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August 18, 2011

Internet, freedom, and the tools of circumvention

Three new reports have come out of the Berkman Center:

The Evolving Landscape of Internet Control

by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, Rob Faris, Jillian York, and John Palfrey

This paper summarizes the results of the studies we have undertaken in order to better understand the control of the Internet in less open societies. It provides an overview of our research in the context recent changes in the methods used to control online speech, and some thoughts on the challenges to online speech in the immediate future.

International Bloggers and Internet Control
by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, Jillian York, Rob Faris, and John Palfrey

Infringements on Internet freedom, particularly through Internet filtering and surveillance, have inspired activists and technologists to develop technological counter-measures, most notably circumvention tools to defeat Internet filters and anonymity tools to help protect user privacy and avoid online surveillance efforts. However, despite the perceived importance of this field, relatively little is known about the demand for and usage patterns of these tools. In December 2010, we surveyed a sample of international bloggers to better understand how, where, why, and by whom these tools are being used.

Circumvention Tool Evaluation

by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, and John Palfrey

This paper evaluates 19 circumvention tools tested in five countries. In this report, we focus on questions of utility—the ability for a tool to be installed and used in a particular location, and the accuracy and speed of the tool. Additionally, we address concerns about security, usability and openness when appropriate.

Drawing on background research, meetings with tool developers, consultations with experts, interviews with users, structured surveys, and technical evaluations, these publications help improve our overall understanding of the role of circumvention tools in promoting greater Internet openness.

We are grateful for the participation of Global Voices Online and for the work of those who translated our blogger survey into more than a dozen languages. We offer our special thanks to the bloggers that participated in the survey.

For more information about the Berkman Center’s research on circumvention, including links to these and other reports, please visit: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/research/circumvention

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June 28, 2011

How much do you trust the Internet?

I love the Internet. I trust what I learn from it, or, more exactly, I generally trust my ability not to be fooled by it. But, like all of us (?), I have a limit.

For example, Google has a new service called What Do You Love? It’s mainly a marketing tool: Tell it something you love, and it will aggregate that term across many of the services Google offers: Send an email, find it on a Google Map, find Google Groups that mention it, etc.

So, I entered “Ted Kaczynski” (the Unabomber), and WDYL cheerfully created the online equivalent of one of those creepy walls of souvenirs that clinch a suspect as the crazypants stalker/killer in cheesy crime movies. I enjoyed it, anyway, even as I made a joke to myself about now probably being on a Homeland Security watch list.

But I realized that there were limits to what I would enter into the site for fear of government consequences: “I love terrorism.” “I love child porn.” I’m actually even nervous putting those sentences into this post as examples. (Granted, either would make for WDYL responses that are more disturbing than amusing.)

So, a part of me apparently believes that the government is watching. And that the government has no sense of humor.

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February 28, 2011

Am I blocked or Not: Wisconsin version

From the Berkman Center:

The Herdict team is looking for help testing the hypothesis that the Wisconsin Capitol building guest wireless blocks Websense’s “advocacy” category. (Background here, and see the various links in those posts).

If you have friends/family/contacts/colleagues who might be in a position to help Herdict with this testing, please share the links above or point them to Herdict’s “am I blocked or not?” testing queue for the US — Many thanks!

1 Comment »

February 16, 2011

In praise of what Secretary Clinton did not say about Wikileaks

Especially when a prepared talk is being given in the midst of a difficult controversy, most of what matters is in what is not said. For that reason, I think Secretary Clinton’s speech on Net Freedom yesterday was actually quite encouraging about the State Department’s attitude toward Wikileaks. In this I seem to differ with many of my friends and colleagues. (See, for example, this thread from the Berkman mailing list. See also Mathew Ingram. Ethan Zuckerman posts his overall reaction, plus a brilliant draft speech he’d suggested Clinton deliver. Yochai Benkler has posted a draft of a paper [pdf] that — with Yochai’s accustomed astounding command of facts, law, argument, and moral insight — assails the claimed grounds for prosecuting Wikileaks) [Disclosure: I am a Franklin Fellow at the State Dept., attached to the group that works on the internal use of social media. This is a non-paying fellowship, and I feel no obligation to make nice, although I’m human.]

Secretary Clinton spent a substantial portion of her talk discussing Wikileaks.

