Opinion

Paul Smalera

What real Internet censorship looks like

Feb 27, 2012 18:44 UTC

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.

By blocking SSL, Iran has crippled Tor, a program that enables Internet users to anonymize not just their content but their physical location as well. Tor is a very common workaround for users in totalitarian regimes to access Twitter, Gmail, Facebook and other services. It’s hard to come up with an apt analogy for Iran’s unprecedented blockage — it’s not just that the letters you send are read by the Post Office and photocopied for their records, it’s that the Post Roads themselves have been closed off, so you can’t even send a letter in the first place. That’s the net effect of blocking SSL in Iran.

The hacking group Anonymous has brought down all kinds of websites in protest, mostly over copyright, in the U.S. and Europe. I don’t advocate their targeting any country’s servers for retribution, but where is the outrage or public demonstration or media attention over the denials of Iranians’ basic freedoms to communicate, via the Internet?

Raiding the future of the Internet

Feb 17, 2012 18:31 UTC

Think right now about your home bookshelf. If yours looks like mine, it contains odds and ends, comic books you’ve saved for years, books mailed to you or bought on a street corner, your own collection of dog-eared titles, some old yearbooks. Now think about the privacy of your own home and the few legal ways in which that privacy can be violated: an emergency response, a crime, a public health crisis. Imagine if once a year you had to open your door to a copyright agent who could scan your library for content that you have not paid for, add up your violations, and send you a bill. Imagine if the agent came by once a week, or even once a day. Imagine that the agent found a picture of the nerdy kid from high school in your yearbook and explained that that kid copyrighted his likeness, so you’ll have to either pay up or destroy his high school photo.

This is the world that content companies want to create. Legislation they have proposed in the U.S. and around the world — SOPA, PIPA and ACTA — would open the Internet’s house to any agent.

Artists and big companies often warn us of the opposite of this problem — the idea that the Internet is a lawless space where content is pirated, stolen and shared recklessly, costing them billions of dollars in lost revenue and shrinking the incentives for artists to produce new works. After all, if they can’t be paid fairly for them, why bother?

The piracy of online privacy

Feb 10, 2012 18:28 UTC

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.

Facebook.coop

Feb 2, 2012 22:06 UTC

Facebook shouldn’t pay its users. Its users should pay to own Facebook.

“Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his letter to investors announcing the IPO of his already hugely successful and profitable company. “It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.”

Facebook has succeeded wildly, despite internal admonitions that its “journey” is only 1 percent finished. Journalists have latched onto Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook wants to “rewire” the way the world works. In a world of thousands of self-anointed “social media experts,” only Zuckerberg can claim to have basically invented what the world thinks of as social media. He has etched himself into the timeline of human innovation.

Pity then, that Zuckerberg hasn’t turned his talents or attention toward Facebook’s financial underpinnings. After all, an IPO? How ho-hum can he get? If Mark really wants to accomplish his social mission with Facebook, he should share the company’s ownership with the people who helped him create it. Not just his Harvard contemporaries. Not just the programmers. Not even just the venture capitalists.

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