Say you wake up in the morning, after a hard night of partying, surrounded by empty bottles, your hungover girlfriend, and your laptop—with windows open to kiddie porn. How the hell did that get there? What the hell is wrong with you? And what legal conundrum will you find yourself in should the police discover your hoards of mysteriously downloaded child pornography? And if, by chance, you like making fannish vids of The Land Before Time set to Prince music, can you legally claim fair use? Yes.
This is the situation that our hero faces in our magnum opus, “Porn in the Closet,” a musical tribute to the great lyrical prodigy R. Kelly. Check out the original R. Kelly song here. “Porn in the Closet” is a scandalous synthesis of modern legal code and case law governing the legality of internet activity, privacy, and free speech in the United States today.
Allow us to explain the twisted tale of our “Porn in the Closet” protagonist. Poor P. Kelly (the “P” of course stands for “Porn”) wakes up to discover child pornography–for decency’s sake, here represented by Sesame Street characters with censored chests. Police officers who thermo-scanned the house, thinking P.Kelly had a marijuana growing operation, enter P. Kelly’s place with a warrant. Their warrant was unlawfully obtained, however, according to the 2001 Supreme Court Ruling in Kyllo v. United States, which found that thermo-scanning violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unlawful search and seizure. P. Kelly lets the officers in, and they discover the laptop full of kiddie porn hidden in the closet. The laptop was given away by the sound of a Skype call, which we may legally use in our video because this is created for educational purposes and is therefore not a copyright violation, but rather fair use!
While the officers, P. Kelly, and his girlfriend Polly ponder what do about the kiddie porn situation, two DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) Agents walk in. While DMCA agents typically issue take-down requests online, the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is particularly vengeful with protecting his music online. P. Kelly had created fannish vids, splicing footage from The Land Before Time movies with Prince songs. Thankfully, Judge Pierre Leval is on hand to clear up any confusion about transformative work and fair use. Judge Leval is in midget form, an homage to Chapter 9 of the original “Trapped in the Closet.” Our song is, of course, a parody and therefore fair use. Fannish vids are also, in fact, fair use, according to Section 107 of Title 17 of the U.S. Code.
Another knock comes on the door. P. Kelly questions what else he could have possibly done… Did they eat Roger Whitmore, the cannibalized cave explorer in The Speluncean Explorers? Did they hack into SendMail and create a virus, like the worm that wrought havoc in 1990, created by bored college student Robert Tappan Morris? No, we will never know what other internet crimes or gaffes P. Kelly has committed, because our favorite deus ex machina saves the day. Brad Rosen, in all of his glory, brings our tale to a close.
Follow along with our lyrics:
Seven o’clock in the morning And the rays from the sun wakes me I’m stretchin’ and yawnin’ My laptop is there right beside me And I hear her retching from the bathroom Then along comes Polly, she kisses me And unsurprisingly she’s hungover, skank.
– Now I’ve got this dumb look on my face Like, what have we done? How could I be so stupid to have downloaded all this kiddie porn? Must have blacked out last night Oh, what was on my mind? Met on 4chan, took her home Didn’t plan to sing this song
Knock on the door hearin, “Police, open up!” My girlfag looks at me Tells me to delete the kiddie porn Keep trying to close windows
“Kiddie porn move out my way” Police said “We have a warrant” “Open up sometime today!” “Shit think, shit think, shit quick: put it in the closet.”
“Smelled weed last night, Got a warrant to search your place. Thermo-scanned your house, Think you have a growing space.” “Grow weed? What, we don’t do that. That was just my tanning bed.”
You’re not gonna believe it, but things get deeper as the story goes on Next thing you know they hear my laptop with the kiddie porn
“This is child pornography We’re going to have to take you in” “Whoa, this isn’t our kiddie porn Someone else must have put that there. We’re not into that We only watch porn between legally-consenting, and unionized disease-free adults”
I’m telling you now, I wish this was the worst part of my day But then another knock In walks an agent of the DMCA We’re by the closet, like man, what the fuck is happenin’? “We have a takedown request” From the artist formerly known as Prince Is this about my fannish vids? Those were transformative Land Before Time needed a bit of Prince Fair use from section 107 of Title 17 of the US Code A midget said, “Vidding is fair use.” “Oh I didn’t watch it” And I’m like, “God it’s Judge Pierre Leval from the second circuit!”
“Why is he a midget?” “We needed a midget.” She says, “Baby, we’re in deep shit.” Another knock on the door. We stop, all look at each other Like, Who the hell is that We say, “What else did we do?” We need a jailbreak IRL Did we eat Roger Whitmore? Did we hack into mail? The knocking gets louder I pull out my Baretta They pull out their Tasers Said “Don’t tase me bro!” Midget opens the door I can’t believe it’s Brad Rosen…
In a move that seemed almost too ironic to be true, Amazon in 2009 remotely erased George Orwell’s 1984 from thousands of Kindle devices. The web giant’s spokesperson explained the book had to be removed because it was added to the store by a company that didn’t hold the rights to it. Amazon became a sort of Big Brother in the real world even as it erased the character from the digital one. This move and others like it point to a problem that could only increase in scale as we enter into a world where technology occupies a space at the very center of our lives.
People are now moving towards using more centrally controlled, or “tethered,” information devices like smartphones and e-readers in order to increase security and ease of use. But there’s a tradeoff here. The more tethered to the network our devices become, the easier it is for institutions to regulate them and the harder it is for users to tinker with them. Our devices are becoming appliances that, as Internet expert Jonathan Zittrain puts it, “can [only] be updated by their makers and [are] fundamentally changing the way in which we experience our technologies. Appliances become . . . rented instead of owned.” This is the kind of change that allows you to own 1984 one day and see it vanish the next. Companies simply have more control over the products and content they sell you because they can modify and monitor them from afar without your consent.
Where We’re Headed
We’ve become fairly accustomed to tethered appliancization on our smartphones and laptop screens. Soon, this model will make the jump to new kinds of “wearable computing” devices. Earlier this year, Google announced Project Glass – augmented reality glasses designed to overlay contextually relevant information atop the real world. The idea is to get technology out of the way and make it easier to share moments from your life in real-time.
If Google has its way, you might use these glasses for all sorts of things. If you’re a car mechanic, you could wear Glass and have information about what exactly you need to fix displayed right in front of your eyes. If you’re a doctor, maybe you’d use these during surgery to get easy access to important vital statistics without taking your eyes off the patient. Project Glass could also allow you to easily navigate a new city or give constantly up-to-date information during a natural disaster. No matter the use case, this technology would arguably more integrated into daily life than anything that came before it and regulation could take on a whole new level of eeriness. Tethered technologies like Project Glass make surveillance inexpensive and practical for regulators. If the government wiretapping our mobile phones, what’s to keep them from doing the same with high-tech glasses? Surveillance would become less like Big Brother looking down on you and more like a first person-shooter video game. It’s not too hard to imagine that Project Glass might one day become ubiquitous. A government would only need to regulate Google in order to change the way that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, experience the world. While the U.S. might not be willing to go to such lengths, it’s not inconceivable to think that Chinese or Iranian governments would.
Famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen likes to claim that software is “eating the world.” If that is indeed true, its next meal could very well be the auto industry. Google and others are working on a self-driving car that has already been approved in several places, including California. An autonomous car would be a kind of PC in its own right and would take the idea of “tethered appliance” to a whole new level. Car companies could micromanage our driving behavior in the same way that media companies dictate the use of our DRM-protected mp3s and ebooks. Self-driving cars could be forced to self-report to local police upon breaking the speed limit and tyrannical governments could even remotely disable cars or set curfews on their use in order to prevent people from mobilizing. Given that all these “mobile devices” would be connected to the network, the barriers to surveillance would be minimal. All kinds of new questions would arise: who, for example, would be responsible for car crashes? What new, unfair practices could car insurance companies think up? Major policy changes could be implemented as “minor technical adjustments” to code or technology in the car. We would sacrifice full ownership of our cars in the same way we’ve done with PC software and increase regulability for the sake of security (a tradeoff that, as we’ve seen in the PC world, is not always a beneficial one).
Let’s also consider the emerging practice of biohacking – a field that fearless teenagers and experienced doctors alike have shown interest in. To biohackers, computers are hardware, apps are software, and humans are wetware. “Gone are Microsoft’s windows into the digital world, replaced by a union of man and machine,” they say. These hackers see humans as the next frontier for technology and believe cyborgs will eventually become the norm in society. They implant chips into their bodies in order to connect to the network and experience novel things like electromagnetic fields and cybernetic telepathy. If this were to happen on a grand scale, humans would ultimately become tethered appliances themselves. Self-driving cars and wearable computers are layers built on top of the human experience. Biohacking brings technology, and thus regulability, to a far deeper level and forces us to rethink the idea of what it even means to be human. In a scenario where cyborgs do indeed become the norm, governments and companies would be able to regulate our very existence in the same way that they today regulate software, cars, and digital content.
I’m painting a very bleak picture here of a dystopia that certainly won’t come around tomorrow or even in the next few decades. It is, however, important to take the long-view and entertain seemingly improbable ideas – especially in an industry that’s moving so blindingly fast.
A Glimmer of Hope
With its new Kinect, Microsoft seems to be taking a different approach that may help us avoid the freakish future outlined above. While it can certainly help you master your Lady Gaga dance moves or improve your tennis skills, what’s most interesting is what the Kinect can do when it’s not chained to an Xbox in your living room. Developers have gotten their hands on the Kinect and used its advanced sensors and imaging technology to implement all sorts of creative hacks. Microsoft has even endorsed this practice; it set up a $20,000 fund to help companies interested in toying with the Kinect and came out with an ad promoting such innovation earlier this year.
From controlling robots, to enabling virtual fitting rooms, to helping blind people walk, the potential of the Kinect seems boundless. Though the appliance is “tethered,” it allows for a huge amount of generativity. In other words, independent users can tweak it to their own liking and come up with new, inventive ways to use it. Microsoft set an example here that the entire industry should follow. This kind of “hackability” leads to more innovation and will offset the costs of increased regulability that these tethered appliances often bring.
“Imagine the ways we’ll seem backwards to future generations”
Startup expert Paul Graham likes to think up new startup ideas by imagining the ways we’ll seem backwards to future generations. We, it seems, would certainly seem backwards if we abandoned tethered appliances altogether for fear of regulation. The benefits of connected devices are far too numerous to count. In order to maximize their potential, technology companies need to follow Microsoft’s lead and keep platforms open enough for innovation and secure enough to combat malware. Apple doesn’t necessarily have to turn their App Store into the Wild West, but their policies should at least be more transparent. Why, for instance, can’t this developer get his drone strike-tracking app approved? Governments need to meet these tech companies halfway and enact policies that facilitate innovation rather than hamper it. As tech companies grow increasingly powerful, they can serve as checks on the power of abusive governments, but only if they allow users to do a little of the hacking themselves.
Our project was to plan and implement an advocacy and awareness campaign concerning the Stop Online Piracy Act. This piece of legislation, currently being debated in Congress, would place severe restrictions on Internet activities and free speech. The act also restricts Americans’ ability to obtain affordable prescription drugs from abroad. SOPA is the culmination of entertainment and pharmaceutical industry pressure on Washington to place stringent protections on intellectual property, and the resulting draconian measures threaten to undermine the fundamental principles of Internet freedom. The Internet has grown at such an astonishing rate because it has largely rejected harsh restrictions on user activity. SOPA violates the theoretical pillars necessary to the Internet’s functionality, and breaking the Internet in such a fashion would bear negative consequences for individuals and businesses that rely on the Internet’s facilitation of free information exchange.
In formulating our project, we decided that a campaign aimed at students and tailored to their concerns would maximize the effectiveness of our efforts. We thus chose to use Internet and social media based methods of communication, and we concentrated our substantive content on issues most relevant to college students. We did not limit our coverage to these issues though, as we aimed to provide a breadth of information about the bill’s negative consequences. By using social media platforms, traditional media outlets, and two different blogging platforms, we were able to spread our message to many Yale students and provide valuable information about SOPA’s Internet-breaking policies to the campus. We hope the lasting impact of this campaign will not only be to facilitate continuing interest in SOPA’s progress, but also to engender a general sense of vigilance in the form of participatory democracy concerning free speech and Internet regulation that resonates well into the future.
Part 1: Launching a Campaign
Our primary goal of this project was to spread awareness of SOPA and hopefully rally others around opposing it. In order to do this, we tried to appeal to many different groups by using a variety of platforms (Facebook, Twitter, WordPress). We also attempted to broaden our appeal by using satire and humor in addition to more pointed intellectual critique of the legislation. We tried to tap into the very things that SOPA would likely cut into: user-generated content, memes and places where you can share links. While we created a lot of our own content, we also tried to post relevant and interesting articles and sites that others had made. One particularly enjoyable and interesting story involved “The Megaupload Song” that received a takedown request, presumably automated, from some RIAA-related entity (Universal Music Group) because it featured many RIAA artists even though Megaupload (a major file-sharing site) owned all the rights to the video. If you’re curious, the (quite catchy) song can be found on Youtube, and there’s more information here. Also, if you’re into remixes, check out this link.
A major challenge for our group in promoting the anti-SOPA movement was fighting the general Yale apathy and our generation’s apathy that comes with having people constantly inviting you to do things (spamming you). This challenge was exacerbated by finals period, and consequently, we weren’t able to get an Op-ed published in the YDN (as they stop publishing early in December). However, we were able to raise a good amount of awareness as many Yalies hadn’t even heard of SOPA prior to our outreach. Through explaining SOPA’s specific relevance to college students as well as posting some of the amazing articles and content available around the web, we were able to educate (and hopefully inspire) a lot of people.
As of this writing, our Facebook page has 130 likes which is equivalent to about 3 percent of the Yale Undergraduate population. While this number is fewer than we would have liked, we speculate that many people for political reasons and/or page like accumulation effects were reluctant to like our page. However, our Facebook page insights seem to indicate that many people still benefited from and engaged with our content. As we see below, our weekly total reach (the number of unique viewers who saw our content from 12/8/11 to 12/14/11) was 3,303 and peaked at 5,191 for the weak ending 12/12/11. Thus, a large percentage of Yale undergraduates likely read something we posted and learned more about SOPA.
To complement our Facebook and WordPress, we created a Twitter account, @StopSopaYale, to complete our social media approach. The Twitter was useful in that it let us keep a small but interested group completely up to date on every #sopa happening. Additionally, the Twitter account was useful because it let us retweet other people’s views and comments on the SOPA debate. This allowed us to combine other people’s opinions with our own and give a lot of different viewpoints on the topic. The Twitter page was also an interesting foray into trending topics and extremely concise posts, a nice contrast to the more drawn out and in depth arguments of our WordPress blog. Currently, we have 20 Twitter followers and we are on the list of one anti-SOPA advocate.
