Censorship and Freedom of Speech

Fascinating article in the Atlantic magazine showing pictures from the only official photographer in the Manhattan Project’s secret city.

As of writing (16:00 JST on Wednesday 18th January 2012) Wikipedia is blacked out apart from one page:

Wikipedia: SOPA

This is in protest at two bills currently being debated in the US Congress (PIPA in the House and SOPA in the Senate). These bills are being rushed through at quite a fast track in congress because they are bi-partisan (meaning: the big businesses who drafted the bills, and are corruptly paying congress-critters in campaign donations for their support, have bought peple in both parties).

In early January there was a movement by some opposed to this bill asking various large Internet organisations to black out in January in a coordinated effort to oppose these bills and raise public awareness about them. Most of the major service providers such as Google can’t really afford a day’s blackout. As Wikipedia is a non-profit and doesn’t make money per eyeball it was one of the few high profile sites to be able and willing to take this step.

There are more details from the EFF about these proposals.

On The Register recently there was an interesting article about ebooks and how the book publishing industry seem to be following the music and movie industry down the same path of woe by trying to screw their customers in the move to digital distribution. Leaving aside the actual proportion of costs which the physical printing, distribution and returns of overstock entail, the idea that the digital edition costs MORE than the print edition really is utterly stupid. Modern publishing uses internal digital formats for the files which are then passed to the printer for physical printing. Getting this into the digital distribution medium isĀ  trivial one time programming exercise. While I would be willing to accept that the digital price difference should only be small, the fact that new ebooks are selling at higher prices than the hardcover is just stupid.

Anyway, that’s all covered in the article. In the comments the author discusses the issue of the public lending library with some of the commenters. That’s what prompted this post, actually, which is thinking how it might be possible to run a public lending library with ebooks. (more…)

There has been a recent spate of reports regarding Research In Motion and their difficulties with various surveillance-oriented regimes (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan) demanding access to the emails sent from the famous and popular Blackberry mobile communications system. The most recent addition to the countries demanding such access is India. I find it interesting that they are targetting the Blackberry in this way. Standard email protocols provide exactly the same facility as the proprietary systems used by Blackberry and many other smartphone systems to send and receive email to remote servers with end-to-end encryption so that only if the user device is cracked or the server is located in-country, can the government access the communications data (modulo claims of encryption cracking capabilities of Forth Worth and GCHQ).

More flexible smartphones such as the iPhone, Mobile Windows- or Android-based systems can of course be set up with standard email servers anywhere in the world. Are these the next target, or are the users of Crackberries seen as the most likely to be “misusing” (according to the governments in question) email? This attempted fragmentation and re-bordering of the internet was analysed by Goldsmith and Wu a few years ago in Who Controls the Internet? Will open platforms such as the Android be banned in favour of iPhones but only if Apple follows RIM’s example and limits email apps to in-country servers? What about travel to these countries? Will entry into Pakistan with an iPhone be followed by a revocation of any app allowing out-of-country encrypted communications?

David Ignatius, one of the Washington Post Writers Group, recently wrote an article (widely syndicated under different headlines) on The case for spreading press freedom around the world, in support of Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University‘s call for a global “First Amendment” (i.e. a global guarantee of freedom of speech, imposed by the US). In that article he mentions that “Bollinger’s call for a global First Amendment has been criticized as too chauvinistic. But the world’s embrace of the Internet tells me that we’re on the right side of history on this one.”

I am a strong advocate of freedom of expression myself, but I find the analysis of both Bollinger and Ignatius to be missing some important elements here. There is indeed a chauvinistic assumption here that lies at the heart of the US’ attitude to the world at large. America seeks to impose certain thing on others, largely those which large power blocs within the US see as in their own interests (consider the capture of US trade policy by a small group of “intellectual property” businesses charged by Drahos and Braithwaite in their book “Information Feudalism“). An attempt to directly impose the US first amendment on other countries is indeed chauvinistic. However, there is a moral high ground that the US could legitimately take, though it is highly unlikely to do so. First, it could expand the scope of US constitutional guarantees and in particular the first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, to all human beings within the scope of US dominion. Second it could enjoin all US-based companies from engaging in activities violating those rights anywhere in the world.

