Posts about Internet

What society are we building here?

There is no single solution to the plague of trolls, abusers, harassers, lunatics, imposters, and assholes online any more than there is on earth: no one algorithm, no one company rule, no one regulation will do it all, though they can help. The most powerful weapon in any case is our own norms as a society.

What exactly are our norms online? And what are we — you, yes you, and I — doing to establish and enforce our standards as an online society? Anything? Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms bear responsibility. But so do we all.

I cannot imagine any civilized being who is not appalled at the treatment of Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda at the hands of disgusting trolls after the death of her father. This forced her to leave Twitter and that, in turn, forced Twitter to decide that it should “improve our policies.” The Washington Post, in its report, pointed to other egregious cases of abuse. It’s worth pointing out that this week also brought us Jezebel bringing its own corporate parent, Gawker, to public shame for not dealing with trolls’ abhorrent rape GIFs.

I want to make this crystal clear: I in no way will compare my own situation, which I’ll now recount, to any of those horrid crimes against decency. But I had a moment this week that gave me some insight to the difficulty of controls. I don’t want to give my minor tormentor, my idiot imposter, my personal troll any further attention but you probably already know who this is. This week, with shocking nastiness, he went after a prominent person I’ve met and I respect and with whom I share a number of friends. That person reacted appropriately — angrily — thinking I was the shithead going after him. I don’t follow my troll so I would not have seen this had it not reached some Twitter notoriety. That at least gave me the opportunity to tell the prominent person that his tormentor was my tormentor, not me.

What bothers me even more is the reaction of others who egg on the imposter trolls. One was a prominent columnist for a famous financial newspaper with funny colored paper who endorsed out loud the idea of trolling an important person whom he covers. That’s not what they taught me in journalism school. It’s sure as hell not what I teach there. Is this net we want to build? For that matter, is this the journalism we want to have? Is this our society?

Now I tried to talk to my imposter-troll earlier in his two-and-a-half-year and 17,500-tweet campaign against me. He didn’t have the balls. After he affected my reputation with someone I’ve met, I sent him another message, saying he’d crossed the line. He still doesn’t have sufficient balls or the decency or the mere maturity and civility to talk to me. Hasn’t he had his fun already? But there’s no reasoning with trolls; indeed, that’s the definition of a troll.

I contacted an executive at Twitter. I was invited to file a formal complaint. They might kill my troll-imposter’s account. But then I know what would happen: I’d be accused of being a humorless party-pooper because I don’t like being mocked every day or finding people thinking I’m a horrid shithead. And if I oppose Europe’s idiotic Right to be Forgotten fiasco, I could not stand for muting someone else. No win there. It’s obvious that a prominent person mistook my imposter for a real person because the user name gives no clue. But Twitter’s policy is that imposter accounts are OK. Now I don’t assume that anyone who’s being attacked should have to spend a damned second researching his tormentor. But that is Twitter’s policy.

So what should Twitter’s policy be with the much, much worse cases recounted above? On This Week in Google, my esteemed cohost, Gina Trapani, has suggested that Twitter could enable users to share their own blacklists of harrassers to give them less of the commodity that fuels them: attention. On this week’s show, Mathew Ingram mentioned Blockbot and the Washington Post pointed to Danilo Campos’ suggestions on signals to block bad users.

In the end, Twitter — like Facebook and all social and content-creation services — must decide their own standards. I learned that when I ran local sites: The days of anything-goes ended in our forums once we realized that we bore a responsibility to police the communities we offered. Then I had no problem killing mean, abusive, and just off-topic bullshit in our discussions. Does Twitter have standards?

Do we? I will repeat that when you egg on a troll, you are an accessory to the crime: You are a troll. Shouldn’t you scold and shun those who behave badly online? If you don’t, what are you saying about the society we are building?

I hate the ABC show What Would You Do? but I will say that we are living a version of it online. When you see a troll or abuser online, what do you do about it? Do you egg on or ignore the miscreant? Do you shame the fool? Do you support the troll’s victims? Or do you laugh at them?

You — yes, you and I — are creating the norms of our new society. What are those norms? What is our new society? Is it something we are proud to pass on to our children? Does it improve society for them? Or is it easier to snark and snigger at some stranger’s expense?

