Published: Mon, 16 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Mon, 16 Jan 2017 10:35:20 -0500
Mon, 16 Jan 2017 04:00:00 -0500
(image) The Russian government has ordered Apple and Google to remove Linkedin from app stores for Android and iPhones. The move came after a Russian court banned Linkedin for violating a law that says any data on Russian citizens must be be stored in Russia.
Fri, 13 Jan 2017 07:15:00 -0500"After consultation with counsel, I decline to answer your question based on the rights provided by the 5th and 1st Amendments." Again and again, these words rang out through the crowded Congressional inquiry into "Backpage.com's Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking" Tuesday. A function of the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—literal heir to the Joseph McCarthy-era espionage and subversion investigations—the hearing was ostensibly organized to shed light on the business practices of online classified-ad forum Backpage. Led by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), the bipartisan effort represented the culmination of a 20-month long investigation and accompanied a lengthy report on the findings. The point of the hearing, said McCaskill, was "understanding how criminals systematically use online platforms to transform normal American teenagers into sex slaves." But if so, it was as much a look at the laws governing online publishing, user-generated content, and sex work in America. And those in the hot seat—Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, Chief Operations Officer Andrew Padilla, General Counsel Elizabeth McDougall, and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin—refused to answer any of the subcommittee's questions with more than a nod to the 5th Amendment. Launched around 10 a.m., the portion of the hearing featuring Backpage leadership was concluded, with nothing conceded, in under an hour. As the Backpage witnesses filed out, a swarm of reporters followed, trailing a silent Ferrer and his handlers until the third-floor door of Dirksen Building elevator closed in front of them. Lacey hung back, but mostly to say that he had said all he would say for now. "I guess you don't know what will happen next?" I asked him. "Right now," he said, "a drink." Backpage Background Portman and McCaskill's inquiry into Backpage began in 2015. After the site's execs refused to appear for questioning or turn over private business documents, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations filed a civil contempt action against them—the first authorized by the Senate in more than 20 years—and was rewarded with a federal court order compelling Backpage to turn over subpoenaed documents. The resulting report on these documents "conclusively shows that Backpage has been more deeply complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone imagined," Portman said Tuesday. In both the report and live testimony, the subcommittee moved seamlessly between allegations that Backpage intentionally profited from the prostitution of children and statements from Backpage representatives with regard to prostitution more broadly, leaving the unmistakable impression that Backpage leadership admitted—at least internally—to the horrible things alleged by the government. But the inquiry actually ascertained no such thing. The most significant policies the inquiry uncovered were a) moderators employed by Backpage would sometimes edit user-generated ads to remove direct references to sex for money before allowing them to post and b) between 2010 and 2012, the site employed an automatic filter to remove some blacklisted words from ads before they were posted. Subcommittee summaries of these editing and filtering processes suggest that Backpage moderators deliberately stripped words like "teen," "young," "daddy's girl," and "barely legal," from ads before allowing them to post, and this indicates that they knew about and encouraged underage ad-posting. But, of course, none of these words necessarily signals anything nefarious. Eighteen- and 19-year-olds are both "barely legal" and "teens," yet still legally adults. "Young" is a term someone well beyond 18 might use. Terms like sugar baby and sugar daddy are widely used in describing arrangements between adults, with all the attendant use of terms like daddy's girl this entails, and of course daddy is also common slang (without age connotations) in some BDSM worlds. The ambiguity of these terms led to Backpage processes, described in mor[...]
