Tag: Twitter

“Weinergate”: It’s Entertaining—and Edifying!

I guess I should blush to admit that my Washington Examiner column this week focuses on “Weinergate.”  But who among us can resist snickering at a scandal this hilarious—who so sober and serious that they could ignore the crotch pic that launched a thousand puns?

As I argue in the column, among all the horselaughs to be had, there are also lessons to be learned:

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good old-fashioned political sex scandal. They’re entertaining, and they may even be edifying – reminding us that self-styled “public servants” are often less responsible, more venal, and just plain dumber than those they seek to rule.

Some writers with whom I’m normally simpatico disagree. Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway deplores “the odd American obsession with political sex scandals.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf also condemns the attention given the Weiner kerfuffle:

there is a significant cost to obsessing over these things. The opportunity cost, for the media, is covering lots of other matters that are actually of greater import to the public, whatever one thinks of sex scandals.

I just don’t see it. Sure, in a better world, the news cycle might consist of a dignified 24/7 seminar on debt limits, insurance exchanges, the War Powers Resolution, and the like. But here on earth, Weinergate’s mainly crowding out more coverage of Sarah Palin’s bus tour.

“And for the politician in question,” Friedersdorf continues, “scandal consumes all the time he’d otherwise be dedicating to his official duties.”

I confess, I have a hard time not seeing this as win-win.

Both Mataconis and Friedersdorf argue that “private” sexual behavior tells us little about how politicians do their jobs. And I see their point, to a point. I sometimes joke, lamely, that one of my favorite presidents was a draft-dodging, womanizing Democrat elected in ‘92 (wait for it)… Grover Cleveland.

But whether or not we should care about congressional “sexting”—in the context of the modern media Panopticon, isn’t someone, like Weiner, who engages in it (especially after GOP Rep. Christopher Lee’s downfall) at least a reckless idiot? And isn’t that relevant to his job?

In a recent hand-wringing editorial, the New York Times fretted about disgraced former Senator and VP candidate John Edwards.

What the Times found unfortunate wasn’t the runaway prosecution–a legitimate complaint–but the fact that it would draw attention to yet another giant political phony. It’s “the last thing the nation needs: another cautionary tale of hubris,” says the Grey Lady, 
”the woeful courtroom coda to [Edwards’] once flourishing political career can only invite a further slide toward wariness and cynicism for American voters.”

Oh no! Not more “wariness and cynicism”! Surely, that’s the “last thing the nation needs” in an era of promiscuous warmaking and reckless spending!

There’s a story (perhaps apocryphal) where F. Scott Fitzgerald says to Ernest Hemingway, “the rich are different from you and me,” and Hemingway supposedly replies, “yes, they have more money.” I don’t know about the rich, but the political class is, by and large, different from the rest of us–and not just because they have more power.

By reminding us of how untrustworthy and reckless these people can be–how little control they often exhibit in their own lives–political sex scandals may even serve an important social purpose: they remind us that we should think twice before granting them more control over ours.

Government Control of Language and Other Protocols

It might be tempting to laugh at France’s ban on words like “Facebook” and Twitter” in the media. France’s Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel recently ruled that specific references to these sites (in stories not about them) would violate a 1992 law banning “secret” advertising. The council was created in 1989 to ensure fairness in French audiovisual communications, such as in allocation of television time to political candidates, and to protect children from some types of programming.

Sure, laugh at the French. But not for too long. The United States has similarly busy-bodied regulators, who, for example, have primly regulated such advertising themselves. American regulators carefully oversee non-secret advertising, too. Our government nannies equal the French in usurping parents’ decisions about children’s access to media. And the Federal Communications Commission endlessly plays footsie with speech regulation.

In the United States, banning words seems too blatant an affront to our First Amendment, but the United States has a fairly lively “English only” movement. Somehow, regulating an entire communications protocol doesn’t have the same censorious stink.

So it is that our Federal Communications Commission asserts a right to regulate the delivery of Internet service. The protocols on which the Internet runs are communications protocols, remember. Withdraw private control of them and you’ve got a more thoroughgoing and insidious form of speech control: it may look like speech rights remain with the people, but government controls the medium over which the speech travels.

The government has sought to control protocols in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The “crypto wars,” in which government tried to control secure communications protocols, merely presage struggles of the future. Perhaps the next battle will be over BitCoin, an online currency that is resistant to surveillance and confiscation. In BitCoin, communications and value transfer are melded together. To protect us from the scourge of illegal drugs and the recently manufactured crime of “money laundering,” governments will almost certainly seek to bar us from trading with one another and transferring our wealth securely and privately.

