Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: January 2012 (page 2 of 3)

7 things you might soon be able to say on television

Via the Center for Democracy and Technology:

Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in FCC v. FOX to determine whether regulation of “indecent” content on broadcast television violates the First Amendment. This case has been up to the Supreme Court before; in 2009, the Court held that the FCC’s decision to fine FOX for broadcasting profanity (called “fleeting expletives”) during live award shows (the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards) was not “arbitrary and capricious”, and so did not violate the Administrative Procedures Act that governs how federal agencies can make and change their policies. (CDT filed a brief in both the 2009 and 2011 cases.)

This time around, the Court is addressing a different question: whether FCC regulation of indecent (but not illegal) over-the-air content is consistent with the First Amendment. In the 1978 Pacifica case, the Court held that because broadcast media was “uniquely pervasive” in American culture, serving as the principle source for news and entertainment in a time before 500-channel cable packages, and acted as an uncontrollable “intruder” into the home, it was appropriate for the government to put some limits on what type of content could travel through the airwaves.

Regardless of whether this rationale made sense in 1978, it no longer applies in the media environment of 2012. As we argue in our coalition brief, the centrality of broadcast content has waned in the face of other content sources (including cable, video-on-demand, and the Internet). At the same time, parents have never had a greater ability to set their own limits and controls on the type of content they believe is most suitable for their families. As the court recognized in Reno v ACLU, user empowerment tools that give individuals the power to set their own content restrictions are a less restrictive means to achieve the goal of protecting children than broad government content regulations of constitutionally protected speech. As the Court considers the arguments it hears today, we urge it to consider the changed technological circumstances of the past three decades, and extend to broadcast content the same level of First Amendment protection afforded to other speech.

And with that, I give you this:

More on Internet Censorship in Libraries: ACLU vs. Salem Public Library

I haven’t set foot in a physical library for at least three years, so it’s somewhat amusing to me that I’m suddenly obsessed with the question of Internet censorship in libraries. And yet, it’s a vital discussion: As more of our resources go digital, ensuring that information in our libraries stays free and unfettered becomes increasingly important.

So, last week I posted about a debate in Los Angeles, as framed by the LA Times. Now, I’ll tackle a somewhat tangential issue: The use of commercial software by libraries, schools, and other government-funded entities and the implications of that usage.

Recently, the ACLU and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed suit against the Salem (MO) public library for unconstitutionally blocking access to websites discussing minority religions by improperly classifying them as “occult” or “criminal.” According to the ACLU:

Salem resident Anaka Hunter contacted the ACLU after she was unable to access websites pertaining to Native American religions or the Wiccan faith for her own research. After protesting to the library director, Glenda Wofford, portions of the sites were unblocked, but much remained censored. Wofford said she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities.

Other sites blocked by the library’s Netsweeper software include the official webpage of the Wiccan church, the Wikipedia entry pertaining to Wicca, Astrology.com and The Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which contains viewpoint-neutral discussions of various cultures’ and religions’ ideas of death and death rituals.

Let’s start here: CIPA, as I mentioned, requires the blocking of obscene content and content deemed ‘harmful to minors.’ The latter is problematic in its vagueness, particularly when dealing with libraries, where adults are commonly patrons of the Internet. Yes, CIPA allows for a user aged 18+ to request a site be unblocked, but that patron should not have to go to unreasonable lengths to make that happen. And if the allegations in the ACLU’s case are accurate, then Wofford seems to have gone far beyond the scope of her job in claiming that she was required to report the customer’s request.

But more problematic to me is the categorization of the sites requested. The ACLU case alleges that the Salem Public Library had classified sites about Wicca and Astrology as “occult” or even “criminal.” It’s unlikely, however, that Salem had anything to do with the former (or even, perhaps the latter). Rather, Salem likely bought their filtering software (in this case, from Canadian company Netsweeper) out of the box. If true, then all they had to do was choose which categories to block.