In our opposition to SOPA we took both the pragmatic path into what specifically the SOPA legislation said and would do immediately (and why their is concern about intellectual property protection) as well as the somewhat hyperbolic path, wherein we demonstrated the absurdity of how broadly SOPA is written and speculated on the potential consequences that SOPA could have. In this way, we provided our audience both with a quick draw in (the two line memes and absurd scenarios depicted in videos) as well as further information if they were interested in understanding the issue on a deeper level.
Part 2: A Creative Approach
In raising awareness within the Yale community about the flaws of SOPA, we aimed to create original content which would specifically appeal to Yale students, both in addressing issues relevant to our audience and by presenting this material in an entertaining form. Thus, we created internet memes, videos, an op-ed for the Yale Daily News, and a blog. Additionally, we wrote an anti-SOPA form letter for Yale students to send to their members of Congress which was tailored to reflect a Yale student’s perspective. Finally, to make all of this content easier to access, we either linked the material to the Stop SOPA at Yale Facebook page or we created static HTML pages for the material with corresponding tabs to our Facebook page.
The use of internet memes provided an effective and engaging way to point out the ridiculous elements of SOPA. In generating our anti-SOPA memes, we drew from internet memes which were already popular and recognizable, such as the Lazy College Senior or Futurama Fry. Thus, Yale students would be able to easily recognize the humor which we aimed to convey. Plus, internet memes can be easily shared and transformed. Consequently, we hoped that our fans would not only share our anti-SOPA memes, but would also craft similar memes themselves. Some topics which our memes addressed were the possible end to interactive websites such as Facebook and Wikipedia, the end to fair use online, and the halting of future innovative online start-ups.
Similar to the internet memes, the videos which we created aimed to point out insensible aspects of SOPA in a humorous way. However, through videos we could portray these aspects in a more in-depth form to help our audience gain a better understanding of the problems created by SOPA. For instance, the video entitled SOPA Courtroom Battle illustrates the extreme changes SOPA will make in criminalizing copyright infringement.
By creating an anti-SOPA form letter, we hoped to encourage students to be active participants in the Stop SOPA at Yale campaign, rather than just passive followers. While creating awareness on campus about SOPA is important, it was equally important to us to inspire a response to the bill. As mentioned above, we tailored the form letter to address the concerns of Yale students. This form letter, with instructions on how to send it, was posted both on our Facebook page and our blog so that it could be easily accessed.
As another form of outreach on campus, our group wrote an op-ed piece to be published in the Yale Daily News. Unfortunately, it was too late in the semester for the op-ed to be published immediately, but it can currently be found on our blog and an updated version will be posted in the YDN early next semester. Like our other creative content, the op-ed piece exemplifies many of the problems with SOPA and the article’s sarcastic, comical tone aims to keep our readers engaged and entertained. Also, the op-ed piece directs our readers to visit our Facebook page, AmericanCensorship.org, and Wired for Change.
The Stop SOPA at Yale blog provides a forum for our group to express our opinions about SOPA extensively and provides a space for our followers to contribute their own viewpoints. Similar to the op-ed, the blogs are written with the goal of being both informative and compelling. Our blog posts touch on a variety of topics, ranging from the different camps of anti-SOPA supporters to the effect SOPA can have on healthcare. In addition, three of our members held a live blog session to cover Congress’ markup debate of SOPA. Through the blog, our group elevates our position in the anti-SOPA movement: not only do we provide a channel of information to Yale students, but we are also contributing to the online voices against SOPA.
Part 3: Becoming a Part of the Action
One of the more interactive aspects that we integrated into Stop SOPA at Yale was our creation and operation of a live blog. After learning that there would be Congressional debate held to discuss the SOPA legislation on Thursday, December 15 (which just so happened to fall in the middle of our SOPA campaign), we realized it presented a great opportunity to add very direct and significant value to our campaign efforts. We would have been foolish not to somehow take advantage of the fortuitous timing of the most defining event to take place regarding SOPA to date. Sooo, we decided to conduct a continuous live blog during the House of Representatives’ Full Committee Markup. For the sake of clarification or if you are not really sure what a markup is, it is “The process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation.”
Up to that point, the majority of our campaign’s content was based upon content published online, in the news, by political commentators, activists, etc. We had yet to really dig deep into the real diplomatic activity and reality of what was actually happening with SOPA on Capitol Hill, or among the politicians who will ultimately dictate the bill’s fate. We knew that by monitoring and providing commentary on the live debate IN CONGRESS, it would add a heightened level of authentic value to our campaign.
The very nature and benefits of maintaining a live blog carried unique advantages that fundamentally differed from the other aspects of our campaign (Facebook page, normal blog, memes, creative scenes, op-ed, etc)….
Live blogging gave us a channel to portray not only our opinions about SOPA and why people should take a stand against it, but also the ability to present a discussion based on the statements made by representatives in Congress to support our previously published content. Furthermore, as proactive “Anti-SOPAs,” conducting this event forced us to seriously pay attention to what is ACTUALLY going on with SOPA in the political sphere. When participating in a public protest, it is very easy to get caught up in the overwhelming flood of public opinion online and in the media. Blogging live on the congressional hearing during which political figures delivered their positions helped us stay grounded.
The main goal of our campaign was to engage Yale students in a compelling way. We believed that a live blog would be (relatively) more captivating (to the extent that a live blog really can be) than other forms of content. Our idea was that a live blog on the Congressional markup would attract more attention to the issues we were trying to convey to the student body. We also realized this would make the substance of the debate more accessible. Essentially, we sought to accomplish two campaign goals: 1) more exposure for our campaign, 2) heightened attention and knowledge to students about the bill itself.
We believe we were able to bring the experience of the House debate in an appealing way to those who may not have followed it live, but wanted to have a taste of what went on. The live blog was an aspect of our campaign that probably linked closest with the “real-life” implications surrounding SOPA. The most fitting conclusion I could provide about this endeavor would be – POLITICAL PARTICIPATION AT ITS FINEST!
Part 4: A Rewarding Experience
Ultimately, we deemed our advocacy campaign a success. As is discussed above, our data shows that our Facebook page reached a large number of individuals, both those inside and out of the Yale community. We believe that we helped further the anti-SOPA cause and exposed the weak points of the legislation. It was especially exciting to be involved with the anti-SOPA activity at this particular stage, when the bill is one of its most hotly debated points. This allowed us to piggyback off of other anti-SOPA campaigns’ publicity and allowed us to run a live-blog of the bill’s mark-up in Congress.
It was an extremely rewarding experience for us all, both in terms of educating others about the dangers of SOPA and learning ourselves about the controversial bill, as well as about other related debates regarding the freedom of the Internet. The project also allowed us to gather (or hone) many different skills using technology that we might have never been exposed to, including creating and running a blog (and live blog), creating memes and other internet videos, writing simple HTML, and using and linking Twitter, Facebook, and blog pages. The project was therefore a perfect culmination of our semester in Introduction to Law and Technology, reinforcing and combining new technological skills with knowledge about current Internet debates that in the future will allow us to be better informed and more active citizens of the Internet world.
As a suite, we decided to write a rap as an educational piece, lecturing small children about the risks involved in hateful speech and defamatory claims against an individual/others. The introduction begins with a terse explanation of defamation in U.S. law and common defenses in court. Transitioning into the topic of defamation per se, the rap speaks about the difference of defamation per se as compared to regular defamation, specifically, that damages are assumed for defamation per se.
