Categorycensorship

Google Streetview in Germany, some thoughts

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A little while ago I wrote a little rant about the fake Streetview Google had launched in Germany, an odd Google Maps & Panoramio hybrid. Eventually that’s about to change: Google Streetview is coming to Germany for real.

And boy, are people in Germany going crazy over this.

On the one hand you have those who thing that having public spaces accessible online is a good thing (including yours truly). One the other you have those who claim that it’s the end of privacy, illegitimate commercialism by a global corporation or that it helps burglars.

These critics spread – or buy into – a hyperbole like I haven’t seen in a long time. They are, I daresay, going absolutely nuts.

Why is this important? Because there’s practically no privacy risk, the burglar argument is completely bogus (not even burglars are so stupid, and statistics show that there’s no correlation of Streetview and break-ins) – while on the other hand a service like Streeview is incredibly useful for all kinds of legitimate uses.

DW-World sums it up nicely:

“Behind all of these criticisms here in Germany is the fear that Google might be too powerful, while being too strange and intransparent,” [law professor] Hoeren told Deutsche Welle. “It’s not really about data collection, telecommunications and privacy and such.”

If you understand German, Mario Sixtus wrote a fantastic piece on the subject. His take: trying to restrict a service like Google, including giving house owners the right to have photos of their houses removed from the service, is an attack on all our rights to the public space.

I couldn’t agree more.

The fact that many media outlets and politicians chime in with the rest of the criticism (or rather, take a lead in the fear mongering) doesn’t make their claims any more substantial or legitimate. Either we protect those rights, or we’ll lose them. And I’d like to keep living in a country where everyone – yes, even large corporations – are allowed to pick up a camera, take photos of buildings* in public and share these photos online.

(*Photos of people are a different matter altogether, but that isn’t what Google is doing here.)

Full disclaimer: I’ve worked with Google before and I’m a member of the Google Internet & Society Collaboratory. I still think that Google’s new stance on Net Neutrality sucks.

Wikileaks, Afghanistan & The New Rules Of Engagement

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As of two days ago Wikileaks has released 92.000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, leaked (most likely) from within the US military. After discussing this with quite a few folks, we all agreed that this will be one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of 2010.

As a former media and political science major, as well as a former editor, this stuff is pure gold to me.

First, what I am not going to go into: the Afghanistan conflict, its sense or legitimation or political implications; or the legalities of this kind of thing: does a leak like this break US law, and would that even be applicable? That’s for US lawyers to decide.

The basics first: What happened? Wikileaks got hold of some 91.000 military documents regarding the Afghanistan conflict, from analyst papers to ground reports. (What is Wikileaks?) Before releasing these documents themselves, they gave them in advance to three traditional news media: New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel (Germany). (All of the links go directly to the Wikileaks specials.) After these media ran their exclusives, Wikileaks went public with the leaked documents, called the Afghan War Diaries:

The reports, while written by soldiers and intelligence officers, and mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details. (…) The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces’ activities. The reports do not generally cover top secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

So why is the Wikileaks story so big? It’s big not just because it’s something new and a huge scoop, but because it touches on so many complex and highly relevant issues:

  • the issue at hand, the conflict in Afghanistan
  • the way the US government handles information
  • … and by extension, the bigger questions of truth & trust
  • the relationship between governments and their citizens
  • the relationship between US government and their allies, and how information flows between them
  • the way media work today
  • the (new?) role that media play today (trust center verifying information scoops rather than gathering them)
  • the way the internet changes politics and media (and how news media not bound to nation states operate under different circumstances than we are used to)
  • Is it irresponsible to leak documents?

For some great background and discussion, I recommend you jump straight to Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both who have great write-ups.

Trying not to repeat to many of Rosen’s and Jarvis’ points, there are a few things I find worth considering.

Truth & trust, governments & citizens The White House was clearly pissed off after seeing the Afghan War Logs emerge. Understandably so, after all those documents will clearly make a dent in the war effort, so to speak. However, legalities aside and assuming the documents are the real thing – the documents leaked are internal military documents. While it’s always painful to be called out on your own mistakes, it’s not job of the media to support certain policies; and it’s most certainly not the job of a whistleblower site like Wikileaks to support any policies. It’s their job to get out information so folks can make informed decisions.

It’s probably part of winning a military conflict to occasionally bluff and put a game face on. But it’s fair game to call that bluff; I’m guessing here, but I’d say that this can happen to a government just like to any poker player. These war reports seem to be such a case where the bluff (“the war is going kinda alright”) is called. The question is: Could the US government – instead of trying to clamp down on Wikileaks and the internal military source – try to make the best of the situation, for example by trying a crowdsourced effort to analyze the patterns of what has been going wrong in the conflict? (Might not work, but should be looked into by some of the smart folks within or around the US government.)

