During the 2011 Arab Spring, it was clear to those who bothered to look, that the US State Department and the various arms of soft power attached to it were directly responsible for what was otherwise initially passed off as a spontaneous, region-wide uprising.
Eventually, what was dismissed as “conspiracy theory” regarding the US-backed nature of the uprising, was finally admitted to by the New York Times in an April 2011 article titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” which admitted that:
A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The New York Times would go on to admit direct ties between the above-mentioned organizations and both the US Congress and the US State Department.
The article would also admit:
Some Egyptian youth leaders attended a 2008 technology meeting in New York, where they were taught to use social networking and mobile technologies to promote democracy. Among those sponsoring the meeting were Facebook, Google, MTV, Columbia Law School and the State Department.
The 2008 meeting wasn’t the only one. And, as it would turn out, Facebook and Google’s role in preparing the ground for the Arab Spring, quite literally years before the “spontaneous” protests erupted, was much more complicated than merely being sponsors of a single event in New York.
Hillary Clinton was serving as US Secretary of State both during and in the lead up to the Arab Spring. She even attended via teleconference one of these “technology meetings” briefly mentioned by the New York Times.
Also attending the meetings were actually staff from the US State Department and various staff from both Google and Facebook. Also in attendance were members of the US media. In other words, the event was not only sponsored by the US government and these two tech-giants, it was organized and conducted by them as well. Their event program (PDF) makes this abundantly clear.
The purpose was clearly to create a unified network combining the US State Department’s direction, the tech-giant’s technical capabilities, and influence of the US media together to overwhelm the information space when finally the time came for the Arab Spring to unfold. And overwhelm it did. The governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya fell, with violence and even war breaking out in the latter three, while Syria to this day remains engulfed in violence that began in the wake of the 2011 operation.
More recently, e-mails leaked from then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reveal further details on just how close the tech-giants work with the government. Some could even say they are an extension of the government.
A CBS article titled, “Clinton Emails Show State Department’s Close Relationship With Google,” reveled that:
The latest release of emails sent to and from Hillary Clinton’s private email server reveals a close relationship between Google and the State Department.
A 2012 email recently uploaded onto Wikileaks’ searchable archive came from Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, who formerly worked as an advisor to Secretary Clinton, indicates that Google wanted to help bolster support for those who defected from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military.
It also showed that before launching a “defection tracker” Cohen wanted the State Department to weigh in on the idea and potentially provide feedback.
Not only does the leak expose what appears to be a revolving door between the tech-giant and the US State Department, but it exposes the fact that regardless of who is working where, Google was working in tandem with the State Department. Cohen was actually listed in the above cited event program as Policy Planning Staff of the Office of the Secretary of State meaning that before moving to Google he was working with Google to undermine various foreign governments, and continued to do so after he moved from government to the private sector.
Just Warming Up
Google and Facebook are still very much engaged in information warfare for the US government and the special interests that it serves. Likewise, the US State Department is still very much in the business of subverting foreign nations by recruiting, training, equipping and directing collaborators from targeted nations.
Facebook, for example, has expressed plans to get everyone on the planet on the Internet. The seemingly humanitarian mission is in all actuality an attempt to get the world on Facebook, which through its algorithms and ability to censor, ban and delete accounts at will, would virtually control what the world saw and didn’t see.
More forward-thinking states like Russia and China have noted this reality of the 21st century battlefield and have responded by creating their own domestic versions of Google and Facebook. An arms race of sorts has begun between these competing services both in terms of reach and capabilities for everything from artificial intelligence deep learning algorithms to the ability to control and influence the flow of information over and within borders.
Tech-centric US-funded nongovernmental organizations have begun to spring up alongside their traditional US-funded collaborators in nations around the world, specializing in doing many of the sort of workshops initially conducted by the US State Department, Google and Facebook before the Arab Spring. For nations either not aware of this or incapable of responding to this threat, it could be comparable to a new weapon of war taking to the battlefield one has no defense to or anything which which to strike back with.
This threat will only increase, with the “information war” becoming more and more literal as advances are made in information technology. The US is openly using information technology to augment its hegmonic ambitions around the world, with e-mail leaks confirming what many have already suspected all along. What is more worrisome is the collaborations and technologies being used now that are not being disclosed or “leaked.”
For nations around the world, raising literacy in terms of information technology and the threat it poses can help inoculate their populations from the overwhelming nature of foreign-backed operations like the Arab Spring. By creating and cultivating a domestic information technology sector and recruiting talent before the US does, creating competitive services like Russia’s VK and China’s Baidu not only serves as a means of improving and diversifying one’s economy, but can also serve as an important pillar of national security in the 21st century.