Send your comment to the FCC on net neutrality. Here’s mine.

I just filed my comments on net neutrality with the FCC, adding to the 647,000 already there. You should, too. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s important. It’s democracy. Do it here. And do it by July 15, the deadline. [Note: The deadline was extended to July 18.] Here’s mine:

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I am Jeff Jarvis, professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York and author of the books “Public Parts” and “What Would Google Do?” and the ebook “Gutenberg the Geek.”

I ask you to govern your decisions regarding net neutrality and broadband policy according to the principles of equality that have made the internet the powerful engine of freedom, speech, innovation, and economic development that it has already become.

As Sen. Al Franken said at the South by Southwest conference in 2011, we proponents of net neutrality are not asking you to change the internet; we are asking you to protect the net from change imposed by the companies trying to exploit their positions of control. “We have net neutrality right now,” Sen. Franken said. “And we don’t want to lose it. That’s all. The fight for net neutrality isn’t about improving the Internet. It’s not about changing the Internet at all. It’s about ensuring that it stays just the way it is.”

I put it this way in a question to then-President Nicolas Sarkozy at the eG-8 meeting he convened in Paris that same year: “First, do no harm.” I urge you to take that Hippocratic Oath for the net. Do not allow it to change. Preserve its equality.

The first principle upon which the net must be maintained is that all bits are created equal. If any bit is stopped on its way by a censor in China or Iran … if a bit is slowed by an ISP because it did not carry a premium toll … if a bit is detoured and substituted by that ISP to promote its service over a competitor’s … or indeed if a bit is spied upon by the government of China or Iran or the United States … then no bit can be presumed to be free. The net is built edge-to-edge so that anyone can speak with anyone without discrimination.

Another principle upon which the net must be maintained is that it is open and distributed and if any institution — government or corporate oligopoly — claims sovereignty over it, then it is no longer the net. Of course, I recognize the irony of asking a government agency for help but that is necessary when a few parties hold undue control over choke points in this architecture. The real answer is to ensure open and broad competition, for any provider in a competitive marketplace that offers throttled, incomplete, inferior service will lose; in an oligopoly, such providers use their control for profitability over service. Corporations by their nature exploit control. Government protects consumers from undue exercise of such control. That is your job.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has offered another principle: the permissionless nature of the net. “Let’s give credit to the people who foresaw the internet, opened it up, designed it so it would not have significant choke points, and made it possible for random people including twenty-four-year-olds in a dorm to enter and create,” he said.

My entrepreneurial journalism students can barely afford to start the companies they are creating, the companies that I believe will be the salvation of journalism, scaling up from the bottom, not from the top. Innovation, we already know, will come from the entrepreneurs over the corporate incumbents. These entrepreneurs cannot afford to pay premiums to ISPs for access to their customers.

We know that corporate incumbents in this industry will abuse the control they have to disadvantage competitors. I filed a complaint with the Commission last year when Verizon refused to connect my Google Nexus 7 LTE tablet to its network as required by the Commission’s own rules governing that spectrum as “open.” The incumbent ISPs have demonstrated well that they choose not to understand the definition of “open.”

“Changes in the information age will be as dramatic as those in the Middle Ages,” James Dewar wrote in a 1998 Rand Corporation paper. “The printing press has been implicated in the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution, all of which had profound impacts on their eras; similarly profound changes may already be underway in the information age.” The internet is our Gutenberg press. Note well that it took 50 years after the invention of Gutenberg’s press for the book to take on the form we know today. It took 100 years, says Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, for the impact of the book on society to be fully recognized. It took 150 years and the development of postal services before anyone thought of using the press to create a newspaper and 400 years — with the advent of steam technology and mass production — before newspapers were in the hands of the common man and woman.

We do not know what the internet is yet and what it will foster. It is too soon to limit it and to grant control over it to a few, powerful companies. I urge you to protect its freedoms by enforcing a principle of net neutrality and to nurture its growth and development with a broadband policy that fosters competition over control and — here is my best hope — I urge you to establish the principle of a human right to connect to the network with equality for all.

Thank you.

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Read the latest comments here. (Mine is not posted yet. I assume it will be after the weekend.)

