This study provides empirical support for the negative aspects of the surveillance state.
the mere existence of a surveillance state breeds fear and conformity and stifles free expression
This study provides empirical support for the negative aspects of the surveillance state.
the mere existence of a surveillance state breeds fear and conformity and stifles free expression
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?
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.
Today I was presenting on the FSCONS track of the GoOpen conference in Oslo and the topic for my talk was Limiting the Open Society: Regulation by proxy
To set the stage for my talk I began by asking the question why free speech was important. This was closely followed by a secondary question asking whether or not anyone was listening.
The point for beginning with this question was to re-kindle the listeners interest in free speech and also to wake the idea that the concept of free speech maybe is something which belongs in the past a remnant of a lost analog age which should be seen as a quaint time – but not relevant today.
Naturally it was not possible to present a full set of articles on the reasons for why free speech is important during a 20 minute presentation but I could not help picking up three arguments (with a side comment asking whether anyone could imagine a politician saying free speech was unimportant).
The main arguments were
John Stuart Mill’s truth argument presented in On Liberty (1869) from which this quote is central:
“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”
Basically Mill’s argument can be broken down into four parts:
The second argument I presented was from Lee Bollinger’s The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America (1986)
Bollinger argues that the urge to suppress disagreeable speech is part of a need to suppress all ideas and behavior that threaten social stability. While Mill argues that it is important to support speech because it maybe right Bollinger argues that habits of tolerance in all its forms (including speech) are important to combat paternalism.
“…the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters.”
The final argument I presented was one of positive law – free speech is important because the law says it is important. The high point of this argument can be seen as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which created an international understanding of the importance of rights (including speech).
After this introduction I presented the concepts in an historical background. Again I needed to be brief so I could not really go into detail. I jumped straight into the period 300 years ago when the discussion on the rights of man in Europe was at a high point. The fear of censorship in advance (imprimatur) or punishment after the fact was of great interest. The results of these discussions were documents like The Rights of Man and the Citizen presented after the French revolution, the United States Declaration of Independence and the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766.
The problems with these documents and the regulatory acts which followed where that they presented potential rights but did nothing to ensure access to communications media. In fact the communications media became ever more centralized and access was granted to a more and more limited group of (similarly minded) people. The negative aspect of this situation were (1) centralized media can easily be controlled and (2) allowing small group access means that the individual members have to conform to remain in the in-group.
To re-enforce the concept of in-group and out-group I showed an image of the speaker’s corner in London where any individual may speak without being harassed its not a legal right even if it seems to be an established practice. Speaker’s corner is sometimes seen as an example of openness but in reality it is proof of the failure of our ability to speak openly anywhere.
Then we moved quickly along to the Internet as an example of where a technology was developed that made personal mass communication available to a wider audience.
The exciting thing about the Internet is that it carries within it freedom as a side effect of its creation. This freedom was developed by common agreement (of a homogeneous group) into the open end-to-end, packet switching “liberal” ideology that we experienced in the early days of technology.
Naturally the problem with any idea that is developed under a consensus is that any use, concept, idea or speech which falls outside the consensus is easily suppressed and lost. But more on this later.
In the early days we were overly optimistic and believed texts such as John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
But naturally this was not going to last since the freedom we relied on was in reality a bi-product of corporate activity.
Our reliance on technology is a reliance on services created and provided mainly by corporate actors. And corporate actors have different priorities. It’s not about individual goodwill but it is about profit. Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom (1962)
There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits…
It is not evil for companies to be all about profit but if there ever is a clash between individual freedom and profit then the corporation has an obligation to focus on profit at the cost of freedom.
At this stage at the lecture I shifted on to the problem of censorship. First I addressed the issue of self-censorship and used a quote by George Orwell on the topic.
Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.
It is very difficult for us to know that we are censoring ourselves.
The next problem is the fact that even if we have something to say this does not mean that there is anyone who will (or can) listen. Basically we are lost in crowds.
These first two hindrances to communication are inevitable but they also create a bias against speech and the spread of ideas. From this point I began to address issues that can be (and should be) addressed.
