Opinion

The Great Debate

Cuba’s uneasy Internet connection

Last week, an Associated Press article, “US Secretly Created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Stir Unrest,” sparked an uproar. The U.S. Agency for International Development had funded a Cuban version of Twitter called ZunZuneo , the AP reported, that attracted more than 40,000 users before ending in 2012, according to the story.

Commentators have derided the program as boneheaded, dangerously absurd and disrespectful to Cubans. Analysts have discussed its pros and cons. The White House maintains that the program was not “covert.” USAID contests aspects of the AP story.

The article, however, is a propaganda windfall for the Cuban government, which tends to label bloggers critical of it as U.S.-funded mercenaries. Cuba’s media has been having a field day, running gleeful headlines like “ZunZuneo: the Sound of Subversion.”

The ZunZuneo debacle highlights the difficulty of bringing connectivity to Cuba. It has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the Western hemisphere. Only 5 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, according to 2012 estimates. Some connect through hotels, schools, workplaces or illegally. A greater percentage of Cubans access a domestic “intranet.”

Though Cuba censors Web content, the public’s major obstacles are unavailability, slow connections and high prices. Cubans generally don’t have Internet access at home, and connecting at a hotel for an hour can cost more than an average state worker’s weekly salary.

In Turkey, taking on West wins elections

Is Turkish leader crazy, or crazy like a fox?

Confronted by a series of revelations involving corruption, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan countered by banning Twitter by court order last Friday. He has now moved onto other social media networks — blocking YouTube on Thursday.

Though another court ordered Erdogan’s Twitter ban to be lifted this week, his repressive regime looks intent on lashing out at social media as part of a broad policy aimed at controlling the important municipal elections on Sunday.

This is all part of Erdogan’s calculated effort, as Amnesty International describes, to “silence and smear those speaking out against the government’s crackdown on the protest movement, including doctors, lawyers and journalists.” This crackdown has, not surprisingly, resulted not only in massive protests within Turkey, but exasperation from Turkey’s allies in the West.

Twitter use on the rise in #statecapitals

Twitter’s November initial public offering has been a success for the company’s founders and early investors. This reflects the market’s optimistic view of the company’s profit-making potential. For Twitter has transformed much of daily life — including how we get our news, communicate with others and participate in public discourse. (In fact, many media outlets now factor in what is trending on Twitter when covering news stories.)

Many politicians are now using Twitter to raise their profile. Most notable is the newest senator, Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Despite the fact that he was mayor of Newark, a city known for its high unemployment and high school dropout rates rather than good governance and policy innovation, Booker’s effective use of Twitter (1,446,106 followers) played a key role in making him a national political figure.

Twitter has significantly changed the way politicians get their message out and gauge public opinion. There are staffers at the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee whose job it is to count tweets. (No, really.) In addition to national politics, however, Twitter has transformed the way business is done in state capitals across the country.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Buying into Big Brother

Whatever high crimes and misdemeanors the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden may or may not have perpetrated, he has at least in one regard done us all a favor. He has reminded us that we are all victims of unwarranted and inexcusable invasions of privacy by companies who collect our data as they do business with us.

Some, like Google and Facebook, pose primarily as software companies when their main revenue source, and their main business, is to mine data and sell advertisers access to customers. We knew this already, of course, though it seems many of us would prefer to forget the true nature of the technology firms that have boomed in the last decade. Seduced by their dazzling baubles, we have bought in to Big Brother without truly understanding the true price we are paying and will continue to pay for access to their brave new world.

We may take pity on the idiot schoolboy who uses expletives on Twitter or posts a picture of himself holding a joint at a party only to discover when he looks for a job that a trawl by an HR department has made him unemployable. But even smart people -- like the New York mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, who sent lewd pictures to strangers -- can remember too late that in this wired world we are all being recorded all the time. Yet there is little legal protection from abuse by the companies who collate our personal data and store it for eternity.

from Paul Smalera:

All your Tumblr are belong to Them

Forget Instagram’s billion-dollar payday. Forget IPOs, past and future, from Facebook, Groupon, LinkedIn and the like. And ignore, please, the online ramblings of attention-hungry venture capitalists and narcissistic Silicon Valley journalists with the off-putting habit of making their inside-baseball sound like the World Series. Their stories, to paraphrase Shakespeare, are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, but signifying very little about the impact of technology on most of our lives. (Sure, some of their tales are about great fortunes, but those are only for a select few; to summon the Oracle of Omaha rather than the Bard of Avon, only a fool ever equated price with value.) Their one-in-a-million windfalls are just flashes in the pan. Or, actually, they are solitary data points, meaningless when devoid of context.