The new role of media What I found particularly interesting is the new role that media played in this case. This is not a case of investigative journalism by the media, but by a third (non-journalistic) party. We are talking about three of the most distinguished media outlets world wide. Yet, they did not get the scoop here, they did not have the sources inside. They were not the address the military sources wanted to talk to. (Why might be a moot question, but an interesting one still. Get back to that in a minute.) Instead, the media were there to a) spread the news and b) verify the information, to lend credibility. They served as a trust center for another organization’s scoop. Once they got the information, the media then did what they do best: sift through the material and make it more accessible, as well as spread the information.

As Jay Rosen put it, referring to a New York Times editor’s note:

“At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.

So, why Wikileaks not New York Times? We can only speculate why the internal source leaked the documents to Wikileaks and not to one of the major newspapers. But there are a number of considerations at play here: First, Wikileaks is much harder to subpoena than any traditional news organization that operates under US (or European) law. Second, Wikileaks is by nature very much distributed. They are a true internet-based, decentralized organization, making it harder to suppress information. Third, Wikileaks is independent, donation-funded, without anyone to report to. This can be good or bad, of course. And on certain topics, a political biased can be assumed. But again, it makes it harder to believe there could be a reason for Wikileaks to withhold this kind of information, much unlike the news organizations that also want to send their reporters into war zones as embedded journalists along the military. Fourth, Wikileaks knows about secure communications. Maybe Guardian, Spiegel and New York Times do too, but a source wouldn’t want to take any risks. Wikileaks are strong on anonymity. They are strong on crypto. They really know how to keep communication channels secure and anonymous. All of these combined make them a more secure place to go to than any single newsroom.

Is Wikileaks acting irresponsibly? One could make the case for either the value of keeping information secret, or for absolute transparency. In a military conflict, that’s a tough one. But it seems to be like Wikileaks is going to great lengths to be as careful and responsible as the overall context allows (once it’s decided to publish leaked info, that is). They are holding back a significant number of documents until further review and clean up (think removing names etc):

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

Giving the documents to some trusted traditional newspapers of making sure the information is getting a decent journalistic treatment, followed by full disclosure of all the source material for extra vetting.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of getting it all right: Responsible dealing with the information as well as working the media right.

Jeff Jarvis raises an interesting point in his post: Will leaks like this incentivize organisations not to write down as much because they fear leaks, leading in the long run to less transparency? I certainly hope not, but it’s not a fear I share. Large-scale organizations need documentation, and where there is documentation there is a chance of leaks.

What I’d hope for instead is that the mere chance of leaks alone will lead to more transparency up front. After all, if an organization is more transparent the chance of getting called out on grounds of hiding information is a lot lower.

We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, if you do appreciate this kind of document leak, I do recommend you consider donating for Wikileaks.

Tech year 2009 wrap up: cloud computing, Android, privacy discussions

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retro future

A couple of days ago I’ve given a short look back at the year 2009 from a personal point of view. Right after, I realized there were a couple more things with a wider tech perspective that I’d like to include – again, more for personal documentation than anything else. So here goes.

Everything went to the cloud We had been talking about cloud computing for a few years, but for me, 2009 clearly was the year The Cloud took off. I moved practically everything to the cloud, and cloud often equals Google these days. My email has been living inside gMail for years, but in 2009 I’ve ditched my email client altogether. Now I’m IMAP-ing browser-based between my computers and my phone.

Everything but my most sensitive documents live in the cloud, especially most collaborative docs. (Again, Google Docs or Etherpad, but Etherpad has also been acquired by Google recently.) My calendars are 100% up in Google Calendar.

Am I happy about this focus on Google? Far from it. But at this point, I see no equally well-executed alternative. For an overview of just how googley 2009 was, head over to Gina Trapani. Also, I recommend This Week In Google, a great weekly podcast with Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis and, again, Gina Trapani.

Still all this is clearly just the beginning. It should be interesting to watch where cloud computing goes in 2010.

Android killed the iPhone (for me) Ok, ok, Android may not have killed the iPhone officially. But ever since I switched to an Android-based phone (HTC Hero), I haven’t felt the urge to get an iPhone. Not a single time. Before I had been playing with the idea, and had always restrained. (I really don’t like the product policy behond the iPhone.) Android is a gorgeous, stable, powerful platform, and it’s all open source. It’s clear to me that while I might change phones a few times over the next couple of years, it’s not likely I’ll be leaving Android anytime soon.

Speaking of open source, 2009 is also the year I ditched Windows for good. I now live a Windows-free live (with a mix of Mac OSX, Ubuntu and Android), and boy, it’s feeling good.

