Tag Archives: human rights and internet

For Money and the State: the internet

internet advertising. image from wikipedia

Rarely has a manifesto been so wrong. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, written 20 years ago by John Perry Barlow, a digital civil-libertarian, begins thus: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

At the turn of the century, it seemed as though this techno-Utopian vision of the world could indeed be a reality. It didn’t last… Autocratic governments around the world…have invested in online-surveillance gear. Filtering systems restrict access: to porn in Britain, to Facebook and Google in China, to dissent in Russia.

Competing operating systems and networks offer inducements to keep their users within the fold, consolidating their power. Their algorithms personalise the web so that no two people get the same search results or social media feeds, betraying the idea of a digital commons. Five companies account for nearly two-thirds of revenue from advertising, the dominant business model of the web.

The open internet accounts for barely 20% of the entire web. The rest of it is hidden away in unsearchable “walled gardens” such as Facebook, whose algorithms are opaque, or on the “dark web”, a shady parallel world wide web. Data gathered from the activities of internet users are being concentrated in fewer hands. And big hands they are too. BCG, a consultancy, reckons that the internet will account for 5.3% of GDP of the world’s 20 big economies this year, or $4.2 trillion.

How did this come to pass? The simple reply is that the free, open, democratic internet dreamed up by the optimists of Silicon Valley was never more than a brief interlude. The more nuanced answer is that the open internet never really existed.

[T]e internet, it was developed “by the US military to serve US military purposes”… The decentralised, packet-based system of communication that forms the basis of the internet originated in America’s need to withstand a massive attack on its soil. Even the much-ballyhooed Silicon Valley model of venture capital as a way to place bets on risky new businesses has military origins.

In the 1980s the American military began to lose interest in the internet…. The time had come for the hackers and geeks who had been experimenting with early computers and phone lines.  Today they are the giants. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—together with some telecoms operators—help set policy in Europe and America on everything from privacy rights and copyright law to child protection and national security. As these companies grow more powerful, the state is pushing back…

The other big risk is that the tension between states and companies resolves into a symbiotic relationship. A leaked e-mail shows a Google executive communicating with Hillary Clinton’s state department about an online tool that would be “important in encouraging more [Syrians] to defect and giving confidence to the opposition.”+++ If technology firms with global reach quietly promote the foreign-policy interests of one country, that can only increase suspicion and accelerate the fracturing of the web into regional internets….

Mr Malcomson describes the internet as a “global private marketplace built on a government platform, not unlike the global airport system”.

Excerpts from Evolution of the internet: Growing up, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016

+++The email said Google would be “partnering with Al Jazeera” who would take “primary ownership” of the tool, maintaining it and publicizing it in Syria.  It was eventually published by Al Jazeera in English and Arabic.

The Beauty of Platform Capitalism

keep calm and love data

Hardly a day goes by without some tech company proclaiming that it wants to reinvent itself as a platform. …Some prominent critics even speak of “platform capitalism” – a broader transformation of how goods and services are produced, shared and delivered.   Such is the transformation we are witnessing across many sectors of the economy: taxi companies used to transport passengers, but Uber just connects drivers with passengers. Hotels used to offer hospitality services; Airbnb just connects hosts with guests. And this list goes on: even Amazon connects booksellers with buyers of used books.d innovation, the latter invariably wins….

But Uber’s offer to drivers in Seoul does raise some genuinely interesting questions. What is it that Uber’s platform offers that traditional cabs can’t get elsewhere? It’s mostly three things: payment infrastructure to make transactions smoother; identity infrastructure to screen out any unwanted passengers; and sensor infrastructure, present on our smartphones, which traces the location of the car and the customer in real time. This list has hardly anything to do with transport; they are the kind of peripheral activity that traditional taxi companies have always ignored.

However, with the transition to knowledge-based economy, these peripherals are no longer really peripherals – they are at the very centre of service provision.There’s a good reason why so many platforms are based in Silicon Valley: the main peripherals today are data, algorithms and server power. And this explains why so many renowned publishers would team up with Facebook to have their stories published there in a new feature called Instant Articles. Most of them simply do not have the know-how and the infrastructure to be as nimble, resourceful and impressive as Facebook when it comes to presenting the right articles to the right people at the right time – and doing it faster than any other platform.

Few industries could remain unaffected by the platform fever. The unspoken truth, though, is that most of the current big-name platforms are monopolies, riding on the network effects of operating a service that becomes more valuable as more people join it. This is why they can muster so much power; Amazon is in constant power struggles with publishers – but there is no second Amazon they can turn to.

