Should Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Help China Filter Searches?

china1a.bmpAn interesting article from Salon discusses how Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft assist the Chinese government with censorship. The companies filter out search results that the government wants to censor, and they help the government track down individuals engaging in criticism and dissent:

To conduct business in China, popular Internet companies Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have had to accommodate a regime that forbids free speech, bars political parties and jails journalists. This means filtering searches on their sites, censoring news and providing evidence in the trials of political dissidents — or risk having their sites blocked in China. Forced to choose between ignoring the world’s hottest market or implicitly endorsing a system of censorship that a recent Harvard study called “the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world,” the companies have decided to cooperate.

“Business is business,” Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba.com, which controls Yahoo China, told the Financial Times. “It’s not politics.”

How do companies cooperate? The article explains:

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Wikipedia Vandals

Wikipedia-vandal.jpgAccording to The Times (UK), a group of vandals have been attacking Wikipedia deliberately adding in falsehoods to articles:

[There has been a] surge in the number of spoof articles and vandal attacks which have followed the furore over a biographical Wikipedia article linking John Seigenthaler, a respected retired journalist, with the assassinations of both John F and Robert Kennedy.

In one such fake article, it was suggested today that Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s creator, was shot dead at his home by Siegenthaler’s wife.

This is most unfortunate. That’s the problem when you have something open and free — anybody can abuse the system. In an interesting post, Eric Goldman predicts the demise of Wikipedia:

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Freakonomics, The Apprentice, Student Grades, and Privacy


The ending of this season’s The Apprentice (with Donald Trump) has everybody talking. Rebecca Jarvis and Randal Pinkett were the finalists, both of whom Trump thought were outstanding stars. He hired Randal and later asked Randal whether he should also hire Rebecca. Randal said “no” because “there can be only one Apprentice” and the show is called “the Apprentice, not the Apprenti [sic].” Ann Althouse has more details and extensive commentary here and here.

The buzz about The Apprentice finale has also reached the Freakonomics blog, one that I greatly enjoy. I was surprised when I read a post by Steven Levitt about Rebecca:

More important, I know a celebrity! Rebecca Jarvis, the runner-up, is my former student at University of Chicago. If I remember correctly, she got an A.

Far stranger than her being my student is that we also went to the same high school in the Twin Cities.

I’ll have to dig out her old exam and get her to autograph it for me.

My surprise was at the fact that he just revealed a student’s grade on the Internet. There is likely no actionable privacy law claim for such a disclosure (perhaps breach of confidentiality), and it would be odd for a student to sue over the disclosure that she got an A in a class and quite difficult to establish damages. Nevertheless, it strikes me as a lapse in judgment to reveal a student’s grade — even a good grade — over the Internet without first obtaining that student’s consent. Perhaps Levitt did obtain Rebecca’s consent, but as I read the post, it doesn’t seem likely he did. While Levitt’s infraction isn’t one I’m too worked up about, it does demonstrate the importance of having some self-restraint in blogging. It’s easy for all of us to dash off a post in haste without thinking of the implications.

Speaking of student grades, I’ve got a pile of exams I should be getting to . . .


SupremeCourtOf TheUnitedStates.blogspot.com?

The New York Times Book Review this week has an article (“What Are They Saying About Me?) about book authors and blogging. In addition to discussing the varying practices of authors in the blogosphere–some authors read obsessively what is said about their books, some don’t bother at all–the article discusses the possibility of blogs improving books before publication.

Cass Sunstein is quoted as saying that pre-publication comments at the Volokh Conspiracy affected the content of his recent book, Radicals in Robes. (Sunstein doesn’t actually say the comments improved his book but presumably that’s what he means.)

That got me thinking. I have previously complained about the poor quality of Supreme Court opinions.

Maybe a blog can help the nine Justices?

Here, then, is a simple proposal: The Supreme Court should operate a blog to generate input on the Court’s opinions before they are published. The postings could range from limited issues (“if we decide in the petitioner’s favor, is it better to remand to the lower courts?”) to entire drafts of opinions and requests for comments.

We’re accustomed to secrecy in decision-making at the Supreme Court. But there is no particular reason that has to be the norm. Improving the Court’s ultimate product is a good reason for lifting the curtain.