Thu, 12 Jan 2017 08:00:00 -0500During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Jeff Sessions promised that as attorney general he would "revisit" a 2011 Justice Department memo that interpreted the Wire Act of 1961 as applying only to sports betting, which opened the door to state-regulated online gambling. The implication was that Sessions might revert to the department's earlier position on the statute, which implausibly read it as banning all forms of internet-assisted betting, even those permitted by state law. Although Sessions' comments set off alarm bells among online poker fans and other supporters of legalization, it's not clear how serious he is about reversing the DOJ's position. The Alabama senator said he was "shocked" by the 2011 memo and "criticized it." But it was obvious he had not read it, and there seems to be no public record of his opposition to it. Sessions was responding to a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), sponsor of a bill that would amend the Wire Act to ban all online gambling. The bill, which is backed by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who is keen to wipe out online competition with his casinos, is called the Restoration of America's Wire Act. But it does not "restore" anything; it rewrites the 1961 law by excising its reference to sports betting and inserting language about the internet. To give you an idea of how big a loon Graham is on the subject of online gambling, he tried to justify his bill on national security grounds during the 2015 confirmation hearings for Attorney General Loretta Lynch. "Would you agree with me that one of the best ways for a terrorist organization or criminal enterprise to be able to enrich themselves is to have online gaming?" he asked. Lynch allowed that "those who provide the material support and financing to terrorist organizations...will use any means to finance those organizations." She declined to offer an opinion on the DOJ memo, saying she was familiar with its conclusion but had not read it. Although Sessions clearly had not read the memo either, he was eager to appease Graham. "I was shocked at the memorandum...that the Department of Justice issued with regard to the Wire Act and criticized it," he said. "Apparently there is some justification or argument that can be made to support the Department of Justice's position, but I did oppose it when it happened." Apparently there is some justification? Wouldn't you want to consider the DOJ's reasoning before criticizing its conclusion? It seems that's not necessary when you're a senator, but Sessions promised to do so after taking charge of the Justice Department. "I would revisit it," he assured Graham, "and I would make a decision about it based on careful study." If Sessions really does study the issue carefully, he will find that the DOJ's current interpretation of the Wire Act is much more faithful to the text and history of the law than the interpretation the department repudiated. The Wire Act, which was a response to the involvement of organized crime in sports betting, made it a felony to use "a wire communication facility for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest." Prior to 2011, the DOJ implausibly insisted that the phrase "on any sporting event or contest" does not modify "bets or wagers" and therefore does not restrict the law's scope to that kind of gambling. But the 2011 memo, a 13-page document prepared by the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in response to questions about online sales of state lottery tickets, concluded that "the Wire Act prohibits only the transmission of communications related to bets or wagers on sporting events or contests." There is nothing at all "shocking" about that position, which was endorsed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in a 2002 ruling that rejected Wire Act charges against the operators of websites offering casino-style games. The 5th Circuit matter-of-factly observed that "the W[...]
Tue, 10 Jan 2017 08:05:00 -0500Like Craigslist before it, Backpage.com has shut down the "Adult" section of its classified-ad website, amid a seemingly endless stream of government pressure. In both cases, state and federal authorities have maintained that the mere presence of open forums for user-generated adult advertising creates a market for child sex-trafficking. Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and his associates have been subject to lawsuits, criminal charges, economic bullying, and Congressional hearings—the latest of which will take place today, January 10, before the U.S. Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations—in an attempt to thwart this supposed sex trade. But after proclaiming innocence and pushing back and for several years, Backpage will now—"as the direct result of unconstitutional government censorship," its lawyers said in a statement—comply with demands to end its adult-ad section. Last fall, former California Attorney General Kamala Harris tried to convict Ferrer and former Backpage.com heads Michael Lacey and James Larkin (founders of Village Voice media) of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. A judge threw out the charges, saying they were unconstitutional and violated federal law, which specifies—under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—that third-party publishers can't be held criminally liable for the content of user-generated posts. Section 230 doesn't just stop sites like Craigslist and Backpage from getting in trouble if someone posts a prostitution ad there but allows Reddit to exist without its CEO getting charged for every credible user threat, keeps Facebook from being shut down after some 20-year-old picks up a 17-year-old girl there, prevents Craigslist from being found guilty every time someone rips someone off over a used washer, and stops the feds from coming after Reason.com when the comments section contains unsavory content. But despite Section 230's alleged protections, government officials have again and again gone after Backpage for allowing adult ads, even though these ads do not directly reference illegal activity and any illegal activity that results from folks finding each other via Backpage takes place far outside of its owners or operators' purview. How should Backpage operators know whether a woman offering dominatrix services or a "full-body sensual massage" on the site is really offering dominatrix services or a full-body sensual massage, and not simply having sex for money? How can they know if the poster who says she's 18 is actually a few months shy of it? There's no way they can, and yet this lack of omnipotence and pre-cognition apparently won't do. As Backpage, and Craigslist before it, have shown, websites are more than welcome to offer open forums for user posts without government interference so long as none of the posts have anything to do with sexuality. Yet the moment "adult" work comes into play, all free-speech protections and anti-censorship agendas dissipate. Lawmakers, prosecutors, and the media who fellate them start saying things like, "If it saves only one child..." Shutting down Backpage won't save even one child, though, or one adult, or anybody. Backpage.com is a neutral publishing platform, albeit one that's become popular among sex workers ranging from strippers and erotic masseuses to people who offer sex for a fee. Without its adult section, sex workers of all ages will have to find some other way to advertise—perhaps simply by moving to a more discreet section of the site, as was done on Craigslist (anyone who thinks ridding Craigslist of its adult-services section actually thwarted commercial-sex advertising there should check out the site's "Casual Encounters" section now); perhaps by advertising elsewhere online (the internet is a vast place); or perhaps by returning to older client-gathering methods, like word-of-mouth or walking the streets. But what doesn't happen in all but the most fervent prohibitionist imaginations is that people whose livelihoods d[...]
