Free Speech

WikiLeaks roundup: a selection of the best analysis

The WikiLeaks controversy continues to capture headlines and provoke vitriol from governments around the world. Most reactions, however, have been surprisingly unsophisticated. Commentators repeatedly conflate WIkiLeaks the platform with its spokesperson, Julian Assange (who is, whatever your opinion of the man, largely irrelevant), assume the platform’s actions are unlawful (probably not — and this is the very question to be determined), or believe that shutting down WikiLeaks will stop the leaks (it won’t).

US Senators have called for pressure to be placed on American companies to abandon WIkiLeaks, and for media outlets to be criminally investigated, while others have called for Assange’s prosecution and even assassination. France has called for the site to be banned from French servers (good luck). Assange has been detained on what will probably turn out to be trumped-up sex charges. Geoffrey Robertson QC and a specialist team from Doughty Chambers have stepped in to fight extradition.  Read more »

British ISPs to face regulatory pressure over internet pornography

Representatives of the Her Majesty’s government will meet with ISPs and lobbyists to discuss whether, and how, access to internet pornography should be controlled.

The meeting comes days after Tory backbencher Claire Perry said the availability of such materials is like ‘a fire is burning out of control’. The Member wants mandatory access controls on 18+ material, and called upon ISPs to provide them. Although details were unclear, it looks like some kind of mandatory ISP-level blocking system, subject to an opt-in after age verification.

Assuming, for sake of argument, that this is justified (and it may not be), who should implement the access controls? Ed Vaizey commented that he had ‘a huge amount of sympathy’ for Perry’s request. Does this signal a new era of content regulation in the United Kingdom? Sadly, it would not be at all unprecedented.

In other censorship-related news, a copy of the so-called ‘Google blacklist’ (keywords that will not autocomplete in the main search box) has been leaked (NSFW).

Saudi Arabia blocks Facebook

First Pakistan, then Bangladesh, Iran and — if anecdotal reports are to be believed — China. Now Saudi Arabia has reportedly blocked Facebook, on the basis that the website “crossed a line” in not conforming to the “values” of the country. It could turn out to be just another Mohammed-cartoon incident, but this raises a question: how are non-democratic states to engage with Western intermediary platforms that, if allowed to be accessed, cannot easily be regulated, monitored or controlled? So far, the answer seems to be an all-or-nothing approach: full access, or no access. What’s a social network to do?

The official says Saudi’s Communications and Information Technology Commission blocked the site Saturday and an error message shows up when Internet users try to access it. He says Facebook’s content had “crossed a line” with the kingdom’s conservative morals, but that blocking the site is a temporary measure. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Government department blocks open government website

Today’s irony award goes to the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, which last week blocked access to Open Australia, a website (modelled on They Work For You) which helps people track what their MPs say in Parliament. In fairness, the blockage occurred because a third party border proxy classified the content as a ‘blog’:

In an emailed response from Customs to [the website operator], it said that the site had been classified by its third-party internet filtering software as a blog.

“The website and it’s [sic] charity foundation are classified by the filtering software … as ‘blogs’,” the department said.

It could not allow “general access” to websites classified as blogs “due to the threat websites within this category can pose to the security of the Australian Customs and Border Protection network”, the email said. …

Customs said that it was “important to note that the filter list is provided by a third-party” and that it “simply consumes this list”. “We do not make decisions on what category a website should be placed in,” it said.

Of course, exactly what threat such blogs pose to network security remains unclear. I wonder what the filter list provider’s responsibility for the blockage is — presumably, its terms of service disclaim all liability for false-positives.

Internet defamation and the 'age of humiliation'

As many have argued, the internet etches an indelible tattoo upon the reputations of those whom people tag, ridicule and ‘out’ — be they cat women, dog poopers or just obnoxious celebrities. But this is probably nothing new:

All of us now live under the threat of easy and instant humiliation. It’s no longer just celebrities and business executives who need to think about aggressive reputation-protection and face-saving techniques.

“Human nature hasn’t changed,” says Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis consultant in Los Angeles. “There have always been people whose aim in life was to cause pain to others. If they saw people embarrassing themselves, they got pleasure in sharing that information. Before the Internet, they had to gossip with their neighbors. Now they can gossip with the world.”

Others argue that there has been a ratcheting up of meanness—that the changes in technology have made us nastier and more cynical. “It’s like a blood sport,” says Mr. Fink, who runs a crisis-management firm in Los Angeles. “It feels like everyone has their cellphone out, ready to take a photo that will hurt someone else.”

Iran launches cyberattack on human rights websites

According to Iranian news reports, Iranian intelligence forces have hacked into 29 human rights activism websites which they allege are a front for US espionage and intelligence agencies. The attack follows the finding of an Iranian domestic court that the websites were developed to spy on Iran’s nuclear programme, and for the purpose of ‘provoking sedition and illegal demonstrations and rallies through releasing unreal and unfounded news and reports after the June presidential elections … providing media and news support for the Jundollah terrorist group and the monarchist opposition groups.’ Apparently, the network also distributed American anti-censorship software.