The media-as-public-relations-machine was in full swing last week, abuzz over Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s public letter to their daughter that contained a $45 billion pledge to establish the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The mainstream media produced an avalanche of praise. “Mark Zuckerberg Philanthropy Pledge Sets New Giving Standard,” announced Bloomberg Business, who declared that Zuckerberg and Chan were “setting a new philanthropic benchmark by committing their massive fortune to charitable causes while still in their early thirties.” From the Wall Street Journal came more praise: “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan to Give 99% of Facebook Shares to Charity.”
But when BuzzFeed revealed the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was not a nonprofit, but a for-profit Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), which has no obligation to actually engage in charitable activity, the tenor of some of the commentary became more negative. Was the donation to a Delaware-based LLC nothing more than a way to duck California taxes?
The truth is that both nonprofit and for-profit charities can and do serve as tax shelters for the obscenely wealthy. Non-profits themselves have few restrictions around them, and only require that 5 percent of a foundation’s assets each year be spent towards its stated charitable goals, including expenses and lobbying.
Still, in the last few years we’ve seen the growth of ventures like Google.org, the charitable but largely for-profit division of Google created in 2006 with $900 million worth of Google stock. Freed from the even the limited guidelines to which nonprofits are held, some of the projects Google.org has poured money into have happened to also generate mountainous profits for Google.
For example, the One Laptop Per Child initiative’s stated mission to get $100 computers into the hands of “each and every one” of the world’s poorest children also captures lucrative data from millions of new computer users in almost entirely untapped markets.
Similar to Google.org, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative chose a form that would allow them to invest in profit-making initiatives, including ones that could bring new profits to Facebook. Chan and Zuckerberg’s pledge to give everyone on earth access to the Internet, like the One Laptop Per Child initiative, will both provide real services for a great many people while simultaneously creating millions of new potential Facebook users (although they do perhaps overstate with the claim, “If our generation connects them, we can lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty”).
At the same time, Chan Zuckerberg can take advantage of their status as a tax-qualified charity to save huge sums of money. As Forbes observed:
This generosity is also incredibly tax efficient . . . Donating appreciated stock is a much better tax move than selling it and donating the sales proceeds. After all, by donating the stock, the gain he would have experienced on selling it is never taxed . . . since [Chan Zuckerberg] is a tax-qualified charity, if it sells the stock it pays no tax regardless of how big the gain. And since Mr Zuckerberg will get credit on his tax return for the market value of what he donates, he can use that to shelter billions of other income.
Of course, sizable donations to charity frequently receive glowing press coverage which is also quite valuable. The transformation of Bill Gates’s reputation — Zuckerberg’s childhood hero — after creating the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is instructive.
Throughout the 1990s Microsoft’s hyperaggressive business practices resulted in a 2000 Justice Department verdict that Microsoft was a monopoly. Several billion dollars in fines from myriad US and European regulatory bodies followed and Bill Gates was widely painted as a bully in the popular press.
The PR turnaround afforded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation might be the most effective — and expensive — in history. Today Bill Gates is treated by the media as an important thinker in the fight against disease and the debates around education reform. He is regarded as a humanitarian with something to say about making the world a better place, a regard that stands in contrast to his actual commitments.
Since the early days of Microsoft, Gates has ardently supported patent law and its enforcement, which puts medicines out of reach for most, particularly in the Global South. He has also thrown millions at a host of education initiatives that are so anti-teacher that the American Federation of Teachers recently announced they would no longer take money from the Gates Foundation.
Zuckerberg has already attempted to use a big donation to improve his reputation and that of Facebook, which has repeatedly been caught capturing private information with the intention to monetize it. His $100 million donation to charter schools in Newark was timed just weeks after the release of the Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network, and right before the release of charter school booster documentary Waiting for Superman. Time will tell what this latest attempt at reputation management does for Zuckerberg’s public standing.
Everyone has ideas about how the world should be different and those with vast fortunes have an inordinate amount of power to realize those visions. Sometimes the vision is for a cause like fighting malaria or providing homeless shelters. Other times it’s more self-interested, like when Bill and Melinda Gates put Windows computers in high schools, keeping Macs out and training a generation to use Windows machines.
More importantly, the concentration of so much power and reach in the hands of billionaire philanthropists presents real problems for democracy. Every dollar a billionaire realizes in “tax savings” is a dollar starved from the public coffers. The tens of billions Zuckerberg would pay in taxes could go a very long way to, say, enhancing the $69 billion budget allocated for public education this year.
While the US government is certainly not a bastion of democracy, there are at least formal mechanisms that put tax-based, public funding in the realm of democratic decision-making. There are public budget proposals, hearings, and votes, and elections through which we can attempt to hold politicians accountable for their actions. We’ll most likely only have a vague idea what is happening with the money controlled by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; their LLC status will allow them to avoid making many tax documents public.
