Google and Privacy

Seth Finkelstein of Infothought has been writing articles for the Guardian. His latest discusses a few things to consider about Google and Privacy.

The task is then to prise out any abuses from behind the wall of corporate secrecy. Otherwise, we could end up with an unholy alliance between corporations and governments, where corporations act as privatised spies for governments, while government data retention mandates are used to give corporations an excuse to keep the sort of detailed records they’d want to in any case for market research and sale.

Google has done some very amazing and innovative things. One of the consequences of their success and their practices is that while they attempt to do no evil- and I honestly believe that many, if not most people at Google earnestly do want to practice that philosophy in more than a superficial marketing sense- they can be involved in questionable activities.


Gorman on Copyright

Michael Gorman’s recent Brittanica link-bait attack on users of the Internet mentions copyright. It disturbs me that a former president of the American Library Association would offer both such a simplistic view and one not backed up by research- especially since this article complains of that very issue.

There is today a concerted and multifront assault on copyright spurred by monied interests and the desire of consumers to use digital technology to get something for nothing. This assault has created a mindset that sees the notion of intellectual property as a barrier to progress rather than what it is—an affirmation of the singularity of the human intellect and personality. Because few people like to admit to being motivated by greed and self-interest, these assaults on intellectual property are often couched in high-minded digital jargon and/or weasel words.

First, the suggestion that the concept of intellectual property has been used as a barrier to progress goes far, far beyond the straw man argument that he presents, as he makes the intellectually dishonest conclusion that the “assault on copyright” is the work of those who trade files. We have well-reasoned, published (and therefore presumably at least moderately more acceptable to Gorman) works by Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Kembrew McLeod, and others who strongly argue for copyright reform, and many are critical of the property metaphor. Furthermore, the Romantic view of the genius of the Author has been a subject of much debate in academia for decades. Additionally, copyright law in the United States is not solely based on this view of authorship, but on the utility of offering creators that limited monopoly for the ultimate benefit of the public. I could go on, but I’ll spare people the relatively common arguments against the narrow view that Gorman presented. It is possible to respect the author and advocate copyright reform.

Now, I’m fairly certain that Gorman has at least heard those arguments, since many of those views are actually reflective of the policies of the American Library Association. (Recall that I am an American Library Association Copyright Scholar.) The work of libraries and the research that Gorman holds in high esteem benefit from not holding his view. I am adisturbed that I fail to see research backing his arguments in his texts. I am more disturbed that Gorman’s beliefs will be forever associated with the views of the ALA.

Free as in digital speech.

I wrote recently about AT&T’s commitment to filtering technologies. Via it’s helpdesk, Time Warner has apparently announced that it’s now using packet shaping technologies. So much for the Net Neutrality debate.

“Packet shaping” technology has been implemented for newsgroup applications, regardless of the provider, and all peer-to-peer networks and certain other high bandwidth applications not necessarily limited to audio, video, and voice over IP telephony. Road Runner reserves the right to implement network management tools for other applications in the future.

There are certainly issues with free speech here. No, it’s not the government blocking speech, but I don’t find that less worrying in the least. Quite the contrary.

1) Commercial entities blocking or degrading speech is incredibly problematic, particularly with the lack of real competition (if you’re a free market person). The choice of a single cable company or a single phone company isn’t really that much of a choice. I’m sure anyone can think of ways in which the implementation of these technologies could potentially to do harm. Here are a couple: degrading the ability to transmit a message- where already restrictive digital technologies backed by law (like banning the use of anti-circumvention tools that block legitimate uses via the DMCA) and corporate policy (like search engines blocking content in China, or filtering technologies blocking content in libraries) have had some serious impacts on fair uses, copyright exemptions, and basic access to information. Another is the potential for anti-competitive behavior, when ISPs have the ability to degrade the performance of rivals. These concerns are more obvious with the movement of ISPs into the content arena, where they now feel they have a right to police content (like AT&T from the earlier message). Furthermore, it’s easy to predict that in order to get content from other members of the entertainment industry they might be required to implement some of these technologies.

2) How long is it going to be before there’s legislation attempting to use packet shaping technologies? These technologies presumably base their packet shaping routers on information taken from the packets themselves (beyond just monitoring bandwidth). When is someone going to propose to filter for content or technologies that some members of the government don’t like (pornography, P2P, encrypted traffic, name it)? Think about members of Congress that want universities to act on the perceived P2P problem- and the universities have have already started blocking P2P traffic.

