Tag: google

Global Internet Freedom via Government Regulation?

This morning’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on global Internet freedom opened with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) announcing that he would “introduce legislation that would require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability.”  Durbin’s staff tell me they’re in the early phases of hammering out a draft, so exactly what that amounts to isn’t clear yet, but my first-pass gut reaction is that this has the potential to do as much harm as good.

The argument for establishing some such set of rules is pretty straightforward: You don’t want the perverse scenario where corporations worry they’re shirking their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders if they fail to compete in the market to provide sophisticated technologies of control and repression to the world’s most authoritarian regimes. You don’t want despots exploiting the innovation that springs from the very freedom they deny their own people as a means to cement their own control. It’s possible to frame this as a collective action problem, with tech companies happy to “do the right thing” provided all their competitors do—but with each ultimately deciding to play ball for fear that if they don’t, someone else will.  If that accurately captures the dynamic—and, crucially, if the field of competitors is heavily concentrated in the United States—the binding power of legislation could increase the pressure on foreign governments to abandon repressive Internet policies. In theory, anyway.

But which steps are “reasonable,” and who decides? Google’s recent announcement that it would—eventually—cease its complicity in China’s regime of Internet censorship was greeted with general approbation, to the point where it’s easy to forget that, even if you’re exclusively concerned with what’s in the interest of the Chinese people, it’s a hard call whether and when a principled refusal to deal is really better than distasteful engagement. As Google’s Nicole Wong put it at the hearing, the company’s decision to launch Google.cn in 2006 was premised on “the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.” They’ve now apparently decided that the balance of considerations cuts the other way, but it needs to be stressed that it’s still a question of balance, and there will be real costs to withdrawal.

The tools Google provides can be useful to scholars and activists despite the constraints imposed by the Chinese government—and even when Google does censor search results, it endeavors to make that censorship at least somewhat transparent, announcing to users that some content has been removed. Few expect China to blink in the face of Google’s ultimatum, but it’s also worth noting that whatever leverage companies like Google do have over foreign regimes depends in significant part on their having been there in the first place to develop a user base.  One can imagine the government facing a political backlash if China’s second most popular search engine disappears; it’s hard to imagine much outcry over the decision not to enter the market in the first place. Then again, maybe the upshot of all this will just be that the 30 percent of Chinese Internet users who’d gotten censored results on Google will shrug and get their censored results from Baidu instead.

None of this is to say that Google’s new course is wrong, just that the questions are complex enough that I’d be chary of imposing criminal penalties on a company that made a different call about the balance of interests. Our own government, after all, routinely decides that some Greater Good is served by cooperation with frankly loathsome regimes, and the track record to date does not inspire vastly more confidence in their judgment than in Google’s.

Speakers at the hearing also broached the possibility of government support for various encryption and circumvention technologies that would be useful to foreign dissidents. I’m all for loosening export controls, but as Durbin himself noted, there’s a tricky line to walk here: Without a clear separation of Tech and State, repressive regimes will eagerly seek to reframe their arguments with tech firms over the degree of freedom their people should enjoy as an argument with the United States, which will be portrayed as seeking to “force” our particular conception of democracy on sovereign nations. It will be a spurious argument, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work.

I’ll wait to see the actual bill before rendering any firm judgment, but it seems like it would be awfully easy to pass legislation that lets us pat ourselves on the back for our noble ideals without actually doing a whole lot to advance online freedom in practice.

Google Execs Convicted in Italy

Google executives who had nothing to do with the creation, uploading, review, or display of a video have been criminally convicted in Italy for its brief appearance on a Google site.

The video, which showed Italian children taunting an autistic schoolmate, was promptly taken down after Italian authorities notified Google. The company assisted the authorities in locating the girl who uploaded it, according to Google’s account. (Her subsequent conviction makes it safe to assume that Google was cooperating with a criminal investigation as required by Italian law.) But four Google employees were charged with criminal defamation and failure to comply with the Italian privacy code.