These sorts of charitable enterprises give even more control to capitalists — who already have outsized influence in our society — putting them in positions to make decisions that increasingly shape public life for all of us. People like Zuckerberg and Gates are unelected and unaccountable to anyone and face few, if any, repercussions for the negative consequences of their social experiments.
Zuckerberg’s education initiative exemplifies this outsized and damaging role. Despite his limited personal experience with public school — he attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard — Zuckerberg has begun to commit serious sums of money to reforming public education. His signature donation was $100 million to replace Newark’s public schools with charters. Working with former Newark mayor Corey Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie, the goal was to completely transform Newark’s schools in five years, and turn them into a model for restructuring other districts across the country.
In order to achieve reforms quickly, they had to bypass the process of public engagement. Free from the constraints of government deliberation, the plans of the nonprofit foundation were not made public until after key decisions had been made. Newark residents first learned about the program the afternoon Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg announced it on Oprah.
Once the foundation was established, seats on its board were awarded to those who contributed more than $5 million. “A local philanthropist offered $1 million,” reported Diane Ravitch, “but he was turned away because the amount was too small.”
The Newark experiment was a resounding failure and did little more than line the pockets of consultants. Test scores didn’t rise considerably, teachers resisted merit pay, and the woman hired to run the district refuses to attend School Board Advisory meetings because they are still too hostile. The debacle still follows Zuckerberg. Last week, many of the most glowing reports of his $45 billion donation had to mention his previous philanthropic endeavor.
Zuckerberg has continued to make investments in education since Newark, claiming he’s learned from the experience and wants to improve. Still, he’s just one relatively new player in the education reform movement.
The Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to restructure the US public school system, with $200 million going to Common Core — a curriculum initiative opposed by educators and parents across the country. Eli Broad Foundation has also spent lavishly — including a nearly $500 million plan to put half of Los Angeles students into 260 new charter schools. The Walton Foundation has spent over $1 billion supporting charters and vouchers.
The war on public education by the ultra wealthy — using tax-sheltered dollars which otherwise might have gone to improve public education — reveals a deep hostility to democracy.
We should demand better: Instead of waiting to see how his charity will impact our lives, Zuckerberg’s wealth should be put under democratic control, so we can collectively decide how it can be used to improve society.
The Western media has quietly ignored an unexpected collaboration between Washington, Google, and “independent” Al Jazeera aimed at helping to overthrow Syria’s Bashar Assad. Would they be as oblivious to a similar cozy “partnership” involving Russia?
Last Monday, WikiLeaks lifted the lid on a correspondence between Jared Cohen, the President of ‘Google Ideas,’ and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s staff in the summer of 2012. In his July 25, 2012 email to top State Department’s officials, Cohen pitched his about-to-be-launched “tool” to Clinton’s inner circle, asking it to “keep close hold” of it.
The leak revealing the project, which would seem to be an outrageous scandal to some, has actually been quite difficult to spot in the news. Since WikiLeaks released the latest batch of Clinton’s emails on March 21, a Google news search spits back about 30 web sources related to the story.
Of those, only two – The Independent and Daily Mail – could arguably be considered major mainstream media outlets. That means there were slim chances that the eye of an average newsreader would catch wind of the State Department’s teamwork with the US’ biggest tech giant, Google, and Arab media outlet Al Jazeera.
According to what Cohen wrote, it appears that Google’s innovative visualizer worked to “publicly track and map the defections in Syria and which parts of the government they are coming from.”
“Our logic behind this is that while many people are tracking the atrocities, nobody is visually representing and mapping the defections, which we believe are important in encouraging more to defect and giving confidence to the opposition,” he said.
Google also collaborated with Al Jazeera, which took primary ownership over the tool, because of “how hard” it was to get information out of Syria.
At the State Department, the idea was lauded and passed on to Clinton via her private email by deputy chief of staff Jake Sullivan as “a pretty cool idea.”
RT asked media expert Lionel why the revelations failed to receive much attention in the Western media.
“I don’t expect a reaction from Western media because Western media hasn’t even read this, has no idea about this,” Lionel told RT. “But can you imagine if the same set of facts were involved with the different countries, different corporations around the world depending upon your frame of reference. This would either be an outrage or ‘well, maybe this is a delightful and benign cooperation, an independent tech giant… and all for the common good of liberty’ and whatever. It depends upon your perspective.”
Another curious aspect is the fact that the WikiLeaks release directly involved Clinton’s email, which has been a hot topic tainting her presidential campaign for a year now. Clinton’s opponents as well as the US media have been taking nearly every opportunity to poke her for her “careless” misdeed – with the notable exception of this story.
