Tag: Internet

Welcoming a New Common Noun: ‘the Mubarak’

Officials in London are looking everywhere but the mirror for places to affix blame for the recent riots. Beyond the immediate-term answer, individual rioters themselves, the target of choice seems to be “social media.” Prime Minister David Cameron is considering banning Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messenger to disable people from organizing themselves or reporting the locations and activity of the police.

Nevermind substantive grievance. Nevermind speech rights. We’ve got scapegoats to find!

[Events like this are nothing but a vessel into which analysts pour their ideological preconceptions, so here’s a sip of mine: Just like a spoiled child doesn’t grow up to be a gracious and kind adult, a population sugar-fed on entitlements doesn’t become a meek and thankful underclass. Also: people don’t like it when the police kill unarmed citizens. Which brings us to some domestic U.S. ineptitude…]

Two-and-a-half years ago, a (San Francisco) Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer shot and killed an unarmed man on a station platform in full view of a train full of riders (video). Sentenced to just two years for involuntary manslaughter, he was paroled in June. This week, upon learning of planned protests of the killing that may have disrupted service, BART officials cut off cell phone service in select stations, hoping to thwart the demonstrators.

[Update: A correspondent notes that the BART protest was in relation to another, more recent killing.]

The Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly criticized the tactic in a post called “BART Pulls a Mubarak in San Francisco.” It’s the same technique that deposed Eqyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak used to try to prevent the uprising that toppled him.

What’s true in Egypt is true in the U.K. is true in the United States. People will use the new communications infrastructures—cell phone networks, social media platforms, and such—to express grievance and to organize.

Western government officials may think that our lands are an idyll compared to the exotic savagery of the Middle East. In fact, we have people being killed by inept law enforcement in the U.S. and the U.K. just like they have people being killed by government thugs in the Middle East. What seems like a difference in kind is a difference in degree—and it’s no difference at all to the dead.

Among the prescriptions that flow from the London riots and BART’s communications censorship are the intense need for greater professionalism and reform of police practices. Wrongful killings precipitate (rightful) protest and (wrongful) violence and looting. Public policies in the area of entitlements and immigration that deny people a stake in their societies need a serious reassessment.

But we also need to keep in mind the propensity of government officials—in all governments—to seek control of communications infrastructure when it serves their goals. From the perspective of the free-speaking citizen, centralization of communications infrastructure is a key weakness. It gives fearful government authorities a place to go when they want to attack the public’s ability to organize and speak.

The Internet itself is a distributed, packet-switched network that generally resists censorship and manipulation. Internet service, however, is relatively centralized, with a small number of providers giving most Americans the bulk of their access. In the name of “net neutrality,” the U.S. government is working to bring Internet service providers under a regulatory umbrella that it could later use for censorship or protest suppression. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are also relatively centralized. It is an important security to have many of them, and to have them insulated from government control. The best insulation is full decentralization, which is why I’m interested in the work of the Freedom Box Foundation and open source social networks like Diaspora.

The history of communications freedom is still being written. Here’s to hoping that “a Mubarak” is always a failure to control people through their access to media.

Finns Begin a Quixotic Quest for Prevention

In the aftermath of the Oslo terror attack, Finnish police—yes, Finnish—plan to increase their surveillance of the Internet:

Deputy police commissioner Robin Lardot said his forces will play closer attention to fragmented pieces of information—known as ‘weak signals’—in case they connect to a credible terrorist threat.

That is not the way forward. As I explored in a series of posts and a podcast after the Fort Hood shooting here in the United States, random violence (terrorist or otherwise) is not predictable and not “findable” in advance—not if a free society is to remain free, anyway. That’s bad news, but it’s important to understand.

In the days since the attack, many commentators have poured a lot of energy into interpretation of Oslo and U.S. media treatment of it while the assumption of an al Qaeda link melted before evidence that it was a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic “cultural conservative.” Such commentary and interpretation is riveting to people who are looking to vindicate or decimate one ideology or another, but it doesn’t matter much in terms of security against future terrorism.

As former FBI agent (and current ACLU policy counsel) Mike German advises, any ideology can become a target of the government if the national security bureaucracy comes to use political opinion or activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism. Rather than blending crime control with mind control, the only thing to do is to watch ever-searchingly for genuine criminal planning and violence, and remember the Oslo dead as Lt. General Cone did Fort Hood’s: “The … community shares your sorrow as we move forward together in a spirit of resiliency.”

Bacon, Duct Tape, and the Free Market

It’s hard to imagine how we would get through life without necessities like bacon and duct tape. But have you ever thought about how the free market gives you so much for so little?

Here’s a video that should be mandatory viewing in Washington. Too bad politicians didn’t watch it before imposing government-run health care.

And since we’re contemplating the big-picture issue of whether markets are better than statism, here’s some very sobering polling data from EurActiv:

A recent survey has found deep pessimism among European Commission staff on a wide range of issues, including the course of European integration over the past decade and the likelihood of success of the EU’s strategy for economic growth. Some 63% partially or totally agreed that “the European model has entered into a lasting crisis.”

This is remarkable. Even the statist über-bureaucrats of the European Commission realize the big-government house of cards is collapsing, yet politicians in Washington still want to make America more like Europe.

FTC Advert: Cut Our Budget!

