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Patrick Ruffini, political strategist, author, and President of Engage, a digital agency in Washington, DC, discusses his latest book with coauthors David Segal and David Moon: Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists, and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet. Ruffini covers the history behind SOPA, its implications for Internet freedom, the “Internet blackout” in January of 2012, and how the threat of SOPA united activists, technology companies, and the broader Internet community.

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Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for CNET and former Washington bureau chief for Wired News, discusses recent leaks of NSA surveillance programs. What do we know so far, and what more might be unveiled in the coming weeks? McCullagh covers legal challenges to the programs, the Patriot Act, the fourth amendment, email encryption, the media and public response, and broader implications for privacy and reform.

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Free Press is holding its National Conference for Media Reform next week. The conference agenda describes the Internet as “central” to freedom of expression, which is how all mass media technologies have been described since the invention of the printing press ushered in the mass communications era. Despite recognizing that the Internet is a mass media technology, Free Press does not believe the Internet should be accorded the same constitutional protections as other mass media technologies. Like so many others, Free Press has forgotten that the dangers posed by government control of the Internet are similar to those posed by earlier mass media technologies. In a stunning reversal of the concepts embodied in the Bill of Rights, Free Press believes the executive and legislative branches of government are the source of protection for the freedom of expression. In their view, “Internet freedom means net neutrality.Continue reading →

Gabriella Coleman

Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill University, discusses her new book, “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking,” which has been released under a Creative Commons license.

Coleman, whose background is in anthropology, shares the results of her cultural survey of free and open source software (F/OSS) developers, the majority of whom, she found, shared similar backgrounds and world views. Among these similarities were an early introduction to technology and a passion for civil liberties, specifically free speech.

Coleman explains the ethics behind hackers’ devotion to F/OSS, the social codes that guide its production, and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. She also discusses the tension between the overtly political free software movement and the “politically agnostic” open source movement, as well as what the future of the hacker movement may look like.

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In a New York Times op-ed this weekend entitled “You Can’t Say That on the Internet,” Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, worries that Silicon Valley is imposing a “deeply conservative” “new prudishness” on modern society. The cause, he says, are “dour, one-dimensional algorithms, the mathematical constructs that automatically determine the limits of what is culturally acceptable.” He proposes that some form of external algorithmic auditing be undertaken to counter this supposed problem. Here’s how he puts it in the conclusion of his essay:

Quaint prudishness, excessive enforcement of copyright, unneeded damage to our reputations: algorithmic gatekeeping is exacting a high toll on our public life. Instead of treating algorithms as a natural, objective reflection of reality, we must take them apart and closely examine each line of code.

Can we do it without hurting Silicon Valley’s business model? The world of finance, facing a similar problem, offers a clue. After several disasters caused by algorithmic trading earlier this year, authorities in Hong Kong and Australia drafted proposals to establish regular independent audits of the design, development and modifications of computer systems used in such trades. Why couldn’t auditors do the same to Google?

Silicon Valley wouldn’t have to disclose its proprietary algorithms, only share them with the auditors. A drastic measure? Perhaps. But it’s one that is proportional to the growing clout technology companies have in reshaping not only our economy but also our culture.

It should be noted that in a Slate essay this past January, Morozov had also proposed that steps be taken to root out lies, deceptions, and conspiracy theories on the Internet.  Morozov was particularly worried about “denialists of global warming or benefits of vaccination,” but he also wondered how we might deal with 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the anti-Darwinian intelligent design movement, and those that refuse to accept the link between HIV and AIDS.

To deal with that supposed problem, he recommended that Google “come up with a database of disputed claims” or “exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results,” to weed out such things. He suggested that the other option “is to nudge search engines to take more responsibility for their index and exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results for issues” that someone (he never says who) determines to be conspiratorial or anti-scientific in nature.