The three parties in this collaboration did not end up together by chance, either.
Funded by the Qatari government, Al Jazeera portrays itself as “the first independent news channel in the Arab world” and “one of the world’s most influential news networks,” whose main goal is it to give “a global audience an alternative voice.”
Qatar has been largely supporting the rebels in the Syrian conflict, along with Washington and other anti-Assad powers that even mulled launching a direct military intervention on Syrian soil last October.
It turned out that Google’s Syrian Defector Tracking was a good fit for Al Jazeera. It even ended up winning the channel a prestigious Online Media Award for “Best technical innovation.”
“This is going to show you very fascinating aspects of the new warfare – how media, and corporations and various platforms are merging together. We are not sure who the military is, who is the government,” Lionel said.
He suggested that the State Department’s reluctance to release Clinton’s emails could be explained by the intention to hide “the conflation of allegedly private industry with the government.”
“We have this new world here. We have the government and we have the Pentagon, DAPRA and defense advanced research program agency, we have private industry, we have these various platforms. We have this new introduction of mercenary groups and private contacting teams. [But] our country [the US] has had a very strict barrier, Posse Comitatus, that separates private law enforcement from military,” Lionel said. “There have always been distinctions and barriers and jurisdiction alliance. In this new world, these barriers are being eliminated, dissolved.”
As Lionel says, the collaboration between Google and the US government only seems to be “innocent” if there is a bias towards “who you like… and the information that’s being propagated.”
When contacted by RT, Google declined to comment on the situation, yet did not hesitate to proudly stress Al Jazeera’s achievement.
“No comment, but pointing out that this data visualization project was very public, Al Jazeera won a journalism award for it,” the tech giant said in an email.
Given these circumstances, it would not hurt to wonder what the Western media’s reaction might have been if the same collaboration had occurred across the ocean and involved, let’s say, the Russian government, a well-known media outlet, and a Russian internet giant.
Since its inception in 2005, RT has often been labeled as anything ranging from a “Russian propaganda machine” to a “propaganda bullhorn” by high-profile Western officials and politicians.
“If RT wanted PR in American media, this is exactly the move it should make. You would never hear the end of that on American media,” Ted Rall, a political cartoonist and author, told RT. “You really don’t have a right to call anyone a propaganda if you yourself is doing the same thing.”
As for Al Jazeera’s prize winning tool, it appears to be currently defunct for unspecified reasons.
The US government and a handful of corporations working under US jurisdiction have a disproportionately strong influence on the internet. So other countries are mulling ways to protect their web sectors, the Russian communications minister told RT.
“Today, if you have a look at the whole IT global system, you will see that the whole world… is actually totally dominated by a single country and literally by several companies, which have practically monopolized the entire IT system,” Nikolay Nikiforov said.
The issue is not only about market shares of tech giants such as Google and Facebook, but also about the US government’s control of critical elements of the internet’s infrastructure, he said.
One small example is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which assigns internet domain names. In 2014, the US pledged to hand over control over it from the US Department of Communications to a multi-stakeholder collective, which would include governments, companies, international organizations and individual users. The transition was scheduled to happen in September last year, but was postponed for at least a year.
“This didn’t happen for some reason, and many reasons were voiced. I believe them to be pretty far-fetched,” Nikiforov said.
“With this prolonged monopolization, many countries in the world are working on technical solutions that would protect national segments of the internet from a possible external destructive action. They are creating backup infrastructures, which respond to a disruption – intentional or accidental – and prevent national segments from being blocked,” he added.
The minister said Russia is among the countries heavily investing in the internet and naturally wants to protect this investment.
The issue is not theoretical for Russia. As part of the US-imposed sanctions, several American companies suspended their services in Crimea, which seceded from Ukraine in response to an armed coup in Kiev and rejoined with Russia. Washington called the move illegal and targeted individuals and some sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions.
Google, Apple, PayPal and others cut Crimea from their services. This affected tens of thousands of people, who could no longer properly update the software for their phones, buy apps, use electronic payments for online products and do other basic things.
The minister was speaking in Egypt, which he is visiting to foster business ties. He said Russia and Egypt have agreed to have mobile operators to cut down roaming tariffs, which would benefit Russian tourists visiting the North-African country.
“It’s no secret that overpriced roaming is the reason why many travelers simply don’t use their phones abroad. We are trying to make this problem go away for Egypt and Russia,” he said.
The agreement indicates that Russia may soon lift restrictions on flights to Egypt, which were imposed after a terrorist bomb last October destroyed a plane carrying Russian tourists home from Egyptian resorts.
No Chinese Spring
BEIJING – Foreign companies will be banned from publishing online in China from March 10, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said in a joint statement Friday.