Mon, 09 Jan 2017 13:45:00 -0500A new take on "fake news" had been bubbling for a while, and now it has the imprimatur of a Washington Post columnist. Here's Margaret Sullivan: Fake news has a real meaning—deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public. For example: The one falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, or the one alleging without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election. But though the term hasn't been around long, its meaning already is lost. So far, so good. The phrase "fake news" has been getting plastered willy-nilly on anything that's false, and sometimes just on something that someone wants to suggest is false. I've been complaining about that for more than a month. But then the column starts to go off track: "The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become," said George Washington University professor Nikki Usher. Wait. The conservative media machine? Did you think they came up with this? Let's be clear about the chain of events here. A year ago, "fake news" had a pretty specific meaning: clickbait sites that publish hoaxes. The hoax of the hour might be political, but it could as easily be a fraudulent report of a celebrity death or a weird-news story that's too good to be true. Over time the term was also applied to aggregation sites that don't specialize in hoaxes so much as they simply don't care whether the stories they're promoting are hoaxes. Not exactly the same thing, but you still had that basic model of a click-driven indifference to truth. But when the opinion-spouting class grabbed the phrase en masse right after the election, they used it much more broadly. They applied it to sites with a heavy ideological skew. They applied it to conspiracy theories cooked up by people who might not know what credible evidence looks like but sincerely think they're chasing a real scandal. (Sullivan's column alludes twice to "PizzaGate," a theory that owes its origins not to hoaxsters but to nuts.) Conservatives played a part in this, throwing the words "fake news" at mainstream-media stories that might be better described as "bad reporting" (or, sometimes, as "perfectly fine reporting that uncovered facts I don't like"). But they didn't invent the practice. They took what the center-left was doing and bent it to their own ends. Once you've started slapping the "fake news" label on anything that looks like sloppy reporting or ideological bias in the alternative press, you've pretty much guaranteed that people will start flinging it when they think they've spotted sloppy reporting or ideological bias in the mainstream. No media-machine efficiency was required. Ask the right who taught them how to do this stuff, and they can look up from their bed and tell you: You, all right? I learned it by watching you![...]
Tue, 13 Dec 2016 22:15:00 -0500At least twelve more men face felony charges in Washington for posting comments to the now-defunct web forum known as The Review Board (TRB). The dozen defendants, most of whom who will be arraigned in King County District Court on December 14, face one count each of promoting prostitution in the second degree—a charge historically used to target people who profit off of the prostitution of others but more recently favored by King County prosecutors to go after people who write positively online about area prostitution. Prior to this new wave of charges, the King County Sheriff's Office has already prosecuted more than a dozen men in 2016 for what amounts to little more than online speech related to prostitution. Many of those men accepted plea deals after the county threatened to add additional charges and a sexual-motivation enhancement (i.e., more prison time and sex-offender status if convicted) for anyone who attempted to fight back but give those who plead guilty lenient sentencing. After initially portraying these men as a despicable ring of international sex-slave circulators, King County wound up letting most of them off with a bit of community service or electronic-home monitoring and an admission to posting on TheReviewBoard.net while knowing that it might "advance" prostitution. The individuals whose prostitution was advanced on TRB included mostly independent, adult sex workers who also advertised their own services on the site, and some adult (mostly Asian) women who were in town temporarily working at escort agencies and had ads posted by bookers—often other sex workers or former clients—for a fee. Anyone who advertised on TRB had to be approved by site owner "Tahoe Ted," whose personal touch irked some sex workers in the area (he was sometimes accused of discriminating against women who weren't white or conventionally attractive) but also seemed to avoid the problem that plagues purely user-generated content sites like Craigslist and Backpage: underage women. In general, the point of TRB seems to have been one part digital "locker room," one part semi-curated advertising platform for sex workers, and one part system wherein both sex workers and clients (or "hobbyists," as many on the board referred to themsevles) could serve as checks and balances against bad actors on both sides. In the latest batch of TRB-related arrests, defendants are accused of basically the same activity as the first group: reviewing Seattle-area escorts on TRB, messaging other members about local sex workers, and emailing with sex workers themselves about appointments. One of them is also accused of helping a Japanese woman who had been supporting herself as a sex worker in Guam for a few years, then Hawaii, to set up advertisements on TRB and find an apartment when she moved to Seattle, after he had struck up a casual but ongoing relationship with her in Guam years earlier. Granted, TRB posts do tend to describe semi-graphic sexual activity (although not necessarily sex; some review providers of "full body sensual massages" who don't do "full service" appointments). And emails exchanged between sex workers and defendants do hint at prostitution. But people write all sorts of things online that aren't based in reality, and without having talked to sex workers seen by defendants, or witnessed any part of any of the sessions themselves, the cops have no way of knowing whether any illegal activity—or any IRL meetings at all—took place. This is, of course, part of the evil genius of how King County is going after people who pay for sex. With the "promoting prostitution" charge, law enforcement needn't show that defendants actually engaged in pay-to-play sexual activity themselves. All they must show is that the men "advanced" the prostitution careers of others by saying positive things about them online. Of course, at many points throughout the overall investigation, King County deputies and[...]
