Category: Anonymity

Behind the Filter Bubble: Hidden Maps of the Internet

A small corner of the world of search took another step toward personalization today, as Bing moved to give users the option to personalize their results by drawing on data from their Facebook friends:

Research tells us that 90% of people seek advice from family and friends as part of the decision making process. This “Friend Effect” is apparent in most of our decisions and often outweighs other facts because people feel more confident, smarter and safer with the wisdom of their trusted circle.

Today, Bing is bringing the collective IQ of the Web together with the opinions of the people you trust most, to bring the “Friend Effect” to search. Starting today, you can receive personalized search results based on the opinions of your friends by simply signing into Facebook. New features make it easier to see what your Facebook friends “like” across the Web, incorporate the collective know-how of the Web into your search results, and begin adding a more conversational aspect to your searches.

The announcement almost perfectly coincides with the release of Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble, which argues that “as web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.” I have earlier worried about both excessive personalization and integration of layers of the web (such as social and search, or carrier and device). I think Microsoft may be reaching for one of very few strategies available to challenge Google’s dominance in search. But I also fear that this is one more example of the “filter bubble” Pariser worries about.
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Facebook as Hitbook, Sigh

Facebook and other social network sites offer much to celebrate.  They have given new life to long-standing relationships and cemented new ones while providing innovative means to share ideas and engage with different communities.  Offline relationships are extended online.  Student groups meet in classrooms as well as on YouTube channels.  Employees talk in the office and online (sometimes even to critique their bosses with co-workers, see Kashmir Hill‘s always- thought-provoking commentary).

Naturally, with all of this socializing comes the far darker side of human relationships.  Social network sites sponsor threats, harassment, and hatred, leading to important, though always outmatched, voluntary efforts to address destructive behaviors.  Given the scale of these sites, the Chief Safety Officers of those social network sites need help identifying malicious activity that their Terms of Service prohibit.  This summer, Facebook and the police learned about another disturbing case: a Chester County man tried to use Facebook to hire a hit man to kill a woman who accused him of rape.  In July, the woman called the police after seeing a posting on the man’s Facebook page that offered $500 for “a girls head.”  The man later updated the posting, saying that he “needed the girl knocked off right now.”  As the Huffington Post recently reported, the man pleaded guilty to rape, criminal solicitation of murder, and other counts.

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Wikipedia’s Efforts to Close its Gender Gap

Time magazine recently did a true-to-form story on Wikipedia, where guest editors (and our very own featured author) Jonathan Zittrain (see here too), Robert McHenry, Benjamin Mako Hill, and Mike Schroepfer assisted in writing/editing/re-writing a feature entitled Wikipedia’s “Ten Years of Inaccuracy and Remarkable Detail.” As the piece explained, Wikipedia just celebrated its 10th birthday.  The site has 17 million entries in more than 250 languages, quite a feat given that Encyclopedia Brittanica only has 120,000 and only in English.  The Time wiki-like piece notes that Wikipedia has a “diverse, international body of contributors.”

According to The New York Times, most contributors are male.  More specifically, “less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are female.”  This, in turn, has skewed the gender disparity of topics and emphasis.  Wikimedia’s executive director Sue Gardner explains that topics favored by girls such as friendship bracelets can seem short when compared with lengthy articles on something boys typically like such as toy soldiers or baseball cards.  The New York Times notes that a category with five Mexican feminist writers might not seem so impressive when compared with 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons.”

Why is this so?  Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and author of “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia,” explains that Wikipedia’s early contributors shared “many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd,” including an ideology that “resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.”  He notes that adopting an ideology of openess means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists.”  The demographics of Wikipedia’s editors may also stem, in part, from the tendency of women to be “less willing to assert their opinions in public.”

How Wikipedia is now, and has been, responding is worth noting.  Sue Gardner told the Times that she hopes to raise the share of women contributors through subtle persuasion and outreach to welcome newcomers to Wikipedia.  Dave Hoffman and Salil Mehra’s terrific piece Wikitruth Through Wikiorder demonstrates that the site has already fostered efforts to create a more inclusive environment.  As Hoffman and Mehra explain, Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee whose volunteer members rule on disputes and set forth concrete rules on how users should behave.  The Arbitration Committee has sanctioned users who make homophobic, ethnic, racial or gendered attacks or who stalk and harass others.  According to Hoffman and Mehra’s empirical study, in cases when either impersonation or anti-social conduct like hateful attacks occur, the Administrative Committee will ban the user in 21% of cases.  Wikipedia’s more than 1,500 administrators, in turn, enforce those rules.  Wikipedia also permits users to report impolite, uncivil, or other difficult communications with editors in its Wikiquette alerts notice board.