At present as a non-US citizen even when I visit the US I do not enjoy the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Indeed as shown by the case of Peter Watts, beaten up by a US immigration official and then prosecuted and convicted for non-compliance with a border official when he asked why he was being assaulted, and the case of the Guantanamo Bay detainees (and others in Bagram Air Base) other basic liberties such as Habeas Corpus also do not apply to non-US citizens under effective US dominion.

While I am a Bright and not a religious person, the New Testament comment about specks, beams and eyes comes to mind. Before the US starts trying to impose its particular constitutional settlement on others, it should first ensure that its constitutional settlement is appropriately fair and universally applicable within the legitimate scope of its own authority.

In a clear abuse of the parliamentary process and a travesty of democracy, the Digital Economy Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday, a process which now allows the final passage of the bill to be pushed through “wash-up”. The reason this is a travesty is that the wash-up process is supposed to be for bills with cross-party support and few concerns about the detailed provisions needing further parliamentary scrutiny, to avoid clogging up the post-election parliamentary timetable with uncontroversial matters getting in the way of (supposedly) the new governments’ manifesto commitments. Neither of these is truly the case for the Digital Economy Bill. While the Conservative and Labour Front Benches may have whipped sufficient of their MPs into line this did not have all-party support. It was not (and is not) uncontroversial. Claims that it had received significant debate in the Lords ignores the constant cries from the current government about how undemocratic our Upper Chamber is. When the Lords blocks something the government doesn’t like, it’s undemocratic, but when it serves as a mechanism for the near-dictator Lord Mandelson to push through a piece of captured legislation then it’s sufficient democratic scrutiny for a major bill. The Digital Economy is incredibly important to the UK and a bill to support and develop it needed to be put through the appropriate parliamentary scrutiny and crafted with balance on all sides of the discussions. Ramming something through with Henry VIII powers, a lop-sided set of proposals which run the risk of destroying significant chunks of internet access and business through chilling effects if not legal action, all because Lord Mandelson got his ear bent by a rich representative of a dinosaur industry, is not democracy, it’s corruption and abuse of power.

Larry Lessig changed his tack in the US from lobbying for more sensible copyright (and related rights) laws to the issue of corruption in US politics and the capture of the law-making process by small groups with large amounts of money. After the DEBill fiasco in the UK, it’s easy to see why he felt that move necessary.

The Counter Terrorism Act 2008 includes the provision:

76. Offences relating to information about members of armed forces etc

(1) After section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (collection of information) insert:
“58A Eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of armed forces etc

(1) A person commits an offence who:

(a) elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is or has been:

(i) a member of Her Majesty’s forces,

(ii) a member of any of the intelligence services, or

(iii) a constable,

which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

(b) publishes or communicates any such information.”

This is in addition to a prior claim in December 2008 where the Home Secretary informed the National Union of Journalists that photography in public places may be restricted when it “may cause or lead to public order situations or inflame an already tense situation or raise security considerations”.

I’ve painfully pushed my way through “Cult of the Amateur”, despite its huge flaws. As mentioned last time, the author constantly follows the “broken window fallacy” in all his economic arguments so far.

A couple of sections cover the issues of accountability in the press and the undermining of advertising. Keen offers up examples of where mainstream media have been caught out, including outright lies, poorly researched stories etc. He offers these up as examples of the higher quality of the infrastructure because of the sanctions then applied. However, the very fact that these failings exist in the mainstream media rather undermine his case, particularly as there’s no way of knowing how many flawed articles aren’t spotted. He also excoriates the self reinforcing groups “talking only to themselves”. These groups are no worse than the existing examples of biased media, for example “Fox News”. One of the differences between mainstream media and the new online media is that new media does not generally make the same claim to lack of bias, or claim to “authority” made by existing media. (more…)

The UK government has commissioned a review of children’s access to online material. Are we about to see an attempt by the UK government to introduce CDA, COPA or ChIPA-style laws over here, and without the protections of a constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech that led to those acts being substantially struck down by the US Supreme Court?


The Now Show included a wonderful piece this week about Net Authority, a group which attempts to claim the right to specify the acceptable use policy for the entire internet. With the age-old cry of censors “Think of the children!” they decry the inclusion of, amongst other things, “materials concerning bestiality, including interracial relationships.”
Among the websites they claim violate their acceptable use policy is that of the UK’s Labour Party .
I wonder if there’s another net censorship site which attempts to get racist material removed from the net. Maybe I can get these groups so interested in each other that they’ll stop bothering the rest of us.

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