“Sino-foreign joint ventures and foreign businesses shall not engage in online publishing services,” the regulations state.
The rules apply to “informative, ideological content text, pictures, maps, games, animation, audio and video digitizing books and other original works of literature, art, science and other fields.”
Joint projects are required to apply for special permission to carry out such activities from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, according to the new rules.
Domestic online media are required to inform the relevant authorities about their sources of funding, expenditure, personnel, domain name registration as well as being required to keep all servers and equipment in China.
Online outlets are prohibited from publishing information that may cause “harm to national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” “spread rumors, disturb social order or undermine social stability,” and harm “social morality or endanger national cultural tradition,” among others.
Foreign websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a number of Western publications remain inaccessible in China. Beijing has adopted a series of normative and ideological directives in recent years requiring national internet providers and media to closely monitor the quality of information disseminated online.
Glenn Greenwald has written an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times. In this editorial he asserts that American spies are motivated primarily by the desire to thwart terrorist plots. Such that their inability to do so (i.e., the attacks in Paris) coupled with the associated embarrassment motivates a public relations campaign against Ed Snowden. Greenwald further concludes that recent events are being opportunistically leveraged by spy masters to pressure tech companies into installing back doors in their products. Over the course of this article what emerges is a worldview which demonstrates a remarkable tendency to accept events at face value, a stance that’s largely at odds with Snowden’s own documents and statements.
For example, Greenwald states that American spies have a single overriding goal, to “find and stop people who are plotting terrorist attacks.” To a degree this concurs with the official posture of the intelligence community. Specifically, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence specifies four topical missions in its National Intelligence Strategy: Cyber Intelligence, Counterterrorism, Counterproliferation, and Counterintelligence.
Yet Snowden himself dispels this notion. In an open letter to Brazil he explained that “these [mass surveillance] programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”
And the public record tends to support Snowden’s observation. If the NSA is truly focused on combatting terrorism it has an odd habit of spying on oil companies in Brazil and Venezuela. In addition anyone who does their homework understands that the CIA has a long history of overthrowing governments. This has absolutely nothing to do with stopping terrorism and much more to do with catering to powerful business interests in places like Iran (British Petroleum), Guatemala (United Fruit), and Chile (ITT Corporation). The late Michael Ruppert characterized the historical links between spies and the moneyed elite as follows: “The CIA is Wall Street, and Wall Street is the CIA.”
The fact that Greenwald appears to accept the whole “stopping terrorism” rationale is extraordinary all by itself. But things get even more interesting…
Near the end of his article Greenwald notes that the underlying motivation behind the recent uproar of spy masters “is to depict Silicon Valley as terrorist-helpers for the crime of offering privacy protections to Internet users, in order to force those companies to give the U.S. government ‘backdoor’ access into everyone’s communications.”
But if history shows anything, it’s that the perception of an adversarial relationship between government spies and corporate executives has often concealed secret cooperation. Has Greenwald never heard of Crypto AG, or RSA, or even Google? These are companies who at the time of their complicity marketed themselves as protecting user privacy. In light of these clandestine arrangements Cryptome’s John Young comments that it’s “hard to believe anything crypto advocates have to say due to the far greater number of crypto sleazeball hominids reaping rewards of aiding governments than crypto hominid honorables aiding one another.”
It’s as if Greenwald presumes that the denizens of Silicon Valley, many of whose origins are deeply entrenched in government programs, have magically turned over a new leaf. As though the litany of past betrayals can conveniently be overlooked because things are different. Now tech vendors are here to defend our privacy. Or at least that’s what they’d like us to believe. In the aftermath of the PRISM scandal, which was disclosed by none other than Greenwald and Snowden, the big tech of Silicon Valley is desperate to portray itself as a victim of big government.
You see, the envoys of the Bay Area’s new economy have formulated a convincing argument. That’s what they get paid to do. The representatives of Silicon Valley explain in measured tones that tech companies have stopped working with spies because it’s bad for their bottom line. Thus aligning the interests of private capital with user privacy. But the record shows that spies often serve private capital. To help open up markets and provide access to resources in foreign countries. And make no mistake there’s big money to be made helping spies. Both groups do each other a lot of favors.
And so a question for Glenn Greenwald: what pray tell is there to prevent certain CEOs in Silicon Valley from betraying us yet again, secretly via covert backdoors, while engaged in a reassuring Kabuki Theater with government officials about overt backdoors? Giving voice to public outrage while making deals behind closed doors. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before during an earlier debate about allegedly strong cryptography. Subtle zero-day flaws are, after all, plausibly deniable.