As you well know, this is a sensitive subject for me ever since Websense erroneously categorized this very site as pornography. I know how these things work: They’re part automated, part categorized by minimum wage staff. It’s a boring job and mistakes are bound to happen. But a whole occult category? What is this, 1956? But I digress…

What I find problematic is how much control these private companies–and particularly, though not only, Netsweeper–have over what we view. As Helmi Noman pointed out last year, Netsweeper’s categorization of Tumblr.com as a pornographic sites (apparently 50% of the pages hosted on Tumblr are pornographic in nature!) resulted in the blogging platform being blocked in four countries (and, most likely, the Salem Public Library too).

More alarming is that these filtering tools can easily be gamed. My blog was categorized by Websense as pornography because of one post with an outrageous amount of comment spam that included outlinks to porn sites. If I wanted to get your site blocked by the Salem Public Library, all I’d need to do is drop a bunch of porn on it, easy-peasy.

Again, I digress. And lest my line of commentary be perceived as too narrow, I stumbled upon a great post this afternoon by Jason Pitzl-Waters laying out the other implications of this case. Some of the comments are fascinating as well.

Fresh looks at social media as a 2011 gamechanger

Two fresh looks at the effects, in 2011, of social media on the world.

The first, a talk from my friend Ethan Zuckerman at the University of British Columbia:

I’ve tapped out–imperfectly–a few excerpts for those of you who don’t watch videos:

In reference to how the ‘Arab Spring’ began:

Thinking about social media by itself simply as a way to get information out there is probably inadequate … We have to start thinking about the ecosystem.  We have to start thinking about this idea that what participatory media does is make it possible for people to create media at very low cost, and then if they’re able to use that complicated network, it’s possible–sometimes and not always–to get that media out and get it amplified to the point where it reaches enough people that you’re able to have a coordinating function, where people in Tunisia are able to say ‘We’ve never seen this before.  We’ve seen protests, but not like this.  The fact that it’s spreading from one town to another is unprecedented and that’s something I want to be a part of’  That’s how it moves, from involving a small number of people in a town to being capable of taking down a government.  So if that story’s true–I believe it is, and it’s worth taking a close look at–it’s a way of explaining what is a really tough mystery–how something leaves a small town and reaches the world–we have to ask the question: ‘Is there something special about Facebook?’

On the purpose of social media:

The purpose of Web 2.0 is to share cute pictures of kitty-cats. And I say that, and you think I’m joking, but I’m not. It’s not epiphenomenal that the video of the cat flushing the toilet goes out on YouTube and everyone is laughing at it…that’s the point of Web 2.0.

And, in reference to the Malaysian online public sphere:

…The same tools that are helping other people share cute photos of cats are finding these people a way to have a digital public sphere…not the kind of space they can have in the real world, which is too dangerous…but online, there was a capability to carve out a space for free speech.

And finally, and this is key:

“[Some of the tools, like Tor, being built by experts are utterly essential but] I worry that we don’t take these ‘cute cat tools’ seriously enough. These tools that anyone can use, that are used 99% of the time for completely banal purposes, purposes that you and I may find incredibly boring unless it’s the exact interest we care about. There are some reasons why these ‘cute cat tools’–like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, any tool that allows people to create and share original content and have many millions of users–are important…

…When the assumption is that you just want to get cute cat pictures, you spend a lot of time making these tools very usable…which results in these tools being usable even if you don’t speak the language, even if you’re not the intended audience. And because these tools are used by hundreds of millions of people, there’s a good chance that when someone gets involved in activism, these are the tools they’ll use.

The second, an article from Forbes on how Twitter specifically affected corporate decisions in 2011. An excerpt:

It started last year, when Gap proposed a new logo that was universally derided on Twitter, Tumblr and more. Gap’s new logo, which featured a white background and a small blue square, was mocked and parodied on all forms of social media, prompting campaigns to restore the original logo. Within a week of introducing the new logo design, the company had returned to its traditional blue and white square. It set the tone for a 2011 full of company reversals, spurred by vocal online backlash.

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