News

net.wars: The democracy divide

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 June 2011


Good news: the Travel Security Administration audited itself and found it was doing pretty well. At least, so said Kimberly Walton, special counsellor to the administrator for the TSA.

Wendy M Grossman

It's always tough when you're the raw meat served up to the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy crowd, and Walton was appropriately complimented for her courage in appearing. But still: we learned little that was new, other than that the TSA wants to move to a system of identifying people who need to be scrutinized more closely.

Like CAPPS-II? asked the ACLU's Daniel Mach? "It was a terrible idea."

No. It's different. Exactly how, Walton couldn't say. Yet.

Americans spent the latter portion of last year protesting the TSA's policies – but little has happened? Why? It's arguable that a lot has to do with a lot of those protests being online complaints rather than massed ranks of rebellious passengers at airport terminals. And a lot has to do with the fact that FOIA requests and lawsuits move slowly. ACLU, said Ginger McCall, has been unable to get any answers from the TSA except by lawsuit.

Apparently it's easier to topple a government.

"Instead of the reign of terror, the reign of terrified," said Deborah Hurley.(CFP2001 chair) during the panel considering the question of social media's role in the upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia. Those on the ground – Jillian York, Nasser Weddady, Mona Eltawy – say instead that social media enabled little pockets of protest, sometimes as small as just one individual, to find each other and coalesce like the pooling blobs reforming into the liquid metal man in Terminator 2. But what appeared to be sudden reversals of rulers' fortunes to outsiders who weren't paying attention were instead the culmination of years of small rebellions.

The biggest contributor may have been video, providing non-repudiable evidence of human rights abuses. When Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali blocked video sharing sites, Tunisians turned to Facebook.

"Facebook has a lot of problems with freedom of expression," said York, "but it became the platform of choice because it was accessible, and Tunisia never managed to block it for more than a couple of weeks because when they did there were street protests."

Technology may or may not be neutral, but its context never is. In the US for many years, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has granted somewhat greater protection to online speech than to that in traditional media. The EU long ago settled these questions by creating the framework of notice-and-takedown rules and generally refusing to award online speech any special treatment. (You may like to check out EDRI's response to the ecommerce directive (PDF).)

Paul Levy, a lawyer with Public Citizen and organizer of the S230 discussion, didn't like the sound of this. It would be, he argued, too easy for the unhappily criticized to contact site owners and threaten to sue: the heckler's veto can trump any technology, neutral or not.

What, Hurley asked Google's policy director, Bob Boorstin, to close the day, would be the one thing he would do to improve individuals' right to self-determination? Give them more secure mobile devices, he replied. "The future is all about what you hold in your hand." Across town, a little earlier, Senators Franken and Blumenthal introduced the Location Privacy Protection Act 2011.

Certainly, mobile devices – especially Talk to Tweet – gave Africa's dissidents a direct way to get their messages out. But at the same time, the tools used by dictators to censor and suppress Internet speech are those created by (almost entirely) US companies.

Said Weddady in some frustration, "Weapons are highly regulated. If you're trading in fighter jets there are very stringent frames of regulations that prevent these things from falling into the wrong hands. What is there for the Internet? Not much." Worse, he said, no one seems to be putting political behind enforcing the rules that do exist. In the West we argue about filtering as a philosophical issue. Elsewhere, he said, it's life or death. "What am I worth if my ideas remain locked in my head?"


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).