How can the self-professed advocate of adversarial journalism be so credulous? How could a company like Apple, despite its bold public rhetoric, resist overtures from spy masters any more than Mohammad Mosaddegh, Jacobo Árbenz, or Salvador Allende? Doesn’t adversarial journalism mean scrutinizing corporate power as well as government power?
Methinks Mr. Greenwald has some explaining to do. Whether he actually responds with anything other than casual dismissal has yet to be seen.
Tzipi Hotovely waves Israeli flag to proclaim Israeli intent to rebuild the ‘Holy Temple.’ Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has met with representatives of YouTube and Google to discuss ways to cooperate in what she calls the fight against “inciting violence and terrorism.”
Israel’s Maariv newspaper reported yesterday that Hotovely agreed to work with Google and YouTube in order to establish a joint working mechanism to monitor and prevent the publication of “inflammatory material” originating in the Palestinian territories.
Since the latest escalation of violence between Palestinians and Israeli security services that erupted at the beginning of October, many people have been sharing videos depicting Israeli aggression towards Palestinians to highlight the Palestinian perspective of the conflict. London-based Arab newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has expressed concerns that the meetings suggest moves towards censoring Palestinian material on the part of the Israeli state.
New Project Will Gather Users’ Stories of Censorship from Around the World
San Francisco – The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Visualizing Impact launched Onlinecensorship.org today, a new platform to document the who, what, and why of content takedowns on social media sites. The project, made possible by a 2014 Knight News Challenge award, will address how social media sites moderate user-generated content and how free expression is affected across the globe.
Controversies over content takedowns seem to bubble up every few weeks, with users complaining about censorship of political speech, nudity, LGBT content, and many other subjects. The passionate debate about these takedowns reveals a larger issue: social media sites have an enormous impact on the public sphere, but are ultimately privately owned companies. Each corporation has their own rules and systems of governance that control users’ content, while providing little transparency about how these decisions are made.
At Onlinecensorship.org, users themselves can report on content takedowns from Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, and YouTube. By cataloging and analyzing aggregated cases of social media censorship, Onlinecensorship.org seeks to unveil trends in content removals, provide insight into the types of content being taken down, and learn how these takedowns impact different communities of users.
“We want to know how social media companies enforce their terms of service. The data we collect will allow us to raise public awareness about the ways these companies are regulating speech,” said EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression and co-founder of Onlinecensorship.org Jillian C. York. “We hope that companies will respond to the data by improving their regulations and reporting mechanisms and processes—we need to hold Internet companies accountable for the ways in which they exercise power over people’s digital lives.”
York and Onlinecensorship.org co-founder Ramzi Jaber were inspired to action after a Facebook post in support of OneWorld’s “Freedom for Palestine” project disappeared from the band Coldplay’s page even though it had received nearly 7,000 largely supportive comments. It later became clear that Facebook took down the post after it was reported as “abusive” by several users.
“By collecting these reports, we’re not just looking for trends. We’re also looking for context, and to build an understanding of how the removal of content affects users’ lives. It’s important companies understand that, more often than not, the individuals and communities most impacted by online censorship are also the most vulnerable,” said Jaber. “Both a company’s terms of service and their enforcement mechanisms should take into account power imbalances that place already-marginalized communities at greater risk online.”
Onlinecensorship.org has other tools for social media users, including a guide to the often-complex appeals process to fight a content takedown. It will also host a collection of news reports on content moderation practices.
Jillian C. York
Director for International Freedom of Expression
Co-founder and co-director of Visualizing Impact
The European Court of Justice’s top legal aid has said that a 15-year-old agreement that eases the transfer of data between the EU and the US should be ended, accusing American intelligence services of conducting “mass, indiscriminate surveillance.”
The ECJ’s advocate-general, Yves Bot, said on Wednesday that the Safe Harbour agreement does not do enough to protect the private information of EU citizens once it arrives in the US, adding that it should have been suspended.
Safe Harbour allows US firms to collect data on their European customers. The system is used by Google, Facebook, and more than 4,000 other companies.
However, it also allows the NSA to use the Prism surveillance system exposed by Snowden to wade through the personal data, communication, and information held by nine internet companies.
Using Facebook as an example, Bot said that users “are not informed that their personal data will be generally accessible to the United States security agencies.”
“Such mass, indiscriminate surveillance is inherently disproportionate and constitutes an unwarranted interference with the rights guaranteed by articles seven and eight of the charter [of fundamental rights of the EU],” he said, adding that European internet users have no effective judicial protection while the data transfers are happening.
Bot added that if any EU country believes that transferring data to overseas servers undermines the protection of citizens, it has the power to suspend those transfers “irrespective of the general assessment made by the [EU] commission in its decision.”