The Internet’s strong culture of transparency derives from its power to make information of all kinds available instantly. But in addition to being a public space, the Internet is also a channel for private conversations. For that to continue, there must be protection for confidential communication online.

Think of all the ways in which people and organizations rely on confidential communication to do their jobs. Businesses hold confidential conversations when they’re developing new products, to stay ahead of their competitors. Journalists keep the details of some sources confidential, to protect them from retribution.

And governments also rely on confidential communication—online as well as offline. The existence of connection technologies may make it harder to maintain confidentiality, but it does not change the need for it.

Government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of Wikileaks. It’s been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the Wikileaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.

Some have suggested that this act was justified, because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of their work out in the open, in the full view of their citizens.

I disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our most sensitive operations.

Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise. Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists will find the nuclear material and steal it.

Or consider the content of the documents that Wikileaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by Wikileaks relate to human rights work carried out around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It’s dangerous work. By publishing the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks exposed people to even greater risk.

For operations like these, confidentiality is essential, especially in the Internet age, when dangerous information can be sent around the world with the click of a keystroke.

Of course, governments also have a duty to be transparent. We govern with the consent of the people, and that consent must be informed to be meaningful. So we must be judicious about when we close off our work to the public and review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous. In the United States, we have laws to ensure that the government makes its work open to the people. The Obama Administration has also launched unprecedented initiatives to put government data online, encourage citizen participation, and generally increase the openness of government.

The U.S. government’s ability to protect America — to secure the liberties of our people — and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should remain out of the public domain. The scale will always be tipped in favor of openness. But tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests—and the public’s least of all.

Let me be clear. I said that we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that Wikileaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.

One final word on this matter. There were reports in the days following the leak that the U.S. government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to Wikileaks. This is not the case. Some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from Wikileaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. But any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama Administration.

Now, one way to read this is to imagine what you wish Clinton had said, or what you would have said if given the opportunity. That certainly has its uses. But it’s essentially a daydream, for it acts as if high-visibility political speeches occur outside of political consequences and negotiations. (Ethan’s imagining, noted above, was within a pragmatic context, attempting to provide a vision for the talk.) If instead we take this speech as the result of a political struggle, then we have to hear not just the daydream, but the nightmare: Forces within the government must have been urging Clinton to take a hard line against Wikileaks and to use Wikileaks as a justification for constraining the Internet. When you consider all that Clinton does not say about Wikileaks, this speech is actually, in my view, quite encouraging. Indeed, in saying that “It’s been a false debate in many ways,” she does not narrow the criticism to the media’s participation; we are left to assume that she is also scolding elements of the government.

You say “Pshaw!” to the idea that this is a pretty enlightened speech? I understand that reaction, since this address is coming from a government that has reacted overall quite poorly to the Wikileaks leaks. (See especially Yochai Benkler’s comments in the Berkman thread and his comprehensive article.)( But that’s exactly why we ought to view the speech as a sign of hope that at least some elements of the government are catching on to what the Net is about, what it’s for, and what it can and cannot do. (“What the Net can and cannot do” is, from my point of view, pretty much the theme of the entire speech, which by itself is encouraging.)

Here’s an example of what I mean by reading the speech in light of what it does not say. Secretary Clinton does say that the Wikileaks incident “began with an act of theft.” But, she is careful not to say that Wikileaks was the thief. Instead, she refers to Wikileaks as making the documents public, as releasing them, and as publishing them. You can imagine the pressure on her to characterize Wikileaks as the source of the documents — as the thief — rather than as the recipient and publisher of them. (She does slip in an ambiguous phrase: “we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase.”)

Overall, I read the Wikileaks section of the speech as a refusal to blame the Internet, and as a refusal to issue threats against Wikileaks (and against the next Wikileaks-like site). True, Secretary Clinton “condemns” the leaks, but given the range of options for a Secretary of State, what else would you expect? That she would condone the indiscriminate leaking of confidential information? It’s confidential. Of course she’s going to condemn leaks, and in no uncertain terms.

