Illegal UK blacklists now being shared with the USA?

I’ve written here in the past about British blacklisting organisations that compile lists of ‘troublemakers’ (mainly union activists) and sell them to building firms and share them with police. This has led to people being unable to get jobs and all kinds of hassle. In theory, the notorious Economic League which started this activity back in the 1920s is now disbanded but their mantle was taken up by a number of other private bodies, including the Consulting Association, which was the subject of an unusual raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) back in 2009.

Now it seems that in the era of transnational information sharing for ‘security’, such lists have found their way to the US Homeland Security complex. According to a report in the London Evening Standard, his certainly seems to be the case for major British mainstream environmental campaigner, John Stewart, formerly of the anti-road building lobby, Alarm UK and now of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN).

If such private politically motivated lists are now circulating internationally and being treated as reasonable grounds for refusing entry to other countries, it makes a mockery of the fact that they have already been found to be in breach of British and European laws, and it is likely that such data will continue to circulate entirely decontextualized from the circumstances and motivation of their collection. So an illegal anti-democratic trawling operation to stop legitimate political activity becomes the basis for security decisions to err… safeguard democracy. It would be funny if it wasn’t already so common and will continue to be so as security relies increasingly on risk assessments derived from the indiscriminate mashing together of information into ‘big data’.

Occupy the Internet!

I’ve been writing for several years now about the creeping attempts by nominally democratic governments to control or even close the Internet (see here for example). This week the biggest such step for some time occurs as the world’s most powerful democracy, the USA, begins a new process of introducing such controls. There are two bills before the House of Representatives (the Stop Online Piracy Bill, SOPA) and the Senate (the Protect IP act), which essentially do the same thing (although the House bill goes further): assert a wide-ranging heavy-handed jurisdiction on the Internet even beyond US borders.

Of course, the US bills do not do this as China does, in the name of political and social order, but in the name of commerce. The bills are supposedly about protecting American intellectual property, however their effect is likely to be severely chilling to free expression and the dissemination of ideas and to innovation, social and economic. The bills, amongst many other provisions, will allow corporation to sue website owners and ISPs for even unknowingly hosting or communicating copyrighted materials illicitly.

As Michael Geist has shown, SOPA in particular also asserts US jurisdiction over vast swathes of the Internet on the grounds that any site whose name is registered with a US registrar is considered a ‘US site’ regardless of the location of its server and given that name-registration of top-level (.com, .org, .net etc)  names is entirely controlled from within the USA, the provisions mean that every top-level domain is considered to be ‘US’. Further it claims that IP addresses (the numerical address of site) within the whole North American region (ARIN) which includes Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, are also ‘domestic’ for the purposes of this law. Basically, the USA is asserting a kind of Munro-doctrine for the Internet.

I wrote, half-jokingly, some time ago that the US state invented the Internet, but they don’t like how it’s being used and now they want it back: this is the demand in writing. The big problem in opposing this is of course the fact that US citizens have already been thoroughly bombarded with propaganda that has told them that they are ‘under threat’ from pirates and hackers and even cyberwar – and that openness makes them insecure. They’ve been told that the Wikileaks model of accountability through openness and transparency is an attack on the USA. In an age of economic insecurity, no doubt the protection of American jobs will also be wheeled out as an excuse.

But this is quite simply another manifestation of immoral corporate greed. Intellectual Property is in itself a kind of information-age enclosure, a concept that, while it may have some use in limited forms, has become so far-reaching that it is ludicrous, and through which financial and legal strength can simply steamroller traditional or alternative visions of fairness, sharing and openness – even though these things have been shown to be vital in real innovation. If this is an infowar, I know which side I am on, and which side you should be on, and it is not the side of Protect IP and SOPA and the negative politics of closure, it is with Anonymous and the Pirate Party, with open flows, open source and open access. We have to tell them that they can’t have the Internet back, it’s ours now. We have to occupy the Internet, to build around these attempts to stifle innovation and sharing and we have to do it now.

In the meantime, you can express your displeasure here:

See also: The Internet Must Be Defended! Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

London Riots and Video Surveillance, Pt.2

My last post was about the lack of any apparent deterrence of rioting from CCTV. However that’s not to say that video surveillance is proving of no use to the authorities. However the way it is being used says a lot about both the limits of CCTV and the general problem of analysis of video images.

As part of ‘Operation Withern’, the investigation into the rioting, the Metropolitan Police have set up a special section of their website, London Disorder Images, as well as on Flickr, which is essentially crowdsourcing the identification of suspects. Despite being the most well-resourced police force in the UK, the Met lacks the resources, time and expertise to analyse and identify everyone it wishes to identify itself, and with widespread popular anger about the riots, they are banking on opening up the process of surveillance and identification as being more efficient and effective – and they may well be right.

