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Published: Sun, 19 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 19 Feb 2017 16:19:02 -0500

 



Does Digital Literacy Require More Gatekeepers?

Thu, 09 Feb 2017 17:20:00 -0500

(image) "A deep political divide is starting to open up in digital literacy discussions," argues Bryan Alexander, an academic turned consultant who writes frequently about education and technology. This division doesn't separate left from right or Red from Blue. "It's a split between those who think people should assume the power to make decisions about information and media, and those who prefer to build up authorities to help us cope with the digital world. On the one side, lower-case-d democrats; on the others, neo-gatekeepers."

For an example, think of the "fake news" debate. If you think the best response to the plague of viral Facebook hoaxes is to give power to a committee charged with sorting true stories from false, you're with the gatekeepers. A democrat wouldn't be opposed to organized factchecking, but he would see such efforts as part of a larger system of mutual peer review where everyone is fallible and no one is the final authority.

The first lower-case-d democrat that Alexander cites is me, so there's not much mystery about where I fall on this spectrum. By the end of the post, Alexander has confessed his bias toward the democratic tribe too. But his chief interest, he writes, is

how this political divide plays out for educators, from K-12 teachers to colleges faculty and staff, to museum and library professionals. How will we and our institutions stake out positions on this continuum, from democrats to neo-gatekeepers?

I can see incentives and professional reasons for hewing to either pole. Institutions and professions often function as gatekeepers, after all. At the same time each of these fields also has an ethos of empowering their students/users/patrons. Some of these institutions are closely tied up to authorities, such as active churches or states, while others see themselves as independent spaces. Each has taken up a related range of positions on previous digital issues, such as web sites, open education resources, and social media.

And then there's the elephant in the room, or rather the donkey: "Many of these professionals tack Democratic in terms of party politics." That's Democratic with a big D, and not necessarily a small one. The Dems are out of power right now, and so in some cases they may feel more suspicious than usual about gatekeepers. But "#resistance can also mean the recreation of authority sapped by the November electoral disaster."

Anyway, the post does a nice job of laying out a spectrum of positions, and I'm not just saying that because it quotes me liberally. To read the whole thing, go here.




Will Your Old Emails Finally Get Fourth Amendment Protections?

Tue, 07 Feb 2017 14:05:00 -0500

Once again, legislation that would give American citizens better privacy protections for their emails has passed the House of Representatives, but we're going to have to see what happens in the Senate. The Email Privacy Act aims to correct a flaw in federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. Passed in the relatively early days of home computer use, it established a policy that private electronic communications held by third parties that were more than 180 days old could be accessed by law enforcement and government investigators without the need for a warrant. A subpoena delivered to the communication provider was enough. A law this old obviously preceded the arrival and dominance of private email communications, and tech privacy activists and tech companies have been pushing for reform. The way the system stands now can result in people having their old private communications searched and read by authorities without the citizen's knowledge. The Email Privacy Act fixes some of these problems, though it doesn't fully resolve the controversy Under the act, officials will need to get actual warrants to access emails and online communications, which provides at least a little more judicial oversight. But the warrants are to the providers, not to the actual people who wrote and sent the communications. It will be up to companies to decide whether to pass along the news of the warrant to customers. Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, says that this is a flaw with the legislation. The original version of the bill required that government provide notice. Without that rule, the third-party provider can resist the warrant if they choose to, but the actual customer probably might not even know. "If you don't have notice, you really can't effectively [challenge the warrant]," Singh Guliani said. The bill does permit third-party providers to let customers know about the administration of warrants, but also allows for the government to delay this information for 180 days under a handful of exceptions—if the target is a flight risk or may destroy evidence or otherwise compromise the investigation. And while some major tech and communication companies have fought back against orders to pass along data or to keep searches secret, Singh Guliani says we shouldn't have to be "reliant on the business practices of providers that can change over time to make sure people get the full protection of the Fourth Amendment." Still, the compromise bill is better than the current rules. No representative voted against it last session of Congress, and it passed again yesterday by a voice vote. But while the bill enjoys popular bipartisan support in the House, the last attempt to get it passed hit disaster in the Senate. Senators attempted to meddle with the wording of the bill to weaken it or add other unrelated regulations. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) attempted to add an amendment to expand the surveillance reach of secretive National Security Letters. Sponsoring senators ended up yanking the legislation from consideration. The Senate sponsors last session were Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). A representative from Sen. Lee's office said that he intends to co-sponsor the Senate version of the bill again this year, but it has not yet been introduced. This could be the first legislative test of whether increased privacy protections can make its way to and through a presidential administration openly hostile to limits on any sort of investigative or law enforcement authority (as we saw earlier today). President Donald Trump is hardly alone and he's not responsible for its previous problems, but it's nevertheless legislation that should not be struggling at all. And a little bit of self-promotion: I'll be leading a panel discussion on the Fourth Amendment, tech privacy, and Congressional lawmaking in this March's South by Southwest (SXSW) conference. Singh Guliani will be one of our panelists. Check out the details here if you find yourself in Austin on M[...]