Tue, 13 Dec 2016 16:45:00 -0500
(image) For the first time in 2015, Americans were able to see the contents of one of the extremely secretive federal National Security Letters (NSLs). These letters from the Department of Justice have been used to obligate tech and telecom companies to provide some metadata (name, address and other info) about specific users or customers to the government.
The NSLs became a point of contention during the surveillance debate during the war on terror because of how secretive they were. Companies like Google or email providers could not reveal the existence of the letters at all. The secrecy was much broader than just concealing the information from the targets. Companies weren't even able to adequately disclose how many NSLs they'd receive. And there wasn't any timeline to indicate how long they'd have to keep the letters a secret.
Some tech companies have challenged the secrecy of the system in courts, and with the passage of the USA Freedom Act, the Department of Justice is now obligated to review the gag orders periodically and lift gags that are no longer necessary.
Today Google released the content of eight NSLs the DOJ had sent them demanding info about Gmail users. The dates of the NSLs range from 2010 to just last year. Google has redacted the actual email addresses and any information identifying specific people, but has served up the letters mostly intact. Google notes:
Our goal in doing so is to shed more light on the nature and scope of NSLs. We minimized redactions to protect privacy interests, but the content of the NSLs remain as they were when served. We are also publishing the correspondence reflecting the lifting of the nondisclosure restrictions. … In the near future, we will establish a more permanent home for these and additional materials from our Transparency Report.
Of potential interest, a single NSL may contain several user accounts the government is investigating, so even if we knew how many NSLs the government sent out, that's not the same as knowing how many different people's data they asked for.
Google's report and the letters may be viewed here. It's a small but important win for government transparency and evidence that at least some good came out of the USA Freedom Act, even if it didn't really rein in mass surveillance the many wanted it to.
Sat, 10 Dec 2016 08:20:00 -0500Some good news for folks who value free speech and sex-worker safety and frown on prosecutorial overreach: Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman has sided with the current and former heads of Backpage in their battle against California Attorney General (AG) Kamala Harris. The defendants had been charged with pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping for running Backpage.com, an online classified-ad site that Harris has called "the world's largest online brothel" due to its ample "adult" and "escort" ads. But as Bowman noted in a preliminary decision in November, federal law specifically prohibits online publishers and publishing-platforms from being held criminally liable for user-generated content, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). "Congress did not wish to hold liable online publishers for the action of publishing third party speech," wrote Bowman at the time. "Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit." Judge Bowman seemed set to dismiss the charges in November, but the AG's office asked for more time to prove that defendants—current Backpage Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Carl Ferrer and former heads Michael Lacey and James Larkin—had not simply presided over a publishing platform but actually altered user-posted ads in order to disseminate them more widely or to conceal the illegal nature of their offerings. Harris' office subsequently submitted 74 pages of info and internal Backpage emails to make the state's case. These documents mostly centered on how Backpage handled the aggregation and publishing of Backpage.com content on two affiliated sites, Evil Empire and Big City. As Bowman summed it up: Prosecutors' "overall theory is that Backpage knew prostitution ads were placed on its main site and, in response, created two additional websites with the goal of encouraging that prostitution through increased ad placement." The state also contended that Backpage "manipulated" content in various ways—shortening headlines, cropping images—when it repackaged Backpage ads on the additional sites. But after considering the state's new evidence, Bowman concluded in a December 9 decision that "defendants have, at most, republished material that was created by a third party." The judge pointed out that California's declaration in support of the defendants' arrest warrant even stated that EvilEmpire.com ads were "essentially identical" to their Backpage.com counterparts. "This demonstrates republication, not content creation," and "republication is entitled to immunity under the CDA," wrote Bowman. The judge also blasted the state's assertion that removing possibly illegal content from user posts counted as criminally manipulating them: Assuming that the People's assertion is true; that the ad went from expressing intent to advertise prostitution to express a desire to 'date,' the People are essentially complaining that Backpage staff scrubbed the original ad, removing any hint of illegality. If this was the alleged content 'manipulation,' the content was modified from being illegal to legal. Surely the AG is not seeking to hold Defendants liable for posting a legal ad; this behavior is exactly the type of 'good Samaritan' behavior that the CDA encourages through the grant of immunity. Ultimately, the court "finds it difficult to see any illegal behavior outside of the reliance upon the content of speech created by others," wrote Bowman. "The whiff of illegality is detected only when considering the alleged content of the statements contained in the ads. ... Thus, the prosecution depends on consideration of speech provided by a third party." The court granted defendants demurrer seeking to have the charges against them dismissed, vacated further court dates, and exonerated bond for each defendant. In his conclusion, Bowman once again wrote in boldf[...]