The question is what follows from that condemnation. What followed were not threats against Wikileaks, not a clamping down on State Department security to ensure that “this never happens again,”not a retreat from Clinton’s emphasis on building a “need to share culture” within State, and not support for new policies that would put “reasonable” controls on the Internet to “ensure” that such “illegal acts” never recur, for “a free Internet does not mean a lawless Internet.” (All items in quotes are phrases I’ve made up but that I can imagine some in the government insisting be inserted.) The only statement about policies to address such leaks says that the Obama Administration did not “coerce” private companies to act to shut down (or shut off) Wikileaks; the clear implication is that the government should not engage in such coercion.

Now, we can imagine our own preferred words coming out of Secretary Clinton’s mouth, and we certainly can and should compare her statements with the actual behavior of State and the government overall. There was room for her to have gone further; I would have liked it better if she had, as per Yochai’s suggestion, acknowledged that State initially over-reacted in some chilling ways. But, in the context of the political debate, I think Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Wikileaks are encouraging, and her explicit rejection of limiting Internet freedom because sometimes leaks happen is hopeful.

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December 20, 2010

Effect of DDoS on human rights

Ethan Zuckerman has an excellent post about the new Berkman report on the use of Distributed Denial of Service attacks to silence human rights groups

Here’s an abbreviation of Ethan’s summary of the “take-aways”:

  • DDoS is a pretty common form of attack against human rights and independent media sites, and the volume of attacks does not appear to be slowing.

  • DDoS doesn’t usually affect independent media and human rights organizations in isolation.

  • Attacks don’t need massive amounts of bandwidth to adversely affect sites.

  • For many organizations, DDoS can be a crippling attack, making sites inaccessible for long periods of time..

  • We see no silver bullets for the independent media and human rights community.

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December 8, 2010

Standing with the Net

Life is complex, but sometimes it comes down to taking sides.

I don’t mean about Wikileaks. As Micah Sifry [twitter: mlsif] has tweeted, “I don’t know if I’m pro-Wikileaks, but I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks.”

Me, too. Especially when the full power of government and commerce is unleashed against it. Wikileaks embodies transitional ambiguity in several intersecting, crucial social processes normally handled unambiguously by traditional institutions. So, ambivalence is a proper response, and, arguably the only proper response. (For contrast, see the right-wing American Enterprise Institute’s reaction, by Mark Thiessen.)

I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks not because I know I like Wikileaks (although I do lean that way). It’s not Wikileaks that has summoned the wrath of the incumbents. It’s the Internet. The incumbents have now woken up to the Net’s nature, and are deploying every weapon they can find against it, including siccing Interpol on Julian Assange for incidents of what were reportedly consensual sex. (You’ve probably already read Naomi Wolf’s scathing, hilarious response.) [Later that day: Wolf’s casual assertions are likely wrong. The charges are more serious than what I said.] As Milton Mueller writes at the Internet Governance Project:

Whatever one’s opinion about the wisdom, responsibility and ethical justification of the revelations, it has shown that there is a new countervailing force in the world that the militarists and diplomats don’t know how to control yet. This is, on the whole, a good thing. It is true that the disclosure power Wikileaks invoked can be abused. It can do real damage. But in relative terms, it is far more benign that the power it is being used against in this case and its legitimacy resides more in public opinion than anything else. The hysteria generated by foreign policy hawks polarizes the world around the internet and its capabilities and shows that, all too often, those who claim to be defenders of freedom are its worst enemies.

Denizens of the Net are choosing sides. To my dismay, Amazon and eBay’s PayPal have decided that they are on the Net but not of the Net. When it comes down to it, they have decided they don’t really care for the Internet all that much, except as a low-friction cash register. How we would have rejoiced if Amazon and eBay had stood up to those who want to stop the flow of information that they don’t like. Instead they folded.

Amazon’s capitulation is especially disappointing. It has so benefited from its enlightened ideas about trust and openness. Yet, because karma does occasionally get itself out of bed in the morning, they will pay: What business is going to trust its data to Amazon’s cloud, knowing that one phone call from Senator McScrooge is enough to get Amazon to inspect or destroy its data?

I have my leanings, but I am ambivalent about everything in the past fifteen year’s messy cultural, societal transition. But my ambivalence shows up in how to navigate on the unambivalent ground on which I stand. I stand with the Net.

19 Comments »

December 5, 2010

Truth is not enough

I haven’t posted anything about Wikileaks because it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of commentary. Also, I am deeply conflicted about it, for predictable reasons: I’m happy to see some nasty government programs exposed, but I also believe governments and the people who work for them need to have conversations that are frank, honest, private, and even regrettable.