So laugh at France. But don’t laugh too hard. Leave the smugness to them.

Does the Internet Cause Freedom?

That will be the subject of a Cato on Campus session this afternoon entitled: “The Internet and Social Media: Tools of Freedom or Tools of Oppression?” Watch live online at the link starting at 3:30 p.m., or attend in person. A reception follows.

The delight that so many felt to see protesters in Iran using social media has given way to delight about the use of Facebook to organize for freedom in Egypt. But this serial enthusiasm omits that the “Twitter revolution” in Iran did not succeed. The fiercest skeptics even suggest that the tweeting during Iran’s suppressed uprising was mostly Iranian ex-pats goosing excitable westerners and not any organizing force within Iran itself. Coming to terms with the Internet, dictatorships are learning to use it for surveillance and control, possibly with help from American tech companies.

So is the cause of freedom better off with the Internet? Or is social media a shiny bauble that distracts from the long, heavy slog of liberating the people of the world?

Joining the discussion will be Chris Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato; Alex Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent for O’Reilly Media; and Tim Karr, Campaign Director at Free Press. More info here.

Wikileaks, Twitter, and Our Outdated Electronic Surveillance Laws

This weekend, we learned that the U.S. government last month demanded records associated with the Twitter accounts of several supporters of WikiLeaks—including American citizens and an elected member of Iceland’s parliament. As the New York Times observes, the only remarkable thing about the government’s request is that we’re learning about it, thanks to efforts by Twitter’s legal team to have the order unsealed. It seems a virtual certainty that companies like Facebook and Google have received similar demands.

Most news reports are misleadingly describing the order [PDF] as a “subpoena” when in actuality it’s a judicially-authorized order under 18 U.S.C §2703(d), colloquially known (to electronic surveillance geeks) as a “D-order.” Computer security researcher Chris Soghoian has a helpful rundown on the section and what it’s invocation entails, while those who really want to explore the legal labyrinth that is the Stored Communications Act should consult legal scholar Orin Kerr’s excellent 2004 paper on the topic.

As the Times argues in a news analysis today, this is one more reminder that our federal electronic surveillance laws, which date from 1986, are in dire need of an update. Most people assume their online communications enjoy the same Fourth Amendment protection as traditional dead-tree-based correspondence, but the statutory language allows the contents of “electronic communications” to be obtained using those D-orders if they’re older than 180 days or have already been “opened” by the recipient. Unlike traditional search warrants, which require investigators to establish “probable cause,” D-orders are issued on the mere basis of “specific facts” demonstrating that the information sought is “relevant” to a legitimate investigation. Fortunately, an appellate court has recently ruled that part of the law unconstitutional—making it clear that the Fourth Amendment does indeed apply to email… a mere 24 years after the original passage of the law.

The D-order disclosed this weekend does not appear to seek communications content—though some thorny questions might well arise if it had. (Do messages posted to a private or closed Twitter account get the same protection as e-mail?) But the various records and communications “metadata” demanded here can still be incredibly revealing. Unless the user is employing anonymizing technology—which, as Soghoian notes, is fairly likely when we’re talking about such tech-savvy targets—logs of IP addresses used to access a service like Twitter may help reveal the identity of the person posting to an anonymous account, as well as an approximate physical location. The government may also wish to analyze targets’ communication patterns in order to build a “social graph” of WikiLeaks supporters and identify new targets for investigation. (The use of a D-order, as opposed to even less restrictive mechanisms that can be used to obtain basic records, suggests they’re interested in who is talking to whom on the targeted services.) Given the degree of harassment to which known WikiLeaks supporters have been subject, easy access to such records also threatens to chill what the courts have called “expressive association.” But unlike traditional wiretaps, D-order requests for data aren’t even subject to mandatory reporting requirements—which means surveillance geeks may be confident this sort of thing is fairly routine, but the general public lacks any real sense of just how pervasive it is. Whatever your take on WikiLeaks, then, this rare peek behind the curtain is one more reminder that our digital privacy laws are long overdue for an upgrade.

Cato 2.0

There are a number of ways for you to stay connected to the Cato Institute on the web, outside of our main website (Cato.org), this blog (Cato@Liberty), our Spanish language site (El Cato), our political theorists’ digital round table (Cato | Unbound), or our hub for high school and college students (Cato on Campus). As we have grown since our founding in 1977, so have we grown online in recent years, in an effort to provide more opportunities to interact with our research and experts.

We appreciate your interest in our work and we encourage you to leverage any and all of our information resources–both at our main website, on this blog, and across the reaches of new media space. We have recently made many of our multimedia resources available for embed to bloggers, and we are looking continuously at ways to try to connect you to our projects. After the fold, check out a sampling of ways you can connect to Cato online and for ways you can use our multimedia resources.