Venture capitalists such as Peter Thiel want us to believe that this monopoly status is a feature, not a bug: if these companies weren’t monopolies, they would never have so much cash to spend on innovation.  This, however, still doesn’t address the question of just how much power we should surrender to these companies.

Making sure that we can move our reputation – as well as our browsing history and a map of our social connections – between platforms would be a good start. It’s also important to treat other, more technical parts of the emerging platform landscape – from services that can verify our identity to new payment systems to geolocational sensors – as actual infrastructure (and thus ensuring that everybody can access it on the same, nondiscriminatory terms) is also badly needed.

Most platforms are parasitic: feeding off existing social and economic relations. They don’t produce anything on their own – they only rearrange bits and pieces developed by someone else. Given the enormous – and mostly untaxed – profits made by such corporations, the world of “platform capitalism”, for all its heady rhetoric, is not so different from its predecessor. The only thing that’s changed is who pockets the money.

Excerpt from Evgeny Morozov, Where Uber and Amazon rule: welcome to the world of the platform, Guardian, Nov. 15, 2015

The Equinet: decentralization v. enclosure of internet

Internet, image from wikipedia

“The Internet governance should be multilateral, transparent, democratic,and representative, with the participation of governments, private sector, civil society, and international organizations, in their respective roles. This should be one of the foundational principles of Internet governance,” the external affairs ministry says in its initial submission to the April 23-24 Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, also referred as NETmundial, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  The proposal for a decentralised Internet is significant in view of Edward Snowden’s Wikileaks revelations of mass surveillance in recent months.

“The structures that manage and regulate the core Internet resources need to be internationalized, and made representative and democratic. The governance of the Internet should also be sensitive to the cultures and national interests of all nations.”The mechanism for governance of the Internet should therefore be transparent and should address all related issues. The Internet must be owned by the global community for mutual benefit and be rendered impervious to possible manipulation or misuse by any particular stake holder, whether state or non-state,” the ministry note says.  NETmundial will see representatives from nearly 180 countries participating to debate the future of Internet…

The US announced last month of its intent to relinquish control of a vital part of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).  “Many nations still think that a multilateral role might be more suitable than a multistakeholder approach and two years back India had proposed a 50-nation ‘Committee of Internet Related Policies’ (CIRP) for global internet governance,” Bhattacharjee added.

The concept of Equinet was first floated by Communications Minister Kapil Sibal in 2012 at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan.  Dr. Govind, chief executive officer, National Internet Exchange of India, is hopeful that Equinet is achievable. “Equinet is a concept of the Internet as a powerful medium benefiting people across the spectrum. It is all the more significant for India as we have 220 million Internet users, standing third globally after China and the US.”  “Moreover, by the year-end India’s number of Internet users are expected to surpass that of the US. The word Equinet means an equitable Internet which plays the role of an equaliser in the society and not limited only to the privileged people.”

He said the role of government in Internet management is important as far as policy, security and privacy of the cyber space is concerned, but the roles of the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders are no less. “Internet needs to be managed in a more collaborative, cooperative, consultative and consensual manner.”  Talking about the global strategy of renaming Internet as Equinet, he said: “Globally the US has the largest control over the management of the Internet, which is understandable since everything about Internet started there. Developing countries have still not much say over the global management of the Internet. But it is important that the Internet management be more decentralised and globalised so that the developing countries have more participation, have a say in the management where their consent be taken as well.”  The ministry note said: “A mechanism for accountability should be put in place in respect of crimes committed in cyberspace, such that the Internet is a free and secure space for universal benefaction. A ‘new cyber jurisprudence’ needs to be evolved to deal with cyber crime, without being limited by political boundaries and cyber-justice can be delivered in near real time.”

But other experts doubt the possibility of an Equinet or equalising the Internet globally.  Sivasubramanian Muthusamy, president, Internet Society India, Chennai, who is also a participant in the NETmundial, told IANS that the idea of Equinet is not achievable.  “Totally wrong idea. Internet provides a level playing field already. It is designed and operated to be universally accessible, free and open. Internet as it is operated today offers the greatest hope for developing countries to access global markets and prosper.”  “The idea of proposing to rename the Internet as Equinet has a political motive, that would pave way for telecom companies to have a bigger role to bring in harmful commercial models that would destabilize the open architecture of the Internet. If India is considering such a proposal, it would be severely criticized. The proposal does not make any sense. It is wrong advice or misplaced input that must have prompted the government of India to think of such a strange idea,” he said.