Taken together, these essays can be viewed as a preliminary sketch of what could become a comprehensive information control apparatus instituted at the code layer of the Internet. Continue reading →

Via Twitter, Andrew Grossman brought to my attention this terrifically interesting interview with a Kuwaiti censor that appeared in the Kuwait Times (“Read No Evil – Senior Censor Defends Work, Denies Playing Big Brother“). In the interview, the censor, Dalal Al-Mutairi, head of the Foreign Books Department at the Ministry of Information, speaks in a remarkably candid fashion and casual tone about the job she and other Kuwaiti censors do every day. My favorite line comes when Dalal tells the reporter how working as a censor is so very interesting and enlightening: “I like this work. It gives us experience, information and we always learn something new.”  I bet!  But what a shame that others in her society will be denied the same pleasure of always learning something new. Of course, like all censors, Dalal probably believes that she is doing a great public service by screening all culture and content to make sure the masses do not consume offensive, objectionable, or harmful content.

But here’s where the reporter missed a golden opportunity to ask Dalal the one question that you must always ask a censor if you get to meet one: If the content you are censoring is so destructive to the human soul or psyche, how then is it that you are such a well-adjusted person?  And Dalal certainly seems like a well-adjusted person. Although the reporter doesn’t tell us much about her personal life or circumstances, Dalal volunteers this much about herself and her fellow censors: “Many people consider the censor to be a fanatic and uneducated person, but this isn’t true. We are the most literate people as we have read much, almost every day. We receive a lot of information from different fields. We read books for children, religious books, political, philosophical, scientific ones and many others.” Well of course you do… because you are lucky enough to have access to all that content! But you are also taking steps to make sure the rest of your society doesn’t consume it on the theory that it would harm them or harm public morals in some fashion.  But, again, how is it that you have not been utterly corrupted by it all, Ms. Dalal? After all, you get to consume all that impure, sacrilegious, and salacious stuff! Shouldn’t you be some kind of monster by now?

How can this inconsistency be explained? The answer to this riddle can be found in the “Third-Person Effect Hypothesis.” Continue reading →

Yes, we pretty much have. That’s the inescapable conclusion following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic First Amendment decision in Brown v. EMA back in June, which struck down a California law governing the sale of “violent video games” to minors.  By a 7-2 margin, the court held that video games have First Amendment protections on par with books, film, music and other forms of entertainment.

The folks over at ALEC asked me to explore what happens next and what steps state and local lawmakers can take in a post-Brown world if they wish to address concerns about video game content. My essay appears in the Nov/Dec Inside ALEC newsletter. You can read the entire thing here or via the Scribd embed I have placed down below the fold.

I argue that, going forward, this ruling will force state and local governments to change their approach to regulating all modern media content. Education and awareness-building efforts will be the more fruitful alternative since censorship has now been largely foreclosed. Continue reading →

For CNET today, I have a long analysis and commentary on the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” introduced last week in the House. The bill is advertised as the House’s version of the Senate’s Protect-IP Act, which was voted out of Committee in May.

It’s very hard to find much positive to say about the House version. While there’s considerable evidence its drafters heard the criticisms of engineers, legal academics, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, their response was unfortunate.

Engineers pointed out, for example, that court orders requiring individual ISPs to remove or redirect domain name requests was a futile and dangerous way to block access to “rogue” websites. Truly rogue sites can easily relocate to another domain, or simply have users access them with their IP address and bypass DNS altogether. Continue reading →

On NPR’s Marketplace this morning, I talk about net neutrality litigation with host John Moe.

Nearly a year after the FCC passed controversial new “Open Internet” rules by a 3-2 vote, the White House finally gave approval for the rules to be published last week, unleashing lawsuits from both supporters and detractors.

The supporters don’t have any hope or expectation of getting a court to make the rules more comprehensive.  So why sue?  When lawsuits challenging federal regulations are filed in multiple appellate courts, a lottery determines which court hears a consolidated appeal.

So lawsuits by net neutrality supporters are a procedural gimmick, an effort to take cases challenging the FCC’s authority out of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has already made clear the FCC has no legal basis here.

Continue reading →

John Perry Barlow famously said that in cyberspace, the First Amendment is just a local ordinance.  That’s still true, of course, and worth remembering.  But at least today there is good news in the shire.  The local ordinance still applies with full force, if only locally.

As I write in CNET this evening (see “Video Games Given Full First Amendment Protection“), the U.S. Supreme Court issued a strong and clear opinion today nullifying California’s 2005 law prohibiting the sale or rental to minors of what the state deemed “violent video games.” Continue reading →