Court supports Salaita; will organizations apologize?

Professor Steven Salaita was due to begin working at the University of Illinois. Days before he was scheduled to teach, he had quit his old job and put his house on the market. All in good faith that he had a job. He was fired for ‘Uncivil’ Tweets. The university argued that his position was still conditional on final approval and therefore he wasn’t actually fired – he was just never hired.

This created a lot of discussion. Individuals came down on both sides. In support of the university people argued that the tweets were just unacceptable and that the university was formally right. On the side of the professor was academic freedom, free speech, and that the university knew that he had relied upon their promises when he packed up and moved across the country.

Now a federal court has found in favor of Salaita and has allowed his lawsuit against the University of Illinois to proceed, and the chancellor who rescinded his appointment last year has resigned amid an ethics investigation.

This is good news. I make my position clear and I am happy that academic freedom and free speech are being valued highly.

My argument is not against those individuals who would disagree with me. I don’t mind or care that we are in disagreement. That is the whole point of free speech after all.

But I have a problem with the organizations. Academic groups who spoke out in favor of the University of Illinois. Many of their members were in agreement with them but many of their members were very angry with their organizations supporting the university over the individual academic freedom.

Now that the federal court has found support for Salaita and the concept of academic freedom and the need to protect speech – what are these organizations going to do? Isn’t it time that they apologized? No, they don’t need to apologize to Salaita (even though I think that would be a generous move that demonstrates growth) but I do feel that they should apologize to their members.

Take for example the letter from the American Sociological Association

We write as elected leaders of the American Sociological Association to express our support for your decision not to hire Dr. Steven G. Salaita as a faculty member at the University of Illinois. Although some sociologists disagree with your decision, as a previous letter indicated, we wanted you to know that some sociologists, including leaders of the American Sociological Association, support your decision. We personally feel if a job candidate openly disparages an entire minority group it is a good reason not to hire him or her as a new faculty member. Dr. Salaita’s public expressions of hatred and his public endorsement of violence have no place in the University of Illinois.

The problem is that the university HAD hired him. They were dismissing him. The rhetorical and legal loophole is fake. Most hires are subject to approval and if we were to wait for such approval then the hiring system would grind to a halt. The “elected leaders of the American Sociological Association” spoke for their organization and their members. Now the court has shown them the error of their ways: will they now finally apologizing to their members?

Academic organizations are there to raise awareness about the subject they represent and also to ensure that the academics who make up their organization can carry out their research and teaching without being harassed. They failed. They came down on the side of censorship and they should, at the very least, apologize to the people they claim to represent.



Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Based in the city of Umeå in Northern Sweden, P. O. Ågren is an interesting thinker who often writes interesting thoughtpieces.  In a recent op-ed explains how social media leads to an increased self-censorship. In this piece he is discussing the PEW report Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Naturally he writes in Swedish but I wanted to take part of the argument and present it here. This is a translation but it isn’t my goal to make it a great translation – for this I apologize in advance. My goal is to capture the idea.

Social Media users tend to have a good idea about which opinions their friends and followers have. It has been shown that the user who holds an opinion that clearly differs from that of his friends and followers tends not to put forward or discuss these ideas.

The more people who disagree with me, the higher the chance that I will censor myself in social media.

The study goes further and shows that this attitude spills over into other arenas and affects our desire to discuss topics outside the web (for example at work or other places). Both Facebook and Twitter users are reluctant to discuss a controversial questions offline if they know that many of their online followers and friends hold a contrary opinion.

The overall results of the study point to the theory of the “the spiral of silence“, a term from the 70s, which entails that we are unwilling to express our opinions if we already believe (or know) that we are in a minority.

The study shows that the spiral of silence is identifiable online, and that it may also lead to an increased self-censorship offline.

A conclusion that may be drawn from this study is that social media does not have good preconditions to contributing to a deliberative democracy. Social technology which restrain rather than promote discussions on politics and society do not lead to an increased democratic participation.

I found several parts of this text interesting and while I have no real beef with the general thrust of the arguments I have questions.

The first question refers to the understanding that we are aware of the opinions of our friends and followers. On one level I would readily agree with this, but at the same time I have to ask: do we really? A couple of points on this: (1) this idea builds on the idea that social media is… well… social. Most interactions on social media are (obviously in my limited experience) not that social. We lurk, we peek, we look at links but do we really discuss?

This is also enhanced by the filter bubble effect (Pariser) where algorithms present us with the “right” information and the “right” friends. The differences are eradicated. When our online friends and followers get to a certain point (Dunbar number, maybe?) people (and opinions) disappear in the crowd.