The first issue was affordances. I showed the image of by Yumiko Hayakawa of the ‘Anti-Homeless’ park bench. And as I always do I asked the audience to spot the ethical problem in the image. The problem is that the bench discriminates among users by allowing only certain types of use. People with weak legs (old people?) struggle to use this bench, no people will loiter on this bench, and naturally no homeless people can sleep on this bench.
image from Yumiko Hayakawa essay Public Benches Turn ‘Anti-Homeless’ (also recommend Design with Intent)
Without engaging in a wider discussion the park authority can implement regulation without rules. No law expelling homeless people is necessary and therefore no legal review is ever carried out.
On the topic of affordances I brought up the German engineer problem. Here is the story behind the creation of SMS messaging (LA Times)
Alone in a room in his home in Bonn, Germany, Friedhelm Hillebrand sat at his typewriter, tapping out random sentences and questions on a sheet of paper.
As he went along, Hillebrand counted the number of letters, numbers, punctuation marks and spaces on the page. Each blurb ran on for a line or two and nearly always clocked in under 160 characters.
That became Hillebrand’s magic number — and set the standard for one of today’s most popular forms of digital communication: text messaging.
“This is perfectly sufficient,” he recalled thinking during that epiphany of 1985, when he was 45 years old. “Perfectly sufficient.”
Since then Twitter was developed from SMS and therefore we see how a engineer speaking German is today controlling the way in which we communicate today.
Another form of censorship is the whole problem of the chilling effect of law when it’s law is applied in situations where it has the effect of limiting speech – even if the purpose of the law was something completely different.
So what’s really going on? Why doesn’t the state act or react to the erosion of our rights. These rights which are apparently so fundamental and important.
Well in part its lack of knowledge. Many states do not know the problems we are facing. The second part is that these are contractual agreements and the state is concerned about intervening in agreements (between consenting parties) and finally – and more ominously – the state benefits from the system.
States are able to stand tall and use words like rights, democracy, speech without limiting or censoring. They don’t have to. What the state does is they require acts (like data retention or surveillance) carried out by our service providers. If the state needs anything it can then collect it from the providers. The good news is that the state can claim to have clean hands. This is regulation by proxy.
So what can be done? Here I presented three strategies:
First, keep focused; remember what free speech is for. A second quote from George Orwell, this time from his preface of Animal Farm:
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
Second a demand that the state should end regulation by proxy and return to its own purpose. And the protection of citizen’s rights should include limiting the rights of actors. Speech on any medium should be protected – not only from the acts of the state.
Thirdly. The third was not really a new suggestion but more of an alternative. If the state cannot protect our speech then it should declare free speech as a thing of the past a remnant of a bygone analog age. This will not help much – but at least it will stop the hypocrisy.
When I read that Facebook was censoring updates that include a rivals name – I was skeptical. Surely they wouldnt be so stupid? But then I tried it myself. I logged into Facebook and wrote a status update: “Is it true that FB is censoring power.com” and pressed enter.
According to a blog post in the New York Times in 2008
Power.com, a Web start-up from Brazil with some prominent backers, aims to become the portal through which people access their online social lives. It’s up against no less than the world’s biggest Internet companies.
Facebook may be the biggest player in town but there are areas in the world where alternatives exist. Of course Facebook as a company has no obligation to play nice with others but let me quote Stan Lee: With great power comes great responsibility. If they do this then what is to stop Facebook from deleting people or other organizations?
Its easy to lose your faith in institutions and so its nice to read that Cambridge University refused to censor a masters thesis. This is my favorite part of the letter (via BoingBoing):
Second, you seem to think that we might censor a student’s thesis, which is lawful and already in the public domain, simply because a powerful interest finds it inconvenient. This shows a deep misconception of what universities are and how we work. Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton, and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values. Thus even though the decision to put the thesis online was Omar’s, we have no choice but to back him. That would hold even if we did not agree with the material! Accordingly I have authorised the thesis to be issued as a Computer Laboratory Technical Report. This will make it easier for people to find and to cite, and will ensure that its presence on our web site is permanent….