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The Aftermath of Wikileaks

The U.K.’s freedom of information commissioner, Christopher Graham, recently told The Guardian that the WikiLeaks disclosures irreversibly altered the relationship between the state and public.  As Graham sees it, the WikiLeaks incident makes clear that governments need to be more open and proactive, “publishing more stuff, because quite a lot of this is only exciting because we didn’t know it. . . WikiLeaks is part of the phenomenon of the online, empowered citizen . . . these are facts that aren’t going away.  Government and authorities need to wise up to that.”  If U.K. officials take Graham seriously (and I have no idea if they will), the public may see more of government.  Whether that more in fact provides insights to empower citizens or simply gives the appearance of transparency is up for grabs.

In the U.S., few officials have called for more transparency after the release of the embassy cables.  Instead, government officials have successfully pressured internet intermediaries to drop their support of WikiLeaks.  According to Wired, Senator Joe Lieberman, for instance, was instrumental in persuading Amazon.com to kick WikiLeaks off its web hosting service.  Senator Lieberman has suggested that Amazon, as well as Visa and and PayPal, came to their own decisions about WikiLeaks. Lieberman noted:

“While corporate entities make decisions based on their obligations to their shareholders, sometimes full consideration of those obligations requires them to act as responsible citizens.  We offer our admiration and support to those companies exhibiting courage and patriotism as they face down intimidation from hackers sympathetic to WikiLeaks’ philosophy of irresponsible information dumps for the sake of damaging global relationships.”

Unlike the purely voluntary decisions that Internet intermediaries make with regard to cyber hate, see here, Amazon’s response raises serious concerns about what Seth Kreimer has called “censorship by proxy.”  Kreimer’s work (as well as Derek Bambauer‘s terrific Cybersieves) explores American government’s pressure on intermediaries to “monitor or interdict otherwise unreachable Internet communications” to aid the “War on Terror.”

Legislators have also sought to ensure opacity of certain governmental information with new regulations.  Proposed legislation (spearheaded by Senator Lieberman) would make it a federal crime for anyone to publish the name of U.S. intelligence source.  The Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination (SHIELD) Act would amend a section of the Espionage Act that forbids the publication of classified information on U.S. cryptographic secrets or overseas communications intelligence.  The SHIELD Act would extend that prohibition to information on human intelligence, criminalizing the publication of information “concerning the identity of a classified source or information of an element of the intelligence community of the United States” or “concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government” if such publication is prejudicial to U.S. interests.

Another issue on the horizon may be the immunity afforded providers or users of interactive computer services who publish content created by others under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  An aside: section 230 is not inconsistent with the proposed SHIELD Act as it excludes federal criminal claims from its protections.  (This would not mean that website operators like Julian Assange would be strictly liable for others’ criminal acts on its services; the question would be whether a website operator’s actions violated the SHIELD Act).   Now for my main point: Senator Lieberman has expressed an interest in broadening the exemptions to section 230′s immunity to require the removal of certain content, such as videos featuring Islamic extremists.  Given his interest and the current concerns about security risks related to online disclosures, Senator Lieberman may find this an auspicious time to revisit section 230′s broad immunity.

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The Offensive Internet

Harvard University Press recently published The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation, a collection of essays edited by Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum.  Frank Pasquale, Dan Solove, and I have chapters in the book as do Saul Levmore, Martha Nussbaum, Cass Sunstein, Anupam Chander, Karen Bradshaw and Souvik Saha, Brian Leiter, Geoffrey Stone, John Deigh, Lior Strahilevitz, and Ruben Rodrigues.  Stanley Fish just reviewed the book at New York Times.com.

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Ammori on Assange, Free Speech, and Wikileaks

At Balkanization, Professor Marvin Ammori has a thoughtful post on the Wikileaks story.  Professor Ammori, who will be guest blogging with us soon, gave me the thumbs up on reproducing his post.  Hopefully, it will spark some interesting discussion on CoOp.  Here is Ammori’s post:

Many of our nation’s landmark free speech decisions are not about heroes–several are about flag-burnersracists, Klansmen, and those with political views outside the mainstream. And yet we measure our commitment to freedom of speech, in part, by our willingness to protect even their rights despite disagreement with what they say, and why they say it.

The story of Wikileaks publishing U.S. diplomatic cables has become the story of Julian Assange: is he a hero or villain, a high-tech terrorist or enemy combatant? Should the U.S., which may have already empanelled a grand jury in Virginia, prosecute him as a criminal under the Espionage Act of 1917 or under the computer fraud and abuse act?