Utilizing celebrity cameos, the rap introduces the four specific instances of defamation per se and continues to provide detailed circumstances under which each could be found applicable or a notable exception. Explicitly, the four categories are allegations or imputations injurious to one’s profession, of criminal activity, of loathsome disease, and of unchastity, which is duly noted in the rap’s chorus.
In addition to the four instances of defamation per se, Internet libel laws are also discussed as a means of exhibiting the relevance of defamation laws in modern culture and technology.
We aptly decided to construct this project as a rap song in order to cast the subject matter of defamation into the medium of aggressive hip-hop, a genre which is often plagued with defamation within its context, thus creating a parody of the genre and of defamation itself – allowing us to discuss and commit speech acts that might otherwise be construed as defamatory.
With much serendipity, we invited many famous artists from the hip-hop industry to spit their game on this track. In a surprising turnout, we were able to have featured performances by The Ying Yang Twins, Chris Ludacris Bridges, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Eminem, T-Pain, Dr. Dre, Jamarius Brahamz, Gangreeeeeeen, and Notorious B.I.G. (posthumously). Unfortunately we could not produce a promotional video due to scheduling conflicts and the fact that one individual is currently deceased. Much to our surprise, our producers have signed a contract for another track to be released in the near future. Follow us on twitter @twitter.com/FratCity.
As students at Yale, it is likely you or one of your close friends has spent some time studying abroad in China. While there, it is likely that they circumvented “The Great Firewall of China,” and if they went while as a Yale undergrad, they likely used Yale’s VPN client service to accomplish this. For us, the Great Firewall falls with just a single click and a NetID.
In discussing internet censorship, it is easy to get bogged down in discussions of oppressive government control, Web companies and their compliance/defiance, or the inherent civil rights that may be violated, but the pertinent discussion to have before all of these is: Are these governments actually effective in their attempts to censor the internet?
Reporters without Boarders maintains a list of countries which “censor news and information online but also for their almost systematic repression of Internet users,” and bestows the lovely title of “Enemies of the Internet” to them. On this list currently are: Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Each of these countries have a variety of control mechanism in place and are mostly aimed to limit access to information of political opposition, discussion of religion, pornography, gambling, and site about human rights. To determine the effectiveness of these controls, one must focus on each mechanism, and the ease or difficulty of it’s circumvention. The central tactic is that the government limits the access of the internet to the people, often being the sole provider. They then are able to monitor the activity of all the users in the country and can limit access through a variety of methods, most of which have a work around to circumvent.
IP Address Blocking
Technique: Blocked IP addresses are made inaccessible. This is one of the most popular techniques, and the main one that is used to block specific sites, such as Youtube in China. If an IP address is hosted by a web-hosting server, all sites on the server will be blocked.
Circumvention: Establish a connection to a proxy which has access, such as the Yale VPN. A VPN service has the added bonus of being very secure. Another technique is using a Web to Email service, which emails you the text content of a website of your specification.
Domain Name System Filtering
Tecnique: Blocked domain names, maintained in a registry, will automatically return an incorrect IP or fail to connect.
Circumcision: Input the IP address (try hex and octal if decimal doesn’t work) instead of the domain name, using sites such as NSLookup
Technique: Ceases transmission after or takes away access if triggered by uses of keywords. In Cuba this technique is extended by monitoring word processors, where upon entry of a dissenting keyword the word processor is closed.
Circumvention: Reduce the IP stack’s MTU/MSS to reduce the content of each packet. If the amount of text is small enough to divide up the trigger words, they will not be detected by the program scanning the string.
Technique: Remove specific portals of the internet, such as search engines, making it difficult to find information effectively.
Circumvention: Slowly build up a library of useful domain names and URLs, stumbling from site to site. This one is really annoying to deal with.
As you can see, the effectiveness of these techniques increases when they are used together. For instance, blocking search engines and IP addresses would make it difficult to locate an proxy that would circumvent the IP blocker. However, there is still one tactic that is more powerful than all the rest:
Technique: The most extreme case is presented by North Korea, where in efforts to censor information to the public, only specific government officials have internet access.
With the exception of the North Korean extreme, there still exists a way to circumvent almost every kind of censorship that these governments impose. How then can we treat these acts of censorship as effective? One has to consider the framework of an insider attempting to circumvent from the inside. We enter this problem with all of our prior tech knowledge and tools. Most importantly we know of the existence of sites that may be restricted in other countries, and we are able to search ways to circumvent them. In many of the countries listed above this is not the case, as another one of the main control measures they take is to limit the information about internet circumvention, by the same techniques of IP blocking or packet filtering. New users in these countries don’t have the groundwork we have from time growing up with unregulated access to information on the internet.
This is the true nature of the control of these countries. It doesn’t matter that they are actually effective in censoring the internet, but that they impede the population. For us American college kids, full internet access is a necessity. We need our daily doses of Facebook and Youtube or else we will go into withdrawal. We will find ourselves circumventing these Great Firewalls within a day or two of entering a country that takes removes access from them. It’s likely that the population of these countries just accept some of their lost access rather than going through the risk and hassle of circumventing it. The long term goal is to impede the users enough, continually making it more annoying to circumvent so that eventually new users do not even know it is possible, and gaining that information is just as impossible. At this point the government has become effective in censoring, even though it is not the censoring technology that accomplishes this.
TL;DR: Some governments suck and try to censor the internet with circumventable ineffective means. The true danger is what happens when people stop bother to circumvent these measures, and give in to the censorship.
The border-blurring brought on by the Internet must just be driving oppressive regimes nuts. How are you supposed to control what information people get their hands on when it’s coming from the other side of the globe at the speed of light from people beyond the reach of your thugs and laws? Well, many such regimes have adopted the tactics of similarly-minded paranoid conservative parents who don’t know what to make of the Internet. If the source is beyond their control, they can at least attempt to block it at the point of entry.
This puts the foreign companies providing the content in a bit of a pickle. They don’t want to lose their market share in the country in question, but they (hopefully) don’t want to facilitate oppression either. Or, they don’t want to look like they’re facilitating oppression. In fact, foreign companies are in a better position than citizens of the country in question, since they’re able to use their economic clout to influence policies without the same risks and restrictions that domestic actors face. So, striking a balance between these concerns is of great importance to the success and reputation of the company as well as the human rights situation in the oppressive country. Here are some of the options foreign companies have:
Cooperate & Facilitate
Do whatever the oppressive government wants you to. Stop doing things they want you to stop, and give them the information they demand.
Pros: You get to continue operating in the country. Market share and profit and stuff.
Cons: You’re doing evil, and everyone will hate you for it. You could also get in legal trouble in the US.
Example: Yahoo!, China, 2004. Pretty much the worst possible way to handle this sort of situation. In 2004, the Chinese government released a document warning journalists about reporting on sensitive topics because of the looming 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. Journalist Shi Tao sent a brief of this document to the Asia Democracy Foundation via his Yahoo! e-mail account. The Chinese government found out and demanded Yahoo! hand over information about the sender. Yahoo! did it without even asking what it was for. As a result, Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison. Yahoo! was criticized by everyhumanrightsorganization in the book. Congress investigated the incident, and later reprimanded Yahoo! for not giving full details to them regarding the incident. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) told Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.” Yahoo! was sued in the US on behalf of Shi Tao and another journalist, and they settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. There still exists a campaign to boycott Yahoo! because of this, and I still refrain from using Yahoo! services. Oh, did I mention they did the same thing two years earlier, resulting in another ten year prison sentence for journalist Wang Xiaoning? And were complicit in helping to convict Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun, two other government critics?
