Zuckerberg pledges to connect refugee camps to the Internet

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has pledged his support to the “Connect the World” campaign working to make universal Internet access a reality by 2020. This initiative will push countries from around the world, with assistance from the United Nations, to expand Internet connectivity to all of their citizens. But what of the many millions of people current living without a country they can call home?
The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees said in June that there were almost 60 million refugees or “internally displaced persons” around the world in 2014 — the highest number seen since World War II. Some risk their lives to seek asylum in other countries, only to be turned away or even attacked once they’ve arrived at their destinations. Many other refugees never even reach that point.
The camps in which these refugees often find themselves have been described as “hellish.” They are also dangerous: The United Nations warned in 2013 that hundreds of thousands of refugees were at risk as winter storms hounded the Middle East. Even more-established camps, such as the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, are defined by complaints about unreliable access to water and electricity.
Given all that, efforts to offer Internet access to these camps might seem strange. What good is Facebook in a place where electricity is only available in the night, food is farmed around ramshackle buildings, and many people struggle to survive? Well, according to Bill Frelick, the Refugee Rights Program Director at Human Rights Watch, having access to the Internet is more important than one might think.
“I think this is an important and quite worthwhile initiative. I have definitely interviewed many refugees whose main preoccupation is the need (and difficulty) in communicating with separated family members,” he says. “After taking dangerous sea voyages the first thing most refugees and migrants want to do is to tell relatives that they have survived. When communication is cut off, refugees’ anxiety becomes palpable.”
Zuckerberg preemptively responded to one of the key criticisms of this effort: That Facebook is trying to appear selfless, when really this project serves the company’s goal of having as many people as possible use its service. “It’s not all altruism,” the New York Times reported him saying. “We all benefit when we are more connected.” He knows Facebook will come out ahead; Frelick says affected refugees will, too.
Still, there were will be questions about this initiative. Will Internet connectivity be provided through Internet.org, the organization Facebook set up to provide Internet access in remote areas, or some other group? On what devices will refugees be able to access the Internet? Will the access be free, or will it be paid for by refugees or rights organizations? So far, little about the plan has been revealed to the public.
Providing the connections via Internet.org could prove to be a problem. The organization has been criticized in the past for violating the principles of net neutrality by giving preference to some websites and services over others. It was also criticized for not allowing the services it enables to encrypt user data, but it has since enabled encryption in its Android software and its primary Web portal.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which previously criticized Internet.org for the perception that it violates the spirit of net neutrality, declined to comment for this post. I reached out to Facebook and Internet.org to get more information about their plans (and to see if the latter group will be involved in this effort) but haven’t heard back. I will update this post if they respond to my email after publication.
Zuckerberg acknowledged the difficulty of his task in a New York Times op-ed written with his partner, Bono. “It’s one thing to say we should connect the world. The real trick is how,” they wrote. “There’s no simple solution or silicon bullet.” Given the current state of refugee camps around the world, and the problems that have plagued Internet.org since its founding, that might be an understatement.