Though I have spent years advocating for Internet freedom, I don’t think Assange is a hero for leaking these diplomatic cables.  According to plausible reports, the leaks have harmed U.S. interests, made the work of U.S. diplomats more difficult, likely endangered lives of allies, and may have set back democracy in Zimbabwe and perhaps elsewhere.  Even some of Assange’s friends at Wikileaks are doubting Assange’s heroism: a few left him to launch a rival site and to writetell-all book.  Whatever the harms of secrecy and over-classification, Assange’s actions have caused tremendous damage.  No wonder polls show nearly 60% of Americans believe the U.S. should arrest Assange and charge him with a crime.

My initial reaction was similar.  I thought that if a case could be made against Assange, one should be made.

But, as time passed, the political and legal downsides of prosecution came into clearer focus, and I am rethinking that initial reaction.  Despite still believing Assange’s actions have been harmful, I have now come to the opposite conclusion—not for the benefit of Assange, but for the benefit of Americans and of the United States.

Prosecuting Assange could do more harm than good for our freedom of the press and would inflict further harm on diplomatic effectiveness.  Despite the appeal of prosecuting Assange, it is not worth the cost.  We will not get the cables back.  We will not deter aspiring Wikileakers, as both our allies and our enemies know.  We will, as Dean Geoffrey Stone has best articulated, likely sacrifice established principles of freedom of the press in doing so.

Here are some thoughts on why we should think twice about prosecuting Assange, categorized by harms to the U.S.’s freedom of the press and then harms to America’s diplomatic effectiveness. And, in advance, I thank the many scholars, policy experts, and friends who took the time to give me thoughts on earlier drafts of this post. Read More

19 Points on Wikileaks

Don’t worry, it’s not another prolix post from me, just commentary on Jack Goldsmith’s Seven Thoughts on Wikileaks and Lovink & Riemens’s Twelve theses on WikiLeaks. (And here’s an FAQ for those confused by the whole controversy.)

Goldsmith, who takes cybersecurity very seriously, nevertheless finds himself “agreeing with those who think Assange is being unduly vilified.” He believes that “it is not obvious what law he has violated,” and Geoff Stone today said that many Lieberman-inspired efforts to expand the Espionage Act to include Assange’s conduct would be unconstitutional. Goldsmith asks:

What if there were no wikileaks and Manning had simply given the Lady Gaga CD to the Times? Presumably the Times would eventually have published most of the same information, with a few redactions, for all the world to see. Would our reaction to that have been more subdued than our reaction now to Assange? If so, why?

Lovink & Riemens provide something of an answer:
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Virtual Perils of Cyber Hate and the Need for a Conception of Digital Citizenship

Although intermediaries’ services can facilitate and reinforce a citizenry’s activities, they pose dangers that work to undermine them.  Consider the anonymous and pseudonymous nature of online discourse.  Intermediaries permit individuals to create online identities unconnected to their legal identities.  Freed from a sense of accountability for their online activities, citizens might engage in productive discourse in ways that they might not if directly correlated with their offline identities.  Yet the sense of anonymity breeds destructive behavior as well.  Social science research suggests that people behave aggressively when they believe that they cannot be observed and caught.  Destructive online behavior spills offline, working a fundamental impairment of citizenship.

For instance, digital expressions of hatred helped inspire the 1999 shooting of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jews in suburban Chicago by Benjamin Smith, a member of the white supremacist group World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) that promotes racial holy war.  Just months before the shootings, Smith told documentary filmmaker Beverly Peterson that: “It wasn’t really ‘til I got on the Internet, read some literature of these groups that . . . it really all came together.”  More recently, the Facebook group Kick a Ginger Day urged members to get their “steel toes ready” for a day of attacking individuals with red hair. The site achieved its stated goal: students punched and kicked children with red hair and dozens of Facebook members claimed credit for attacks.

Cyber hate can produce so much psychological damage as to undermine individuals’ ability to engage in public discourse.  For instance, posters on a white supremacist website targeted Bonnie Jouhari, a civil rights advocate and mother of a biracial girl.  They revealed Ms. Jouhari’s home address and her child’s picture.  The site showed a picture of Ms. Jouhari’s workplace exploding in flames next to the threat that “race traitors” are “hung from the neck from the nearest tree or lamp post.”  Posters included bomb-making instructions and a picture of a hooded Klansman holding a noose.  Aside from moving four times, Ms. Jouhari and her daughter have withdrawn completely from public life; neither has a driver’s license, a voter registration card or a bank account because they don’t want to create a public record of their whereabouts.

Search engines also ensure the persistence and production of cyber hate that undermines citizens’ capability to engage in offline and online civic engagement.  Because search engines reproduce information cached online, people cannot depend upon time’s passage to alleviate the damage that online postings cause.  Unlike leaflets or signs affixed to trees that would decay or disappear not long after their publication, now search engines index all of the content hosted by social media intermediaries, producing it instantaneously. Read More

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Unwitting Mashup of Facebook and Juicy Campus?