The right to remember, damnit

A reporter asked me for reaction to news that Google has put up a form to meet a European court’s insane and dangerous ruling and allow people to demand that links to content they don’t like about themselves be taken down. Here’s what I said:

This is a most troubling event for speech, the web, and Europe.

The court has trampled the free-speech rights not only of Google but of the sites — and speakers — to which it links.

The court has undertaken to control knowledge — to erase what is already known — which in concept is offensive to an open and modern society and in history is a device used by tyrannies; one would have hoped that European jurists of all people would have recognized the danger of that precedent.

The court has undermined the very structure of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention, the link — the underpinning of the web itself — by making now Google (and next perhaps any of us) liable just for linking to information. Will newspapers be forced to erase what they link to or quote? Will libraries be forced to take metaphoric cards out of their catalogs?

The court has, ironically, made Google only more powerful, making it the adjudicator of what information should and should not be found. The court has also given Google ludicrous parameters — e.g., having to decide what is relevant to what; relevant to whom; relevant in what context?

We don’t know how this order will be implemented by the various search engines. One question is what right of notice and appeal a delinked site will have.

If this process is public, as it should be, then doesn’t that have the potential to bring even more attention to the information in dispute? Another question is whether content will be made invisible in Europe but will still be visible — as I hope it will be — in the rest of the world, where the European court has no authority. Will this then allow others to compare search results and make the banned information only more visible? In the end, has the court assured a Streisand effect — or, as the comedian John Oliver said on his HBO show, the one thing that is known about the Spaniard who brought this case is the thing that he does not want known.

Further, what of search engines and sites that have no European offices and thus the court has no authority over them? If they refuse to delink on demand will the court ban these sites for European view?

Finally, I am concerned about the additive effect of this ruling on Europe’s reputation as technophobic or anti-American. Add to this especially various actions in Germany — government officials demanding a “Verpixelungsrecht” (a right to be pixelated) in Google Street View despite the fact that these are images taken of public views in public places; German publishers ganging up on Google to strongarm politicians into passing a law limiting the quoting of snippets of content and now threatening to break up Google — in addition to similarly head-scratching moves in France, Italy, and elsewhere. Is Europe a place where any technology company or investor will choose to work?

You ask about Eric Schmidt and David Drummond cochairing the advisory committee. That is a clear indication of how profound and dangerous this situation is in Google’s view. It so happens I was in Mountain View two weeks ago speaking to the all-hands meeting of Google’s privacy teams and I can tell you they were shocked at the ruling. I also said much of what I’ve said to you there. I am appalled by this ruling. [As a matter of disclosure, Google paid my travel expenses but I have no business relationship with Google.]

Brazil, Snowden & the net at Davos

Here at Davos, I just left a media conversation with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at which I asked two questions relevant to the internet.

First, I asked under what circumstances she would consider granting asylum to Edward Snowden. She did not answer that question directly but said that the Brazilian government “has not been addressed” regarding an application for asylum, “therefore since I cannot possibly contemplate such a request you are working under a mistaken premise. The request was never formally submitted.” Interpret the subtleties of that as you may.

I also asked about controversial plans to require technology companies to store Brazilians’ data in Brazil, seeking her reaction to criticism that this will lead to a balkanized internet. She responded strictly in the context of criminal prosecution, saying that in an investigation into money laundering her justice department was denied access “precisely because it ran counter to the legislation of the country where the data was stored.”

“We cannot possibly accept that interference about data,” she continued. “It’s about our sovereignty…. We cannot find ourselves subject to the laws that prevail in third-party countries.” And then she added: “A compromise agreement is always possible.”

A few observations:

First, holding citizens’ data in Brazil makes it easier for the authorities to get data on those citizens for reasons good or bad.

Next, I’m surprised that she did not use this as an opportunity to continue her complaints about U.S. surveillance of Brazilian entities.

Instead, she put this as a matter of Brazilian sovereignty. That’s blunt but troubling. I’ve argued before that no nation should be able to claim sovereignty over the net.

If Brazil succeeds in imposing this data requirement, then it represents the further balkanization of the net. Brazil ends up with its own net, Iran does too, and so does China. The good-guy argument doesn’t wash for the architecture and precedent set by any good guy can be used by any bad guy.