Read more about the whole back story A Merry Christmas to all Bankers and the full Letter to bankers (PDF)
Nice to see an act of moral courage coming from the university. I know that they are supposed to be like this but its nice to see that they sometimes act this way too.
The tiny island of Malta rarely pops up in my rss reader but when it does I usually pay the news more attention than it deserves. Malta is a tiny island with about 400 000 inhabitants and like most islands is fairly big on introspection. What makes Malta special (for me) is the fact that I spent the first 15 years of my life there so I have experienced the narrow mindedness first hand. Don’t get me wrong the Maltese are friendly and welcoming its just when it comes to politics they are positively rooted in the dark ages. Today an article in the Guardian did come up via my rss and it began
What if there were an EU country where abortion, divorce, and blasphemy in public were all still illegal? Where freedom of expression was limited to saying nothing critical of the Catholic church, nothing that the government could call “obscene”, and nothing against the few noble families who all but controlled it? Surely, given Turkey’s problems, Croatia’s lack of membership, and Iceland’s still pending application, such a place would be expelled? Welcome to Malta.
Of course size matters but it is strange that the island is able to maintain these politics within the framework for the European Union – we should not really be surprised as the EU is still fundamentally an economic alliance and not a organisation founded in human rights. But still Malta is pushing the envelope
In the last year, the Maltese government has banned the play Stitching from being performed, has arrested and put students on trial for writing and publishing an “obscene” story, and has prevented the artist Alexander Stankovski from exhibiting paintings which contained nudity. The updated criminal code will make public obscenity or blasphemy in public punishable by up to a year in jail, even if the words or sentiments are part of a work of fiction, theatre, or art.
What if this had been a Muslim country behaving like this? Wouldn’t the criticism be louder? Is the lack of energy spent in combating blasphemy laws a form of lazy racism? All over Europe countries are going crazy about the Muslim dress. Clothes! At the same time we accept that we have laws against blasphemy! We are concerned about women’s freedoms and the oppression of religion and yet we support certain religions by silencing criticism.
How is it that Malta is the way it is? The historic and geographic isolation of the island has enabled it to maintain its bizarre positions. In the Guardian article on the censorship of a short story O’Mahony writes a paragraph that neatly sums up the situation:
The Maltese press covered the issue, but in a factual tone. A recent interview with another Maltese writer, Frans Sammut, in the Malta Independent, allowed him the space to say he agreed with the ban of the work. However, with editorials that celebrate the Pope’s stance on paedophiles operating within the Catholic church, one cannot expect the media to help artists that write about blasphemy and their perceptions of the church’s misogyny. Self-censorship is rife on an island where everyone knows everyone else, but general opinion seems to suggest that writers were simply not taken seriously enough before the events of last year to ever fear reproach for what they produced.
Google has developed a very nice tool to illustrate requests from government agencies to remove content from their services, or provide information about users of our services and products.
Like other technology and communications companies, we regularly receive requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from our services, or provide information about users of our services and products. The map shows the number of requests that we received between July 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009, with certain limitations.
The information is not a perfect of what is happening (see the FAQ for more information) but is a great way of illustrating this issue and provide a starting point for discussion.
Last Friday The Pirate Bay moved to Ukraine after its Swedish bandwidth supplier was forced to stop servicing the tracker. In the new setup, traffic to TPB is routed through The Netherlands, but anti-piracy outfit BREIN has now asked ISP NForce to stop handling TPB’s traffic. As a result the site is now down for most people.
Time Magazine has an interesting article on the decline of Wikipedia. It puts the blame where it belongs – squarely on the editors
Wikipedia’s natural resource is an emotion. “There’s the rush of joy that you get the first time you make an edit to Wikipedia…
Over time, though, a class system emerged; now revisions made by infrequent contributors are much likelier to be undone by élite Wikipedians. Chi also notes the rise of wiki-lawyering: for your edits to stick, you’ve got to learn to cite the complex laws of Wikipedia in arguments with other editors. Together, these changes have created a community not very hospitable to newcomers.
This means that a topic expert with deep knowledge in the subject will lose to any expert at Wikipedia. This is not the most advantageous way to get information to the public.