Rat Redux

It’s been a while since we discussed state of the rat filtering technology, but some examples recently need to go on list.

Machines understand exactly what your child should know:

The Filter can tell when you are using dirty language and will protect sensitive Americans from your crudeness:

NASA is of course stealing the coverage of the space launch from NBC.

Facebook’s bots don’t agree with Facebook’s adjudication:

Facial recognition will definitely help us find the right guy

State Of The Rat Technology

While we’re on the subject of mandatory filtering, here’s the sort of technology we are talking about in action:

The original State Of The Rat Technology:

Now removed, the original post that triggered this page was from the owner of a mole rat complaining that her photos of her rat were being incorrectly tagged as pornography and consequently her account kept getting blocked.

Political content is so easy to spot:

That reference database is spot on defining ownership:

History and classics are not always PC:

Blocking The Fields

Dry stone walls in the Yorkshire Dales

There are people walking over the beautiful spring meadows. Most are just enjoying the beauty of it all, but some are going visiting to each other’s houses. Of those, you discover one or two of them doing things you and your supporters don’t like when they arrive, so you want to stop them.

You issue an instruction to block the fields. Your objective is just, so it must be possible, right? Your bureaucrats get to work on your demand.

They can’t block an open field, so they build a road and block that.

But people go round the roadblock, so they build a fence along the sides of the road too.

But people go round the fence, so they add a fence all around the field.

But people go round the field, so they mandate fences across the whole country. That bad thing you want to stop justifies all the expense and inconvenience, doesn’t it? Building the fences takes several years, but the whole country is now covered in obstacles of various kinds.

But there are now so many miles of fences that they are mostly out of sight of your staff. People just jump over them, so you tell the police start to arrest people who do. That bad thing is so bad you have to act tough, even though most of those people they are arresting are just trying to work round the inconvenience you have caused them for innocuous reasons.

But there aren’t enough police to patrol every fence, so you hire more and more.

But they still can’t arrest everyone, so they recruit informers.

You can’t rely on the informers, so you get them to spy on each other as well.

Turns out you can’t rely on spies, so you add security cameras as well.

You now need an army of spies, analysts and police to watch the security cameras, check on the spies and watch for people jumping fences. This is not about the bad thing you first objected to any more. It’s now about respecting the law for the sake of the law. So your people are arresting everyone regardless of their motives, checking on spies for telling lies, dealing with corruption among your informers, suppressing all the “SJW”s who whine about the loss of freedom and undermining your political opposition who are equally clueless about blocking fields but can see that what you are doing is hugely unpopular.

Congratulations! Your attempt to stop something your supporters disapprove of by mandating the impossible has created a police state. It doesn’t matter how bad the thing you were trying to stop is; people probably agree that it’s a bad thing.

By mandating the impossible, you caused collateral damage that outweighed any benefits, and by associating it with a thing no-one dares defend in public you were able to accidentally destroy society without opposition. And you didn’t notice because you never go for walks in the fields.

Porn Summit Actively Harmful

The government clearly wishes to be seen to be doing something about the issues of children viewing pornography and of child pornography. To this end they have called a summit, to be chaired by Culture Secretary Maria Miller and attended by major Internet service providers. But the invite list conspicuously omits anyone representing actual citizens, the people creating and using the internet who would actually be affected.

Since the proposals will materially harm the Internet for everyone in Britain, that’s quite an oversight. That’s like only inviting postmen to a summit about hate mail.

Read more in ComputerWorldUK.

Leveson Collateral Damage

Now I am clearer on the details of the press hacking regulation that’s being railroaded through the UK Parliament, I just sent this to my MP.  Feel free to borrow from it.

Dear $MP,

I’m one of your constituents ($postcode), as well as being a pro bono director of Open Rights Group and a writer on digital rights issues.

I am extremely concerned about the way the Leveson response is being railroaded through Parliament. I see all the main decisions have been made without Parliamentary scrutiny and are about to be introduced with a nod & wink in the Crime & Courts Bill discussion in the Lords on Monday (see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2012-2013/0137/amend/pbc1371803m.pdf). I’m contacting you directly as time is very short for you to act by expressing concern over the lack of due process and the risk of collateral damage.

I’ve discussed this with my colleagues both in my own consulting practice and at ORG. We believe that serious conceptual flaws exist in the language of the amendments, and that unwittingly the Leveson responses – nominally targetting large media corporations – will end up introducing new rules that regulate internet publishing by much smaller entities which were never targetted by Leveson.