Politwoops uploads record of politicians’ gaffes to Internet Archive

Politwoops might be dead, but the tweets it collected will live on.
The service was devoted to archiving tweets published — and later deleted — by politicians in an effort to hold them accountable for their public statements. But the service violated Twitter’s developer guidelines, so the social network revoked Politwoops’ access to its APIs in 30 countries at the end of August, to the dismay of various human rights organizations from around the world.
Open State Foundation operated Politwoops in 35 countries throughout the Middle East and Europe. However, today the organization announced that it has uploaded the tweets it collected — some “1,106,187 deleted tweets by 10,404 politicians collected in 35 countries and parliaments over a period of five years” — to the Internet Archive where they are expected to remain available in perpetuity.
The group also said that rights organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and many others have indicated their support for Politwoops regaining access to Twitter’s APIs. These organizations are joined by “a number of politicians” who think the service provided value, even though it targeted public gaffes made by a group of which they’re a part.
Yet, when I spoke to Open State Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, which ran the United States version of Politwoops before it was shut down earlier this year, both said there are no negotiations between them and Twitter. Open State Foundation director Arjan El Fassad did, however, tell me that he’s “exploring a number of legal and technical options” to keep Politwoops going.
Today’s update comes off as more of a symbolic gesture than anything. Maybe there is some value in surfacing deleted tweets from five years ago, but it seems like Politwoops was at its most useful when it was surfacing up-to-the-minute evidence of a politician’s mistakes. (Then again, I’ve never trawled through the million-plus trove of tweets, so there’s a chance I’m missing out on something.)
It’s a little bit like whac-a-tweet: Twitter might be able to stop Politwoops from gathering more information on a country-by-country basis, but Open State is showing that all the tweets it’s already collected won’t be thrust into oblivion. Sunlight Foundation did something similar with its tweet archive, only instead of uploading them to Internet Archive, it made them available on its website.
While that might show these groups’ dedication to their mission, it also helps justify Twitter’s point of view. The whole point of shutting down Politwoops was to make sure Twitter users — even those who happen to hold public office — could trust that their deleted tweets wouldn’t remain available elsewhere. All this is doing is showing that people really don’t control their information.
Of course, there are two sides to this debate. These groups have pointed out that they are specifically targeting public statements from elected officials, which should be held to a different standard than most of Twitter’s users. Others, like myself, have argued that it’s reasonable for people to expect that Twitter will advocate for their right to privacy regardless of their status.
Now, even though Politwoops is shambling along, that debate will live on thanks to the decision to make these tweets available via the Internet Archive. The tweets and the debate keep popping up no matter how many times they’re smacked down by the metaphorical mallet, and it looks like this particular game isn’t going to end any time soon.

Transparency reports on trial: New front for free speech?

The latest high profile free speech fight isn’t over a book, a movie or even a video game. Instead, the court case is over a corporate report, and has led media companies to join Twitter in an unusual First Amendment challenge of government gag orders.

The court case highlights the growing significance of the so-called “transparency reports” that Twitter and a growing number of other companies, are using to inform users about government demands and other trends that affect the internet.

Since they began appearing five years ago, the reports have served as an important measure of free speech and privacy. But they can also be a PR tool for the companies that publish them. As a federal judge in California gets ready to hear Twitter’s case, it’s time to reflect what these reports are — and are not — all about.

Five years of reports on snooping, and Snowden

Google published the first Transparency Report in 2010. It showed how often the government came calling for information about users (such as Gmail messages), and also explained how many times copyright owners and others asked Google to remove content from the web.

Subsequent Google reports evolved to include data from other countries, and occasionally included droll details about specific government requests — like the time the Mounties demanded to know which Canadian had peed on his passport in a YouTube video (Google refused to say). More seriously, the reports show how governments are using Google as a back-door way to collect information about their citizens, and how this phenomenon is increasing.

After 2010, other tech companies came to follow Google’s example: Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft and others have now issued several reports of their own. The reports vary in detail and sophistication, but all point to a similar drumbeat of demands by governments for information about users’ identities and personal data.

In 2013, the reports took on a new importance in the wake of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed how U.S. and other intelligence agencies had created a massive surveillance apparatus on the back of data gleaned from tech and phone companies. Civil libertarian groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation also describe them as essential to pressing for surveillance reform.

“This is how we hold countries accountable for action … Governments behave better when they know they’re being watched and tracked,” said Eva Galperin of the EFF in an interview last year.

Edward Snowden in his first public speaking appearance at SXSW on March 10, 2014.

Edward Snowden in his first public speaking appearance at SXSW on March 10, 2014.

Post-Snowden, the tech industry redoubled legal challenges against government gag orders that preclude them from disclosing the very existence of the stealthy procedures (such as National Security Letters and “FISA Orders”)  that agencies like the FBI and NSA use to demand data.

This pushback includes Twitter’s legal challenge, which last week led a range of media companies — from the Guardian to NPR to BuzzFeed — to file a supporting brief.

“Twitter’s proposed transparency report is no less entitled to free speech protections than ‘literature’ or ‘movies,'” claimed the companies.

But even as the ongoing legal battle over transparency reports heats up,  the actual impact of the reports is unclear.

Public service … or public relations?

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, a crush of companies have rushed to publish transparency reports of their own, often gaining press attention for doing so. This month, for instance, Reddit’s inaugural report merited a write-up in the New York Times even though its contents suggested the government has taken only scant interest in the internet news site.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.23.00 AM

From Pinterest’s transparency report

A list on Google’s website shows that at least three dozen other companies, ranging from Verizon to Pinterest, are publishing transparency reports of one type or another (see Pinterest graphic at right). Meanwhile, Google itself continues to publish its own semi-annual report in blog posts under headlines that suggest surveillance is on the rise.