Excerpt from India wants Internet to become Equinet, Business Standard, Apr. 20, 2014

The Illusion of Privacy: CISPA

medical records

When a coalition of internet activists and web companies scuppered the Hollywood-sponsored Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) last year, they warned Congress that future attempts to push through legislation that threatened digital freedoms would be met with a similar response. Now some of them are up in virtual arms again, this time against the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA)….

Its fans, which include companies such as IBM and Intel, say the bill’s provisions will help America defend itself against attempts by hackers to penetrate vital infrastructure and pinch companies’ intellectual property. CISPA’s critics, which include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group, and Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox web browser, argue that it could achieve that goal without riding roughshod over privacy laws designed to prevent the government getting its hands on citizens’ private data without proper judicial oversight.

CISPA aims to encourage intelligence-sharing…  [CISPA requires of companies] to be more forthcoming by offering them an exemption from civil and criminal liability when gathering and sharing data about cyber-threats…[T]he bill is vague about what sort of information on cyber-threats can be shared. So in theory everything from e-mails to medical records could end up being shipped to intelligence agencies, even if it is not needed. Harvey Anderson of Mozilla says CISPA “creates a black hole” through which all kinds of data could be sucked in by the government.

The bill does forbid the use by officials of personal information from medical records, tax returns and a list of other documents. But its critics say it would be far better if companies had to excise such data before sharing what is left. They also note that the broad legal protection CISPA offers to firms could be abused by companies keen to cover up mishaps in their handling of customer data. A more carefully worded legal indemnity would stop that happening.

All this has exposed a rift in the internet world. Whereas Mozilla and other firms want CISPA to be overhauled or scrapped, some web firms that helped sink SOPA seem ambivalent. Google claims it has taken no formal position on the draft legislation and is “watching the process closely”. But TechNet, an industry group whose members include the web giant and Facebook, has written to the House Intelligence Committee expressing support for CISPA. If Google and other web companies do have doubts about some of the bill’s provisions, now would be the time for them to sound the alarm.

Cyber-Security, From SOPA to CISPA, Economist, Apr. 20, 2013, at 32

Global Online Freedom Law, how states and tech companies restrict internet freedom

In May and June [2011] human-rights lawyers in America filed two suits alleging that executives at Cisco Systems, a California-based tech firm, sold China’s government equipment customised to help track dissenters online. Only one of the plaintiffs is an American citizen; more than a dozen are Chinese. Cisco denies all wrongdoing.

Such jurisdictional jiggery-pokery is made possible in part by the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), which lets foreigners bring alleged violations of international law before American courts. Oil companies, mining firms and banks have all been subject to ATCA litigation since the ancient law was unburied in the 1980s. But only in recent years has the act been used to target tech firms whose products, or user data, might have been used to trap activists. In the best-known case, in 2007, Yahoo! reached a settlement with representatives of two Chinese democracy campaigners who said the firm had given authorities information that had led to their arrest. Daniel Ward, a lawyer leading one of the suits against Cisco, thinks that similar cases could be brought against other firms.

The issue is getting hotter as Sino-American internet business expands, in both directions. American tech firms covet China’s huge market. On July 4th Microsoft confirmed that its Bing search engine will soon be powering English-language results for local users of Baidu, China’s censored search giant. Even firms with more modest horizons may find themselves dealing with regimes that closely control the internet. More and more governments are moving to restrict the flow of information online, according to Freedom House, a lobby group.

Meanwhile, the global reach of China’s own internet firms, many of them listed on American stock exchanges, is drawing legal challenges. Campaigners in New York have started a suit against Baidu, saying its censored search results violate their constitutional rights. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Stephen Preziosi, insists the case be heard in an American court—Baidu sells advertising to American firms and aggressively protects its American trademark, he says.

Still, suits against Cisco or other high-tech players face an uncertain legal path. Last year an appeals court hearing another ATCA case said the statute could not be used to prosecute firms, creating a division among judges that only the Supreme Court can settle. Lawyers retort that even if ATCA use against firms is curbed, individual executives could still be targeted.

Some American politicians think clearer legislation would help. One long-mooted bill, the Global Online Freedom Act, would make the government keep a list of internet-restricting states. Under its latest revision, advanced in April by Chris Smith, a Republican congressman, firms would need to seek the approval of American authorities before passing user information to one of these regimes [or should it be to any regime?]; search engines would have to reveal details of any content they are asked to block. Export controls on web-blocking technologies would also be reviewed.

The bill has struggled to gain support since it was floated in 2006. But it could be helpful to American firms, argues Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobby group, because clear legislation at home would give ammunition to executives negotiating business terms with foreign authorities. “They could all point to the same rules,” she says.

Internet freedom: Tort and technology, Economist, July 23, 2011, at 57