Of course, with the problems of lighting, angle, distances, and image quality, the images vary in identifiability – and bear in mind that the few posted so far are probably amongst the best ones – and no doubt there will be many misidentifications. And, in addition, hundreds of people are already being processed through magistrates courts without much need to video evidence. But it is a tactic we are seeing more and more in many places (e.g. Toronto, following the G20 disturbances).

Facebook learns nothing

Having been strongly criticised over its ‘Places’ feature for its lack of understanding of the concept of ‘consent’ in data protection, and why ‘opt-in’ is better for users than ‘opt-out’ when it comes to new ‘services’ (i.e: ways they can share your data with other organisations), Facebook is doing it again.

Between today and tomorrow, the new Facebook feature called “Instant Personalization” goes into effect. The new setting shares your data with non-Facebook sites and it is automatically set to “Enabled”.

To turn it off: Go to Account>Privacy Settings>Apps & Websites>Instant Personalization>edit settings & uncheck “Enable”.

(Or of course, you can just ‘Turn Off All Platform Apps” too!)

The really important thing is that if your Facebook Friends don’t do this, they will be sharing info about you as well. So, copy this and repost to yours…

(Thanks to Lorna Muir for this alert)

Spain vs. Google or Freedom of Expression vs. the Right to Be Forgotten

Several outlets are reporting today, the interesting clash between Spanish courts and Google. The argument is over whether Google should carry articles that have been challenged by Spanish citizens as breaching their privacy. An injunction was won in the courts by the Spanish data protection commissioner over publication of material that is being challenged under privacy legislation.

Clearly there are two main issues here. One is the specific issue of whether Google, as a search engine, can be considered as a publisher, or as it claims, simply an intermediary which publishes nothing, only linking to items published by others. This is important for Google as a business and for those who use it.

But the other is a more interesting issue which is the deeper question of what is going on here which is the struggle between two kinds of rights. The right to freedom of expression, to be able to say what one likes, is a longstanding one in democracies, however it is almost nowhere absolute. The problem in a search-engine enabled information age, is that these exceptions, which relate to both the (un)truth of published allegations (questions of libel and false accusation) and of privacy and to several other values, are increasingly challenged by the ability of people in one jurisdiction to access the same (libellous, untrue or privacy-destructive) information from outside that jurisdiction via the Internet.

In Spain, the question has apparently increasingly been framed in terms of a new ‘right to be forgotten’ or ‘right to delete’. This is not entirely new – certainly police records in many countries have elements that are time-limited, but these kinds of official individually beneficial forgettings are increasingly hard to maintain when information is ‘out there’ proliferating, being copied, reposted and so on.

This makes an interesting contrast with the Wikileaks affair. Here, where it comes to the State and corporations, questions of privacy and individual rights should not be used even analogically. The state may assert ‘secrecy’ but the state has no ‘right of privacy’. Secrecy is an instrumental concept relating to questions of risk. Corporations may assert ‘confidentiality’ but this is a question of law and custom relating to the regulation of the economy, not to ‘rights’.

Privacy is a right that can only be attached to (usually) human beings in their unofficial thoughts, activities and existence. And the question of forgetting is really a spatio-temporal extension of the concept of privacy necessary in an information society. Because the nature of information and communication has changed, privacy has to be considered over space and through time in a way that was not really necessary (or at least not for so many people so much of the time) previously.

This is where Google’s position comes back into play. Its insistence on neutrality is premised on a libertarian notion of information (described by Erik Davis some time ago as a kind of gnostic American macho libertarianism that pervades US thinking on the Internet). But if this is ‘freedom of information’ as usually understood in democratic societies, it does have limits and an extreme political interpretation of such freedom cannot apply. Should Google therefore abandon the pretence of neutrality and play a role in helping ‘us’ forget things that are untrue, hurtful and private to individuals?

The alternative is challenging: the idea that not acting is a morally ‘neutral’ position is clearly incorrect because it presages a new global norm of information flow presaged on not forgetting, and on the collapse of different jurisdictional norms of privacy. In this world, whilst privacy may not be dead, the law can no longer be relied on to enforce it and other methods from simple personal data management, to more ‘outlaw’ technological means of enforcement will increasingly be the standard for those who wish to maintain privacy. This suggests that money and/or technical expertise will be the things that will allow one to be forgotten, and those without either will be unable to have meaningful privacy except insofar as one is uninteresting or unnoticed.