Then there is the issue of self-censorship. Again I have no issue with the spiral of silence theory. But I think something is missing. For me, it isn’t enough to talk about people self-censoring online because they are in a minority online. There needs to be another element. What’s missing is power.

The online world is filled with countless examples of people behaving badly. People online being openly racist, misogynistic, antagonistic, impolite and downright threatening. Many of these examples are not voices from behind a veil of anonymity but openly and frighteningly from easily discoverable identities. Some are trolls, doing it for the lulz, but many are sincerely and openly assholes.

Of course the theory of groupthink is a good one. We shut up for fear of making waves. This self-censorship is worrisome because, as PO argues, it does little to support the development of democracy. When we recognize we must be far less optimistic about the role that technology (in particular social media) plays in the political debate.

However, the self-censorship in the spiral of silence theory may have been a trait among users before social media. Added to this is the problem of power relationships. If we fear social, economic, political or other reprisals censorship may be a virtue. This is obviously the same as saying the cowardice is a virtue. But don’t lets forget the Steven Salaita affair. Would you tweet openly in a similar position today?

Those who can be hurt avoid being punished, those who feel impervious tweet to an obnoxious degree. The former isn’t cowardice and the latter isn’t bravery.

Steve Mann assaulted at McDonalds (& censored by Facebook?)

Steve Mann is an amazing person. He is the father of wearable computers and is well worth reading about (Wikipedia for example).

He recently published a recount of an assault he suffered at the hands of some paranoid McDonalds staff. It’s strange, it’s terrible and it deserves to be spread. Obviously McD should be offering apologies and offering to repair his equipment.

Read the full story here: Physical assault by McDonald’s for wearing Digital Eye Glass it will also give you an idea of why Steve Mann is important to tech development in general and to Googles upcoming glasses in particular.

While this tragic and scary it is not really something I was going to blog about. I tweeted it… fine. I was going to post it on Facebook and got this:

Well ok that’s odd but I didn’t use the exact link, how careless of me. So I tried again.

Seriously? Is Facebook blocking Steve Mann’s blog? What is going on here?


The importance of anonymity

Last night some Norwegian friends and I had a long protracted discussion on the “right” or importance of online anonymity.

Since the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was active in forums online and was inspired in part by other anonymous racists (such as Fjordman) there has been a question as to whether anonymity online should be curtailed.

Now it’s difficult to argue in light of what the murderer Breivik did. But removing online anonymity would not have prevented his acts. Removing online anonymity after Utöya will only damage the ability of a broad democratic discussion.

At this stage some argue that if you have an opinion you should (as in must – state it openly, not anonymously). The most commonly used cliché is that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.

The problem is that the people who say: Nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide are safe. They live in reasonable comfort, security and normality. They may truly have nothing to hide. But the importance of the right is not to protect those who have nothing to hide – but to protect those who might be hurt for taking part in a democratic debate.

The right of anonymity – as with most rights – is there to protect those who are at risk. If you are not at risk then you may not see the need for rights.

A simple example is the rights of women. Why did it take so long for women to be given the vote? This basic right to participate in the democracy. Well, in part, those in power were men. These men could not see anything wrong with the system – or see any need for women to have rights.

Or why not the right to free speech? You do not need protection (which the right guarantees) to say nice things, you need the protection to say unpleasant things, to say things that people may not want to hear – but that need to be said.

Pointing out my good points requires no courage or protection – but also pointing out my good points, while making me happy, does not enable me to grow. Pointing out my flaws may make me less happy, and is more courageous (potentially dangerous and requires protection) but it gives me an indication of what needs to be done. It is more important for a society to hear about its flaws than its benefits.

Society needs to help and support those individuals who are about to be courageous. We need to have the arguments, discussions and wacky ideas brought to the surface. Anonymity is not the problem – the problem is when people are afraid of discussion because they may be sanctioned or harmed: socially, economically or psychologically.

Is Wikipedia Whitewashed?

Most large companies, that have been around for a long time, have done things which they should not be proud of today. Some of the acts can be put down to ignorance of the effects but many are just companies doing what they do best – making money.

One such example is the role of IBM in Nazi Germany. Edwin Black argues in his fascinating and well researched book IBM and the Holocaust that IBM not only provided the technology that made the holocaust possible but also ensured that it ran effectively. Without the data processing power provided by IBM the amount of people found, rounded up, transported and killed would have been substantially less than it was.