While all of this serves to put a spotlight on government demands, it may also paradoxically serve to to dim it. That’s because the sheer volume of transparency reports, and the regular warning of government spying, could lead to public apathy on the issue.

Public indifference could also be hastened by the complexity of the legal issues (such as the distinctions between search warrants, subpoenas and security letters), and by the rivalries between companies that publish the reports.

Google and Facebook, for instance, have sniped over who deserves credit for standing up to the Justice Department through transparency reports. Meanwhile, the reports themselves don’t provide all the context to determine if surveillance really is becoming more pervasive — or if the rising number of requests is a function of more people being online.

Galperin of the EFF says she would like to see some sort of standardized reporting for transparency documents one day, but disagrees that there is fatigue with the reports themselves.

“I’m less concerned with specific companies, but with ensuring that startups create the reports from the very beginning. If you work with user data, they government will come calling for it.”

How the media should deal with data

An engineer at a major tech company who has helped to produce transparency reports told me he disagrees that the process needs to be more formalized, or that the process needs an oversight mechanism to ensure companies don’t exploit the process for public relations purposes.

“How do you deem from the outset who is the outside audience? I don’t care if someone working with a spreadsheet is a tenured prof or a high school kid good at analytics,” said the engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He added that certain data sets are more “mediagenic” than others, pointing to less-publicized items like a Google transparency report on unsafe websites, but that publicizing data typically produces change for the better.

If the transparency reports do produce results, this could strengthen Twitter’s court challenge that gag orders directed at them amount to an illegal prior restraint on speech, and that companies have the right to put out so-called “warrant canaries.”

Meanwhile, the media companies’ decision to file briefs in the case appears to validate the engineer’s opinion that the prime duty of those who publish transparent reports is to put out data, not deconstruct it.

“The value of transparency reports is measured by diligent and astute media — those who roll up their sleeves and engage with it and find what it ultimately means, rather than just spitting out facts.”

U.S. sued over planes that suck up cell phone data

A civil liberties group has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Marshals Service, demanding more information about a controversial surveillance tactic involving airplanes that fly over urban areas in order to sweep up cell phone signals.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuit, filed in Washington, claims that the group demanded documents about the plane program under freedom-of-information laws last November, but that the federal government has so far failed to turn them over as required.

The plane program in question came to light last after the Wall Street Journal revealed how the Justice Department straps small devices known as “dirtboxes” to Cessna planes in order to lock on to cell signals. The devices, which measure two feet square, are reportedly capable of recording location, phone data and even conversations.

The device-equipped planes also allegedly locks on to the phones of suspects and innocent people alike, but then discards data gathered from the non-suspects.

A spokesperson from the Justice Department on Tuesday declined to comment about the plane program or the FOIA lawsuit.

The lawsuit itself asks a judge to order the government to comply with the freedom-of-information law demands, which the EFF says it originally sent to the Justice Department, the FBI and the Marshals Service. These included requests for records about the plane program, about related criminal cases, and information about which state and federal agencies are using the devices.

If the lawsuit gains traction, it could bring new attention to the government’s use of stingrays, which is the name commonly used to describe devices that mimc cell phone towers in order to trick cell phones into connecting to them. The plane program appears to be just an airborne extension of that practice.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s surveillance policies are also under scrutiny in light of the recent disclosure of a cross-agency license-plate program that is amassing driver data at record rates.

Left Shark printer chomps on Katy Perry’s copyright claim

Left Shark rose to internet super-stardom by doing his own thing — and now a man selling models of the Super Bowl shark is doing the same, bucking the Katy Perry lawyer who wants him to stop.

L’affaire Left Shark began last week when a lawyer for the “Roar” singer sent 3D printing service Shapeways a cease-and-desist letter, ordering it to stop the sale of miniature models.

In response, model designer Fernando Sosa took to Twitter to complain, and that’s where the situation started to jump the, well, you know.

Following a Twitter chat with my colleague Mathew Ingram and some copyright folks, Sosa obtained the pro bono services of NYU law professor Christopher Sprigman, who was one of the first to publicly pan Perry’s claims.