As an example, Apple could use these new provisions to chill disclosure of newsworthy product leaks such as http://www.macrumors.com/2011/12/26/2011-biggest-apple-product-leaks/. A company like Monsanto could use them to discourage public criticism of its strategies. Energy companies could use them to threaten and chill coverage of climate change. Perhaps even whalers could use them to silence Greenpeace supporters.

From reading amendment NC29, pretty much any web site with adverts or run by someone with a consulting activity could be construed as “in the course of a business” and many bloggers have guests, co-writers and translations that plausibly qualify as “written by different authors”. It’s entirely feasible that a corporation could threaten litigation under these measures to chill discourse. Amendment NS5 offers no comfort.

These corporate repurposers don’t have to be right, and it doesn’t even need to go to court to have a chilling effect. With such high stakes, most of us would just fold rather than risk such enormous penalties. As drafted, the amendments create new weapons for corporate litigants that worry me and others greatly.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but the whole response is being railroaded by very narrowly-focussed non-experts with no concern for the collateral damage they are doing. The last time I recall this sort of panic – over the Terrorism Act Section 44 which started out as “preventing terrorism” – we ended up with “random stop-and-search powers being exercised by the Met on any motorist they felt like bothering”.

Please can you consider the matter and if you agrees urgently express my concerns? I am available for discussion by phone.

Update: ORG now has an easy form to help you write to both your MP and the party leaders.

Royal Charter or Star Chamber For Stars?

Alec Muffett points out that the new Royal Charter being rushed through the UK Parliament includes some drafting that appears to drag blogs, Twitter and other social media into the penalty net.  This is an extremely worrying development that needs rapid response from the meshed society of citizen creator-consumers (that almost certainly means you).

Unpacking all the nested definitions in the draft Charter, a person who:

  • publishes in the United Kingdom or for an audience mainly located in the United Kingdom
  • news or information about current affairs or
  • opinion about matters related to the news or current affairs or
  • gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news, on
  • a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)

falls within the remit of this Charter as a “relevant publisher”. This is the only clear scope I can find in the whole proposed regulation.  Yes, that clearly includes my blog, Twitter, public posts on Facebook and pretty much any other social media channel. I do not believe this is a drafting error; I believe it’s an intentional gag on whistleblowers and individual attention, on anyone who doesn’t have a boss someone powerful can call to have them shut up.

Of course, the proposals have no regard for this meshed world of creator-consumers. All the thinking revolves around Big Media, so there’s no representation for me or you in the regulatory body it creates, nor accommodation for the realities of the meshed society we inhabit. By including the new meshed world of creator-consumer citizens into this measure intended as a leash for dinosaurs, nothing is achieved in terms of realistic regulation.

But a new, deadly weapon is created to allow the rich to chill and punish any of those creator-consumers who dare to challenge them. When an established publication publishes a diatribe, they provide an umbrella for its author to shelter them from the new threats made available through this new regulatory mechanism. They are already pretty good at shielding authors; as long as they have jumped through the new hoops and behave reasonably, there’s not much more threat here than before.

But when the same writer tweets an opinion, or when I post my opinion about it on my personal blog, this new regulation allows the well-resourced members of the media elite to subject us to weapons tuned for deterring the Murdochs of this world. The penalties involved are out of all proportion to any harm as well as way beyond your and my means even to buy insurance, let alone to pay.

Just the threat that we might get dragged into this Star Chamber for the stars would be enough to chill most of us. Until they were caught public figures, politicians and police were quite happy with the old arrangement, under which they and journalists committed illegal acts that benefited both sides. I’m sure those same people will be pleased to see a new arrangement that can be used to shut us all up, in prison if not in word.

You say such an abuse could never happen?  Tell Paul Chambers. Tell the security researcher imprisoned in the USA for longer than teenage rapists under a similarly “misdrafted” regulation. Tell Matthew Keys. Tell the family of Aaron Swartz, hounded to his death by over-empowered investigators. Legislation aimed at powerful individuals and corporations kills people like us when it’s misapplied.

Cory Doctorow puts it this way:

In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled “publish” or “submit” or “tweet” while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print “corrections” and “apologies” in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.

The problem is not regulation; it’s that the politicians appear to have bought the acquiescence of the media industry to this limited restraint on their abuses by providing them with a new way to prevent inconvenient independent expression from further eroding their power. As Nick Cohen wrote in The Observer, “Did you not notice that Leveson hurt no one in power?”  The big story here is not erosion of press freedom; it is rather the chilling of the voice of the citizen.