Example: SmartFilter, Middle East. McAfee’s SmartFilter software has been used by governments in Tunisia, Sudan, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to block certain Internet content from reaching users. They make no effort to prevent or prohibit governments from using this software, which is allegedly aimed at homes and schools. The software includes a database of more than 25 million blockable websites in various categories. Such filtering databases as well as selective algorithms have been shown time and again to be massively flawed in the categories they attribute to various websites. But, instead of simply inconveniencing a student who wants to research safe sex, AIDS, or religious tolerance (God forbid), it alters the information that can make it to an entire country of Internet users. The OpenNet Initiative also accused Iran of using SmartFilter, though the US’s embargo against Iran would prohibit the sale or licensing of this software to Iran. The company has said that Iran pirated their software. Some say Iran now has its own censorship software. While McAfee doesn’t market their software to oppressive regimes or for the purpose of mass censorship, some selectivity in who they license their software to or the scale at which they allow it to be implemented wouldn’t be a bad idea. It wouldn’t stop governments from pirating it, but at least it would help McAfee from appearing complicit in censorship.
Unfortunately, there are way more examples of this response than any of the responses below.
Set a limit to your capitulation while acknowledging the authority of the host government as set out by its laws.
Pros: You might get to continue operating in the country without giving in entirely. You would also help make it clear that there is a limit to what governments can force foreign Internet companies to do.
Cons: The government might still prevent you from operating there. You might not get the benefit of being seen as standing up to oppression.
Example: YouTube, Turkey, 2007. The Turkish government mandated that Turkish telecom providers block access to YouTube because it hosted some videos that were said to insult Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel of Google, which owns YouTube, decided that Google would block Turkish IP addresses from accessing videos that clearly violated Turkish law. Later, though, a Turkish prosecutor demanded that Google block users anywhere in the world from accessing such videos. This is where Google drew the line, and they refused to capitulate to the unreasonable request. YouTube remained blocked in Turkey until 2010 when Turkey’s Transport Minister, in charge of Internet issues, lifted the ban, proclaiming that “common sense prevailed”. So, despite the dismay and limited success of the conservative elements that demanded the ban, internal pressure and the realization of YouTube’s importance prevailed.
Move Services Out of the Offending Country
The more of a company’s operations that physically take place within the offending country, the more power the government can assert over the company. Partnering with local firms presents similar problems. Locating data storage in particular outside of the country allows in-country users to move their data farther from the reach of their government. There are few examples of companies making this kind of drastic business change, but the choices companies make before starting business in other countries affect their relationship to freedom of speech controversies in the future. For example, Google and Microsoft don’t partner with Chinese companies (though they have their own workers in China), whereas Skype and Yahoo do, and the latter companies have lost much more face in controversies surrounding censorship in China.
Pros: It’s likely that the offending country’s government will block your services anyways, but at least the option is there should they choose to unblock them in the future. There’s also the advantage of preserving your reputation and being seen as not doing evil.
Cons: Your services might very well get blocked. Your local workers or former local workers could face trouble.
Example: Google, China, 2010. When Google discovered hacking attempts targeted at the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, which would put those activists in great danger, they reacted harshly. They announced that they would stop censoring search results on Google.cn, which they had previously agreed to do in order to be allowed to start operations in China. They even went so far as to say that they would shut down their operations in China entirely if the government continued causing problems. While Hong Kong is technically part of the People’s Republic of China, it operates under radically different laws regarding freedom of speech. As is often the case with China’s Internet blocking, the accessibility of Google.cn varies by time and location.
Shut Down Services
No longer offer your services to the offending country and its Internet users.
Pros: You stand your ground, and the offending government will (well…might) think twice before they try to muscle a foreign company again.
Cons: You’re no longer in that country’s market. Whatever limited information or services you were able to provide or would be able to provide are no longer available to users in that country. Your local workers or former local workers could face trouble.
Example: Websense, Yemen, 2009. Websense, like SmartFilter, is web filtering software similar to SmartFilter. Like SmartFilter, it is not intended or marketed to be a tool for government censorship. Actually, it was what my high school used to ban naughty (and not so naughty) things. But, unlike SmartFilter, Websense has an explicit anti-censorship policy under which it “does not sell to governments or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are engaged in government-imposed censorship”. When Websense discovered that the Yemeni ISPs were using their software to implement government-imposed mass censorship, they prohibited Yemeni ISPs from accessing updates to their software.
Ignore the Government
There are a lot of services that presumably carry content that oppressive governments wish to block and have probably requested to have taken down, but controversy rarely arises when companies just ignore those requests. It may be useful to be linked to free speech and democracy movements, as is the case with Twitter. Some users will undoubtably find a way to access your website, and it will be much more valuable to them if, when they get there, there is freedom of speech.
Pros: Like the previous several options, you get some good karma by not giving in to an oppressive government. You remain in control of your content. By not engaging the government, the issue may not go any further, and the government may not end up enraged and looking for a way to get revenge or assert its power.
Cons: You may get blocked. You may get in legal trouble if you ignore government requests.
Example: Twitter. Twitter’s strategy is not even engaging with oppressive governments about getting their website unblocked. They focus more on working on developing ways to circumvent censorship. As Twitter CEO Evan Williams put it, “The most productive way to fight that is not by trying to engage China and other governments whose very being is against what we are about.” By continuing to host politically controversial content, Twitter has become central to many opposition movements. Even though it is at least partially blocked in Iran, many Iranian dissidents communicate using Twitter, and a lot of information makes it out of Iran via Twitter.
I shouldn’t need to explain why it’s bad to help government oppress their citizens. So I won’t. But all too often, the moral repercussions of business decisions like these get looked over because they don’t have overt monetary value. But it’s inextricably linked to reputation, which is inextricably linked to success. Part of Google’s success is that it is seen as not doing evil. In a world where people are increasingly wary of big corporations (see: all those “Occupy” movements right now), it’s important that a company be seen as a friend, not an enemy.
OK. Time to open Pandora’s box. Today’s topic? CENSORSHIP.
The idea of censorship is inextricably linked to the concept of information dissemination through the media, be it through more traditional means such as newspapers and television, or, more recently, new technologies such as the Internet. In any case, the act of censorship is also, by definition, associated with some entity that does the censoring.
The first example of a censoring entity that comes to mind (for me at least) is Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany, before and during the Second World War. This particular governmental entity (an entity with actual, legal executive power over a large population) is often cited as the ultimate example of a disseminator of propaganda and censorship. Where did this power come from?
Ever since the advent of the first electronic media formats, namely film and radio, it has been relatively easy for governments to control the dissemination of information (barring a legal framework to prohibit such behavior, but we will discuss this later). In other words, virtually unquestionable executive authority and capability to fund high-cost, effective propaganda has often allowed governments to be the censoring entity, as in the case of Goebbels’s Ministry. In the past, the same did not hold true of non-governmental entities. Often lacking in funding or power to affect the masses, businesses, organizations etc. were rarely seen controlling information flow.
Today, more than six decades after Goebbels, things have changed. In this digital age, censorship has taken on new dimensions and applications. With the advent of the Internet, government control over the “masses” has lessened, while big corporations, especially in the technology sector (can anyone guess who I have in mind?) can take part in censoring, or prohibiting censoring for that matter.