But despite allegations from Bot, Facebook has denied accusations that it provides ‘backdoor’ access to its servers.
Sally Aldous, a spokeswoman for the social media giant, said on Wednesday that the company “operates in compliance with EU Data Protection law. Like the thousands of other companies who operate data transfers across the Atlantic we await the full judgment.”
“We have repeatedly said that we do not provide ‘backdoor’ access to Facebook servers and data to intelligence agencies or governments,” she said.
Although Bot’s opinions are not binding, they are typically followed by the ECJ’s judges, who are considering a complaint about the arrangement in the wake of US surveillance revelations from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The EU court’s decision is expected in the next four to six months.
The European Commission has been in talks with the US for two years, discussing ways to strengthen the Safe Harbour framework amid calls for its suspension.
Meanwhile, many US companies have praised the 2000 Safe Harbour deal, saying it helps them avoid complicated checks to transfer vital data, including payroll and human resources information.
An end to the agreement would cause a headache for US companies operating in the EU, as well as bring about the potential for a varying of national approaches, lawyers said, as cited by Reuters.
It comes just six months after 27-year-old Austrian law student Max Schrems filed a complaint against Facebook, alleging the social media site was helping the NSA harvest email and other private data by forwarding European data to servers in the US.
An overzealous attorney general is trying to police online speech by capitalizing on the reams of data Google stores about its users.
James Hood, Mississippi’s attorney general has issued a whopping 79-page subpoena to Google asking for a massive amount of data about the identities, communications, searches, and posts of people anywhere in the United States who use its services, including YouTube and Google+.
The kicker? The state is asking for all this information for anyone speaking about something “objectionable,” “offensive,” or “tangentially” related to something “dangerous,” which it defines as anything that could “lead to physical harm or injury.” You read that right. The attorney general claims that he needs information about all of this speech to investigate Google for state consumer protection violations, even though the subpoena covers such things as copyright matters and doesn’t limit itself to content involving Mississippi residents.
Earlier this year, a District Court judge froze Mississippi’s investigation into Google. The state appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, where we filed a brief today against the attorney general’s attempt to violate the First Amendment rights of the millions of people who use the Internet.
The case has already gotten attention because of Google’s claims that Mississippi is attempting to censor its editorial choices, by dictating what can appear in search results or on YouTube, for example. Our brief attempts to highlight an overlooked aspect of the case – that millions of people’s rights to free speech, anonymity, and privacy are also at stake.
The government is well aware of all the personal information that’s being stockpiled online and often serves subpoenas on private companies for information about individuals and groups under investigation. But the Constitution has established protections that keep the government from getting into our business without just cause, especially when our First Amendment rights to express ourselves freely and anonymously are at stake.
Yet as we’re seeing in Mississippi, the government doesn’t always play by the rules.
We are increasingly seeing efforts by law enforcement to engage in wholesale monitoring of certain groups online. Just a couple of weeks ago, we learned the Department of Homeland Security has been scrutinizing #BlackLivesMatter for constitutionally protected activity. This kind of surveillance chills the exercise of our First Amendment freedoms, especially considering how much sensitive and important speech – like political or human rights advocacy – takes place on the Internet.
Needless to say, “objectionable,” “offensive,” or “tangentially” related to something “dangerous,” are terms that are so broad that they could encompass a huge swathe of content on the Internet – and result in information about millions of people’s online activity being handed over to the government. Virtually any topic could be said to “tangentially” lead to physical harm or injury in certain cases – from organizing protests to skydiving. Most importantly, the First Amendment protects the right to speak about dangerous, objectionable, and offensive things without fear that the government will be scrutinizing your speech or trying to find out your identity.
And let’s not assume it’s innocuous YouTube videos of skateboarding 6-year-olds, football highlight reels, or fireworks displays that the attorney general wants to waste his office’s time looking through – even though these would be covered by the subpoena. History has shown us that politically dissident and minority groups have been targeted for monitoring, and those are the groups that are most likely to be chilled from speaking. Politically active movements online, such as #BlackLivesMatter, often discuss strategy, organize protests, and post videos of police brutality (which certainly meets the attorney general’s definition of “dangerous”) online.
Not only that, but the right to online anonymity is threatened. Domestic violence support groups can provide a safe space online for victims to speak anonymously and honestly, including about the dangers of violence they face. Yet these activities could be seriously harmed if Mississippi is allowed to collect information about the people who engage in them. It’s no stretch to imagine that people will speak less freely if things like their email addresses, login times, and IP addresses could be handed to law enforcement whenever they say something that could be considered dangerous or offensive.
For these reasons, we’re asking the 5th Circuit to order the state to back off and keep the Internet a place where people can speak freely, without fear of government harassment or investigation.