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As with our podcasts, you can embed the entire media player at your site, or pick and choose which spots you’d like to embed.

Cato Weekly Video:
This collection of videos not only includes television spots, but clips from some of our events, in case you are unable to attend in person.


Be sure to check the calendar–we stream some of our events over the web in real time, and we try to provide opportunities to web participants to submit questions, especially in our student forums.

Check back with us often in the coming weeks and months–as we said, we are always looking for new ways to connect with you, and we are proud to be able to offer these resources to you online.

Unleashing an Internet Revolution in Cuba

By now the name of Yoani Sánchez has become common currency for those who follow Cuba. Through the use of New Media (blog, Twitter and YouTube) Yoani has challenged the Castro regime in a way that various U.S. government-sponsored efforts have  failed to do before, earning the respect and tacit admiration of even those who continue to sympathize with the Cuban regime. As my colleague Ian Vásquez put it a few months ago, Yoani keeps speaking truth to power.

Although she’s a remarkable individual, Yoani is not alone in fighting repression with technology. Other bloggers are making their voice heard, and that makes the Castro dictatorship nervous. As Yoani wrote in a paper recently published by Cato, despite the many difficulties and costs that regular Cubans face when trying to access Internet,

… a web of networks has emerged as the only means by which a person on the island can make his opinions known to the rest of the world. Today, this virtual space is like a training camp where Cubans go to relearn forgotten freedoms. The right of association can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks, in a sort of compensation for the crime of “unlawful assembly” established by the Cuban penal code.

As recent events in Iran and elsewhere have shown, once a technology becomes pervasive in a society, it is extremely difficult for a totalitarian regime to control it. A new paper published today by the Cuba Study Group highlights the potential of technology in bringing about democracy and liberty to Cuba. The document entitled “Empowering the Cuban People through Technology: Recommendations for Private and Public Sector Leaders,” also recommends lifting all U.S. restrictions that hinder the opportunities of companies to provide cell phone and Internet service to the island. For example, the paper reviews the current U.S. regulatory framework on technology investment in other repressive regimes such as Iran, Syria, Burma and North Korea, and finds that “the U.S. regulations governing telecommunications-related exports to Cuba are still some of the most restrictive.”

By removing these counterproductive restrictions, Washington could help unleash an Internet revolution in Cuba. More Yoanis will certainly bring about more change in the island than 50 years of failed U.S. trade and travel bans.

Unfounded Government Plans to Take Control of the Internet

Wired News reports on another bill proposing to create government authority to take over the Internet—this time, because of “cyberattacks.”

Most revealing is the part of the report exposing how Senate staff must fish around for reasons why the authority would be exercised, never mind to what effect:

In order for the President to declare such an emergency, there would have to be knowledge both of a massive network flaw — and information that someone was about to leverage that hole to do massive harm. For example, the recent “Aurora” hack to steal source code from Google, Adobe and other companies wouldn’t have qualified, one Senate staffer noted: “It’d have to be Aurora 2, plus the intel that country X is going to take us down using that vulnerability.”

A second staffer suggested that evidence of hackers looking to leverage something like the massive Conficker worm — which infected millions of machines and was seemingly poised in April 2009 to unleash something nefarious — might trigger the bill’s emergency provisions. “You could argue there’s some threat information built in there,” the staffer said.

These scenarios will never happen. And we wouldn’t want the government grabbing control of the Internet if they did.

The idea of government “taking over” the Internet for security purposes is equal parts misconceived and self-defeating. It’s a packet-switched network, meaning that it routes around the equivalent of damage that would be caused by anyone’s attempt to “control” it. The government could certainly degrade the Internet with a well-coordinated attack, of course.

And that’s the way to think about government controlling the Internet in some kind of emergency: It would be an attack on the country’s natural resilience.

In February, CNN broadcast a bogus reality TV show produced by the Bipartisan Policy Center called “cyber.shockwave.” A variety of technically incompetent government officials talked about pulling the plug on the Internet and cell phone networks in response to some emergency. Commentator D33PT00T captured the idiocy of this idea, Tweeting, “ok my phn doesn’t work & Internet doesn’t work – ths guys R planning 2 run arnd w/ bullhorns ‘all is well remain calm!’”

The Internet may have points of weakness, but it is a source of strength overall. A government take-over of the Internet in the event of emergency would be equivalent to an auto-immune reaction in which the government would attack the society. Proposals for the federal government to take control of the Internet under any circumstance are unfounded and dangerous.