But before we move on to specific examples of censorship and its implications today, let’s take a look at the legal ideas and framework behind it.
B. Legal Framework
OK. So let’s start with some connotations; Censorship. Media. Information Dissemination. Information suppression. Propaganda. Government conspiracy. Dictatorship. Totalitarianism. I don’t know about you, but none of the above sound really positive to me.
Well, even if you don’t agree, it seems that enough people do since popular opinion holds that censorship is usually bad, excluding certain exceptions. (The links chosen are just indicative; there are many more interesting discussions if one just googles “censorship is bad”). Indeed, most democratic countries have a legal framework (be it in the form of statutes or precedent court cases) that addresses the issue of censorship. In my analysis, I will use only U.S. law, citing specific examples, but the underlying moral and legal principles are more or less the same for all countries.
In the United States, censorship is considered unconstitutional under the 1st Amendment. The First Amendment states that:
“Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press […].”
Thus, any attempt by any entity to censor information in the media can be found to infringe on the First Amendment rights of the publisher, as “freedom of press” is compromised.
The unconstitutionality of censorship was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark decision in 1971, when it ruled in the favor of the plaintiff of a case that would be come to be know as the “Pentagon Papers” case.
2) New York Time Co. v. United States
In the Pentagon Papers case. the executive branch (surprise-surprise) of the US had sought an injunction against the New York Times, to prevent it from publishing a report on the Vietnam War. The report, entitled “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense”, had been leaked by Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg and would humiliate the Johnson administration and the government as a whole if it were published. The Times defended the publication under the First Amendment, leading to a trial that was eventually appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Legally, the Times were in the right; the editors had obtained the material legally, and its publication was supposed to be protected under the First Amendment (freedom of press). Furthermore, the publication of the report would not affect the government’s ability to protect its citizens in any way, so there was no serious argument against publication pertaining to national security.
In a decision which would determine the future of censorship legislation, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had no right to place restraints on the publication of content it sought to suppress, citing Near v. Minnesota: “the chief purpose of [the First Amendment’s] guaranty [is] to prevent previous restraints upon publication.”
3) Exceptions to the Rule
What is a rule without exceptions?
J. Brennan, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court at the time, brings up some very interesting points in his concurrence, concerning specific exceptions where censorship can be tolerated or considered legal.
i) The first and most important exception, Brennan posits, can be inferred by certain past Supreme Court cases, and concerns “a very narrow class of cases”; those affecting national security. Specifically, Brennan mentions that in the instance that “the Nation is at War” or some equivalent situation, “the First Amendment’s ban on prior judicial restraint may be overridden”. But, before it can be overridden, there must be significant “governmental allegation and proof that publication must inevitably, directly, and immediately cause the occurrence of an event kindred to imperiling the safety of a transport already at sea”. In other words, the government must prove an immediate, direct and highly consequential effect on national security. Needless to say, this burden of proof is quite large and not easily met.
ii) The second possible exception (if it can be called that) is the case of obscene material. Once again, this exception arises from another Supreme Court case: New York v. Ferber. The background of the case is not pertinent to our discussion, but the finding is; the Supreme Court held that any material deemed obscene (legally measured by an obscenity standard developed in Miller v. California) can not be protected under the First Amendment. Therefore, any action taken by an entity to censor obscene material is absolutely legal. The reason I mention this rare, peripheral exception now, is that I would like to discuss a modern-day scenario where it applies a bit further down
C. Censorship in the Internet Age
With this legal framework in mind, I would like to discuss four scenarios that have unfolded in the recent past, each of which can help us define the changes in the dynamics of censorship today.
1) Wikileaks: The Richard Stallman of Free Media.
(Please excuse the analogy, but when I thought about the parallels, I couldn’t help but include it).
I start with Wikileaks because it is one of the more clear-cut, legally speaking, situations. In terms of background, the situation differs only slightly from the “Pentagon Papers” case. Indeed, in the “about” page of their website, the editors of Wikileaks directly quote Justice Black’s (also an Associate Justice for the Supreme Court at the time) concurrence: “’only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.’ We agree.”
So what are the parallels with the Pentagon Papers? Well, just like the New York Times, Wikileaks receives its original material legally, by trading for it with secret sources (the methods by which the sources themselves gather the material is legally-speaking completely irrelevant). Furthermore, under the US Constitution, the publication of the material is legally protected by the Freedom of Press clause of the First Amendment.
This being said, there are the aforementioned exceptions to think about. Little if any of Wikileaks’ material can be categorized as legally obscene, so the 2nd exception is out of play. But some of the material released on the site could conceivably have an impact on National security. Indeed, this is the opinion held by many members of the government. But, as Justice Brennan stated in his concurrence, the burden of proof for such a claim would be immense. It would be extremely difficult to prove a direct effect on national security. In the words Robert Gates, former CIA chief: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
In conclusion, barring extreme cases, all Wikileaks material is legally protected under the First Amendment and censoring it is unconstitutional. This is why most, if not all, attempts to persecute the organizations legally have failed (as the editors blatantly boast on their site). In the absence of a plausible case against Wikileaks, prosecutors have alternatively pursued actual leakers (e.g. Bradley Manning), whose acquisition of the material is arguably illegal.
Now for the fun part: the Richard Stallman parallels. While skimming the “about” section of the Wikileaks site, I detected an underlying tone of “rebellion”, for lack of a better description. There was a certain, vague smugness in it, which, to me, suggested a “stick it to the man” mentality. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t for a moment doubt their belief in absolute freedom of press. But at least part of their mission seemed to be fueled by hatred (justified or otherwise) for demonized governments and multinational corporations. Similarly, Stallman has openly rebelled against the big tech-software companies (e.g. Microsoft) by developing the DNU General Public License. And most people would agree that Stallman is at least partly driven by scorn for the big tech companies who “force people to pay for software.
Let’s take it to another level: Stallman’s purpose in creating the GPL was to help software programmers work together and build on each others’ work (promoting the common goal of improving software), without worrying about copyright infringement. Drawing the parallel, Wikileaks editors advocate the cooperation of all media outlets “to bring stories to a broad international readership” (promoting the common goal of complete freedom of press).
These are the most obvious similarities I can think of currently. But I won’t stop here: following is a funny strip from the infamous xkcd webcomic, an obvious exaggeration of Stallman’s ideology: (I cropped part of the comic, as it is irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make; click on the picture to see the original).
And now my own iteration of the picture, rethought for Wikileaks.
2) Baidu-Google in China
One of the most discussed issues in the history of Internet censorship has been the Chinese government’s Internet search engine policy. Baidu, the largest online search engine in China, allegedly censors a huge list of “undesirable” sites and searches at the behest of the socialist government (rationalized as “according to the policies and regulations of China”). This censorship includes any content that criticizes the ruling Communist Party, which has led to a global outcry from democracy advocates worldwide. In this case, the entity attempting censorship is once again the government. However, unlike in the past, the government has no direct control over the information dissemination. It must instead rely solely on its executive power, which should influence the true information disseminators (Baidu) to do its bidding. As a side note, a lawsuit was recently brought against Baidu in the US for unconstitutional conduct in “blocking prodemocracy speech from search results”. This lawsuit piqued my interest because it opens up all manners of questions about the extent to which a Chinese organization can be held accountable in the US. But that is a discussion for another day.
