See You In Court

Defamation suits for Internet-related speech, particularly the free-wheeling and now sprawling content of Web 2.0 sites, is on the rise. Sites like Craigslist, Yelp and Facebook, as well as less known entities such as the controversial Juicy Campus are worrying some that the internet is rapidly becoming a zone of murky facts, biased and hurtful reviews, flaming and generally irresponsible speech. According to the SF Chronicle (by way of Mother Berkman; also see the Citizen Media Law Project’s legal guide here), many of the purported victims are striking back:

The number of people getting sued over online speech, although small, is rising sharply, according to statistics from the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Civil lawsuits nearly doubled in 2006 and rose again in 2007 by another 68 percent.

No doubt eager plaintiffs (some of whom are legitimately aggrieved; others not) will continue to test the limits of holding networks responsible for hosted content, despite the generous protection currently enumerated by the Communications Decency Act.

I worry about tinkering with that bill, if only because it is really an antiquated (passed 1996) regulatory scheme intended to control pornography. Prematurely lumping contested Web 2.0 speech into the formula seems hasty, and potentially represents a chilling effect on legitimate web speech.

Moreover, holding site-owners strictly responsible (like Turkey does in holding YouTube hostage over undesirable political content) would almost certainly attenuate the power of Web 2.0 technology itself by punishing the networks which host user input, harmless or defamatory. Far wiser a solution is a more robust self-policing of privacy violations, facilitated by the flagging of inappropriate materials which are then reviewed against the terms of service, the private agreement pre-existing between networks and users, which may be as stringent with regards to speech as they like.

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Talk With Esra’a Al Shafei of mideastyouth.com

Today we had the pleasure of hosting Bahrain digital activist Esra’a Al Shafei, Founder and Executive Director of mideastyouth.com, for a chat about the amazing work of her community to promote “fierce but respectful debate among the diverse youth of the Middle East.” Esra’a started the Web site to increase understanding between Iranians and Arabs, and to move the online debate from one that was primarily a monologue to more of a discussion. She has worked on a number of minority rights and other online campaigns, including for Kurds (she refuses to stop identifying Kurds as from anywhere but ‘Kurdistan’) as well as the Baha’i in Iran. She also was a leader of the well-known Free Karim campaign, which she says she started during a lecture in college, among many other successful online efforts.

Esra’a emphasized that she sees blogging as nice, but is much more convinced by the power of YouTube videos, mashups, cartoons and other visual content to lead to change. Some of the group’s cartoons have been picked up in a number of newspapers in the region, and below is a mashup they made with clips from the movie (and popular graphic novel) Persepolis.

But this one is my favorite, a video of Iranian leaders dubbed over with speeches from Martin Luther King, Jack Kennedy, and Ghandi.

You can catch the full podcast of the talk here, and be sure to check out Mideastyouth.com, which is available in English, Arabic and Persian, and includes contributers from across the Middle East, as well as the US and Canada.

China Tightens Online Filters

Interesting reports coming from the New York Times earlier last week that there are some indications that the Chinese government has been stepping up efforts to aggressively filter and censor content online. As they report:

Since early January, the government has been waging a decency campaign that has closed more than 1,500 Web sites found to contain sex, violence or “vulgarity.” Numerous other sites, including Google, have responded by removing any pages that might offend puritanical sensibilities.

But indecency is often in the eye of the beholder. Last month, Bullog, a popular bastion for freewheeling bloggers, was shut down for what the authorities said were its “large amounts of harmful information on current events,” according to a notice posted by the site’s founder, Luo Yonghao. When Mr. Luo briefly resuscitated the site on Sunday using an overseas server, it was blocked again.

Many people here believe that Bullog may have crossed a line by posting information about Charter 08, an online petition calling for democratic reforms. Organizers say the manifesto has garnered thousands of signatures since its introduction in December. Within the Chinese Internet firewall, it is now nearly impossible to find a copy.

It’ll be interesting to see how this back-and-forth game between China’s online public (which, at 300 million, is the largest in the world) and the government evolve, particularly as the worldwide economic downturn sparks increased dissent and anger against the ruling Communist party online.