Moreover, the Court already gets input from non-parties in the form of amicus briefs. A blog would expand on that principle and allow input from a wider audience. A blog would also allow the Justices to get help when issues arise during the course of preparing an opinion—the point at which they most likely need assistance.

The Justices will need to give some thought to how to structure their blog. An unmoderated Supreme Court blog would attract a lot of comments, many of which would be less insightful and helpful than others. (Look at the reader comments at the Volokh conspiracy for evidence of that problem.) So perhaps comments should be limited to registered users. Perhaps registration should require some kind of screening process. Law professors might qualify more easily than, say, astrologers. Anonymous posts probably should not be allowed.

But with some careful planning, a Supreme Court blog could vastly improve the quality of the Court’s ultimate product.

Indeed, it has already worked for Radicals in Robes.


How Much Government Secrecy Is Really Necessary?


Responding to reports that revealed that the President authorized the NSA to conduct warrantless surveillance within the US, President Bush said:

“The existence of this secret program was revealed in media reports after being improperly provided to news organizations. As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk.”

I’m growing weary of arguments like this. How, exactly, does the revelation of the fact that Bush authorized the NSA to conduct surveillance — possibly exceeding the limits of his lawful powers — put “our citizens at risk”? Why is every disclosure about the extent of the government’s surveillance somehow assisting the terrorists?

The argument seems to be that we can’t have a national debate about the nature and extent of government surveillance because such information will help the terrorists. But central to any viable democracy is a government that is publicly accountable, and that requires that the people have the information they need to assess their government’s activities.

Recently, I blogged about a story involving a secret DOD database of protesters. And there’s a debate going on about a secret regulation in the Gilmore case. The debate has focused on whether the secret information in the case is really a regulation, a law, or something else, but the larger question remains: Why does it need to be a secret?

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Did Bush Have the Legal Authority Under FISA to Authorize NSA Surveillance?

whitehouse4.jpgYesterday, I blogged about a startling story in the NY Times about President Bush’s authorizing the NSA to conduct domestic surveillance without a warrant or even a court order. According to the NY Times story, the “legal opinions that support the N.S.A. operation remain classified.”

Today in the NY Times is a follow-up story about the legal basis for the President’s actions. According to the story:

[S]ome legal experts outside the administration, including some who served previously in the intelligence agencies, said the administration had pushed the presidential-powers argument beyond what was legally justified or prudent. They say the N.S.A. domestic eavesdropping illustrates the flaws in Mr. Bush’s assertion of his powers.

“Obviously we have to do things differently because of the terrorist threat,” said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, former general counsel of both N.S.A. and the Central Intelligence Agency, who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “But to do it without the participation of the Congress and the courts is unwise in the extreme.” . . .

William C. Banks, a widely respected authority on national security law at Syracuse University, said the N.S.A. revelation came as a shock, even given the administration’s past assertions of presidential powers.

“I was frankly astonished by the story,” he said. “My head is spinning.”

Professor Banks said the president’s power as commander in chief “is really limited to situations involving military force – anything needed to repel an attack. I don’t think the commander in chief power allows” the warrantless eavesdropping, he said. . . .

In engaging in the surveillance, the President may have ignored the legal procedures set forth in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

The FISA allows the government to engage in electronic surveillance if it obtains a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which meets in secret. The government must demonstrate probable cause that the monitored party is a “foreign power” or an “agent of a foreign power.” 50 U.S.C. § 1801. If the monitored party is a U.S. citizen, however, the goverment must establish probable cause that the party’s activities “may” or “are about to” involve a criminal violation. Id.

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Hollywood and “Asians”

geisha.bmpI used to live in South Korea; a fact, I think, that tends to make me a bit touchy about the linguistic, cultural, and — yes — physical differences between various Asian countries. People are fond of talking about things “Asian” without always realizing that there is a huge difference between say Thailand and Korea, or Japan and China. For example, linguistically Chinese has more in common with English than it does with Japanese or Korean. (Setting aside the vocabulary that both languages have borrowed from China.) Needless to say “Asians” also do not constitute a single ethnic group.

Which brings me to Memoirs of a Geisha, just released by Sony pictures. According to all of the reviews, it is a beautifully filmed movie. However, I can’t help but notice that in this very Japanese story all of the lead actresses are Chinese. I don’t think that there is any need to become some sort of fundamentalist about ethnic or national identities, but could you imagine Hollywood producing a movie about a group of Greek women and casting a trio of Norwegian actresses in the lead roles?