I here just want to comment on a particular theory of truth that many are using to justify Wikileaks. This ideas says that “the truth” is a neutral and accurate depiction of how the world is. One is thus always justified in stating the truth.

That definition may be true, or it may be true as stipulated, but it’s not useful. In fact, it’s the opposite of useful because it misses truth’s value. Someone who babbles an endless series of true statements is insane. Kierkegaard talked about this as “objective madness.” He imagines a patient walking home from a stay in an insane asylum trying to convince people he’s sane by repeating over and over something true: “The world is round. The world is round.” The same ex-patient would be just as insane if he varied his list of true things as he strolls down the street: “The world is round. Books have weight. Wheels roll. My toenails are growing.”

Truth can be noise. Truth can be used to distract us. Truth can be wicked violence. It is not enough, therefore, to justify your blurtings by saying, “But it’s the truth!” Truth’s value comes from its role in the complex social fabric — network — within which we live. That network contains many other human values, purposes, and fallibilities. The truth matters because it helps us act in our world, together.

So, I don’t think Wikileaks’ actions can be justified simply by saying, “But the site is just saying the truth!” It’s far more complex than that. What effect will this exposure have? How might it have been a more effective exposure? What do we gain and what to we lose. With this round of Wikileaks, we both gain and lose, imo.

Here, by the way, I think Assange’s interests diverge from many of us who believe in the power of transparency. I find persuasive Zungzungu’s argument, based on a 2006 writings attributed to Assange [pdf], that Wikileaks is not about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine: It is aiming at rendering “authoritarian conspiracies” ineffective. I am glad that the site has exposed some of my government’s wickedness; I am unhappy that it is going to render it less effective in the good that it does. And I am unhapy with my government’s response to the leak.


Here are links to some Berkman posts about Wikileaks. And here’s a discussion initiated by Jay Rosen about Assange’s non-answer to a question like the one this post raises.

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October 18, 2010

Berkman report on circumvention tools

The Berkman Center has released a new report on the use of tools to circumvent restrictions on the Internet imposed by countries that control their citizens’ access to the Net. This is important especially given the State Department’s commitment funding of such tools (“We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.”).

Here is a brief summary from the email announcing the report:

In this report, the authors use a variety of methods to evaluate the usage of the first three of these four types of tools to test two hypotheses. First, even though much of the media attention on circumvention tools has been given to a handful of tools, they find that these tools represent only a small portion of overall circumvention usage and that the attention paid to these tools has been disproportionate to their usage, especially when compared to the more widely used simple web proxies. Second, even when including the more widely-used simple web proxies, the authors find that overall usage of circumvention tools is still very small in proportion to the number of Internet users in countries with substantial national Internet filtering.

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June 25, 2010

Google vs. Apple control freakism

Rich Cannings, Android security lead, blogged about remotely removing an app from people’s Android phones [excerpted]:

Recently, we became aware of two free applications built by a security researcher for research purposes. These applications intentionally misrepresented their purpose in order to encourage user downloads, but they were not designed to be used maliciously, and did not have permission to access private data — or system resources beyond permission. As the applications were practically useless, most users uninstalled the applications shortly after downloading them.

After the researcher voluntarily removed these applications from Android Market, we decided, per the Android Market Terms of Service, to exercise our remote application removal feature on the remaining installed copies to complete the cleanup.

I’m not sure what terms of service the app maker violated, although I’d guess there’s something in there about not purposefully misrepresenting your app. But John Gruber at Daring Fireball concludes that this is:

…proof that while Android Market is significantly less regulated than Apple’s App Store, it’s not a Wild West free-for-all.

Well, sure. But there seems to me to be a difference in kind, and not just degree, between Google removing an app that’s purposefully misleading and Apple removing apps because it doesn’t meet some vague standard for inoffensive content.

Does this matter? Well, it sure does to Dan Gillmor, who’s switching from Mac to Linux because he doesn’t like Apple’s control over his computer. Dan has been a leading indicator before. I’m not willing to leave my Mac yet, mainly because Apple hasn’t AppStored it yet. (Also, I’m still finding Linux — Ubuntu 10.04 — to be high maintenance, at least for my desktop activities.) But the competition between Apple and Google, and the continued progress made by desktop Linux, makes me very happy.