I wonder- does the use of packet examining technologies remove the DMCA safe harbor protections for Online Service Providers?

Traffic shaping technologies have been around previous to this, and aren’t always a bad thing- there are certainly arguments for applying traffic shaping to worms and systematic denial of service attacks- but the potential for abuse definitely needs to be considered as they’re growing in popularity, implementation, and possibly effect. I’m going to be trying to figure out if these are new or different uses of the technologies.

Update: An update based on a question I received. There are many kinds of software applications that might affect the traffic that gets to your computer. Here are a couple.

1) Content Filtering technologies. People can use this term to mean different things. There’s Net Nanny or other forms of censorware (yes, my use of that term indicates where I stand on most implementations of that software). In that situation, filtering is based on content but usually implemented at a local level (think business or school). When I’m referring to filtering software in this case, I’m usually referring to that.

Some people also describe a firewall, anti-spyware, or anti-virus software that blocks unwanted traffic as filters, and there’s also use of the term to describe moving data streams from one application to another.

2) Traffic shaping /packet shaping technologies, which can throttle traffic (potentially affecting performance) or block traffic entirely. These technologies could be monitoring bandwidth, protocols on the network (http, ftp, udp,etc.), or could be examining packets themselves. These are often implemented at the edges of a network, such as where traffic enters or leaves a local network. One of the concerns I have is the harm in the use of these technologies to filter or degrade based on content.

The Return of the Broadcast Treaty

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) out of the United Nations, is one of the two major international bodies that deals with copyright treaties. (The other is the World Trade Organization through it’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual-Property Rights. There are other bodies involved, but those are the big ones.)

Last year, representatives from WIPO proposed a Broadcasting Treaty that would give Broadcasters rights to restrict copying. That would be a significant change to copyright law as we know it for a variety of reasons- one of which is that broadcasters generally don’t own the copyright in the work they broadcast (beyond their ability to publicly distribute the work). It basically creates a new set of exclusive rights for distributors, and overrides existing copyright law and even the wishes of the creator/copyright holder when those are in conflict. For example, under the proposed text broadcasters could restrict access to public domain works or works licensed under Creative Commons. It also has no provisions for fair uses of material.

There was such opposition to it that representatives from WIPO said they would narrow the scope of the treaty. However, the new proposed treaty not only keeps pretty much the same language, but it also provides additional regulation for devices that could potentially include computers- any “device or system capable of decrypting an encrypted broadcast.”

EFF’s site:

You can see some of the text on WIPO’s site:

Yahoo shareholders reject human rights oversight in China

Apparently following Google shareholder’s lead, Yahoo shareholders have rejected a policy that opposes censorship in China, as well as proposals to set up a human rights committee. The search companies argues that “it is better to offer Chinese users some information than none at all.” I don’t actually believe that’s true (depending on what rights you’re championing, and certainly not from the freedom from censorship/intellectual freedom perspective). It might be better to offer Chinese users factual, complete information- but offering only bits of information or misinformation might be worse than offering no information at all.

Update: Via Slashdot, Yahoo’s SEC filing with their rationale for rejecting those proposals (sections 6 and 7).

AT&T wants to filter the network.

I’m taking a public policy class with Gary Chapman at the LBJ School of Public Policy this summer. Here’s a message I just sent to the class list and EFF-Austin’s discuss list-

The rumor was true- basically, it looks like AT&T wants to implement content filtering on the network end of things. The article has quotes from Fred von Lohmann of EFF and Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge, but one thing the article doesn’t mention is how unlikely it is that any kind of filtering technology can adequately protect copyright exemptions- an incredibly importart part of the law that is supposed to represent public interests. The reason that a technological solution won’t work is that the law is intentionally vague in certain areas, such as fair use (17 USC Section 107) and grants a good amount of leeway in the use of content in others (such as educational institutions, provided certain requirements are fulfilled). The vagueness of fair use exists for a number of reasons, one of which is the recognition that fair uses are going to be very context dependent.,1,402794.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-business&ctrack=2&cset=true

Fun quotes:

“As AT&T has begun selling pay-television services, the company has realized that its interests are more closely aligned with Hollywood, Cicconi said in an interview Tuesday.”

“Cicconi said that once a technology was chosen, the company would look at privacy and other legal issues.”