Tue, 06 Dec 2016 08:30:00 -0500Reddit has suffered a rocky year, having weathered months of censorship concerns and subreddit shutdowns. Recent revelations that co-founder and current CEO Steve Huffman was surreptitiously editing Reddit posts critical of him have thrown the community into still more chaos. But Reddit is far from the only social network struggling with the tension between speech and sensitivity. Similar snafus at other services have been dominating recent headlines: there's "fake news" on Facebook, "hate speech" on Twitter, and the continued scourge of rude comment sections. Social-media platforms are finding it harder to mouth free speech platitudes (and enjoy the corresponding cultural benefits) while at the same time actively curating a sanitized media feed. Yet to not curate or censor is to be accused of aiding and abetting a parade of horribles ranging from online jihadis to the "alt-right." The so-called "Reddit Revolt" has pitted a coterie of left-leaning "social justice warriors" against a ragtag, right-leaning, and rambunctious crew who call themselves free-speech activists. Tensions between Reddit administrators and certain subreddits—most notably, the pro-Trump subreddit called r/The_Donald and a now-banned conspiracy theory subreddit called r/pizzagate that believes high-level world leaders operate and patronize international child-trafficking rings—have been high over the past year, as these communities' impolitic and often impolite content raised the hackles of the website's generally more liberal operators. Where Huffman, or u/spez as he is known on Reddit, really crossed a line with certain Redditors is when he admitted to amending user comments that were critical of him to appear like they were criticizing moderators of r/The_Donald instead. While some have been able to forgive Huffman's faux pas as an immature but benign troll against a community that constantly causes problems, others have decided to leave the platform all together in search of more censorship-averse websites. Of course, internet companies like Reddit and Twitter are private corporations that can run their businesses however they see fit. If that includes censorship, so be it. Users are free to seek or build a better alternative—as users of the still relatively-obscure Voat or Gab platforms have—or just stop using the service altogether. Yet a social network is only as valuable as, well, its network. If everyone you know insists on using a certain service, you're probably going to use that one, too. Even if you don't personally use a particular network, if enough people in a country or planet do use it, then its policies and priorities could have a major impact on your life. And then there's the value of "free speech" on a conceptual level. If you hold free speech to be an ideal worth fighting for, you will push platforms to protect it, even if it is costly or inconvenient. This is a conundrum that we didn't have to seriously deal with for a long time. In their early days, social-media platforms were "open" merely by virtue of their limited scale. Far fewer people used these websites, and the early adopters who did were largely internet-hardened veterans of forums and IRC channels who were not exactly allergic to a good flame war. For years, social media platforms touted this openness as a key cultural and design feature of their services. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo famously characterized the microblogging platform as "the free speech wing of the free speech party." Mark Zuckerberg marketed Facebook as a "place where people across the world share their views and ideas." And of course Reddit has long positioned itself as a "free speech site with very few exceptions"—even when said speech was personally revolting to its operators. Only criminal acts, "doxing," IP violations, and perhaps targeted harassment were grounds for[...]