See, the system works!

4 Comments »

April 12, 2010

Is the iPhone generative?

Steven Johnson makes one of his typically brilliantly insightful points in his recent NY Times op-ed: The iPhone is a locked-down device, but it has been the site of arguably the greatest burst of software generativity in the computing era, much of it by small developers. This has led Steve to re-evaluate his adherence to the “unifying creed” that “Open platforms promote innovation and diversity more effectively than proprietary ones.” When Dan Gillmor challenged this in a tweet, Steve responded with a terrific blog post, further considering the point.

The argument is over the issue framed by Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. JZ defines “generativity” as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.” (p. 70) Steve suggests that we instead judge generativity by the type of results we see, not by the nature of the software or hardware environment on which they run; a generative platform is “a platform that is constantly being re-invented in surprising new ways by a diverse group of creators, where individuals, hobbyists, small startups, and amateurs compete on a level playing field with large incumbents.” So, while JZ assumes that a system’s capacity to produce generative results depends on the system’s openness, the burgeoning of software for the iPhone shows that closed systems can produce wildly generative results.

I think a few things are going on here.

First, Steve is right about the fecundity of the iPhone as a platform, and about its openness to amateur and small developers. But, he’s right because the iPhone is not purely locked down. Apple could exert any control it wants, to any degree, any time it wants, but so far it’s been pretty open. So, the iPhone and the iPad are generative because in practice they generally meet JZ’s criteria. They are, in JZ’s taxonomy, hybrid animals.

But, the fact that there are over 150,000 apps for the iPhone is not the only measure of generativity. Apple has announced it will exclude unruly guests from its party (and Apple gets to define “unruly”), so the unruly don’t even bother to ask for admittance. The AppStore is a ruly environment. Now, there are obviously advantages to the user (as well as to Apple, but we’ll leave that aside for now) in having a device that cannot be disrupted. (“Disruptive” figures large in JZ’s book, but not in Steve’s definition.) For one thing, a ruly device is less likely to melt into a puddle of palm-sized uselessness. But, that’s to say that the iPhone’s limits on generativity are desirable. Steve’s argument is different. He’s saying that the iPhone is generative.

In any case, I think Steve is wrong in his causality. The iPhone has generated 150,000 apps because it’s a cool piece of hardware with a preternaturally appealing UI, useful software affordances built in, and an appealing SDK. Not to mention, it’s got a gazillion users. And the App Store is well-designed for marketing small programs. The iPhone is not wildly generative (in Steve’s sense) because it’s a walled garden; the iPhone could allow other marketplaces for apps to exist without losing its generativity (as Steve notes in an aside).

But, the most important issue is not whether the iPhone is generative. The question is whether Steve is right to renounce the “unifying creed” that generativity depends on open platforms. The argument should not be over whether a particular hybrid device is generative — although it’s helpful to have the case raised — but over the future of the Internet. That’s why JZ raises the issue of generativity in the first place.

JZ defines generativity as part of a polarity. Here’s what he says at the beginning of his book:

…the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution. This counterrevolution would push mainstream users away from a generative Internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancized network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today’s Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity—and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability. A seductive and more powerful generation of proprietary networks and information appliances is waiting for round two. If the problems associated with the Internet and PC are not addressed, a set of blunt solutions will likely be applied to solve the problems at the expense of much of what we love about today’s information ecosystem. (p. 8)

The danger is that as cellphones become mobile Internet devices, and as iPods become mobile computing platforms, our new generation of computing devices will be appliances open only at the forbearance of their creators. Those creators may be relatively benevolent, but the question isn’t whether this device or that creator is open. It’s what the future of the Internet and of computers will look like. If appliances become the dominant way of interacting with the Net (and thus how we interact with one another), then no matter how loosely the device creators hold the reins, we are accepting the bit in our mouths. If appliances become the default, then the market for challenging, risky, disruptive, subversive app development is in danger of drying up.

From that point of view, the generativity of the iPhone and the iPad is — to use JZ’s word — seductive. Steve Johnson is right that they have unleashed a torrent of creativity. But it is creativity within bounds. The very success of these devices, driven by the generativity that Steve Jobs allows us and to which Steve Johnson astutely points us, can lead us to the future that JZ fears.

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