In a move that recalls the postings on the now-defunct Juicy Campus, Facebook groups devote themselves to vulgar descriptions of female high school students.  As Donna St. George of the Washington Post reported on November 11, a Facebook page targeted 30 female students from the T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.  It featured photographs of the students accompanied by “offensive or sexual comments.”  Another similar page included a picture of the school’s female principal.  The Daily Beast recently reported that Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school banned access to Facebook through campus computers after discovering a 200-plus-page-long threat penned by female students that disparaged fellow female students.  The Facebook page described Choate students as “hos” and “gross and faked and spray tanned.”

Facebook’s Terms of Service requires users to agree to refrain from bullying, intimidating, or harassing other users.”  Pursuant to that policy (or so we can guess), Facebook took down the page of the 30 girls with the sexually demeaning comments five days after T.C. Williams High School’s principal filed a complaint with Facebook.  Despite Facebook’s real-name culture, the author of the Facebook page has not been identified, an unsurprising result given the advantages provided ill-meaning individuals who want to evade responsibility for online activity.  In the boarding school matter, it seems that a student copied the thread, publishing it for the consumption of students (and everyone else) who were not privy to the Facebook page.  According to the Daily Beast, school administrators “hired a computer forensics expert to track how it had been made public.”  Two of the girls who wrote the post were expelled and four were suspended.

In the T.C. Williams High School matter, the principal went on the school’s PA system for two days in a row to let students know that she thought the page was “totally offensive.”  The Washington Post reports that the principal also asked students to avoid accessing it: “We’re better than this,” she told the students.  If that is all the principal did, it seems a weak showing of moral leadership and civic education.  Hopefully, the incident began a longer-term conversation about many things, including bullying, gender harassment, the risks of online activities, and the responsibilities of students while online.  Now, the school officials’ response in the Choate matter is worth discussing.  Norm Pattis, a Connecticut trial lawyer, contends that the school’s response is too harsh given the dire consequences of a school expulsion on a student’s chances of getting into college.  Prohibiting Facebook on campus may also be an empty gesture.  On the one hand, Choate students have continued to tweet and tumbl on their school accounts.  They also can access social media including Facebook on their mobile devices, raising the same concerns of online civility.  On the other, as Pattis suggests, the school missed a crucial teaching opportunity (beyond a 90-minute discussion with students) on how to be leaders, rather than the quick fix of banning Facebook on the campus network.  That sounds right to me, too.

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Digital Lives of 2.0 People, Not Locked In But Extended Out

Reviewing the movie The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto in this month’s New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith warns readers of the perils of social network sites like Facebook where “life is turned into a database.”  According to Smith, Facebook “locks us” into a system designed by a college nerd to resemble “a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make ‘choices’ (which means, finally, purchases).”  Smith writes:

“When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced.  Everything shrinks.  Individual character.  Friendships.  Language. Sensibility.  In a way, it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.  It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

Smith worries about her students and other “2.0 kids.”  She contrasts “1.0 people” who use social media tools to connect with others in an outward-facing way with “2.0 kids” who employ them to turn inward and towards the trivial.  2.0 people, Smith fears, are embedded in the software, avatars who don’t realize that “what makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.”  She wonders: “what if 2.0 people feel their socially networked selves genuinely represent them to completion?”  In Smith’s view, Mark Zuckerberg tamed “the wild west of the Internet” to “fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul,” risking the extinction of the “private person who is a mystery to the world and–which is more important — to herself.”

Smith’s review recalls Neil Postman’s critique of television culture and Benjamin Barber’s warnings about contemporary consumerism.  While television helped us amuse ourselves to death and pervasive pop culture produces shoppers, not thinkers, social network sites turn youth culture into over-sharing, unthinking, eager-to-please avatars who “watch the reality-TV show Bride Wars because their friends are.”  Yet this can’t be the whole story.  Whether 41 or 21, social network participants live in the real world, integrating their online activities seamlessly into their daily lives.  Far more goes on in social network sites like Facebook than sharing information to “make others like you” as Smith suggests.  On Facebook and other popular social media sites, people join groups of every stripe.  They work, as Miriam Cherry’s terrific new article Virtual Work addresses.  They build  reputations in ways that can enhance offline careers.  They join study groups.  In many respects, social media sites provide platforms for genuine participation far more than just Government 2.0 engagement.  Far from deadening the everyday citizen, social media platforms can resemble Alexis de Toqueville’s town meeting, John Dewey’s schools, and Cynthia Estlund’s workplace.  Of course, citizenship participation online is different–it is not the face-to-face interaction envisioned by Toqueville, Dewey, and Estlund.  But even with the challenges brought by internet-mediated interactions, 2.0 kids are more than denuded avatars.