The case was very similar with Google, at least until last year. The search engine giant had also been the subject to Chinese regulation, which meant that it was obligated to filter results and censor certain topics (same as those censored by Baidu). In much the same way as with Baidu, the socialist government relied on its executive power to influence Google’s policy. But Google is different than Baidu in one key respect: it is not based in China. Thus, when it decided to move out of the country and into Hong Kong last year (a move that Baidu would be unable and perhaps unwilling to perform, considering its base of operations is in China), it was no longer obligated to censor search results, since the Communist Party’s executive and judicial reach did not extend over China’s borders. Thus the entity that has the power to disseminate and censor information in this case, chose to ignore the latter power.
3) The Arab Spring
The beginning of 2011 saw many rebellions start and take hold in various Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia etc. These are the first rebellions to take place in the era of the Internet, and indeed the World Wide Web seems to have played a significant role in the uprisings. During the rebellion against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, one activist in Cairo tweeted that “We use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate, and Youtube to tell the world.” Another, humorously tweeted:
As is the case with all rebellions, the local governments wanted to quash the uprisings. Recognizing the significance of the Internet, as well as their own inability to effectively monitor and censor it, some states tried different methods of controlling it. In Egypt and Libya, the government went as far as completely denying access to the Internet as a whole, while in Syria, a government-backed organization severely hacked and defaced several social media sites the rebels were using. These are all, of course, acts of censorship and suppression of the citizens’ freedom of speech, as well as publishers’ freedom of press. Which I guess partly justifies the rebellions in the first place.
4) Google and Child Pornography
I will end on a more optimistic note, with another instance of positive change in the dynamic of censorship (it also relates to the obscenity exception I promised to talk about). In a wholly agreeable step, Google has recently attempted to tackle the problem of child pornography on the Net. It has reconfigured one of its filtering algorithms to recognize and filter certain patterns that are indicative of pedophilic of other such obscene conduct. By practically any and all social norms, child pornography passes any obscenity test, which means that, under the New York v. Ferber precedent, it is not protected under the First Amendment. So, in a sense, filtering such results is not censorship per se, since it doesn’t violate any constitutional rights. Therefore Google can legally exclude all such results from its searches without being sued for suppression of the freedom of press. Once again the entity that has the power to disseminate and censor information has chosen to ignore the latter option. However, this time it is not influenced by another entity (e.g. a government), as it was in the Baidu case, but rather by the social norms (or standard) of the community which would condemn it if it didn’t act so.
The advent of the Internet has radically changed the nature and synamic of censorship in the media. While in the past the censoring entity was usually a government, resulting in propaganda, the Net has ushered in a new era. A government’s ability to censor has been radically decreased, now that it cannot directly control the information flow to its citizens (even if it did control the Internet, which it doesn’t, the sheer volume of information on the Web should make monitoring and control it extremely hard).
So who is the new censoring entity? You got it. Big technological corporations that can control information flow over the Internet: Google, Facebook, Baidu. It is easy to demonize these entities, just as it was easy to demonize the propaganda and censorship conducted by governments in the past. Indeed, who’s to say that there aren’t incentives for these entities to censor (e.g. profit), just as there was for governments (e.g. public opinion). We saw that Baidu is basically a marionette for the Chinese government when it comes to Internet censorship. But this is not always the case; we also saw that Google has both declined to censor material the Chinese government asks it to and tackled the problem of child pornography. Definitely better than if the Communist Party was in charge… Don’t you agree?
In the United States, freedom of speech is the very first protected right listed in the Bill of Rights. As the First Amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Supreme Court has had many interpretations of this amendment over what “freedom of speech” in the First Amendment actually implies. Although one might think of freedom of speech as closely associated with our identity and heritage as Americans and thus a ubiquitously accepted right, there have been several controversial rulings on this issue, especially in cases where one individuals’ freedom of speech might be perceived to infringe on others’ preserved rights (ie: if my freedom of speech to shout fire in a movie theater infringes on your freedom to not be trampled).
Indeed, practically speaking, it is apparent that simply not all types of speech can be tolerated for a society to function. Some forms of speech are accordingly plainly and thoroughly outlawed by US law, such as fraudulent advertising, child pornography, fighting words, words used in a criminal transaction, unlicensed broadcasts, copyright infringement (hello DMCA), libel, slander, and threats, among others. Most of these forms of speech are restricted because they have a compelling government interest: the US government may regulate, or censor speech if it has a compelling interest, is a public concern, or threatens national safety.
For example, it is even considered legal to express certain forms of hate speech as long as one does not actually do the activities or encourage others to do them. However, once these groups overstep their boundaries and their actions can be interpreted as violating a compelling government interest, they can (and have) been regulated. For example, the Ku Klux Klan has been denied certain marching permits (a real tragedy) and the Westboro Baptist Church (which became famous recently for protesting military funerals) was sued for its activities (however the ruling was later controversially overturned on appeal in the US Supreme Court). These examples illustrate that while legal history has defined certain finite limitations on the freedom of speech, courts have ultimately historically held that in order for freedom of speech to exist, it must necessarily be protected to allow the unpopular, offensive, and distasteful.
Background on Wikileaks
The “Wikileaks controversy” is a great example of the tension between this freedom of expression and censorship. Wikileaks (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH WIKIPEDIA) is the name of an international non-profit organization run by founder, editor-in-chief, and director Julian Assange, that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks, and whistleblowers. Since it went online, the site has published an extensive catalogue of secret material, ranging from materials on procedures at Guantánamo Bay, to the contents of Sarah Palin’s private email account. Look at Trigg!!!!
What Assange and his Wikileaks team are doing is technically not illegal under international law nor under various countries’ laws (more to come on this later); nonetheless, several nations (notably Assange’s home country of Australia, China, Germany, Iceland, Thailand, and the United States) have limited access, or in some cases blacklisted and completely blocked all traffic to the site. The United States has blocked access to the site in various government agencies in addition to issuing several other 1984-reminiscient demands. I’m insulted they didn’t threaten Yale. (Although this claim was later refuted by government officials…).
Larry Flynt Reincarnate- Another Champion for Freedom of Expression?
Assange himself believes that Wikileak’s role (and his on Earth apparently) is to expose injustice, not to provide an even-handed record of events. In an invitation to potential collaborators in 2006, he wrote, “Our primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their own governments and corporations.” He has argued that a “social movement” to expose secrets could “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality—including the US administration.”
Many agree that Assange’s work is beneficial and even noble, believing that by increasing transparency of government operations, Assange will ultimately force governments to act in more accountable manners. Calling Assange a “champion of freedom of speech,” proponents of his work believe that Assange provides information that the public has a right to know, and that both international and US efforts to suppress his efforts constitute a significant threat to freedom of expression world-wide. Proponents of his cause believe that the right to freedom of information outweighs the potentially dangerous effects of revealing US military strategy, pointing to the fact that none of the published cables were kept at the highest levels of secrecy, inferring from this that nothing truly sensitive has been revealed. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the “blocking, cyber-attacks and political pressure” directed at the cables’ website from all over the world, and expressed concern at comments made by American authorities “concerning Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange.” “This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency,” RSF said.
Indeed, Assange’s work has been received to some international acclaim, as the Wikileaks foundeer has received a number of awards and nominations, including the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award for publishing material about extrajudicial killings in Kenya and Readers’ Choice for TIME magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year.
Or a Criminal?