Reformist Khatami Enters Iran’s Presidential Race

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced Sunday that he will run against conservative incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in this summer’s presidential election. The Times reports that Khatami has a large following in Iran and his chances will be helped by difficult economic conditions in Iran, including run away inflation and a collapse in revenue due to the recent slide in oil prices. Corruption is also a major issue that could hurt Ahmadinejad. However, conservative politicians are still (halfheartedly) behind Ahmadinejad, and he still has the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who retains the most political power in Iran.

Khatami oversaw reforms that lead to major advances in free speech as President from 1997 to 2005. This coincided with an explosion in Iranian blogging as well as the opening of a number of reformist newspapers, although those reforms have since been harshly reversed. In announcing his candidacy on Sunday, Khatami said,
“The Iranian nation’s historical demand is to have freedom, independence and justice, and I will work for that.”

Too Much Transparency?

The Times ran this somewhat disturbing piece on the fallout from the passage of Prop 8 in California, and how one website, eightmaps.com, is (mis)using voter disclosure information to potentially target and intimidate voters who supported the measure.

The “disinfectant of sunlight,” which open disclosure laws were intended to produce, have ironically generated a spate of anonymous hate mail, targeted at proponents of the gay marriage ban through the EightMaps Google overlay. Some of the harassment has evidently been serious, including death threats and anthrax scares.

I think regardless of how you feel about Prop 8 (I have doubts about it), I think this crosses the line. Voter intimidation is what sectarian ethnic groups in Iraq do. What saddens me is how the internet, a mass medium capable of much healthy democratic discourse, is being twisted to allow for instant access to private information. There’s a reason ballot boxes are secret.

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Senate Cuts Broadband Grants From Draft

According to the New York Times, the bipartisan coalition of senators currently trying to trim the massive stimulus bill have a cut a provision allocating 1.5 billion dollars for the extension of broadband service in rural areas. At this time, I’m not completely sure where the Times got the 1.5 figure, but I have isolated the section of the Senate draft (available at ReadTheStimulus.org; itself an interesting experiment in democratic transparency, but I digress).

The proposed section would extend large grants to projects which provide broadband access to more remote rural areas, where investment by private business seems unlikely. Barack Obama has several times mentioned this laudable goal (obliquely in the Inaugural address; but also see my coverage here and the Bits blog for a dissent), expressing his hopes that building internet infrastructure will engage those currently excluded by the largely urban digital class.

In some sense, I can see why these senators see this program as just another pork earmark, and indeed the mega-stimulus bill is chock full of government waste. On the other hand, I think a case can be made that greater connectivity in rural areas could positively impact commerce and development, and hence actually stimulate regional economies. As I’ve said many times before, broadband networks should be considered parallel to highway spending. It is informational infrastructure, and though its less visible that overpasses, it is no less important.

The grants would put people to work building the network, and internet companies could expand into rural areas without the expensive outlay of new wires, thus tapping a new consumer base of houses and businesses eager to connect with each other and the world. The potential for human development through distance learning courses on the internet could help lift rural communities from isolation and low productivity. In fact, maybe this is better than endless concrete pouring, if anything I hear about Japan’s near 3 trillion dollar infrastructure stimulus in the 90’s is true.

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Islamists Hack Popular Iranian Community Web Site

Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices reports that Balatarin (the highest), a popular Iranian community Web site, has been hacked. Balatarin has been described as a combination of reddit, digg, newsvine, and del.icio.us. It is one of the most popular sites on the Iranian Internet, despite the fact that it has been filtered since 2007.

The conservative Fars News agency reported that the Web site was hacked by Islamist hackers due to insufficient promotion of links about the recent Gaza conflict, and also because links posted by pro-government users were often neglected.

Still, in great interactive Web fashion, an alternative Web site has already been set up, the site’s managers have been twittering about the issue, and online discussion groups have also organically emerged.