Recently I came across a list entitled 10 Global Businesses that Worked With the Nazis. It’s an interesting read where Hugo Boss designed uniforms for the military, Chase Bank froze Jewish accounts, Ford built military trucks, Random House published propaganda, Kodak made miscellaneous military merchandise, Coca Cola developed Fanta exclusively for Germany, Allianz stole insurance money from Jewish customers, Novartis made Zyklon B gas, Nestlé manufactured and sold chocolate, BMW made engines, General Electric manufactured material and profiteered.

In addition to the ethics of money over humanity many of these companies used forced laborers during the war (POWs, slave laborers and inmates of concentration camps).

All this is important history that is sometimes forgotten but my interest was whether these facts were mentioned on Wikipedia?

IBM – Not mentioned

Hugo Boss – Mentioned

Chase Bank – Not mentioned

Ford – Not mentioned

Random House – Not mentioned

Kodak – Not mentioned

Coca Cola – Mentioned

Allianz – Mentioned

Novartis – Not mentioned

Nestlé – Not mentioned

BMW – Not mentioned

General Electric – Not mentioned

OK, so it’s difficult to know what a lack of information can depend on. But: If a large companies, that have been around for a long time, does not have negative information on its Wikipedia page – then it is reasonable to suspect that the page has been whitewashed.

If this information is missing, then what else has been erased and how could we find out?

Nadia Plesner's day in court

Nadia Plesner, the Danish artist, who has been suedtwice by Louis Vuitton has had her day in court at The Hague.

Vuitton is suing her for copyright infringement for placing an image of one of their handbags on her painting Darfurnica. There is also a back story about her use of this handbag on a t-shirt. In both cases the case for parody and fair use may be argued. In both cases the purpose is to raise money and awareness for Darfur.

Vuitton seeks to penalize her 5,000 Euros for each day Darfurnica is on her website and wants to prevent Plesner from exhibiting the painting either on her website or at venues in the European Union. Yesterday, Plesner finally got to present her defense — before a full-sized reproduction of the painting. On Facebook she shares how it went:

They stated that they have no problem with Darfurnica, never had, and that they only object to me using “their product” in my Simple Living “logo” [pictured here]. We highly objected to it all, since Simple Living is an art work, just as Darfurnica and because LV has aggressively been going after the painting from day one.

We also presented the threats regarding the painting that LV’s attorney made to me by phone, which he of course denied completely.

I thought the most important part was when the judge asked LV’s attorney why Darfurnica was mentioned in the lawsuit – and forbidden by the court order – if they didn’t have a problem with it? To which their attorney responded “You shouldn’t read it like that.”

Then the judge asked how else he could read it, since the painting is the first thing mentioned in the list of works they want to forbid, but their attorney insisted that the court order should be read as if the paragraph regarding Darfurnica was not there. He aggressively went on and on for an hour about how I abused them, for example by using their Audra bag as an eyecatcher on the invitation for my exhibition. Yes, I used my own Simple Living drawing (not their Audra Bag) on the invitation to my art exhibition about Darfur. What a crazy thing to do.

We had a 1:1 print of Darfurnica in the court room and I presented it to the judge and explained why I painted it and what the different symbols represented. I have had the chance to present Darfurnica to a lot of different people by now both in my studio, in the Odd Fellow Palace and at the HEART museum, but it felt so surreal to do it in a court room, especially in front of various LV representatives.

I explained the urgency for raising awareness about the situation in Darfur, and how I had painted various Hollywood gossip stories that got an insane amount of media attention.

The judge listened, and I believe he understood the meaning of the painting.

There were about 65 people present during the hearing, many artists and fellow students came to support me, and they had made these great little supportive badges with different texts like: “Louis, art is cool”, etc. It made a great difference to me that I was not there alone, and I am grateful to the people who showed up.

There were also different reporters present, and even though LV’s attorney consistently claimed that I had manipulated the media to be on my side, the articles today are not different from the previous ones, even after the reporters had heard both sides of the story and were presented with the evidence from both sides.

The final result was that we asked the judge to have the court order from January 27th annulled, and LV objected to this. The judge said he would try to give his ruling before May 4, 2011.

Catholic Destruction of Art

Like it or not, Andres Serrano image of a plastic crucifix in urine Piss Christ (1987) is a powerful anti-religion statement, not so much the belief system but the abuse by the organization.

Naturally powerful art makes enemies. From the Guardian (18 April)

On Saturday, around 1,000 Christian protesters marched through Avignon to the gallery… But on Palm Sunday morning, four people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25 entered the exhibition just after it opened at 11am. One took a hammer out of his sock and threatened the guards with it. A guard grabbed another man around the waist but within seconds the group managed to take a hammer to the plexiglass screen and slash the photograph with another sharp object, thought to be a screwdriver or ice-pick. They also smashed another work, which showed the hands of a meditating nun.