Privacy activists are flooding Congress with messages of opposition to the cyber surveillance bill due to be considered by the Senate, using faxes rather than emails in order to poke fun at lawmakers’ antiquated understanding of technology and privacy.
Fight for the Future, a nonprofit fighting for privacy and against government surveillance, has set up a page dubbed “Operation: Fax Big Brother,” which lets anyone generate and customize a fax protesting the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA). Each fax is then sent to all 100 Senators. The group has not said how many faxes have been sent so far.
CISA sailed through the Senate Intelligence Committee in March, with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden being the sole dissenter. Senate is expected to take up a vote on the bill before the August 7 recess. A similar proposal, known as CISPA, was approved by the House of Representatives in 2013 but died in the Senate after public opposition compelled President Barack Obama to threaten a veto.
“Groups like Fight for the Future have sent millions of emails, and they still don’t seem to get it,” Evan Greer, the group’s campaign manager, told the Guardian. “Maybe they don’t get it because they’re stuck in 1984, and we figured we’d use some 80s technology to try to get our point across.”
According to the group, since 2012 civil liberties activists have sent hundreds of thousands of calls and tweets and over 2.6 million emails to Congress opposing overreaching cybersecurity laws. However, the fax stunt does not just have publicity value. Lawmakers often use analog technology like faxes and pagers in order to hide their digital tracks from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiries, claims a Senate staffer who spoke to the Guardian.
Sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, CISA seeks to enlist the support of corporations in collecting user data in the name of cybersecurity, providing them with liability protection if they share the data with federal agencies such as the NSA. Once they have the data, federal agencies would be able to share it freely with each other. What’s more, information shared with the government by the companies will be specifically exempt from FOIA disclosures.
Gabe Rottman, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, described the bill as a “new and vast surveillance authority that might as well be called Patriot Act 2.0 given how much personal information it would funnel to the NSA.”
The US Chamber of Commerce and a number of major corporations are backing the bill. In addition to Facebook and Google, Comcast and AT&T also favor CISA, as do Bank of America and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
Proponents of CISA have cited a spree of data breaches over the past year, from corporations such as Sony and healthcare provider Anthem to government agencies including the Department of State and Office of Personnel Management (OPM), as a reason to beef up cybersecurity. Critics have countered that CISA is not doing anything to protect networks from threats, and everything to vacuum up Americans’ data.
“With all these breaches, there’s a lot of fearmongering going on in DC,” says Fight for the Future’s Greer. “They just say: ‘This is a problem – we’ve got to do something!’ And this is the something they’re going to do. It’s not just that this won’t fix things – it’ll make them worse. And it’ll give sweeping legal immunity to some of the largest companies in the world and open us all up to new forms of surveillance.”
Open source developers and privacy campaigners are raising concerns over the automatic installation of a shady “eavesdropping tool” designed to enable ‘OK Google’ functionality but potentially capable of snooping on any conversation near the computer.
When one installs an open source Chromium browser, as it turns out, it “downloads something” followed by a status report that says “Microphone: Yes” and “Audio Capture Allowed: Yes,” according to an article by Rick Falkvinge, Swedish Pirate Party founder, published on the website Privacy Online News.
While the Chromium, the open source basis for Google’s browser, at least shows the code and allows user to notice it and turn it off, the same installation is included by default in the most popular browser Chrome, used by over 300 million people.
The code was designed to enable the new “OK, Google” hot word detection, which lets the computer do things like search or create reminders in response to human voice. Yet, some users are worried that the service could be activated without their permission, eventually sending recorded data to Google. The worried users describe the Chrome Hotword Shared Module as an audio-snooping “black box”, with only the corporation that provided it fully aware of what the injected pre-compiled code is capable of.
“Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room,” wrote Falkvinge.
“Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by … an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.”
“We don’t know and can’t know what this black box does,” he added.
The users’ complaints were received with the Google developers’ words that: “While we do download the hot word module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hot wording.” They also underlined the fact that “Chromium is not a Google product. We do not directly distribute it, or make any guarantees with respect to compliance with various open source policies”.
However, according to Falkvinge, the default install will still “wiretap your room without your consent, unless you opt out, and more importantly, know that you need to opt out, which is nowhere a reasonable requirement.”
While the fact that the voice recognition module is always listening does not mean it transmits all the data to Google’s servers, Falkvinge argues that no one knows what other keywords could trigger the feature on.
The only reliable measure against mass surveillance, according to the first Pirate Party leader, is a manual disabling of the microphone and camera on the computer with a hardware switch.
The latest voice search functions have raised the concerns of privacy advocates, as their use presupposes the sending of voice recordings to company servers, as well as the controversy over the continuous recognition to catch the moment a user says the ‘hot’ phrase.