An insert that ran in the Washington Times this week didn’t say directly that the Federal Trade Commission’s budget should be cut. But a few short steps get you there.

The FTC-produced insert—a 16-page, color brochure appearing in a number of papers—is titled: “Living Life Online.” It’s aimed at teaching children how to use the Internet, with articles titled: “Sharing Well With Others” and “Minding Your Manners.” An ad on the back points kids to an FTC Web site about advertising called Admongo.gov, and little smart-phone insets contain factoids like:

DID YOU KNOW? Teens text 50 messages a day on average, five times more than the typical adult (who sends or receives 10 text messages a day).

Well, I have some factoids to share, too:

DID YOU KNOW? The U.S. Constitution provides for a federal government of limited, enumerated powers (and teaching kids about the Internet is not one of them).

Here’s another:

DID YOU KNOW? The federal government has had massive deficit spending in recent years, of $459 billion in FY2008, $1.4 trillion in FY2009, $1.3 trillion in FY2010, and $1.5 trillion in FY2011 (which is a huge damper on economic recovery).

It’s time to make serious budget cuts, and a government agency that seeks to replace parenting with government propagandizing to children is a great opportunity to do that.

Cato’s Downsizing Government project has been making its way through the major agencies, but don’t overlook the little ones. President Obama’s budget called for the FTC to spend $321 million in fiscal 2012. Zeroing that out would save a bunch, not only in direct expenses but in the dead-weight loss to the economy and consumer welfare symbolized by the FTC’s awful “Man Restraining Trade” statues.

Egyptian Government Attacks Egypt’s Internet

In response to civil unrest, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet. According to the blog post at the link just above, Egypt’s four main ISPs have cut off their connections to the outside world. Specifically, their “BGP routes were withdrawn.” The Border Gateway Protocol is what most Internet service providers use to establish routing between one another, so that Internet traffic flows among them.

An attack on BGP is one of few potential sources of global shock cited by an OECD report I noted here the other day. The report almost certainly imagined a technical attack by rogue actors but, assuming current reporting to be true, the source of this attack is a government exercising coercion over Internet service providers within its jursidiction. Nothing I pick up suggests that Egypt’s attack on its own Internet will have spillover effects, but it does suggest some important policy concerns.

The U.S. government has proposed both directly and indirectly to centralize control over U.S. Internet service providers. C|Net’s Declan McCullagh reports that an “Internet kill switch” proposal championed by by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) will be reintroduced in the new Congress very soon. The idea is to give “kill switch” authority to the government for use in responding to some kind of “cyberemergency.”

We see here that a government with “kill switch” power will use it when the “emergency” is a challenge to its authority. When done in good faith, flipping an Internet “kill switch” would be stupid and self-destructive, tantamount to an auto-immune reaction that compounds the damage from a cybersecurity incident. The more likely use of “kill switch” authority would be bad faith, as the Egyptian government illustrates, to suppress speech and assembly rights.

In the person of the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. government has also proposed to bring Internet service providers under a regulatory umbrella that it could then use for censorship or protest suppression in the future. On the TechLiberationFront blog, Larry Downes has recently completed a five-part analysis of the government’s regulatory plan (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The intention of its proponents is in no way to give the government this kind of authority, but government power is not always used as intended, and there is plenty of scholarship to show that government agencies use their power to achieve goals that are non-statutory and even unconstitutional.

The D.C. area’s surfeit of recent weather caused the cancellation yesterday of a book event I was to participate in, discussing Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. I don’t know that he makes the case overwhelmingly, but Morozov argues that governments are ably using the Internet to stifle freedom movements.

Events going on here in the United States right now could position the U.S. government to exercise the kind of authority we might look down our noses at Egypt for practicing. The lesson from the Egypt story—what we know of it so far—is that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

‘Why Your Boss Should Be Able To Fire You Over Facebook’

Suzanne Lucas, who blogs as Evil HR Lady, isn’t really evil, she’s just uncomfortably candid about many workplace truths that her fellow HR professionals tend to gloss over.

One of those truths is that in general no one owes you tenure in your job, even if you do it well. In our society, the principle of employment at will is still (fortunately) given much legal weight, meaning that an employment relationship continues only if both sides want it to.

And a consequence of that might just be that the law creates no right to slag your employer on your Facebook page one evening and demand that your employer overlook it the next morning:

So, why am I in favor of companies being able to terminate an employee for online behavior? (These things, of course, aren’t limited to Facebook. Myspace, Twitter, and blogs are all good candidates for firing). Here are 3 Reasons.

Easy firing=easy hiring. I want companies to hire people. In fact, my fondest wish is that all my readers who are searching for jobs find one this year. The more restrictions government places on terminating employees, the more hesitant companies are to hire new people.

Bad judgment isn’t limited to online behavior. Companies need employees they can trust to make good decisions. If you lack the critical thinking skills to say, “Hmmm, if I post that my boss is a jerk, my boss just might find out about it,” then you probably lack the critical thinking skills to do your job. Yes, people vent. But the internet is not private. And anyone who thinks they can trust all their 476 friends to keep something quiet isn’t someone I want on my staff.

Companies should be able to presume loyalty. I know, I know, your company doesn’t care much about your career and they have no problem firing you, so why should you care about them? Because they pay you to care about them….

You can read the whole thing, including the rest of her reasoning, here.