That can’t happen here—unless we let it happen here.

This is a good time to review and extoll the Communications Decency Act—not because it attempted to censor Internet speech (that part was overturned), but because it protected providers of interactive services (like Web sites) from having to become gatekeepers over Internet content.  The law shielded them from liability for what users of their services do.

I believe common law would have eventually reached that result had the statute not been passed, but without protections like that in the CDA’s section 230, the wide-open, rollicking, soapbox-for-all Internet we know would not exist—it would be just a plussed-up television because everything uploaded would have to get a professional’s review for potential liability.

That’s what Italy stands to end up with if it allows liability against providers of interactive services. It’s what we stand to end up with if the many threats to CDA section 230 get traction.

China’s Dilemma

In the Wall Street Journal, Ian Buruma puts Google’s conflict with China in its historical context: the long struggle by China’s leaders to have the benefits of knowledge and trade from around the world without loosening their own hold on the Chinese people:

One way of dealing with this problem was to separate “practical knowledge” from “essential” culture, or ti-yong in Chinese. Western technology was fine, as long as it didn’t interfere with Chinese morals and politics. In practice, however, this was not feasible. Political ideas came to China, along with science, economics, and Western religion. And they did help to undermine the old established order. One of these ideas was Marxism, but once Mao had unified China under his totalitarian regime, he managed for several decades to insulate the Chinese from notions that might undermine his power.

Once China opened up to the world for business again in the late 1970s, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the old problem of information control emerged once again. Deng and his technocrats wanted to have the benefit of modern economic and technological ideas, but, like the 19th century mandarins, they wished to ban thoughts which Deng called “spiritual pollution.” The kind of pollution he had in mind was partly cultural (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll), but mainly political (human rights and democracy).

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele of the Libertarian Alliance in Great Britain wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West – technology, innovation, entrepreneurship – without adopting its liberal values. “We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with striptease.”

As I wrote on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, China is launched on a long process of economic growth and openness to the world, which is inevitably leading to political unrest and challenges to established authority. I believe that the changes in China over the past generation are the greatest story in the world – more than a billion people brought from totalitarianism to a largely capitalist economic system that is eroding the continuing authoritarianism of the political system. In the long run, I think that the attractions of growth and openness will overwhelm the rulers’ attempt to maintain their hold on power. But that process is rarely entirely peaceful, and we can expect conflicts of all kinds as this struggle proceeds.

Hijacking Neutrality

Perhaps he’s too demure to say “I told you so” himself, but events are bearing out the concerns about net neutrality and regulatory capture that  Tim Lee expressed in his excellent Cato paper “The Durable Internet.” The content industry is lobbying not just to ensure that neutrality rules permit filtering of Internet traffic by ISPs to block copyrighted material, but wants the FCC to positively encourage it.  As a brief from the Motion Picture Association of America suggests:

In fact, if the Commission wants to see a meaningful and long-term reduction in the amount of bandwidth consumed by illegal content, it should foster an environment in which innovation itself is able to flourish and new tools are not only permitted, but encouraged, to develop. The government should create incentives for this investment by clarifying that industry efforts will be rewarded with open and flexible regulations.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been out of step with some of their usual allies on this front, arguing that however desirable the open Internet might be, the broad assertion by the FCC of authority to control network architecture sets a dangerous precedent. The implicit threat to ISPs here is: “Go along with our wish list for intrusive filtering or we’ll find a way to use the rules to make trouble for you.”

The telecoms, meanwhile, are pressing for the applicability of neutrality rules to all sorts of other application-level service providers, such as Google. An AT&T filing argued that “the commission cannot rationally impose rules on one set of providers based on hypothetical concerns while exempting other providers that act as Internet gatekeepers and have engaged in actual misconduct.” They specifically called out Google, which they assert “shapes how consumers actually experience the Internet more than any given broadband provider possibly could.”

