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Censorship on the March

Today, you can’t get to The Oatmeal, or Dinosaur Comics, or XKCD, or (less importantly) Wikipedia. The sites have gone dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, America’s attempt to censor the Internet to reduce copyright infringement. This is part of a remarkable, distributed, coordinated protest effort, both online and in realspace (I saw my colleague and friend Jonathan Askin headed to protest outside the offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand). Many of the protesters argue that America is headed in the direction of authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and Bahrain in censoring the Net. The problem, though, is that America is not alone: most Western democracies are censoring the Internet. Britain does it for child pornography. France: hate speech. The EU is debating a proposal to allow “flagging” of objectionable content for ISPs to ban. Australia’s ISPs are engaging in pre-emptive censorship to prevent even worse legislation from passing. India wants Facebook, Google, and other online platforms to remove any content the government finds problematic.

Censorship is on the march, in democracies as well as dictatorships. With this movement we see, finally, the death of the American myth of free speech exceptionalism. We have viewed ourselves as qualitatively different – as defenders of unfettered expression. We are not. Even without SOPA and PROTECT IP, we are seizing domain names, filtering municipal wi-fi, and using funding to leverage colleges and universities to filter P2P. The reasons for American Internet censorship differ from those of France, South Korea, or China. The mechanism of restriction does not. It is time for us to be honest: America, too, censors. I think we can, and should, defend the legitimacy of our restrictions – the fight on-line and in Congress and in the media shows how we differ from China – but we need to stop pretending there is an easy line to be drawn between blocking human rights sites and blocking Rojadirecta or Dajaz1.

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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The Fight For Internet Censorship

Thanks to Danielle and the CoOp crew for having me! I’m excited.

Speaking of exciting developments, it appears that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is dead, at least for now. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said that the bill will not move forward until there is a consensus position on it, which is to say, never. Media sources credit the Obama administration’s opposition to some of the more noxious parts of SOPA, such as its DNSSEC-killing filtering provisions, and also the tech community’s efforts to raise awareness. (Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has been working overtime in reporting on SOPA; Wikipedia and Reddit are adopting a blackout to draw attention; even the New York City techies are holding a demonstration in front of the offices of Senators Kirstin Gillibrand and Charles Schumer. Schumer has been bailing water on the SOPA front after one of his staffers told a local entrepreneur that the senator supports Internet censorship. Props for candor.) I think the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the bill is important, but I suspect that a crowded legislative calendar is also playing a significant role.

Of course, the PROTECT IP Act is still floating around the Senate. It’s less worse than SOPA, in the same way that Transformers 2 is less worse than Transformers 3. (You still might want to see what else Netflix has available.) And sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy has suggested that the DNS filtering provisions of the bill be studied – after the legislation is passed. It’s much more efficient, legislatively, to regulate first and then see if it will be effective. A more cynical view is that Senator Leahy’s move is a public relations tactic designed to undercut the opposition, but no one wants to say so to his face.

I am not opposed to Internet censorship in all situations, which means I am often lonely at tech-related events. But these bills have significant flaws. They threaten to badly weaken cybersecurity, an area that is purportedly a national priority (and has been for 15 years). They claim to address a major threat to IP rightsholders despite the complete lack of data that the threat is anything other than chimerical. They provide scant procedural protections for accused infringers, and confer extraordinary power on private rightsholders – power that will, inevitably, be abused. And they reflect a significant public choice imbalance in how IP and Internet policy is made in the United States.

Surprisingly, the Obama administration has it about right: we shouldn’t reject Internet censorship as a regulatory mechanism out of hand, but we should be wary of it. This isn’t the last stage of this debate – like Wesley in The Princess Bride, SOPA-like legislation is only mostly dead. (And, if you don’t like the Obama administration’s position today, just wait a day or two.)

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Don’t Break the Internet

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a piece by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post on the PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act. In Don’t Break the Internet, they argue that the two bills — intended to counter online copyright and trademark infringement — “share an underlying approach and an enforcement philosophy that pose grave constitutional problems and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Internet’s addressing system, for the principle of interconnectivity that has helped drive the Internet’s extraordinary growth, and for free expression.”

They write:

These bills, and the enforcement philosophy that underlies them, represent a dramatic retreat from this country’s tradition of leadership in supporting the free exchange of information and ideas on the Internet. At a time when many foreign governments have dramatically stepped up their efforts to censor Internet communications, these bills would incorporate into U.S. law a principle more closely associated with those repressive regimes: a right to insist on the removal of content from the global Internet, regardless of where it may have originated or be located, in service of the exigencies of domestic law.