Update: Following the attacks, Iranian security forces arrested dozens of people accused of being involved in the websites’ operation. However, Western media tells a very different story, with The Tech Herald now reporting that those arrested in the operation:

were tortured for their access to the various websites, and as such the sites were taken down by physical violence, and not hacking. They have 30 members of our group held hostage, including the sister of one of our members, who has nothing to do with this matter. Each of the 30 hostages is a human rights activist and nothing more. …

Australian government to filter refused classification internet content

Incredibly, despite widespread public opposition, reasoned technical and policy arguments, and international condemnation by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and others, the Australian government looks set to proceed with its misguided plan to censor prohibited internet content. In December, the government released details of how the censorship (euphemism of choice: ‘filtering’) scheme will work. It’s not pretty, but there are a couple of consolations tucked away in this announcement:

The Government will introduce legislative amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act to require all ISPs to block RC-rated material hosted on overseas servers.

This is good news for industry (given that there’s to be a filter at all). Because the scheme will be implemented by way of legislative change, ISPs will probably be able to rely on ‘compliance with law’ clauses in customer contracts to restrict their services, and also save face in comparison to a self-regulated industry scheme. This is also good news for democracy: subjecting the bill to proper parliamentary scrutiny is appropriate for a measure of this magnitude (it would arguably be improper — and would probably breach convention — to enact the measure through delegated legislation), making it more likely that the inefficacy and fundamental problems with this policy will be seen and corrected. Of course, given the ALP’s numbers in the Senate and House of Representatives, this may be of purely symbolic value.  Read more »

Australian government ponders R18+ games classification

It seems that the Australian government is finally considering the introduction of a restricted classification (R18+) for computer games. Last week, the Attorney–General’s department released a discussion paper calling for submissions on whether the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) (Act) should be amended to permit the Office of Film and Literature Classification to rate a computer game as ‘restricted’, meaning that it is ‘unsuitable for those under 18’ and ‘may offend some sections of the adult community’.

Currently, the Act requires that any computer game unsuitable for a minor to see must be classified ‘Refused Classification’ (RC), which prevents it from being sold, hired, exhibited, displayed, demonstrated or advertised in Australia. We saw last year that this affected relatively mainstream titles, such as Fallout 3 (which originally encouraged in-game morphine use, and simulated effects of addiction) and Grand Theft Auto IV (which featured prostitution and realistic depictions of violence), ultimately forcing the developers to censor their worldwide release versions.

The current position is bad for numerous reasons. Most importantly, it doesn’t prevent any demonstrable harm to vulnerable persons in our community (notably children):  Read more »

Internet censorship and the politics of control

Harry Lewis, professor of computer science at Harvard University, has authored an interesting opinion piece on the current state of internet censorship. Broadly, Lewis identifies three sources of censorhip:

  1. State censorship: public agents filter bits for state purposes as they cross national borders (see, eg, the Great Firewall of China, pro-royalist censorship in Thailand, religious censorship in Saudi Arabia, recent unsuccessful attempts in Myanmar, and so on); this form of censorship is relatively easy to identify, but it may extend more broadly — for example, the enforcement abroad of judgments obtained under a foreign state’s defamation laws (Dow Jones v Gutnick an obvious example). Chalk it up to an ongoing love–hate relationship between nation states and the unfiltered internet.
  2. Gatekeeper censorship: Lewis identifies a growing class of content gatekeeps — search engines, popular content-sharing portals (such as YouTube and Facebook) and other large repositories of information (such as Wikipedia — though the wiki model, some have argued, is inherently immune to overt censorship). Google, for example, can ban pages from its index and decide which content is top-ranked in search results (and therefore, for practical purposes, which content is actually read). I could not have practicably discovered the above links on China, Myanmar, Thailand and Saudi Arabia without Google’s blessing. This process is opaque and non-jusiciable. YouTube and Yahoo have faced allegations of censorship for removing controversial political material under the vague mantle of ‘inappropriate content’. Lewis is, at least to some extent, rightly troubled by the fact that we are ‘relying almost exclusively on private companies to help us find the truth, when we cannot know what version of the truth they are showing us’.
  3. Copyright censorship: copyright law increasingly operates as an instrument of censorship — a blunt weapon, in Lewis’ view — by allowing private parties to object to material critical of them. The DMCA takedown regime (and its equivalents abroad) are biased in favour of censors in the sense that content hosts have a strong incentive to comply, whereupon the onus rests on the victim of censorship to rebut the takedown notice. A further factor that contributes to this imbalance is that the copyright owner will often be a large corporation enjoying the advantages of a ‘repeat player’ in copyright litigation over content author ‘one-shotters’.

These problems are far from unique. Nor, as might be assumed, are they confined to Muslim, communist or non-democratic states — just look at the ongoing debate concerning state internet censorship in Australia! (The fact that this is even being seriously considered is troubling enough, let alone the prospect that it might actually be implemented.) Lewis presents a cogent summary of the major issues with characteristic eloquence, drawing on numerous examples  Read more »

Cyberspace Battleground in Gaza

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has reportedly hacked into a Hamas television station as part of an ongoing war of information in Gaza. According to local media reports, the IDF took over the Al-Aqsa television station last weekend, and is using it to broadcast pro-Israeli military propaganda, including:

an animated clip of Hamas’ leadership being gunned down. “Time is running out,” the clip warned, in Arabic.

The day before, AFP reports, a “broadcast on Al-Aqsa television was interrupted with an image of a ringing phone that no one was answering.” ‘Hamas leaders are hiding and they are leaving you on the front line,’” a voice in “Hebrew-accented Arabic” said. Similar messages were sent out on Al-Aqsa radio, as well.

The Al-Asqa station was probably chosen because of its previous association with anti-semitic childrens’ cartoons. The station itself was also targeted and destroyed during aerial strikes last week.  Read more »

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