(Also published on ComputerWorldUK, where of course it would be protected under the new rules; is that fair?)

⚡ Digital Rights Are Just Human Rights, Online

(with thanks to SMBC, who are so generous with their images they even generate the HTML to embed them on your blog)

Nothing New

Mid-afternoon LamplightWatching an interesting TED Talk by Amber Case, I was reminded of a long-term guiding principle I have followed when faced with novelty. It’s an old idea that’s embedded deep in many traditions. The pithy summary says “there’s nothing new under the sun”, and it’s found notably in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes that’s shared by several world religions.

Of course, we all want to believe we live in the Age of New, and indeed there’s much happening every year that’s breathtaking and marvellous. But the “Ecclesiastes Principle” still holds; if you think something breaks it, you probably need to think deeper.

I don’t mean there’s no innovation. Obviously human minds are continually and brilliantly rearranging the world. But “all rivers run to the sea, yet the sea is never full”. We allow ourselves to let that brilliance dazzle us into thinking the novelty we’re seeing must require  different rules for the people creating and using it. Remember in the early days of blogging when each person who lost their job by breaking their employment terms blamed their blog and not their behaviour?

You can see this vanity most clearly in the thinking that’s going into legislation in the face of technology. We keep seeing the implication that society needs protecting from new technology and that new laws are needed to do it. But that outlook is false. In all cases, technology is a tool in the lives of people. It’s the people who do the good and bad things with the technology, and the people who need regulating. So it has been since the story of Cain and Abel was written.

Spotting Bad Law

It may be that old law allows human behaviour to use technology in a harmful way without recourse. What should happen is adjustment of that existing law to close the loopholes. Instead, new laws are created that have the new technology specifically in mind. This is a fruitless approach. In earlier ages, the law rested on a hub-and-spoke topology of society where control points existed and could thus be regulated. Today’s technology rests on a meshed topology where restrictions are damage that gets routed around.

Laws that try to address the technology – “three-strikes” rules to cut people off the internet, pornography filtering and their like – may sometimes have a temporary effect that offers legislators a publicity moment. But in the medium term laws that are specific to a technology get routed-around. Worse, in the long term they become anachronisms that are abused.

You can spot these laws fairly easily. They focus on technology, creating broad powers that have little or no recourse and are guided by ill-defined or open-ended rules. They are often created in a hurry. They often seem to have been drafted by special-interest lobbyists.

Consider for example the wire-tap laws in the USA which were framed in an era before mobile video was even a dream, now used by the police to persecute citizens trying to gather their own evidence about arrests. Or consider the law from 1988, rushed into the US statutes as a reaction to a politician’s video rentals being published, that’s now preventing the addition of movie discussions to social media systems. Meanwhile in the UK, there was no need for a special “Facebook Law” to convict people of incitement to riot. As it turns out the existing law is perfectly adequate to address this apparently new situation.

Filtering Culture

With this in mind, I’m saddened and concerned by the moves the UK government is making to try to introduce “pornography filtering” in order to “protect children”. I can’t help suspecting these laws are being drafted with the help of “experts” supplied by an interest group. As Cory Doctorow so eloquently observes in his brilliant discussion of the subject, this is misguided populism that will put broad powers with no recourse into the hands of future opponents of freedom an innovation. Meanwhile, it’s unlikely to help anyone:

What that means is that parents who opt their families into the scheme are in for a nasty shock: first, when their kids (inevitably) discover the vast quantities of actual, no-fooling pornography that the filter misses; and second, when they themselves discover that their internet is now substantially broken, with equally vast swathes of legitimate material blocked.

The proposals rely on closed software and closed blacklists – they have to, since “pornography” and “harmful” have no useful definition and are open-endedly subjective. My experiences of these systems match Cory’s; they block stuff that’s not a risk to anyone much and let through stuff that is. Much worse: there’s no realistic way for me to fix errors because of the closed and proprietary systems used and the lack of accountability. In these days of a meshed society, the very mention of closed technology – instead of the invocation of open source and open data – should be enough to signal a problem.

These days I expect new law about technology to be bad law. Technology merely provides ways to allow people to express their personalities, relationships and ambitions. When the law is wrong, it usually needs refactoring to allow for the people – who are still largely the same – to be regulated.

[First published on October 19, 2011 on ComputerWorldUK]

☝ On Ecclesiastes and Pornography

Filtering “pornography” without any way to define what it is can only harm our society, and seeing it proposed is yet another reminder that the “Ecclesiastes Principle” still holds true. You can read about this on ComputerWorldUK.

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