However, despite the seemingly good intentions of Assange’s work, his work has had serious repercussions. Some of the information that his organization has published includes confidential military documents that reveal great deals of US strategy and policy. As Wikileaks makes this information publically-accessible, Assange’s work has potentially compromised US national security, essentially placing in danger not only the lives of soldiers who rely on the secrecy of these documents, but also the lives of citizens at home who are now more vulnerable to attack.
Claiming that his information compromises national security, the US Justice Department has attempted to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act, which makes it broadly illegal to compromise national security by interfering with the US military. In 2011, an unknown person in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had received a subpoena regarding the Espionage Act’s “conspiracy” clause 18 U.S.C. § 793(g), as well as the federal embezzlement law 18 U.S.C. § 641, a statute used in some other Espionage Act-related cases. A grand jury has begun meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, to hear evidence and decide whether an indictment should be brought.
However, critics of the legal approach of charging Assange under the Espionage Act argue that the broad language of the Act could make news organizations and anyone who reported, printed, or disseminated information from Wikileaks subject to prosecution as well. This slippery-slope argument might ultimately undermine this attempt to prosecute Assange, as further spinoffs from this type of reasoning might be interpreted as uancceptably limiting freedom of expression (if a magazine publishes an article from a magazine that publishes an article from a magazine that publishes an article from Wikileaks – WHERE DOES IT END!!?!?!).
Has the US acted correctly in its response to Assange and Wikileaks? Should our censorship laws be altered to prevent this type of unwanted freedom of expression? Does their inability to prosecute (as of yet) mean that Assange is without blame?
Yes, no, and probably not. The fact remains that our First Amendment technically protects his right to freedom of expression, and, just like protecting the right to protest military funerals, if we want to stay true to our traditions of maintaing a society of freedom of speech, Assange shoudl not be prosecuted for his Wikileaks-related work. Our censorship laws in this regard, should not be fundamentally changed in order to close a loophole that Assange is seemingly exploiting. Thus, the fact that the US (at best) is proceeding cautiously with charging Assange is the correct response if we wish to maintain true to our traditions.
This does not, however, mean that I believe Assange to be a noble champion of our First Amendment rights. I believe his actions to be wrong, plain and simple. The fact remains that in order for a government to function properly, not all information can or should be transparent. As a citizen, I willingly abdicate my right to know this information, trusting my government to make certain determinations for me. Voting with my feet, I can choose what country to live in, and what government to trust (granted, this is not possible for everyone, but the concept is clear). Thus, Assange’s actions don’t increase the global levels of democracy through transparency of government operations, in my opinion, but rather make the world a more dangerous place for me to live in, as a result of the increased knowledge of the US military’s vulnerabilities.
For my final project for CPSC 184, I created an infographic exploring internet censorship around the world. I used information supplied primarily by Reporters Without Borders, a free speech advocacy group which monitors freedom of expression worldwide. They publish an annual list of “internet enemies” detailing the actions of the internet’s most aggressive censors and discussing trends in online freedom.
I chose to create an infographic because, first, I believe existing infographics on the subject failed to use the medium to its fullest potential and, second, there are many poorly-understood parts of the issue which could be better explained using visual communication. For that reason, I chose to make the centerpiece of the infographic a diagram depicting different ways of circumventing government censorship of the internet. In order to make the, I not only had to research the different ways online communities have found to evade censors (e.g. anonymizers like Tor and proxy servers), but also designed the glyphs used by hand and went through several iterations of the diagram before arriving at the final product.
Additionally, I examined the different kinds of websites governments try to censor and, perhaps most importantly, how they actually go about blocking access. Some particularly interesting findings were the Russian government’s abuse of anti-piracy laws to seize the computers of opposition groups (thanks to Grace for finding that one) and Western IT companies’ willingness to not only follow censorship laws, but to even provide oppressive governments with technology and information which they could use to attack dissidents.
Check out the full infographic by clicking the thumbnail below and be sure to tell your friends about it (especially if your friends live under freedom-hating regimes).
The United States of America is supposed to be the land of the free, where individuals with different tastes and desires can exist in peace, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others, and do all that they agree to do. To me, that is a beautiful thing. It is beautiful to live in a country where individuals can be who they are (so long as they do not infringe on others rights or hurt others). While many groups may not agree with each other, for example, many groups find homosexuals and/or pornographic films depicting homosexual acts distasteful and/or obscene, they are entitled to their opinions, and homosexuals are entitled to engage in homosexual acts, to watch pornography depicting homosexual acts, and to have their own opinions about groups who view them with distaste, even if their opinion is a minority opinion. To me this is a beautiful thing. That is what America is about, freedom for both the minority and the majority to enjoy their own lives to the fullest and do what they want to do no matter what other people think (so long as they are not taking away another person’s rights). This is what makes us a free country, and this is what hundreds of thousands of men have fought, sacrificed, and died to protect.
What boggles my mind given the importance of individualism and protecting minorities in our free country is the recent indictment of Paul F. Little, 50, also known as Max Hardcore, by the United States Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section with five counts of transporting obscene matter by use of an interactive computer service and five counts of mailing obscene matter in relation to 5 of Little’s films, and Little’s subsequent conviction. The ruling was made by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bucklew for the Middle District of Florida on October 3, 2008, which sentenced Little to four years in prison on multiple obscenity charges, and ordered Little to three years of supervised release following his release from prison, to pay a $7,500 fine, to forfeit the obscene films charged in the indictment as well as all gross profits from the distribution of the films and the Internet domain names Little used as part of his business. His company, Max World Entertainment Inc., was also fined $75,000 and ordered to serve five years of probation.
Little’s films involve fisting, urination, vomiting, acts of humiliation, degradation, and portrayal of actors dressed in a way that could imply they are under the age of 18 (although this is kind of ridiculous as children don’t dress scantily clad the way pornography actors do, with skirts 2 inches in length), although all the actors are consenting adults who willfully agreed to engage in the scenes, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition that adults can portray children in films and books.
Max Hardcore’s films are indeed distasteful, but then again many people find BDSM pornography distasteful (which involves many of the acts that Little was accused of), homosexual pornography distasteful, interracial pornography distasteful, or any type of pornography whatsoever distasteful. There are people who view any portrayal of women who are not covered from head to toe in veil as highly distasteful. In fact, many people find movies like SAW- which depict the abduction, brutal torture and murder of dozens of people to be quite distasteful. But we do not indict the makers of the film SAW under obscenity charges, nor do we indict companies that produce homosexual pornography. We respect these various opinions of what is and is not tasteful, but we do not act on them and infringe on other people’s rights to live the lives they want to live, to watch what they want to watch and enjoy what they want to enjoy.
Glenn Greenwald, writer for Salon, says that he believes the verdict is a major blow to our first amendment rights, and in the below paragraph he paints a fairly good picture of the hypocrisy of our government:
“So, to recap, in the Land of the Free: if you’re an adult who produces a film using other consenting adults, for the entertainment of still other consenting adults, which merely depicts fictional acts of humiliation and degradation, the DOJ will prosecute you and send you to prison for years. The claim that no real pain was inflicted will be rejected; mere humiliation is enough to make you a criminal. But if government officials actually subject helpless detainees in their custody to extreme mental abuse, degradation, humiliation and even mock executions long considered “torture” in the entire civilized world, the DOJ will argue that they have acted with perfect legality and, just to be sure, Congress will hand them retroactive immunity for their conduct. That’s how we prioritize criminality and arrange our value system.”