Netizens Unite

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Consent of the Networked; The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, Rebecca MacKinnon, 2012

WWW and HTML Inventor Sir Tim Berners Lee

The Internet was a product of the open source movement and remains at its core self governing. Most Internet servers run open source Linux and operate using open source Apache. A significant portion of browsers are Mozilla open source Firefox and emails are handled by Mozilla open source Thunderbird. Open source WordPress is acknowledged here as a critical source for bloggers including this one. Wikipedia, a non profit, all volunteer organization has created a reliable source of information on just about any subject that would not have been possible by any private company or government anywhere in the world. This book is about threats to these remarkable achievements posed by corporations and governments and wrestles with the problem of keeping the Internet safe and free. The issues are by no means simple.

Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales

Focusing particularly on Google and Facebook, MacKinnon likens living under their control and rules as a bit like living under King John in England at the time of the Magna Carta. The king is all powerful and can do anything he wants at any time for any reason. His subjects can only hope for the king’s benevolence. Unfortunately, the king(s) of the Corporate Internet live in Silicon Valley and have very limited life experiences. They are pretty clueless when it comes to imaging the consequences of their Internet policy actions on users, particularly very vulnerable users in Tunisia, Iran, China, and other autocratic places. MacKinnon particularly points out the king(s) attitudes and policies regarding anonymous accounts which they view as an invitation to bad net behavior. They don’t understand that anonymity may be the only way for some to participate in the online world without risking arrest, torture, or death. Yet both Facebook and Google Plus require real world identification (which they do not protect) meaning that dissidents around the world can use these tools only by creating fake identifications and hoping their accounts don’t get removed by the kings. Attempts to create open source social networking software have not been successful because of the dominance of Facebook and Google. Social networkers must go where the users are; they can’t on their own start a whole new country. Facebook is so arbitrary in their policies and constantly change things including the rules of disclosure without warning, notice, or user option. She calls them Facebookistan.

Czar Mark Zuckerberg of Facebookistan

She also highlights problems when Internet companies attempt to do business with autocratic governments and she focuses on China where she worked for years as a CNN reporter. Yahoo set up an in country division to run their services including email. The Chinese government forced the in country Yahoo to hand over dissident emails and several users were arrested, prosecuted, and given long jail sentences. Jerry Yang later apologized, paid reparations to the families, and changed Yahoo policies, but too late to prevent the damage. Google’s struggles to operate in China under the government censorship finally led them to leave China for Hong Kong where they are outside the Great China Firewall.

Regretful Jerry Yang

The threat of US legislation to protect users from arbitrary corporate rule led to the formation of the Global Network Initiative which was joined by Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google. Facebook has repeatedly declined to join. The purpose of the Initiative is to protect user privacy and freedom of expression around the world. But how do the corporate members protect their users in the face of government intervention and rules? Even the US government poses increased threats to privacy.

Director MacKinnon Global Network Initiative

Users through a broad coalition of user groups introduced a Charter of Human Rights and Principles in 2011. Here are their 10 Internet Rights and Principles;

1) Universality and Equality
All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights, which must be respected, protected, and fulfilled in the online environment.
2) Rights and Social Justice
The Internet is a space for the promotion, protection and fulfilment of human rights and the advancement of social justice. Everyone has the duty to respect the human rights of all others in the online environment.
3) Accessibility
Everyone has an equal right to access and use a secure and open Internet.
4) Expression and Association
Everyone has the right to seek, receive, and impart information freely on the Internet without censorship or other interference. Everyone also has the right to associate freely through and on the Internet, for social, political, cultural or other purposes.
5) Privacy and Data Protection
Everyone has the right to privacy online. This includes freedom from surveillance, the right to use encryption, and the right to online anonymity. Everyone also has the right to data protection, including control over personal data collection, retention, processing, disposal and disclosure.
6) Life, Liberty and Security
The rights to life, liberty, and security must be respected, protected and fulfilled online. These rights must not be infringed upon, or used to infringe other rights, in the online environment.
7) Diversity
Cultural and linguistic diversity on the Internet must be promoted, and technical and policy innovation should be encouraged to facilitate plurality of expression.
8 ) Network Equality
Everyone shall have universal and open access to the Internet’s content, free from discriminatory prioritisation, filtering or traffic control on commercial, political or other grounds.
9) Standards and Regulation
The Internet’s architecture, communication systems, and document and data formats shall be based on open standards that ensure complete interoperability, inclusion and equal opportunity for all.
10) Governance
Human rights and social justice must form the legal and normative foundations upon which the Internet operates and is governed. This shall happen in a transparent and multilateral manner, based on principles of openness, inclusive participation and accountability.

MacKinnon includes a chapter on the “copy wars”, the attempts to shut down Internet sites accused of Intellectual Property copyright violations without due process. Youtube, Flickr routinely remove content at the simple request of supposed copyright holders or even governments without warning or notice to the posters. Flickr removed photos of Egyptian government torturers simply at the request of the Egyptian government. No proof of ownership or copyright violations need be proven and no procedures of law need be followed. This is consistently abused by both corporations and governments as they attempt to control or censor content. Lawrence Lessing founded a non profit group the Creative Commons to allow people to control the sharing of information as an alternative to old style outmoded copyright law. The CC, used by Wikipedia and others, means content is free to be copied subject only to acknowledging the source and accurately reproducing the content. There are no monetary or legal trapdoors.

Creative Commons Lessig

MacKinnon also discusses user attempts to engineer around government Internet and other communications shutdowns during times of crisis. We think of China, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and others, but MacKinnon reminds us that San Francisco’s BART shut down mobile communications during demonstrations protesting the shooting of a citizen by BART security forces in 2011. BART officers killed another man in Oakland in 2009. Attention must be given to the political locations of servers and to alternative communications access means. Egypt used conventional dial access via international calls during their revolution and satellite calls are also accessible. Open source developers are working on decentralized dynamic networks that can reconfigure themselves to maintain network access during government shutdowns or attacks.

An important book that should be read by all Netizens.