That context is here. It’s come, in part, because of the cunningly simple social and curatorial tools that media companies like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Pinterest give away to their users. But making sense of our social world is only possible with the the tools and technology behind what we call Big Data. The massive information collections spawned by our digital world are too big to address directly, so smart scientists have used fast computers to carve the data into real knowledge. This is how Big Data is already changing the way the world works.

But Big Data is young; though there are hundreds of accessible data sets already, there are still many more chaotic stores of information its tools can tame. Take, for example, social media: Yesterday, social media API company Gnip announced that it is providing customers with all of Tumblr’s data, what in techspeak is called the firehose. What Gnip and competitors like DataSift are providing to customers are Social Big Data firehoses that can be perfectly filtered into gently babbling brooks lined with digital gold nuggets. When the tech media wonder out loud how social companies will ever make a buck – sifting the gold out of their user-generated content is a huge piece of the puzzle.

Our social-media amnesia

It began with a hashtag — #fitn. On the eve of January’s Republican presidential primary, it seemed that every member of the political press, election observer, and New Hampshirite had adopted #fitn as a sort of quasi-official tag. It was a reference to “First in the Nation,” a long-used political phrase that dates back to the 1920s. As I watched those tweets fly by, it struck me how ubiquitous its shorthand version had become online. Where did the hashtag come from? Who first injected it into the tweet stream? Twitter’s internal search engine, as it turns out, only goes back so far. I fired up Topsy.com, by general consensus the best tweet search tool going today. But I hit the outer limits of Topsy’s archive far before I uncovered my proto-tweet. I asked Twitter HQ. No go. A smallish company, it lacks the resources, they said, to track a hashtag back to its starting point.

My struggle to find the origins of #fitn is not unique. We’re tweeting more than 340 million times a day, conducting a robust public conversation on Twitter. Yet, even on Twitter’s sixth birthday today, we still can’t track it, can’t search it, can’t access our archives. There is no public record. Is that really so much to ask?

Maybe, yes. Consider the technological constraints. Brewster Kahle, who runs the Internet Archive, a non-profit online repository for 150 billion Web pages, told me startups have a hard time being “archive aware.” For them there are more pressing concerns, like integrating servers and avoiding “fail whales.”

from Paul Smalera:

What real Internet censorship looks like

Lately Internet users in the U.S. have been worried about censorship, copyright legalities and data privacy. Between Twitter’s new censorship policy, the global protests over SOPA/PIPA and ACTA and the outrage over Apple’s iOS allowing apps like Path to access the address book without prior approval, these fears have certainly seemed warranted. But we should also remember that Internet users around the world face far more insidious limitations and intrusions on their Internet usage -- practices, in fact, that would horrify the average American.

Sadly, most of the rest of the world has come to accept censorship as a necessary evil. Although I recently argued that Twitter’s censorship policy at least had the benefit of transparency, it’s still an unfortunate cost of doing global business for a company born and bred with the freedoms of the United States, and founded by tech pioneers whose opportunities and creativity stem directly from our Constitution. Yet by the standards of dictatorial regimes, Internet users in countries like China, Syria and Iran should consider themselves lucky if Twitter’s relatively modest censorship program actually keeps those countries’ governments from shutting down the service. As we are seeing around the world, chances are, unfortunately, it won’t.

Consider the freedoms -- or lack thereof -- Internet users have in Iran. Since this past week, some 30 million Iranian users have been without Internet service thanks to that country’s blocking of the SSL protocol, right at the time of its parliamentary elections. SSL is what turns “http” -- the basic way we access the Web -- into “https”, which Gmail, your bank, your credit card company and thousands of other services use to secure data. SSL provides data encryption so that only each end point -- your browser and the Web server you’re logging into -- can decrypt and access the data contained therein.