3D Left Shark is now available once again, along with some new 3D friends. In a blog post announcing his legal pushback, Sosa wrote:

I’m also resuming the sale of this 3D printed full color desk figurine at a different store front Etsy.com/shop/amznfx along with a couple other characters which include a drunk shark, pink drunk shark, and right shark.

So that’s where we stand. Your move, Katy.

Perry’s lawyer, Steve Plinio of Greenberg Traurig, did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but he appears to face an uphill swim.

As Sosa points out to Plinio in a public letter, the copyright claim suffers from two big flaws: 1) Perry doesn’t appear to own any rights in Left Shark; 2) there may not be any intellectual property rights at all, since costumes can’t usually be copyrighted.

Outside IP experts appear to agree. As professor Rebecca Tushnet, a leading authority on copyright and fan culture, explained by email:

A costume is a useful article, and useful articles aren’t copyrightable unless there are elements that are ‘separable’ from the useful article itself.  For example, anything necessary for a human to fit in the costume (and dance, badly or well) would not be separable. Some costumes may be copyrighted, and I think it’s possible Left Shark could be one of them, but further factual development would be required.

Parker Higgins, a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and co-author of a popular IP newsletter, shared the same sentiment.

“I agree with Sprigman on this one: costumes are considered useful articles, so absent a separable design with a claim to it (like a print, usually) it doesn’t get copyright,” Higgins said by email.

It remains to be seen if the all-powerful NFL, which ferociously protects all aspects of its marketing machine, will now try to step in since it could conceivably overcome the ownership problem, which Tushnet describes as “the real sticking point,” and that would prevent Perry from getting into court in the first place.

While the NFL (or someone else) could try to use trademark law to get around the shortcomings on costume copyright, such a tactic would take time, and the Trademark Office might not grant a mark.

In the meantime, Left Shark’s fame continues to grow, and could soon be beyond the bounds of anyone’s intellectual property control.

According to Tushnet, “fair use might well be a significant issue, given the nature of the meme surrounding Left Shark.”

So for now, in the words of my colleague Signe Brewster, “3D print like lawyers aren’t watching, dance like Left Shark.”

Left Shark, as it appeared Thursday on Thingiverse.

Left Shark, as it appeared Thursday on Thingiverse.

Site will show if the U.S. has killed a “warrant canary”

Warrant canaries die quietly so their passing can escape notice. But that’s less likely to happen now thanks to “Canary Watch,” a new website that tracks the health of warrant canaries used by tech firms and other organizations susceptible to receiving a secret data demand from the U.S. government.

So what exactly is a warrant canary? Named for the birds used to test for danger in a coal mine, they first appeared in 2002 when Vermont libraries posted “the FBI hasn’t been here” signs in response to the Patriot Act, which allowed the government to demand information under gag orders. If the sign disappears, the patrons can infer something is up.

Digital warrant canaries work the same way. Used by tech companies like Tumblr, they consist of a message on a website or in a transparency report that says something like “We have issued zero National Security Letters.”

The problem, however, is that it can be hard to keep track of which companies have issued them, and when they disappear.

In response, three groups — the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and NYU’s Technology Law and Policy Center — created Canary Watch, which will make it easier to track the fate of the various warning signals.

First reported by ThreatPost, the website not only lists which companies have posted a warrant canary, but attempts to describe the specific threat the canary is intended to detect. (This can be a challenge since government data demands can take various forms, such as FBI subpoenas under the Patriot Act or NSA requests under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.)

The idea is a good one since it will not only provide notice when a canary disappears, but may help to standardize the format companies use to post a warrant canary in the first place. Right now, the companies on the new Warrant Canary site include Pinterest, Medium, Cheezburger and Internet Archive. Tech giants like Google and Microsoft are absent since they have already received numerous NSA and Patriot Act demands.

The Canary Watch site is also another reminder of the larger fight, being waged by Twitter and others, to disclose the legal processes the government is using to monitor citizens in the first place. While the government often has a case to keep the details of specific investigations secret, the tech industry and civil libertarians have decried its attempts to muzzle the very existence of the demands in the first place.

Delete Uber if you want, but it still has your data

The ongoing uproar over the ethically challenged Uber has brought about calls to delete the service. And to my surprise, some people are actually doing this: I’ve already seen a few friends boast on Facebook that their Uber app is no more.