The fight for our data 2009 has also been a year of intense battles in the digital realm, although certainly it’s not the last (or worst) to come. These fights have been along many different fronts, and not all have been going well at all.

In politics, Europe has been covered in conflicts regarding data retention. (German government introduced excessive data retention laws which are now under court review as far as I know.) Also in Germany, the basis for government-run censorship was laid under the pretense of fighting child abuse, search for #zensursula for details. The best German-language resource for these topics is certainly netzpolitik.org, so check them out for more details and updates. Good news, if not a solution to the problem: President Köhler has so far refused to sign the law.

In the corporate world, the conflict lines have been a lot more fragmented and twisted. However, one thing has become clear: Internet consumers will have to make a clear point regarding their expectations in terms of privacy and data control in digital contexts. Be it Facebook and its privacy settings, be it data ownership in other social networks. Important keywords in this field are: Data Portability identification systems like OAuth, microformats or the decentralized social web. (Like so often, Chris Messina is right in the middle of it. Check out the DiSo Project.) The same goes for End User License Agreements (EULA for short). Everybody is so used to just clicking those pages upon pages of legalese away that we’re bound to have a discussion about their use and legitimacy sometime soon. This isn’t new, but hasn’t been solved either, so maybe 2010 will bring some news there.

But worry not, it’s not all lost – these topics seemed to be very niche, and maybe still are. However, everybody in their right mind will come to the conclusion that there’s a line to what consumers have to bear before just moving on to another brand or product. (Even my mom was asking about the insanity of DRM the other day!) It looks like these topics, obscure as they may seem, are getting more publicity and more people to help out. Hopefully we can all collaboratively take some of the load off of the few individuals that have been doing such a tremendous job of raising awareness so far. (You know who you are.)

Obviously I’m happy to be able to end this post on a happy note.

So, again in short: the tech year of 2009 the way I perceived it = year of privacy discussions, cloud computing, Android.

Did I forget anything important? Let me know…

(image source)

Rette Deine Freiheit

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This video is a great (and appropriately biased) summary of the German government laws to censor the internet under the premise of fighting child abuse. Nicknamed Zensursula (pun on the German word for censorship “Zensur” and the name of the minister in charge, Ursula von der Leyen), the plan is opposed by a more and more organized opposition spanning several political parties (and fractions of parties), a lot of NGOs, activists, scientists, journalists, lawyers.

In short: The Zensursula plans won’t help a single abused child, but rather warn the abusers; and the whole project is based on perfectly wrong premises. Example: One of the most-often repeated arguments of the censorship side is that the internet may not be a lawless space – of course it isn’t in the least, all the national laws apply there as well, and are in most cases fairly easy to enforce. While not helping anyone in the least bit, this opens the doors for more classic censorship (think intellectual property rights etc.).

To cut a long story short, this video is spot on. (It’s German, though. If you happen to know a translated or subtitled version, please let me know.)

RetteDeineFreiheit.de from alexanderlehmann on Vimeo.

More on the website: http://rettedeinefreiheit.de.

Iran

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Not to get too deeply involved in Iranian politics which I know comparatively little about. But earlier today I emailed a young woman I had the chance to meet recently at Global Media Forum with a brief question about donations to the NGO she’s involved in. I wasn’t thinking much about it, I just figured donations don’t hurt. When I just got her result, I was shocked – while I was thinking about such mundane things as money, these young people are struggling for at least futures.

I’m not sure I should be quoting from this email, but these lines feel so intense I think they better speak for themselves.

“Up to now, since election, most of us are talking and thinking about election results, street demonstrations, arresting people … we had a terrible shock and we got thrown among lies. We are still so sad and angry. We have to overcome our problems,” she said among many other things, “and we shall, but we need time.”

Around them, chaos is raging, and this young woman takes the time to reply to my email, to share her thoughts and to explain herself. The odd thing is – she’s an extremely brave young woman, but she’s like one of us, she could be a geek from around the corner. I don’t know what to say.

(Boingboing has a list of things to do for Iranians.)

Net Censorship in Germany: Confirmed

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Censorship sucks

It’s a sad day for Germany, and an infuriating one. The law hasn’t passed yet, but the major parties have agreed (Netzpolitik.org, in German) to introduce net censorship in Germany. It’s all under the pretense of protecting children against abuse, but the draft of the law clearly shows that it will neither protect children nor put a limit on the distribution on videos of child abuse. It also shows how badly an unhealthy mix of under-informed politicians and overly symbolic politics can go wrong.

The German government will censor the internet. What country am I living in?