My tweets refuse to be subpoenaed

When I saw an email from Twitter Legal in my inbox, I figured it was spam. Data phishers use those kind of emails to steal user passwords, but this was a genuine warning from the social media giant. The New York District Attorney’s office had filed a subpoena requesting my account information and all of my tweets from last September to the end of the year. Twitter had attached the subpoena, and there was my handle, called by the County of New York to testify against me, the person it represents.

My tweets were being called to testify against their creator because on Oct. 1 of last year I was one of more than 700 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of an Occupy Wall Street action. We had planned to march over the pedestrian walkway, but the crowd was too large. The police retreated and allowed us to cross half the bridge before kettling and arresting the entire crowd. I had my phone with me and was using Twitter to spread information to people following at home, as well as people behind me in the march. After a short stint in a cell, I was charged with disorderly conduct and released. I pleaded not guilty, not because I didn’t block traffic, but because I believe the march across the bridge was a constitutionally protected form of political speech.

To try to prepare a convincing case that I intended to block traffic, the district attorney has requested over three months of my tweets, as well as any information attached to my account, including my password and email address. The scope of the request extends back to Sept. 15, two days before the occupation of Zuccotti Park began. Since the subpoena is related only to the disorderly conduct charge, the prosecutors want to look through my tweets — preferably without me knowing — for content from weeks before and months after Oct. 1. That wastes taxpayer dollars and some poor trial prep assistant’s time for what amounts to little more than a politically motivated traffic ticket. My attorney soon informed Twitter of his intention to file a motion to quash the subpoena on four different grounds, and they have agreed not to disclose anything for the time being, at least until a judge rules on the motion later this month.

from Paul Smalera:

The piracy of online privacy

Online privacy doesn’t exist. It was lost years ago. And not only was it taken, we’ve all already gotten used to it. Loss of privacy is a fundamental tradeoff at the very core of social networking. Our privacy has been taken in service of the social tools we so crave and suddenly cannot live without. If not for the piracy of privacy, Facebook wouldn’t exist. Nor would Twitter. Nor even would Gmail, Foursquare, Groupon, Zynga, etc.

And yet people keep fretting about losing what’s already gone. This week, like most others of the past decade, has brought fresh new outrages for privacy advocates. Google, which a few weeks ago changed its privacy policy to allow the company to share your personal data across as many as 60 of its products, was again castigated this week for the changes. Except this time, the shouts came in the form of a lawsuit. The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the FTC to compel it to block Google’s changes, saying they violated a privacy agreement Google signed less than a year ago.

Elsewhere, social photography app Path was caught storing users’ entire iPhone address books on their servers and have issued a red-faced apology. (The lesser-known app Hipster committed the same sin and also offered a mea culpa.) And Facebook’s IPO has brought fresh concerns that Mark Zuckerberg will find creative new ways to leverage user data into ever more desirable revenue-generating products.

from Paul Smalera:

Twitter’s censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter

Twitter’s announcement this week that it was going to enable country-specific censorship of posts is arousing fury around the Internet. Commentators, activists, protesters and netizens have said it’s “very bad news” and claim to be “#outraged”. Bianca Jagger, for one, asked how to go about boycotting Twitter, on Twitter, according to the New York Times. (Step one might be... well, never mind.) The critics have settled on #TwitterBlackout: all day on Saturday the 28th, they promised to not tweet, as a show of protest and solidarity with those who might be censored.

Here’s the thing: Like Twitter itself, it’s time for the Internet, and its chirping classes, to grow up. Twitter’s policy and its transparency pledge with the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects is the most thoughtful, honest and realistic policy to come out of a technology company in a long time. Even an unsympathetic reading of the new censorship policy bears that out.

To understand why, let’s unpack the policy a bit: First, Twitter has strongly implied it will not remove content under this policy. If that doesn’t sound like a crucial distinction from outright censorship, it is. Taking the new policy with existing ones, the only time Twitter says it will ever remove a tweet altogether is in response to a DMCA request. The DMCA may have its own flaws, but it is a form of censorship that lives separately from the process Twitter has outlined in this recent announcement. Where the DMCA process demands a deletion of copyright-infringing content, Twitter’s censorship policy promises no such takedown: it promises instead only to withhold censored content from the country where the content has been censored. Nothing else.

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