Archive for April 2010

Facebook, Google, and Privacy in the Cloud

27 April 2010

As Mark Zuckerberg’s deep-held desire to tell the whole world about your relationship status becomes ever clearer, four Democratic Senators have written him a letter with a few complaints and a few requests about Facebook’s privacy policies.  Specifically, they’re concerned about information that can no longer be kept private, information that is stored indefinitely by third parties (advertisers), and the default privacy settings which are very, very open, allowing partner sites to personalize their offerings to creepy levels.

I’ll admit that I’ve given some thought to shutting down my Facebook account, simply because their convoluted and constantly-shifting privacy policies feel invasive and make it very difficult even to understand who can see what.  Facebook is pretty dominant in social networking market, and their privacy problems (Gawker has a roundup of the problems here, and the EFF covers the most recent changes) are to be taken seriously. But it’s only a part of a bigger conversation about how, in our networked, information-rich society, we will balance privacy with security, with free speech, and with our desire for a personalized, responsive world.

Facebook GoogleWith all the information about us that is now available online in social networks, government databases, and cloud computing resources (like webmail, web-based documents, etc.), the practical expectation of any kind of obscurity or anonymity is increasingly suspect. Last week, Google shed some light on just how un-private our information is, by revealing the number of government requests for user information they had received by country. Brazil and the U.S. topped the list, with each government making more than 3,000 requests in the second half of 2009 (usually for law enforcement). A decade ago, much of this information could only have been discovered via wiretap– which requires judicial intervention– and now it’s all available the government, upon request.

A big part of the problem here is legal ambiguity. The most up-to-date law on the books is the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which, though forward-looking at the time, is hilariously out of date now. In 1986, the only e-mail was MCI Mail, which allowed you to download mail directly computer, whereupon it was deleted from their servers. Now, we’re living in a world in which much of our e-mail is stored in remote servers indefinitely.  Needless to say, nobody saw this coming in 1986, and now all our data– in Gmail, in Facebook, and elsewhere in the cloud– is legally unprotected.  Put another way, it’s highly ambiguous who owns your e-mail: it might be you, but it might just as easily be Google or Yahoo. Fortunately, there are people trying to answer these questions, particularly the individuals, institutions, and companies behind Digital Due Process.

So when the government comes knocking on Google or Facebook’s door, how much information should Google provide about you?  How much should they be allowed to provide?  Does the government need a warrant? How much are we entitled to know about these activities?  Can Google be held responsible for user content they host– as in the recent case in Italy? What about the ISPs, like Comcast and Verizon– To what degree are they responsible for retaining data about where you go on the internet? To what degree are they allowed to retain this data?

These questions of “intermediary liability” will dominate the privacy debate in the coming years. On balance, I’m of the firm belief that this flood of information is a boon. A more data- and information-rich world is a better world. But we’ll need to manage the flood in a way that upholds our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and maintains our right to privacy. For better or worse, we’ve probably lost a degree of privacy that we won’t be getting back– but really Mark, must you tell the whole world about my heartbreak?

UPDATE: Check out a recent post by Melody on Transcapitalist in which she rounds up a recent win, a loss, and a tie in the effort by intermediaries like Yahoo, Google, and the ISPs to avoid liability. It sounds to me like mostly good news, in that the government seems inclined to think that they ought to have a warrant if they’re asking intermediaries for your data.  Even if they don’t actually need one.



Empowered by Information: CGnet Swara in Chhattisgarh

26 April 2010

In an online story yesterday, the BBC covered a project in India that is taking advantage of mobile phone penetration to combat ignorance, isolation and apathetic governance among the rural poor. The project, called CGnet Swara, is based in the state of Chhattisgarh, and allows citizen journalists to “report” stories by calling a Bangalore number and recording voice messages. Mobile-phone owning citizens then receive a text message and can call a unique number to hear the recorded story.  The service has seen considerable popularity since its launch in February– and I think the factors that yielded success can be a model for other m4Dev projects:

Mobiles Leapfrogging- The project was formed in response to a clear and persistent problem. Too often, technology is seen as a panacea, a solution in search of a problem. To paraphrase an old axiom, connectivity is a powerful hammer, but not every problem is a nail. Here, the poor rural citizens of Chhattisgarh were living in serious information poverty. There was virtually no private media available: their TV access is limited to soap operas, Bollywood films and government sponsored news, and radio is state-run as well.

- The project accounted for the characteristics of the local population. What works in one place won’t work everywhere. In Chhattisgarh, a huge percentage of the population is illiterate. By having citizen journalists report these news reports in audio, rather than in text, they are able to reach a much bigger slice of the population.