Wed, 30 Nov 2016 13:45:00 -0500Queen Elizabeth gave her assent to the British Investigatory Powers Bill on Tuesday, the last step needed before the massive surveillance authorization bill becomes law in 2017. A new, deeper analysis of the final law by tech experts suggests there's more to fear than simply government access to citizens' browser history. This law may ultimately put everybody's data privacy and security at risk. To refresh everybody's memory, the Investigatory Powers Bill—nicknamed by critics the "Snooper's Charter"—formally legally increases the power of the British government to engage in online surveillance, provides rules to allow for the bulk collection of citizen metadata, and the authority to hack into devices remotely. The law requires Internet Service Providers to store information about users' browser history for a year and hand over this information to government officials when provided a warrant. Essentially the law formalizes some secretive surveillance methods already being used by government that were exposed by Edward Snowden, but it also provides for some judicial oversight. While the law is being sold as a way to keep the United Kingdom "safe" and to fight terrorism, the reality is that a whole host of government agencies who have nothing to do with national defense will also have access to this information. These are agencies that investigate fraud and deal with taxation and licensing issues. It is abundantly clear to anybody familiar with the law that it is designed and intended to be used to investigate domestic crime, not just terrorism. But there's more. Privacy advocates and tech companies had been fighting with the British government over the crafting of the law, particularly about the inclusion of mandates for encryption "back doors" so that government officials would not be stymied in their surveillance efforts. While the new law doesn't officially mandate encryption back doors, U.K.-based tech media site The Register scoured the 300-page law and discovered buried deep within something just as bad. Government leaders will be able to give a company what they're calling a "technical capability notice" that can impose obligations and changes upon the products (software, apps, whatever) that may demand "removal by a relevant operator of electronic protection applied by or on behalf of that operator to any communications or data." That is to say: The law doesn't mandate encryption back doors outright, but it gives the government the authority to demand that specific companies remove the encryption protecting data. That means the British government expects that all of these companies will have the capacity to break their own encryption on the demand. So in reality, the law does mandate encryption bypasses and back doors for communication tools, but it's allowing the companies to maintain control over the "keys." If this sounds familiar to Americans, this line of the law has the same impact as the widely mocked terrible legislation proposed by Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in the spring. In response to Apple's refusal to help the FBI decrypt the iPhone that was in the possession of one of the San Bernardino terrorists, the senators crafted the technologically illiterate "Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016." Like the text of the British law, it doesn't order tech companies to create back doors for the government to bypass encryption, but it does require that the tech companies themselves bypass their own encryption when given a court order to do so. What's the big deal? There is a simple truth that everybody who works within the tech industry or writes about technology understands that many government officials are either choosing to ignore or unwilling to accept: When a company creates encryption methods that have built-in bypass methods[...]
Mon, 28 Nov 2016 12:45:00 -0500The United Kingdom's Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is not part of an agency tasked with fighting terrorism. They are a licensing body monitoring labor rules in the U.K.'s agriculture industries. Nevertheless, under a new mass surveillance law, high-ranking officials of this agency will have as much access to the private Internet information of British citizens as agencies that actually are tasked with fighting terrorism. This will be the outcome of the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act, also known as the Snooper's Charter. It has passed both houses of the British Parliament and will become law in 2017 if approved by the queen. The Investigatory Powers Act makes the surveillance authorized by America's PATRIOT Act look remarkably tame in comparison. The law requires Internet Service Providers to keep all metadata and web browsing history of users for 12 months. And it allows top officials of dozens of government agencies to demand access to this information, not to fight terrorism, but any sort of crime. The list of agencies granted access included in Schedule 4 of the 300+-page law includes several government bodies whose job it is to fight various forms of fraud or general crimes. It contains rules on how to get warrants to access confidential information stored by journalists and to try to track down a journalist's sources. It, of course, creates special protections for members of Parliament to provide extra requirements before snooping on them. This is not a law about fighting terrorism. This is a law that completely destroys citizens' online privacy for the benefit of any sort of governmental investigation to solve domestic crimes. Edward Snowden called it "the most extreme surveillance in the history of Western democracy." This was a pet project of new Prime Minister Theresa May, and I've previously noted that she is absolutely awful on surveillance and privacy, going so far as to think that snooping on private communications is an acceptable way to fight "cyberbullying." People are now petitioning to try to force the House of Commons to reconsider the legislation. At the same time this domestic surveillance law is being passed, the U.K. is also considering a bill adding additional restrictions to the availability of online pornography. The law's stated purpose is to demand age checks to access porn sites, but a clause would potentially ban portrayal of certain types of "non-traditional" sex acts, meaning the kinky stuff, like spanking, female ejaculation, and anything that looks non-consensual (even though it's just role-playing). It doesn't take a brain surgeon to see the very, very bad ways that these two laws could intersect. Ron Bailey previously noted how Russia is using surveillance laws like those in the U.K. and the United States as models for their own. The Investigatory Powers Act is an autocrat's wet dream. Laws exactly like this one will be used in other countries to snoop and crack down on dissenters and protesters, and the United Kingdom will hardly be in a position to criticize. And if President-Elect Donald Trump's choice to head the CIA—Rep. Mike Pompeo—is an indicator, America may be following in England's footsteps.[...]
Fri, 25 Nov 2016 12:00:00 -0500
As part of a recent child pornography investigation disconcertingly known as Operation Pacifier, the FBI ran a website that distributed photographs and videos of children being sexually abused.
Last year, according to The Seattle Times, "after arresting the North Carolina administrator of The Playpen, a 'dark web' child-pornography internet bulletin board, agents seized the site's server and moved it to an FBI warehouse in Virginia." The bureau used the website to run "a sting and computer-hacking operation of unparalleled scope that has thus far led to criminal charges against 186 people," mostly for receiving or possessing child pornography.