Posted in Iran. 1 Comment »

Iranian Government Says It Will Increase Blocking of Web

According to the Iranian paper Etemad Melli, the Iranian government has increased its blocking of Web sites, particularly foreign news sites. It appears that as the Iranian election campaign gets into gear that the government has begun to crack down on opposition Web sites, as well as Persian language sites of Western news outlets. The Jerusalem Post reports that the Persian sites of Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Germany’s Deutsche Welle radio have been blocked. Deutsche Welle is one of the few foreign news organizations that is allowed to have a full-time foreign journalist based in Iran. And the BBC Persian Service, one of the most heavily trafficked Western media sites in Iran, was recently declared illegal and a threat to national security.

In December, Iran also announced that it would move to ‘deal harshly’ with ‘immoral’ Web sites. This led to fines and the closure of a leading dating site in Iran, Hamsarchat. A number of bloggers have been arrested recently, including one of Iran’s first bloggers, Hossein ‘Hoder’ Derekhshan, who was detained, technically, for his travels and writing about Israel, but also may be charged with insulting religious figures. He reportedly could be put to death if convicted. And according to RFE/RL, Esmail Jafari, a blogger from the southwestern city of Bushehr, was sentenced to five months in prison for anti-government publicity and disseminating information abroad.

While the arrest and prosecution of bloggers is most definitely real, the claim by the Iranian government that it is blocking 5 million websites is almost certainly overblown. As we showed in our paper, with OpenNet Initiative data, only a fraction of the Iranian blogosphere is blocked, and the Iranian government likely hopes that its talk about pervasive filtering will lead to self-censorship by bloggers. A number of circumvention tools also make it much easier for Iranians to get around blocked sites, further undermining the attempts by the government to filter the Internet.

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Google Under Fire

The Bits blog over at the NYT picked up this story of pending legal action against several senior Google executives in Italy. At stake is whether Google is responsible for having allowed users to upload a video of several bullies making fun of a boy with Downs syndrome. From this, you might be thinking that Google refused to take the video down when asked, but that is not the case. In fact, as soon as the video was flagged as inappropriate, Google removed the video. The accusation goes much deeper in asserting that Google should have pre-screened and eliminated the video before it hit the web.

In my opinion, this is not only expecting too much of a company whose site Google Video, combined with its independent subsidiary, YouTube, hosts millions of videos uploaded by users. This quote from the YouTube factsheet should help clarify its immensity:

People are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day on YouTube and uploading hundreds of thousands of videos daily. In fact, every minute, ten hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.

It would be impossible for Google to pre-screen even a fraction of those clips. A while back, in my article “How Google Decides,” I talked about how even the current method of reviewing flagged videos for legality may ultimately prove woefully inadequate.

What this case against Google really amounts to is an attack on Web 2.0 technology. In the case of the bullied boy, his privacy and protection from further, potentially global ridicule, must be weighed against the powerful information sharing capabilities of a site like YouTube. To shutter all of YouTube because one user briefly jeopardizes someone else’s privacy without permission is itself an act of bullying, one which threatens the thousands of users who lawfully make use of the site.

Don’t get me wrong, poking fun of a boy with Downs syndrome and then publicizing it is heinous and awful. Only a more reasonable response is not to demand that Google rigorously police the marketplace (it cannot do so), but to rely on a combination of collective self-governing (flagging inappropriate clips) and traditional criminal investigations into the people who post immoral, hateful or illegal content. This preserves the vibrant and rich connectivity of Web 2.0 sites without give a free pass to bullies and perverts. As the Google execs remarked in their public statement:

We are pleased that as a result of our cooperation the bullies in the video have been identified and punished.

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Iran: A Nation of Bloggers

A group of students at the Vancouver Film School (Aaron Chiesa, Toru Kageyama, Hendy Sukarya, and Lisa Temes) created this wonderful video on bloggers in Iran. It’s very well done and worth checking out. Some of their data is a little old, but Fariborz Shamshiri sets them straight with stats from our paper. The Iranian blogosphere is definitely a large and vibrant discussion space, but it is not exclusively focused on criticism of the regime (although there is plenty of that, especially in the Secular/Reformist pole). And as Hamid Tehrani blogged here a couple weeks ago, the regime’s recent call for 10,000 Basij bloggers is an example of its increasing engagement in the blogosphere. I expect that the online debate will only continue to heat up as the Iranian presidential election approaches.