It would, to be sure, be perverse if industry players managed to use regulations designed to promote openness and innovation as a cudgel with which to whack innovative competitors. But in the world of regulation, no less than in the domains studied by Alfred Kinsey, it turns out that the perverse is perfectly normal.

Surveillance, Security, and the Google Breach

Yesterday’s bombshell announcement that Google is prepared to pull out of China rather than continuing to cooperate with government Web censorship was precipitated by a series of attacks on Google servers seeking information about the accounts of Chinese dissidents.  One thing that leaped out at me from the announcement was the claim that the breach “was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.” That piqued my interest because it’s precisely the kind of information that law enforcement is able to obtain via court order, and I was hard-pressed to think of other reasons they’d have segregated access to user account and header information.  And as Macworld reports, that’s precisely where the attackers got in:

That’s because they apparently were able to access a system used to help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users, said a source familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press.

This is hardly the first time telecom surveillance architecture designed for law enforcement use has been exploited by hackers. In 2005, it was discovered that Greece’s largest cellular network had been compromised by an outside adversary. Software intended to facilitate legal wiretaps had been switched on and hijacked by an unknown attacker, who used it to spy on the conversations of over 100 Greek VIPs, including the prime minister.

As an eminent group of security experts argued in 2008, the trend toward building surveillance capability into telecommunications architecture amounts to a breach-by-design, and a serious security risk. As the volume of requests from law enforcement at all levels grows, the compliance burdens on telcoms grow also—making it increasingly tempting to create automated portals to permit access to user information with minimal human intervention.

The problem of volume is front and center in a leaked recording released last month, in which Sprint’s head of legal compliance revealed that their automated system had processed 8 million requests for GPS location data in the span of a year, noting that it would have been impossible to manually serve that level of law enforcement traffic.  Less remarked on, though, was Taylor’s speculation that someone who downloaded a phony warrant form and submitted it to a random telecom would have a good chance of getting a response—and one assumes he’d know if anyone would.

The irony here is that, while we’re accustomed to talking about the tension between privacy and security—to the point where it sometimes seems like people think greater invasion of privacy ipso facto yields greater security—one of the most serious and least discussed problems with built-in surveillance is the security risk it creates.

‘Search Neutrality’ Regulation?

For more technical audiences, I wrote recently on the Tech Liberation Front blog about Google’s claim to favor “openness” when, in fact, its crown jewels—search and ad serving—are closed systems.

Google is “free to be wrong about philosophy, of course,” I wrote. “It doesn’t matter at all—except when Google tries to impose its philosophy on others. And in the debate over ‘net neutrality’ regulation it has done exactly that.”

Now Google is in the sights of those proposing public utility regulation of Internet search. It would be entertaining ironic comeuppance for Google, but “search neutrality” regulation would ossify an innovative business and deprive consumers of the benefits of competition.

A Rarity: Newspaper Argues Against Techno-panic, Cites Constitution

Progress & Freedom Foundation president and Cato alumnus Adam Thierer has done yeoman’s work for years pointing out, and arguing against, the phenomenon of techno-panic as it relates to children. That’s not the only area in which techno-panic can tighten its grip on the neck of common sense and the constitution, of course.

But here’s a delight I ran across this morning: the Los Angeles Times arguing against techno-panic despite the use of Web sites to research and case potential burglary victims (by the “bling ring,” soon to be the subject of a major motion picture).

The Times editorializes:

[T]hieves [did not] have to wait for the invention of Google maps to reconnoiter neighborhoods in search of easily accessible homes. That’s worth remembering if, as we fear, some legislator decides that a law should be passed to prevent Internet surfers from looking at houses they easily could scope out from the sidewalk… . . A law against photographing a home or what occurs outside it in plain sight — or disseminating the images to others — would be overreaching, not to mention unconstitutional.

What a delight—a major newspaper arguing to keep a hot issue in perspective and citing the constitution as a limit on government power! Thank you, L.A. Times.