In other words, the government became a major distributor of illegal images in an attempt to catch people who look at them, thereby committing a more serious crime than those arrested.
As attorneys representing the people busted by the FBI have pointed out, the government's position is that children are revictimized every time images of their sexual abuse are viewed or shared. That argument is one of the main rationales for punishing mere possession of child pornography, which under federal law and the laws of some states can be treated more harshly than violent crimes—more harshly even than actual abuse of children.
"Distributing" such an image is a federal crime punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of five years and a maximum sentence of 20 years. If such actions merit criminal prosecution because they are inherently harmful, there is no logical reason why the federal agents who ran The Playpen should escape the penalties they want to impose on the people who visited the site.
Wed, 16 Nov 2016 18:32:00 -0500It looked like the courts would once again save us from prosecutorial overreach aimed at web classified-ad site Backpage—and in so doing, reaffirm the protection under federal law and the First Amendment that's afforded third-party publishers of online content. On Wednesday morning, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman indicated that he would reject California's case against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and two former site owners on charges of pimping, pimping a minor, and conspiracy. In a tentative ruling, Bowman agreed with the defense that the federal Communications Decency Act prohibits the charges aginst Ferrer and co-defendants Michael Lacey and James Larkin, who were all arrested in October. "Congress did not wish to hold liable online publishers for the action of publishing third party speech," he wrote. "Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit." The last sentence was bolded. Although Bowman could not issue a final ruling until after oral arguments, which were scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, he said that the final ruling come as early as that evening. And it did: Bowman now wants more info. According to Cheryl Miller of California legal newspaper The Recorder, the judge has now said he won't dismiss the pimping charges just yet and would like more briefings from both sides before deciding whether to make the tenative ruling final. The case against Ferrer and company was instigated by the California Department of Justice and led by state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who called Backpage "the world's top online brothel." Harris, a Democrat, just won a seat in the U.S. Senate. In October, former Backpage owners Lacey and Larkin accused her of bringing the charges against them as a pre-election publicity stunt. "Make no mistake; Kamala Harris has won all that she was looking to win when she had us arrested," the men alleged in a statement. "She issued her sanctimonious public statement, controlled her media cycle and got her 'perp walk' on the evening news. ... And if the polls are any indication, Harris will be warmly ensconced in the United States Senate by the time her blatant violations of the First Amendment and federal law are finally adjudicated. She won't pay. The taxpayers of California will." As I noted here then, Harris knew the charges she was bringing against Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin were not permitted under federal law. In 2013, she petitioned Congress to change the law specifically so that she and other state attorneys general could prosecute Backpage owners. Which means her presence now in Congress doesn't bode well for Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act (CDA), the part that protects web publishers and platforms from criminal liability for user-generated content. For now, it looks uncertain whether Backpage—which has emerged victorious in several previous attempts by state prosecutors to go after it in unconstitutional ways—will be afforded the protections guaranteed under Section 230. "The importance of the protection afforded by the First Amendment was the motivating factor behind the creation of CDA," Bowman noted in his tentative ruling earlier today. While government has a legitimate interest in fighting sex trafficking, that interest "is not absolute," wrote Bowman, "and must be constrained by the interests and protections of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." Bowman also pointed out in the tentative ruling that California criminal code defines pimping as living or deriving financial support from the earnings or proceeds of a person's prostitution, and "does not apply to an individual who provides a legitimate professional service to a prostitute even if paid with proceeds earned fr[...]