Fake News Freakout

Sun, 05 Feb 2017 06:00:00 -0500

Anyone with a Facebook account this year likely witnessed a barrage of false, conspiracy-laden headlines. My news feed informed me that Hillary Clinton was gravely ill, was already dead, had a body double, and murdered dozens of people. (It's amazing what you can learn when you have the right friends.) I also found out that President Barack Obama had worked his way through college as a gay prostitute. (Who could blame him? Columbia is very expensive!) Reeling after November's unexpected loss to Donald Trump, Democrats have taken to blaming such "fake news" for that outcome. Trump won, the argument goes, because Americans were exposed to inaccurate information; if only they'd had the right info from the right people, voters would have made better choices. A Washington Post piece took the idea further, claiming that fake news stems from a "sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy." In response to such heated calls, Facebook has started looking for ways to rid itself of the fakeries. Whether or not it's to blame for Trump's victory, fake news can be a problem. People who absorb inaccuracies will sometimes believe them and, worse, act on them. And once an inaccuracy gets lodged in a person's head, it can be difficult to dislodge. The political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown that even when presented with authoritative facts, people will not merely refuse to change their incorrect beliefs; in some instances they'll double down on them. This is called the "backfire" effect. But it is far from clear that fake news has the sweeping effects that its critics charge. People have always put stock in dubious ideas, and the latest deluge of suspect headlines traversing the Internet smells more of continuity than it does of change. I have been studying political communication for more than a decade. Much of that time has been spent looking at conspiracy theories, why people believe them, and how they spread. What we know about how people interact with information—and misinformation—suggests that fake political news doesn't affect people's opinions nearly as much as is being insinuated. Where Political Beliefs Come From In the 1940s, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues explored how the media affects political views by comparing people's opinions (as measured by surveys) to the news and advertisements they were exposed to. The investigators expected to find evidence that media messages had immediate, powerful, and intuitive effects on people's political views. Instead, they found that opinions were largely stable and invariant to media messages. You could face a barrage of the Madison Avenue pitches proclaiming the virtues of either President Franklin Roosevelt or his Republican challenger, but if six months in advance you were inclined to vote for one of those men, in November that was who you'd probably vote for. Very few people changed their preferences over the course of the campaign. The same finding held throughout the broadcast era: There was very little relationship between people's intended choices and the messaging they encountered. Whatever change did occur usually took the form of people aligning their candidate preferences with their underlying party affiliation. External events and economic conditions mattered, of course, but they tended to make their impact regardless of messaging. This is not to say that news, advertisements, and campaigns have no effects. But those effects tend to be less direct and of lower magnitude than people assume. Over the last few decades, as media markets segmented, the ratings for the three traditional broadcast news programs have declined and people have sought out other entertainment options. For those who enjoy and seek out political news, market segmentation allowed them to gravitate toward messages that gratified thei[...]



Director of Anti-Sex Trafficking Doc I Am Jane Doe Doesn't Understand the Laws She's Trying to Reform

Thu, 26 Jan 2017 13:30:00 -0500

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gYdoDBt3DQs" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> I had the opportunity to go on Al Jazeera English show The Stream Tuesday to discuss online sex-trafficking, U.S. laws, and—especially—the website Backpage, whose executives were subject to a Congressional inquiry earlier this month. My fellow guests on the live, interactive show—hosted by Femi Oke and Malika Bilal—were three women with very personal and political connections to sex trafficking, all advocating for changes to federal law that would allow web publishers and platforms to be held liable for content that users post. This, they submitted, would help protect children and teens from being sexually exploited by giving government the tools to go after Backpage—and, if need be, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and hundreds of other websites next. My fellow guests were Brooke Axtell, Mary Mazzio, and Kubiiki Pride. Pride is identified by The Stream as the "mother of 'M.A.', sex trafficking survivor," and Axtell as a sex-trafficking survivor and founder of Survivor Healing. Axtell is also the communications director for Austin, Texas-based Allies Against Slavery, and Pride, whose daughter is now in her early 20s, has been championing various legislative causes in her family's name for a few years, most recently before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations inquiry into Backpage. Mazzio is an Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker who most recently directed I am Jane Doe. Narrated by Jessica Chastain, I am Jane Doe has been getting attention from places like the New Yorker, the Daily Mail, and the McCain Institute. The underlying premise of the film, out in February, is that Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act—the statute more or less responsible for keeping the social, user-driven, free-press-oriented internet as we know it afloat—is an outdated protection that "provides a safe haven for website publishers to advertise underage girls for sex." At the beginning of the program, I assured the other guests that our fundamental goals were aligned—I, too, want to help prevent and stop sexual exploitation and violence, even though we disagree about the best way to do so. I wasn't there to advocate for the company Backpage or talk about the First Amendment in some abstract way, I said, but rather to argue against policies that will cause even more harms to children, women, and people of all genders involved, voluntarily or not, in prostitution. All constitutional issues aside, being sympathetic to the suffering of those sexually exploited can't mean settling for symbolic victories while ignoring how our policies will materially affect the lives of those we're purporting to help. Alas, it wasn't just potential solutions I found myself arguing with the other guests about. On several occassions, I was met with accusations of lying simply for stating plain facts about U.S. law. I was also met with skepticism when bringing up information that comes directly from the U.S. Senate's recent investigation into Backpage. So what follows is an attempt to set the record straight about a few of these things. Yes, the U.S. Has a Law Against Advertising Minors for Sex: Mazzio kept lamenting that it was legal in America to advertise kids for sex. I objected, noting that not only is sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion illegal under federal law, it's also considered sex trafficking to promote the prostitution of a minor in any way, even absent force or threats or personal profit, and regardless of whether the victim's age is known. In addition, anyone soliciting paid sex from someone under age 18 can be charged as a child sex trafficker under federal law. And the same statute explicitly says that advertising a minor for prostitution is also a form of "severe trafficking in persons." It comes with a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of 10 years and possible life in prison. Maz[...]