Read the full article, Don’t Break the Internet by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

Note: Corrected typo in first paragraph.

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The Pluses of Google+

I love shiny new toys. Sometimes, its a crisp new book (Pauline Maier, for one… thanks Gerard!); other times, it’s something plush and adorable, like the yellow Angry Birds doll my 5-year-old nephew “bought” for me last month. Last week, it was Google+.

Google+ is social networking done the Google way. The soft launch is part of Google’s long-running master plan to enter the social networking market and try to do it better than the basically moribund MySpace and the supposedly plateauing Facebook. We are told that Google+’s chief asset is its ability to simulate real relationships, and our different interactions with different types of friends, on the Internet.

Google+ introduces us to circles, where you can take the 800 or so “friends” you would have on Facebook and break them down on your own terms. You have friends, acquaintances, co-workers, well-wishers, frenemies, those-guys-you-met-at-that-terrible-bar, whatever. And, you can use these classifications to tailor your interactions, thus avoiding the problem of your mother, sister or child accessing a picture meant for your pals.

There are also sparks, which are news and video aggregators. It is easy enough to tell a spark what you enjoy doing when you’re not working on important affairs of state, thus allowing you to spend “more time wasting time without wasting your time looking how to waste time.”

And, hangouts are Google+’s attempts to recreate chance encounters. I’m not sure these are completely functioning yet, though. Remember when you used to visit the mall or walked through the West Village and ran into someone you hadn’t seen in years? Hangouts attempt to turn an online social networking into a place where anything social can happen, only with Google+, you “bump” into someone through a video message.

Let’s assume for the moment that all this works as well as we hope and that Google+ allows us to recreate real life in the virtual realm. Facebook is not really trying to recreate real life and simulate precisely how we interact with one another in the physical world. It is trying to supplement it, foster new interactions in new ways. At times, we don’t like that. Facebook’s forced socialization and privacy issues give many social networkers pause. There are many other digital technologies that seek to supplement our physical social world. Grindr, a geolocating social networking service for gay men, is one such example. Grindr allows its members to be out and about, smartphone in hand and find other gay men in the vicinity. Its purpose is to eschew traditional social networking that keeps you saddled to your computer and to let you physically meet people you have something in common with who may be living across the street or down the block. It is interactive, mobile and a multi-purpose tool.

So, Google+ is trying to forge a different path, i.e., using the Internet as an extension of our physical social circles and to keep those circles the way they are now. Of course, that is not to say that Google+ will not bring us closer to new friends — we can still interact with friends of friends, let people we barely know into our network and share content with whomever we please. But, Google+’s chief draw appears to be its greater fidelity to real life. If that is true in the long run, as Google works out the kinks and listens to its users, is that what we want in our online social networks?

The benefits are clear — we can avoid the grandmother seeing you at the bar problem. But there are also disadvantages — we lose the liberating potential of reaching new people. What do you think?

Beyond Cyber-Utopianism

What encapsulates the ethos of Silicon Valley? Promoting his company’s prowess at personalization, Mark Zuckerberg once said that, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” Scott Cleland argues that “you can’t trust Google, Inc.,” compiling a critical mass of dubious practices that might seem quite understandable each taken alone. Apple’s “reality distortion field” is the topic of numerous satires. As the internet increasingly converges through these three companies, what are the values driving their decisionmaking?

For some boosters, these are not terribly important questions: the logic of the net itself assures progress. But for Chris Lehmann, the highflying internet-academic-industrial complex has failed to think critically about a consolidating, commercialized cyberspace. Previously featured on this blog for his book, Lehmann’s review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus is fairly scathing:

With the emergence of Web 2.0–style social media (things like Facebook, Twitter and text messaging), Shirky writes, we inhabit an unprecedented social reality, “a world where public and private media blend together, where professional and amateur production blur, and where voluntary public participation has moved from nonexistent to fundamental.” This Valhalla of voluntary intellectual labor represents a stupendous crowdsourcing, or pooling, of the planet’s mental resources, hence the idea of the “cognitive surplus.” . . .

[But why] assign any special value to an hour spent online in the first place? Given the proven models of revenue on the web, it’s reasonable to assume that a good chunk of those trillion-plus online hours are devoted to gambling and downloading porn. Yes, the networked web world does produce some appreciable social goods, such as the YouTubed “It Gets Better” appeals to bullied gay teens contemplating suicide. But there’s nothing innate in the character of digital communication that favors feats of compassion and creativity; for every “It Gets Better” video that goes viral, there’s an equally robust traffic in white nationalist, birther and jihadist content online. . . .

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