Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: August 2011

The danger in privatizing our publics

Nearly a year ago, I published a paper (and much shorter, accompanying op-ed and later, a talk) on how Facebook and other social media sites are becoming the new public sphere, despite their being privately-owned spaces. Just a few months later, their popularity exploded as the real-life revolts in Tunisia and Egypt were echoed on social media, bringing new questions to the table around privacy, anonymity, and free expression.

Now, in light of ongoing events in Syria and the UK, as well as new regulations in India and elsewhere, not to mention the Google+ policy on identity, those questions are once again taking hold. In a piece for Forbes published yesterday, Benoit Raphael (who generally covers some pretty fascinating stuff) notes the shifting tide toward a lack of anonymity and posits:

The real question should be: now that Facebook, Twitter and Google+ have become public spaces where people can meet to share or to protest, is there a danger in housing theses public places in the exclusive hands of private companies? If “Internet” is a new country, then who will protect freedom in its public places?

His question is not dissimilar to those posed (and answered) by Rebecca MacKinnon. Who will fight for user rights in the quasi-public spaces of the Internet?

First, I think, we require an increased awareness amongst users of what that really means. Not a week goes by where I don’t get an email from some user of Facebook, or Google+, or YouTube, or even Zazzle or CafePress who has had their content removed, and is outraged. And while I often share those users’ outrage, I find that, for the most part, they haven’t read the Terms of Service and aren’t aware of exactly how restrictive the rules of these platforms are (which, for the record, is generally far more restrictive than the Constitution of the United States). So, before can get the “consent of the networked” (to borrow the title of MacKinnon’s upcoming book, which I have already pre-ordered), we need to ensure that the networked are aware of what their movement toward the quasi-public sphere really means for privacy and expression.

Further reading:
Zeynep Tufekci’s oldie but goodie: Facebook: The Privatization of our Privates and Life in the Company Town
danah boyd: “Real Name” Policies are an Abuse of Power

Why Gordon Crovitz is Horribly Wrong

In today’s Wall Street Journal lies a ludicrous opinion piece by one L. Gordon Crovitz, in which Crovitz argues that it’s simply no big deal for BART or the UK to shut down cell networks, or Twitter, or hey, why not the Internet, because those things can be used for bad stuff.

The title of the piece? “Techno-Utopians Are Mugged by Reality.”

As you know, I’m no techno-utopian. But since Crovitz quoted me in the piece (without using my name, hilariously enough), I feel compelled to address his implication that those of us who see the BART cell network shutdown as a civil liberties issue are somehow under the illusion that technology can only be used for good. Mr. Crovitz apparently missed my piece today on how the Syrian government is using social networks against its citizens, but I digress.

Crovitz asks rhetorically (and, might I add, snarkily) the following: “If Britain can act against BlackBerry and Twitter, how can anyone complain about Arab despots or Chinese censors closing down the Internet to dissidents?”

Well, Mr. Crovitz, that’s funny you should ask. After Australia set forth its plan to enact a countrywide filtering plan a few years back, China set about defending its own censorship by pointing to the land down under. And South Africa took the cue from Australia to set about discussing their own plans (which fortunately never materialized). So indeed, when we in the United States with our holier-than-thou Internet freedom strategy start blocking networks, you’re damn right the world starts pointing to us as an example.

Furthermore, Mr. Crovitz, I was on the BART last time a protest happened. And guess what? There was no violence. So, if your point was that it’s okay for governments to shut down networks in the event of violence (as we’ve seen in the UK these past few days), but you also think it’s okay for BART to do it to avoid “disruptions of service,” then where do you really draw the line?

Crovitz also seems convinced that shutting down networks would actually prevent violence, a claim for which I’ve seen little evidence. I mean, it certainly doesn’t shut down protests–remember Secretary of State Clinton’s February speech in which she noted that? I believe her specific words were “The protests continued despite the internet shutdown. People organized marches through flyers and word of mouth and used dial-up modems and fax machines to communicate with the world.”

Riiiight. Shutting down networks doesn’t prevent protests, and it won’t prevent violence, either. In fact, since we know that authorities in the UK are already monitoring social networks, then we could argue that leaving Twitter open better allows police there to identify rioters and pursue actual criminals…rather than stifling all of us in an attempt to somehow prevent speech.

Ah, but Crovitz addresses that point too, with such rhetorical flourish I’m surprised he’s not a GOP contender. He says, quoting reporter Robert Andrews from paidcontent:UK website: “So addicted are we to our electronic connections, we simply cannot bear to be parted, for even an hour or two, in the name of public safety while London burns.”

Ah yes. We who demand the right to free expression online are simply Twitter addicts who don’t give a damn about public safety.

Crovitz’s arguments only go downhill from there. He cites Facebook’s removal of the Third Intifada page as a good thing. Funny that he doesn’t mention how Facebook’s removal of that page caused more than thirty new pages to crop up in its place.

Because that’s exactly what will happen if we continue like this. Getting behind censorship here will make it easier for despots to get behind censorship elsewhere, and allowing the BART to remain unaccountable for their actions will give the green light to other actors to take overbroad steps like that in the future.

But that’s okay, Mr. Crovitz. I don’t expect you to understand.

Can a Tweet Prevent a Massacre?

I just published a post over on Global Voices with the same headline, specifically quoting Syrian opposition and their supporters, who have been attempting to trend the #RamadanMassacre hashtag today. In looking for tweets using the hashtag, I came across one from Andy Carvin that got me thinking. Can Twitter prevent a massacre?

I know I’m not the first person to ask this question. At conferences this year, I’ve heard rumblings along the lines of “What if Twitter had existed in 1995?”, the year of the Srebrenica massacre. Or in 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide. Ignoring obvious questions of mobile and Internet penetration, would it have made a difference if Bosniaks had taken out their cell phones and tweeted, or if Tutsis had taken to their laptops and uploaded videos of the massacres?

Hard to say.

What we’re seeing in Syria right now is a war of words online, in which protesters and opposition figures face off against regime supporters, attempting to articulate their own narratives about what’s happening inside the country. And without many journalists on the ground, it’s difficult to determine the facts. We know that the regime has killed innocent, unarmed civilians, but have opposition forces taken up arms? And what do the majority of Syrians really think? Do they want foreign intervention or regime change, or reforms?

With Internet penetration around 20% and mobile subscriptions close to 60%, Twitter users are certainly a minority. And yet the overwhelming majority of tweets from inside the country speak to a desire for the regime to go. More to the point, Twitter is rife with reporting from inside Syria, with activists and citizen reporters alike posting videos, photos, and other content truly damning to the regime.

But does it matter? Can it help change anything? Or are we ‘witnessing’ for the sake of it, condemned to helplessness?

Along that line of thinking is Mark Belinsky‘s SXSW panel from earlier this year, “Tweets from 9/11.” The idea is obvious: Had Twitter existed ten years ago, would events have changed at all, or would their aftermath have been different?

The key, I think, is in the second part of the question. Indeed, the aftermath of events would have been different. We would have had a more accurate assessment of what exactly went on inside those planes in their final minutes, and the possible ramifications of that information are endless.

And so, and sadly, perhaps that’s our limit now. Questions still exist around the specifics of the 1982 Hama Massacre. By ‘witnessing’ the current events in Syria, and documenting them in real time, perhaps we are able to influence their eventual outcome, if only after the fact.

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