- The project leverages existing technology. People often seem to assume that m4Dev (mobiles for development, duh) projects are about handing out cell phones to poor people.  That couldn’t be further from the truth; foisting new technologies on people rarely works. Rather, the real power of the mobile phone is in the fact that people around the world are adopting them of their own accord, and that the rapid expansion of the network is happening naturally. This project capitalizes on the fact that mobile phones have leapfrogged not just land-line phones, but TV, radio, and nearly every other information & communications service, and brings information into citizens’ hands directly.

Whether this project will ultimately improve the lot of Chhattisgarh’s villagers remains to be seen, but it CGnet has already given voice to some of the most systemically disenfranchised people in India. Access to information is a truly empowering force, and at the very least, I hope this project will allow citizens to hold their government accountable. (h/t SSG for the link)

UPDATE: A similar project is Iindaba Ziyafika (“the news is coming”), based in South Africa, which also uses mobiles to bring the work of citizen journalists to otherwise hard-to-reach people. PBS’s Idea Lab has an older article on the project, and Ethan Zuckerman wrote about it last week. Curious to find out more about the quality of journalism produced by an older, more-established project like this one.



eBooks in the Classroom

23 April 2010

I’ve been reading through the past few months of the blog at Worldreader.org, a project that is experimenting with using e-books (specifically, Amazon Kindles) to deliver textbooks and other reading materials to students.  They’ve undertaken two trials, one in Barcelona, Spain and another in Accra, Ghana. The blog is a very thoughtful and honest reflection on the project, and if this is a topic that interests you, it’s worth spending some time browsing through the archives.

Kindles in AccraThey started on this project because of the potential upside of replacing paper texbooks with a high-tech solution. Primarily, that upside is the relatively cheap, high-speed delivery of books.  In Accra, texbooks are only replaced about every five years, and donated books are often irrelevant and of patchy quality (“All About Utah!” isn’t even something that I’d be interested in reading). With the Kindle’s connection to the local GSM wireless network, just about any book can be downloaded in less than a minute, at a fraction of the cost of buying a paper copy and having it shipped to hard-to-reach places.

In the blog, the authors also wrestle with the challenges that present themselves– the high initial cost of the eBooks that could make the program difficult to replicate (though they got subsidized Kindles from Amazon), keeping the eBooks charged up, and the relative fragility of an electronic device. They also wrestle with some of the bigger questions around a project like this: Is this addressing a problem the market would eventually solve on its own? Is this just another form of cultural imperialism? How much of the early success of the Kindles is because of the novelty factor?

All these problems have solutions, at least in the longer term. Costs will drop, batteries will improve, and durable eBooks will find their way into schools. For me, reading an eBook will probably never completely replace the tactile experience of reading an old fashioned paper book. But it’s hard to imagine a school of the future in which students are still lugging around massive, decade-old textbooks. That will be even more true in places like Accra, where schools and students stand to gain so much from the low-cost, instant delivery of the world’s best and most up-to-date learning materials.



Censorship & China, Technology & Freedom

8 April 2010

The NY Times had a great article yesterday on censorship in China.  While much of the focus here has been on the relationship between Google and China, the Times smartly distinguishes between China’s censorship of unwanted foreign content– which it does comprehensively and successfully– and the censorship of domestic content– which is a heckuva lot harder to do, but a far more pernicious evil. From the article:

Today, China censors everything from the traditional print press to domestic and foreign Internet sites; from cellphone text messages to social networking services; from online chat rooms to blogs, films and e-mail. It even censors online games.

That’s not all. Not content merely to block dissonant views, the government increasingly employs agents to peddle its views online, in the guise of impartial bloggers and chat-room denizens. And increasingly, it is backing state-friendly clones of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all Western sites that have been blocked here for roughly a year.

CensorshipThe government’s strategy, according to Mr. Bandurski and others, is not just to block unflattering messages, but to overwhelm them with its own positive spin and rebuttals.

The government makes no apologies for what it calls “guiding public opinion.” Regulation is crucial, it says, to keep China from sliding into chaos and to preserve the party’s monopoly on power.

For anyone wanting to begin learning about China’s censorship practices, this article is a great place to start.

And for anyone interested in how connection technologies– like the internet, mobile phones, social media, etc.– are both promoting freedom and enabling suppression around the world, I’d encourage you to come to our offices on Monday for a speech from Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton’s Senior Adviser on Innovation.  Ross has been one of the forces behind State’s 21st Century Statecraft Initiative, and has been a leader in State’s new focus on internet freedom. On Monday, he’ll be giving a talk on the role of connection technologies in open and closed societies.  Please RSVP here, click here to watch the webcast, or here for more information.

In 2007, NDN published a paper co-authored by Ross and Simon Rosenberg called A Laptop in Every Backpack, which contained one of the first public calls for universal access to the global communications network to be a major domestic and foreign policy priority of the United States.

For more of our work on internet & information freedom, take a look at this backgrounder, and come back to visit Global Mobile for regular commentary on the role of connection technology in promoting freedom around the world.