Lavabit, Snowden’s Favorite Encrypted Email Service, Returns from the Dead

Tue, 24 Jan 2017 17:20:00 -0500

(image) Email service provider Lavabit famously (in tech security circles anyway) shut its doors and turned itself off back in 2013. Its owner, Ladar Levison, explained that he was doing so to keep from having to comply with federal government orders to hand over the encryption key that would give the feds access to the contents of emails by domestic surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Now, as a new administration takes control of the White House, Levison and Lavabit are returning. Lavabit is relaunching its services, now that Levison has worked to make it even harder for the federal government to attempt to gain access to emails sent by its users. On his announcement, timed to launch with Donald Trump's inauguration, Levison explained that he had developed an end-to-end encryption system that would minimize the ability to for outsiders to access users info, once it's all fully implemented.

Kim Zetter over at The Intercept has more details directly from Lavabit:

With the new architecture, Lavabit will no longer be able to hand over its SSL key, because the key is now stored in a hardware security module — a tamper-resistant device that provides a secure enclave for storing keys and performing sensitive functions, like encryption and decryption. Lavabit generates a long passphrase blindly so the company doesn't know what it is; Lavabit then inserts the key into the device and destroys the passphrase.

"Once it's in there we cannot pull that SSL key back out," says Sean, a Lavabit developer who asked to be identified only by his first name. (Many of Lavabit's coders and engineers are volunteers who work for employers who might not like them helping build a system that thwarts government surveillance.)

If anyone does try to extract the key, it will trigger a mechanism that causes the key to self-destruct.

The hardware security module is a temporary solution, however, until end-to-end encryption is available, which will encrypt email on the user's device and make the SSL encryption less critical.

The site is for Lavabit is active, and for those who want to subscribe, the price currently ranges from $15 to $30 annually depending on storage limits. And they accept bitcoins!

Reason TV has previously interviewed Levison about the importance of encryption in protecting liberty and privacy (and warnings about those who simply use vague encryption and security claims for marketing purposes). Watch below:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/OhiTL4W5VMg" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">




Brickbat: State Secrets

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to order an Oregon man to take down blog posts he made that contain information about informants the feds had in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge when part of it was occupied by a group led by Ammon Bundy. They say Gary Hunt is illegally in possession of sensitive documents that could threaten investigations.




Brickbat: Weak Links

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.




Backpage Backed Into Corner Over Adult Ads. Is Government's Goal a Goodbye to Sex Trafficking, or Free Speech?

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 entail[...]



Is Jeff Sessions Ready to Ban Internet Gambling by DOJ Fiat?

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 08:00:00 -0500

During 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 [...]



Backpage Shutters 'Adult' Ads Section Following Years of Government Bullying

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 08:05:00 -0500

Like 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 me[...]



Let's Be Clear About Who Drained the Meaning from the Phrase 'Fake News'

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 13:45:00 -0500

A 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![...]



'The Review Board' Bust: 12 More Men Face Felony Charges for Posting to Seattle Web Forum

Tue, 13 Dec 2016 22:15:00 -0500

At 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 [...]



Google Releases Very Small Batch of National Security Letters to the Public

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.




Backpage Leaders Beat Pimping Charges as Court Affirms Importance of Immunity for Web Publishers of Third-Party Speech

Sat, 10 Dec 2016 08:20:00 -0500

Some 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 t[...]



The Future of Free Speech on Social Media Looks Grim

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 08:30:00 -0500

Reddit 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 exceptio[...]