Tue, 15 Nov 2016 13:45:00 -0500So now it's Facebook's fault that Donald Trump was elected president. If you have any number of friends who like sharing either memes or headlines, you've undoubtedly seen all sorts of fake news stories and fabricated facts. We're not talking deliberate parodies, like The Onion, though even they fool people now and then. We're talking pieces that are just completely made up by little-known "media outlets" with vague names, and the stories are intended to be perceived as real. Because these stories don't show up anywhere else (because they're not true), people might be more inclined to click the link to read when they see them on Facebook, particularly when the headlines are outrageous. There's now apparently both a push to act as though these fake stories had a major impact on the election and also that Facebook should do something about it. There has been coverage in the New York Times, Gizmodo, and elsewhere. Google and Facebook have responded in the past by trying to find ways to de-emphasize links from these sites and just recently announced they'll refuse to run ads on fake news sites. There are a lot of concepts to parse on what seems like a minor election side story (and the latest reason for some people to ignore why Hillary Clinton actually lost), but it's worth exploring more deeply. First of all, perhaps consider that thinking people voted because of fake information they were exposed to on Facebook says more about you than them. To the extent that people fall for fake news, the fact that such news affirms existing biases certainly plays a major factor. Does anybody have evidence to suggest that fake news actually caused anybody to change their vote? There is a component to this particular argument that has a stench of "What a bunch of rubes the people are," connected directly to the results of a controversial election. Not that people don't believe in conspiracies or fall for fake news, but as Jesse Walker would point out, Americans across the spectrum believe in them, not just those who would vote for Trump. And I would point out that believing fabricated conspiracy stories perpetuated by fake news sites significantly influenced the election is itself kind of a conspiracy theory. Second, do you know who was big about pointing out fake news stories? Donald Trump. All those accusations of sexual assault and harassment? He said they're all lies. A smear job. He said he was the victim. We all understand what people demanding Facebook do something about "fake news" are actually getting at. They're generally not asking for Facebook to serve as an arbiter of the factual components of controversies (though I wouldn't put it past some people). Facebook is not very good at managing controvery. Rather what these folks have in mind that is that there are clearly news outlets that are producing fake news stories on purpose to get page views and earn some cash, and they're absolutely right. But that's exactly how Trump would describe the media outlets who run with the assault stories. So what these frustrated people need to realize is that if they convince Facebook to censor sharing of these obviously fake stories, then there's going to be a fight over what a "fake story" actually is. There's a bias here—in media circles most obviously—that it's simply going to be a matter of cutting out the outlets making stuff up from whole cloth. These little no-name places that aren't known journalistic outfits. Why would it end there? Given that Facebook is now so influential in putting information in front of people, the result will most certainly be a push to define "fake" down in order to keep stories that harm certain interests from spreading. And so, yes, forget letting algori[...]
Sat, 12 Nov 2016 21:15:00 -0500Calls to mental health and suicide hotlines spiked this week after Donald Trump was elected president, according to four major crisis-prevention hotlines, with much of the increase coming in calls from LGBT people. Even worse, the election results allegedly triggered the suicides of at least 10 transgender Americans—the majority of them teenagers—within the few days following Trump's win, according to reports rapidly circulating on social media. But while the Trump/Pence win and the return of Republican power may have created apprehension among the LGBT community, there's no evidence to support rumors of a recent wave of transgender-teen suicides and very good cause to doubt them. Tragically, though, this false epidemic going viral could help drive up real suicide attempts among struggling teens. The news of a wave of trans teen suicides began circulating on Wednesday, when a few people posted Facebook updates claiming that the information came from private support groups for parents of transgender children. It was given legs Wednesday night by Guardian writer and Out magazine editor-at-large Zach Stafford, who tweeted that "at least 8 trans youth have committed suicide in the wake of Trump's win." Stafford's tweet was retweeted more than 13,000 times before he deleted it, explaining: "as we continue to investigate the reported suicides, I've spoken w/ GLAAD and we feel it best to take down the original tweet. ...until families can come forward & we have better facts. Currently there is fear of suicide contagion due to the social media." Nick Adams, director of the GLAAD Transgender Media Program, told BuzzFeed News that there were "unconfirmed reports that some trans people died by suicide in the hours following the election," though at that point it was "not possible to substantiate those rumors." He added that "it's important that mainstream media outlets and people on social media do not spread incomplete or inaccurate information about suicides, as it can lead others to attempt self harm." But while mainstream media may have heeded his warning, the rumors escalated on social media and blogs, spread by activists, journalists, and thousands of scared and saddened individuals. By Friday, a list of names was circulating: 10 transgender Americans who had killed themselves since Tuesday for reasons directly related to Trump's election. It's unclear where this list originated, but soon it was filling Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines. I had mentioned the transgender-teen suicide rumors in passing in an earlier post, and if there was evidence showing them to be true, I wanted to update the post. But the list immediately raised red flags—everyone was a "revolutionary communist activist" or had a pregnant fiance or a family wherein Trump's election somehow resulted in there only being enough money for one of two trans siblings to transition. So I started looking for more information about any of the named people. If I could find anything affirming these heartbreaking incidents, I wanted to share it. If not... well, what kind of sick person makes things like this up? In countless comments, tweets, and Tumblr posts, people were sharing the list with genuine grief, worry, anger, and fear. Countless young LGBT people and sad, scared kids were likely seeing this. I'm no expert on social contagion or teen suicides, but the people who are seem to think this is exactly what we don't want: a tide of unsubstantiated suicide rumors that could normalize, glamorize, or otherwise encourage suicide attempts in already depressed or vulnerable young people. But in trying to confirm that any of the named people had committed suicide, or even existed, I've tur[...]