What Wikipedia Is (and Isn’t)

In light of the recent discussions here of Wikipedia, I’d like to throw in my two cents on the subject.

I like Wikipedia. In fact, I like it a lot. In fact, I have gone so far as to do what Eugene Volokh warned against — I’ve actually cited to Wikipedia. In fact, I cited to Wikipedia six times in a recently published law review article. (I’m not alone in this by any means–“wikipedia” gets over 200 hits on a Lexis search of law review articles, almost all of which are cites to entries.) In my case, I cited Wikipedia as a starting point for investigating personalities, such as John Mellencamp, Tom Clancy, and Marni Nixon. I’m aware that some of these entries contain certain inaccuracies, but I feel comfortable citing to them for reasons I’ll explain below. In the alternative, I suppose I could have cited to nothing (not very helpful to the reader) or cited to books (realistically, though, how many people would follow up on those cites?). Also, I should admit that, in part, I cite to Wikipedia sometimes because I hope some readers might take a look at Wikipedia and appreciate it for what it is. However, I’m not trying to deceive people about what Wikipedia is–it is, more or less, the Web, repackaged and reformatted.

In fact, before I cited to Wikipedia, I cited, on rare occasions and for very similar reasons, to web searches on Google for a specific term. (Again, I’m not alone in this, though the numbers of people who did this were smaller.) As far as I’m concerned, citing to a Wikipedia entry for Marni Nixon and a Google search for Marni Nixon are very nearly the same thing. Both are invitations to the reader to enter what you might call a “muddy information portal,” a messy and organic field of data that the citing author does not control, but feels would be helpful to the reader as a starting point for further research. Citing to something like that might be unorthodox, yes, but I don’t think it is beyond the pale.

To my mind, the difference between citing Wikipedia and citing a Web search is just a matter of the target’s format. When we search the Web, Google creates our “entry” on the fly with algorithms that prioritize popular and relevant websites. With Wikipedia, we have the dynamic of Web search somewhat inverted — creators with data they consider relevant to specific terms offer up that data to Wikipedia under a shared hosting umbrella in a common format (and with a commitment to collaboration). Due to this, Wikipedia entries generally look nicer. But other than that, Wikipedia and the World Wide Web are very nearly the same thing. Wikipedia’s openess, to both creation and revision, doesn’t guarantee much accuracy.

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If Oedipus Tried Online Dating…


UPDATE: It appears that this story might indeed be dubious. It comes from a tabloid, Weekly World News. I thought it might be credible because it was coming from Yahoo! News, but now I don’t think the story is credible — or Yahoo! News for that matter.

This Yahoo! News story is so weird that it’s hard to believe, but it is quite amusing:

Skirt-chasing playboy Daniel Anceneaux spent weeks talking with a sensual woman on the Internet before arranging a romantic rendezvous at a remote beach — and discovering that his on-line sweetie of six months was his own mother!

“I walked out on that dark beach thinking I was going to hook up with the girl of my dreams,” the rattled bachelor later admitted. “And there she was, wearing white shorts and a pink tank top, just like she’d said she would.

“But when I got close, she turned around — and we both got the shock of our lives. I mean, I didn’t know what to say. All I could think was, ‘Oh my God! it’s Mama!’ ”

But the worst was yet to come. Just as the mortified mother and son realized the error of their ways, a patrolman passed by and cited them for visiting a restricted beach after dark.

“Danny and I were so flustered, we blurted out the whole story to the cop,” recalled matronly mom Nicole, 52. “The policeman wrote a report, a local TV station got hold of it — and the next thing we knew, our picture and our story was all over the 6 o’clock news. “People started pointing and laughing at us on the street — and they haven’t stopped laughing since.”

But there’s more. Consider this:

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President Bush, the National Security Agency, and Surveillance

NSA2a.jpgThe New York Times has an in-depth story about how President Bush authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to engage in surveillance after 9/11:

Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible “dirty numbers” linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval represents a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

“This is really a sea change,” said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. “It’s almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches.”

Read the article. It is, in my view, quite startling. Here’s another very troubling fact:

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