Lives at stake for social media users

Al-Jazeera is carrying an excellent piece from the Electronic Frontier Foundation reminding social media network owners and regulators in their home countries that lives could be at stake because of the choices they make about security, privacy and anonymity.

Countries like Syria and Iran are purusing a plethora of surveillance and disruption tactics to identity and frustrate activists using social media to organise against their oppressive regimes, and the responses of the networks could be vital. This is something that Google in particular does not appear to have appreciated at all in its current insistance on ‘real indentities’ being the basis for all networking on Google+. Its attitude makes a very naive and dangerous assumption about the nature of states both present and future.

Guess who likes the UK’s proposals to control the Internet?

In the wake of the riots, several British Conservative MPs, and indeed PM David Cameron himself, have suggested a harsher regime of state control of both messenger services and social networks. Their suggestions have attracted widespread derision from almost everybody who either knows something about the Internet and communications more broadly, or who places any value on freedom of speech, assembly and communication and regards these things as foundational to any democratic society.

However, the a yet vague proposals have gained support from one quarter: China. The Chinese state-controlled media have suggested that the Conservative Party’s undemocratic suggestions prove that the Chinese state was right all along about controlling the Internet and that now these events are causing liberal democracies to support the Chinese model of highly regulated provision (via Boing Boing).

This is pretty much what I have been suggesting is happening for the last 2 or 3 years – see here, here, here and here. It is just that now, the pretense of democratic communication is being dropped by western governments. And just in case David Cameron doesn’t get it – and he really does not appear to right now, no, it is not a good thing that the Chinese government likes your ideas: it makes you look undemocratic and authoritarian.

On the Internet, no-one knows you’re a dog

So the (now rather old) joke goes. In fact, this joke is now often seen as an example of how people early on in the history of the Internet misunderstood it. People, the argument goes, are just people on the Net, pretty much the same way they are in real life. No technological determinism here, no siree.

However there is increasing evidence that this new ‘common knowledge’ is dead wrong, but it isn’t necessarily individual ‘dogs’ pretending to be humans online, it is whole organised packs (don’t worry, I won’t take this metaphor any further). Various sources have been reporting the development call by the US military for software development to create artificial posters on Internet forums, chatrooms, and news sites. The US state it seems has woken up to the possibilities of what is often called ‘astroturfing’, the creation of fake grassroots movements, with fake members.

George Monbiot, a leading British investigative journalist with The Guardian newspaper knows about astroturfing more than most. He frequently writes about climate change denialists, and the comments under his stories are always filled with pseudonymous critics who seem to pop up every time the word ‘climate’ is mentioned and their responses often appear to be scripted and organised. He’s been digging deeper, and while his investigations are still ongoing, he has provided a useful summary of recent development here.

As well as the corporate interests (tobacco, oil, pharma etc.) it’s also worth pointing out that other states are far ahead of the US on this. China notoriously has its so-called ’50-Cent Party’, students and others who are recruited by the state and paid by the message to counter any anti-Chinese or pro-Tibetan, pro-Taiwan or pro-Uighur sentiment. Their early efforts were laughably obvious, but are becoming more and more subtle. Israel is open in its backing of such ‘online armies’, and advocates the use of a particular software tool, called Megaphone, which enables its users to respond quickly and widely to any reports or discussion seem as against the interests of the Israeli state.

Anonymity is also used by these organised groups as a form of individual intimidation through other ‘open’ channels, especially of those who lack the resources and sometimes the low cunning to be able to respond effectively. One is Freedom of Information legislation. In the area of climate change denial, we saw this with the systematic and organised petitioning of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, in which FoI requests were really a form of harassment. More recently, as I have just heard from Chris Parsons, two professors from Ottawa, Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran, seen as ‘liberal’ and critical of the Canadian government, have similarly found themselves the subject of a huge upsurge in FoI requests, many of which seem to be deliberately requesting very intimate information. This would appear to be Freedom of Information as intimidation.

There are several responses one could have to this. One would be to withdraw from more public and open forms of interaction, to batten down the hatches, retreat into extreme forms of privacy. This would be a mistake: it really would, as some of the more alarmist reports have proposed, mean the death of Web2.0. The other would be to take the Anonymous route, to ferret out the spies and the fakes. This could be done with better forum and comment software, but would mean a lot of hacking effort and knowledge. How is a chatroom supposed to go up against the power of states and corporations? The real risk with this, as with more low-tech forms of ‘exposure’, is that we help create a culture of suspicion in which moles and spies are everywhere, and genuine political interaction is chilled. It may be coincidental, but it is not unrelated, that we are seeing a growing attention being called to this kind of thing just as we have seen the power of social media in the uprisings across the Arab world. In this area at least privacy is not the answer, a more radical political openness and transparency may well be required to facilitate the kind of social trust that can keep Web2.0 growing and changing in a positive direction.

‘Turning Off’ the Internet

Boing Boing contributors have been doing a fascinating job of documenting the place of the Internet and social media in the ongoing turmoil spreading across Arabic countries. Until recently the focus had been on the use of social media tools by activists, but in the last few days, the empire has struck back. In particular the Egyptian state has effectively ‘turned off’ the Internet, cutting Net access and communications between Egypt and the rest of the world.

What’s particularly interesting is that the rulers of western ‘democracies’ seem to want similar powers. I’ve been writing about the growing movement amongst states to develop powers to split or close the Internet entirely for some time (see here, here and here, for example). Most recently, I reported on French efforts to develop Internet censorship power in wide-ranging circumstances, and as Sean Bonner on BB points out, a bill was introduced into Congress last year by, it’s that man again, Joe Liebermann, to give the USA government even greater powers to cut off civilian access to the Net entirely in the event of a ‘cyber-emergency’.

This is not a drill, people, this is happening…

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)