Note also this week that Microsoft said it would honor customers’ requests to hold their data outside of the U.S. and the prying eyes of the NSA. At a practical level, it’s not hard to imagine that working for enterprise data; here at Davos, Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff said his company can show a client the building and the rack where its data is held. But for consumer services, it is hard to imagine how, say, Bing could store, say, your search history outside the U.S. but mine inside.

And apart from those practical considerations, other tech executives said yesterday at Davos that the U.S. FISA court can still require a technology company to hand over data that is under its control, no matter whether that data is held in the U.S. or abroad.

This is a show of shadow puppets but one that could have serious, injurious impact on the net.

Back to Rousseff: The media conversation was to be off the record but after it was over she said that everything she said could be used on the record.

An odd event, it was. Asked one question about the economy of Brazil, she filibustered for half an hour, sounding — in the observation of another journalist — like a Chinese party official outlining the newest five-year plan.

The war on secrecy

Here is a post I wrote for the Guardian:

It has been said that privacy is dead. Not so. It’s secrecy that is dying. Openness will kill it.

American and British spies undermined the secrecy and security of everyone using the internet with their efforts to foil encryption. Then Edward Snowden foiled them by revealing what is perhaps (though we’ll never know) their greatest secret.

When I worried on Twitter that we could not trust encryption now, technologist Lauren Weinstein responded with assurances that it would be difficult to hide back doors in commonly used PGP encryption — because it is open source.

Openness is the more powerful weapon. Openness is the principle that guides Guardian journalism. Openness is all that can restore trust in government and technology companies. And openness — in standards, governance, and ethics — must be the basis of technologists’ efforts to take back the the net.

Secrecy is under dire threat but don’t confuse that with privacy. “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret,” Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez tells his biographer. “Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves,” Jill Lepore explains in The New Yorker. “Privacy is consensual where secrecy is not,” write Carol Warren and Barbara Laslett in the Journal of Social Issues. Think of it this way: Privacy is what we keep to ourselves. Secrecy is what is kept from us. Privacy is a right claimed by citizens. Secrecy is a privilege claimed by government.

It’s often said that the internet is a threat to privacy, but on the whole I argue it is not much more of a threat than a gossipy friend or a nosy neighbor, a slip of the tongue or of the email “send” button. Privacy is certainly put at risk when we can no longer trust that our communication, even encrypted, are safe from government’s spying eyes. But privacy has many protectors. And we all have one sure vault for privacy: our own thoughts. Even if the government were capable of mind-reading, ProPublica argues in an essay explaining its reason to join the Snowden story, the fact of it “would have to be known.”

The agglomeration of data that makes us fear for our privacy is also what makes it possible for one doubting soul, one weak link — one Manning or Snowden — to learn secrets. The speed of data that makes us fret over the the devaluation of facts is also what makes it possible for journalists’ facts to spread before government can stop them. The essence of the Snowden story, then, isn’t government’s threat to privacy so much as government’s loss of secrecy.

Oh, it will take a great deal for government to learn that lesson. Its first response is to try to match a loss of secrecy with greater secrecy, with a war on the agents of openness: whistleblowers and journalists and news organizations. President Obama had the opportunity to meet Snowden’s revelations — redacted responsibly by the Guardian — with embarrassment, apology, and a vow to make good on his promise of transparency. He failed.

But the agents of openness will continue to wage their war on secrecy.

In a powerful charge to fellow engineers, security expert Bruce Schneier urged them to fix the net that “some of us have helped to subvert.” Individuals must make a moral choice, whether they will side with secrecy or openness.

So must their companies. Google and Microsoft are suing government to be released from their secret restrictions but there is still more they can say. I would like Google to explain what British agents could mean when they talk of “new access opportunities being developed” at the company. Google’s response — “we have no evidence of any such thing ever occurring” — would be more reassuring if it were more specific.

This latest story demonstrates that the Guardian — now in league with The New York Times and ProPublica as well as publications in Germany and Brazil — will continue to report openly in spite of government acts of intimidation.

I am disappointed that more news organizations, especially in London, are not helping support the work of openness by adding reporting of their own and editorializing against government overreach. I am also saddened that my American colleagues in news industry organizations as well as journalism education groups are not protesting loudly.

But even without them, what this story teaches is that it takes only one technologist, one reporter, one news organization to defeat secrecy. At the length openness will out.