After all the complaints and attitudes that it is only repressive regimes or Islamic movements who repress and censor it would be nice if all those who pointed fingers at those people now stood up and claimed about Catholics attempting to suppress free speech, art and culture. But somehow I doubt that this will happen.

Andres Serrano Piss Christ (1987)

If the Catholic church wants to stand up as a agent of good – then a quick and clear condemnation of the destruction in Avignon should be presented from the highest authority. But somehow I doubt that this will happen.

Its not that easy supporting free speech when you disagree with the content. But it is weak when you condemn the suppression of speech by others just because you don’t disagree with the content.

Removing civil rights without appearing to be a dictorship

Many of the civil rights that we today claim to be “natural” or “fundamental” have their roots in an ideology of the individual which dates back to the 18th century. The importance of a free press, free speech, democracy and the fundamentals of integrity can be traced back to the enlightenment period which believed that all were created equal and that people – not systems – were valuable and important enough to be in control.

Since then these ideologies have been slowly been implemented into law. Not uniformly nor quickly but still the ongoing process of bringing implemented, real civil rights has been measurable. But lets not get carried away. One thing lacking in our (for example) right to expression has been our ability to express ourselves to a wider audience. Sure we have the right to do so – but do we have the ability to do so?

The fact that not everyone could speak was seen as unfortunate but inevitable and this scarcity created a marketplace of ideas. Well, in reality, it created a marketplace of platforms from which to speak from. If you fit the profile of the platform you may (still if you are lucky) exercise your right to speak to a larger audience.

In this way many of our rights are strongly linked to the platforms which give us the ability to carry out these rights. And what are the Internet, the Web & Web2.0? They are a form of easily accessible platforms. The barriers to entry to these platforms are widely reduced (compared with old or traditional media). With the lowering of barriers to entry millions (?) of people have been exercising rights which have previously only been theoretical.

Unfortunately this does not suit everyone. What we have seen is that with the removal or reduction of technical or economic barriers to entry the law is often being used to create an artificial barrier to reduce or minimize the impact of our rights.

Now the interesting thing is that no politician today would dare to challenge the enlightenment ideal. No politician today can openly say that they want to reduce our fundamental freedoms even if they are tempted to. What happens instead is the interesting removal of rights by creating levels of control in our communications intermediaries. What this means is that instead of telling people that they will reduce their rights governments are applying burdens of surveillance and control on the companies that provide our infrastructure.

And what can we do? Well not much really. Most of our infrastructure use is voluntary. If we want to use the net we are forced to play along with the conditions of the companies that provide the net to us.

A recent example of this process (one of many) reported by Wired is that the Obama administration is urging Congress not to adopt legislation that would impose constitutional safeguards on Americans’ e-mail stored in the cloud.

As the law stands now, the authorities may obtain cloud e-mail without a warrant if it is older than 180 days, thanks to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act adopted in 1986. At that time, e-mail left on a third-party server for six months was considered to be abandoned, and thus enjoyed less privacy protection. However, the law demands warrants for the authorities to seize e-mail from a person’s hard drive.

A coalition of internet service providers and other groups, known as Digital Due Process, has lobbied for an update to the law to treat both cloud- and home-stored e-mail the same, and thus require a probable-cause warrant for access. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on that topic Tuesday.

The companies — including Google, AOL and AT&T — maintain that the law should be changed to reflect that consumers increasingly access their e-mail on servers, instead of downloading it to their hard drives, as a matter of course.

But the Obama administration testified that imposing constitutional safeguards on e-mail stored in the cloud would be an unnecessary burden on the government. Probable-cause warrants would only get in the government’s way.

The process is an excellent example of the cynical application of power. On the face of it government still maintains its support for rights, while in reality slashing the practical application of rights at the point of the technology upon which the rights stand.

Great Net Delusion Animation

Over on the IT Law in Ireland blog TJ McIntyre has posted about a great new RSA Animate called The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens? This one is based on Evgeny Morozov‘s great book The Net Delusion were he argues that the Internet and Web2.0 do not make democracy inevitable.

When writing his review in The Guardian Cory Doctorow was critical of The Net Delusion for his pessimism in the power of the Internet for promoting democracy. But I don’t think its so easy to ignore Morozov’s critique of the cyberutopian vision. I highly recommend The Net Delusion.