I am seriously stunned as I’m writing this. How could this come about? Von der Leyen, the conservative Secretary of Family Affairs, pushed this piece of legislation hard and actually managed to get not just her party (CDU) but also a large chunk of the German Bundestag to agree to legislation that clearly they haven’t read don’t understand the scope of, mostly by using harsh rhetoric and fake statistics, pretending she knows how to fight child abuse. Never mind that even conservative newspaper Handelsblatt stated: It’s official, von der Leyen has lied. (Some conservative politicians as well as lobbyists have already stated that other content – copyright infringements, gambling, violent games – should also be considered for blocking.)

Personally, this troubles me on several levels. These laws clearly intrude my private life as someone whose private and business life revolves around the net to a large degree. Also, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) had the chance to stop this madness by withdrawing support and didn’t – despite a wing within the party strongly opposing the whole censorship project.

I’m an adviser to the online youth election campaign of SPD. Panorama3000 and I organize the online campaign for Jusos, the SPD’s youth organization. (The Jusos oppose censorship plans; former head of Jusos Björn Böhning lead the intra-party stance to stop the censorship plans.) Both on a personal level and as a campaigner I must say agreeing to this legislation hurts democracy in Germany, and the ongoing election campaign.

To clarify, and as full disclosure: I will continue to support Jusos in the election campaign; I still think SPD is one of the very few sound choices in the upcoming elections (the Greens being the other), but that’s a personal choice. The thing is: We all need to make it clear that we oppose censorship. This is not something that just affects the geeks and nerds. This affects all of us.

How could we get to this point? This is ridiculous.

Update: Thomas Knüwer of German newspaper Handelsblatt has some comments on this issue: Dammbruch im Internet (de)

Petition Against Internet Censorship in Germany (FTW!)

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In Germany, some odd stuff has been happening lately. It’s a fairly complex topic, and the whole discussion is happening in German, so I’ll keep it really short: Top-level politician Ursula von der Leyen (Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth) is trying to introduce large-scale censorship in Germany, thinly disguised as an anti child pornography (CP) measure. It’s symbolic (if not fake) politics at its best: No chance to solve the problems at hand, but guaranteed to do a lot of damage. A nasty mix.

So you can imagine how happy I was when a petition to the parliament to prevent this law was put up on the German Bundestag’s e-petition site and got more than 10.000 supporters – within hardly 12 hours. Now there’s about a month until we need to get 50.000 supporters, then the parliament would be forced to listen to the petitioners. Given the surge of support in the little time, I’m confident this will work out.

CP is a heinous crime, and should be fought effectively wherever possible. But what she plans is ridiculous, ineffective, and dangerous: A blacklist of domain names, secret and without any oversight whatsoever, to be filtered by ISPs on a “voluntary basis”. Whereas “voluntary” means choosing between agreeing or being outed as a supporter of crimes against children.

Needless to say, IP filtering is too easy to circumvent to prevent any crime, or even the access to this kind of content. It’s completely ineffective & inefficient. What’s worse, this seems to happen instead of cracking down on the criminals who run the CP rings. (Some recent studies have shown that most CP rings are based in Western countries like the U.S., Sweden and Germany with strong laws to fight CP, and that the police isn’t really maxing out these laws yet. In other words: A test by Childcare showed that it’s actually fairly easy to shut down CP providers without any kind of filtering. This needs to be the first step.)

The opposition to these plans have been acting under the common tag Zensursula, a pun on the word censorship (“Zensur”) and the ministers first name (“Ursula”). Experts of all fields agree that these plans are complete crap. Even the Minister of Justice criticizes von der Leyen’s plans as probably anti-constitutional.

Putting these domain filters into place – with no oversight by judges, parliament or any independent jury – is the most dangerous thing I’ve seen in the German political sphere in a long time. Ursula von der Leyen is now trying to put her project on a legal basis. (What’s even worse, she gives contradictory, if not misleading information about the extent of her plans.)

It’s important that the politicians learn about this issue. I sincerely believe that the support for this whole internet filtering idea act on the best intentions. But a lot of them simply & clearly don’t have the technical background to understand what’s going on. How we could end up in this weird situation I simply cannot grasp. (Hello, staff, how about a decent briefing for your boss?) But now it’s important to stop this craziness.

Also, it’s clear that once these censorship tools are put in place, it won’t stay about CP for long. Others, most notably the Intellectual Property interest groups, will try to get in on the game, too. Dieter Gorny, the spokesperson of the German music industry has already expressed their support of the plans as a good first step towards better protection of intellectual property, read: he looks forward to also filtering supposedly pirated music. This is blunt, insensitive, and of course he’s not in any position to demand internet censorship to protect his industry’s interest on the expense of basic democratic rights like free, unlimited and uncensored internet access.

If you speak German, Netzpolitik is the best source for info on the topic. If you’re eligible to vote in Germany, you can sign the petition against censorship.

So this turned out much longer than intended. But yes, it’s that important. And that insane.