Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

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Speech: 60 years of CERN

I spoke today at CERN’s 60 year anniversary celebration – here is, more or less, my speech

First, I’d like to thank CERN for inviting me to speak here – it’s truly an honor – and to wish you a happy 60th anniversary and many more years of scientific discovery ahead.

I’ve been asked to speak about the World Wide Web and human rights – this is a topic near and dear to my heart. As a freedom of expression and privacy activist, I believe that the Internet has opened new frontiers and given us an incredible tool with which we can connect across borders in ways that previously were only available to a select few. In many ways, the Web is like CERN… Neutral ground on which people from all backgrounds can debate and collaborate.

Many early theorists, visionaries and defenders of the Internet (oft referred to as “cyber utopians”), foresaw the challenges that this global network would eventually face. They understood that the utopian global Internet was in many ways a great equalizer and platform for expression and as such, governments would seek to restrict it. As John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in his “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow’s desire to create a civilization of the mind, more human and fair than the world before it was indeed utopian: only a few years later, the prediction of other theorists—that is, the “Balkanization” of the Internet along geographic lines—would prevail.

Today, we see a range of governmental restrictions drawn along geographic lines. In China, the government’s attempts to “harmonize” the Internet have resulted in a virtual intranet, cutting Chinese users off from socializing with the rest of the world. In Iran, the motivations are different, but the result is virtually the same. And in countless other countries that we hear far less about, from Jordan to Vietnam, Turkmenistan to Ethiopia, governments both elected and unelected are taking measures to restrict their citizens’ use of the Internet. The justifications span a range, from protecting citizens from obscenity to “national security,” but the result is often the same.

The Internet as a platform for promoting human rights

The Internet is also a platform for the promotion of human rights. Its global nature means that, when rights are being restricted, there is always someone else watching. It enables us to connect with one another, and hold each other accountable. And it enables greater transparency.

Well before the events that triggered the Arab Spring, activists in Tunisia had already found innovative ways to use the Internet for the promotion of human rights. When it was observed that the Tunisian presidential plane was showing up at airports across Europe, Tunisian activists used data collected from around the Internet to confirm that it was the First Lady, Leila Ben Ali, who was using the plane for personal use. When YouTube was blocked by the Ben Ali government, activists living in exile used Google Earth as a means of exposing torture, embedding YouTube videos onto sites in the country where torture was taking place, thus circumventing the censorship and reaching a local audience.

Palestinians, siloed by geography and travel restrictions, their organizing hampered after the second intifada, have used the Internet to connect with their cousins in the diaspora, creating a stronger and more powerful movement than could exist on the ground. The same is true for Tibetans, for whom connectivity has been a lifesaving connection to their global diaspora.

And of course, the Arab uprisings showed the world the power of online organizing. While the actual impact of the Internet in creating the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings is hotly contested, the networks that enabled 10,000 people to hear about the call for protest on January 25, 2011 and take to the streets could not have existed without the Internet. The revolution may have happened anyway, but it would have happened much more slowly.

No matter what the impact of the Internet on the Arab uprisings, it’s clear that their success inspired uprisings around the world, an effect which would likely not have been possible without the Internet. From Sudan to Oakland, citizens have found inspiration in the rapidity with which the Internet allows us to organize.

The Internet as a human right, human rights on the Internet

Finally, there is the discussion of human rights as they relate specifically to the Internet. In 2000, Estonia—ahead of its time—passed a declaring Internet access a fundamental right of its citizenry, an essential part of life in the modern age. By 2010, a BBC poll found that nearly 4 in 5 people around the world believed Internet access to be a fundamental right.

And in 2011, a United Nations report declared that disconnecting people from the internet—as Egypt had done earlier that year—is a human rights violation and against international law. While first access may not yet be guaranteed, once it is granted, it cannot be taken away.

In recent years a discussion has been advanced that existing fundamental human rights—access to information, the right to free expression and association, the right to privacy—must be protected online. UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Association, Frank LaRue, has said that “the framework of international human rights law remains relevant today and equally applicable to new communication technologies such as the Internet.” Inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee put it simply when he said that “The web must reflect human rights.”

Right now, we’re facing a lot of challenges for both the protection of human rights online, and when it comes to the use of the Internet to enable human rights abuses.

To speak first of the latter, nothing has challenged me more in my work as a defender of free expression than the use of the Internet by the Islamic State, or ISIS. The group has used the Internet to recruit extremists and to demonstrate their barbarity by publicizing videos of beheadings. Many have likened their use of the Internet to the use of the radio by the Rwandan Hutu majority in the 1990s to foment genocide and, as such, have called for any content they post to be censored. There are certainly questions that need to be answered as to the utility of allowing information posted by the Islamic State to remain online, versus the possible repercussions of taking it down.

As to the former—that is, ensuring that human rights are protected online—the challenges are also great. Not only are governments around the world restricting the content that their citizens can access, but corporations are increasingly taking on the role of regulator, telling us what is and is not acceptable speech, going far beyond what is required by law.

We’re also facing unprecedented spying from governments, enabled by corporations.

[Here I said a few impromptu things about FinFisher]

As documents released last year by Edward Snowden have made abundantly clear—powerful governments such as the United States and the United Kingdom are abusing their power by conducting mass surveillance on their citizens and the citizens of other countries around the world. This surveillance not only infringes on the universal right to privacy, but also has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association. As Special Rapporteur Frank LaRue has written:

“The right to privacy is often understood as an essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression. Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas. … An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”

And it is not merely the NSA or GCHQ—digital surveillance is pervading local law enforcement, and will continue to do so unless we assert our rights to privacy, to association, to freedom of expression.

To conclude: The Internet is what we make of it. It can be a means of manipulating humans’ interests and controlling a populace, but it can also be the great equalizer, the mode of communication that finally enables us as humans to break past old barriers and connect with each other on a new level. If that’s what we want, it’s within our reach, but it’s imperative that we as citizens work to make it possible. There is no inherent divide between the Internet as a human right and the use of the Internet to promote or enable human rights. In order to be able to use the Internet to promote human rights, we must stake claim to our right to do so.

What Snowden said about democracy

(N.B.: Since someone already commented elsewhere, to be clear, I absolutely and completely support asylum for Edward Snowden. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything or even anything he says or does).

There’s a somewhat odious quote floating around from Edward Snowden that was tweeted, then expanded by the Guardian, but both come up short. I compared the Guardian‘s quote against the video here; here’s what he actually said (1:09:35):

“…Maybe the people of New Zealand think that’s appropriate. Maybe they think that they want to sacrifice a certain measure of their liberty and say, ‘It’s okay if the government watches me, I’m concerned about terrorism, I’m concerned about foreign threats.’ We can have people in each country make that decision because that’s what democracy’s about, that’s what self-government’s about, but that decision doesn’t belong to John Key or officials in the GCSB making these decisions behind closed doors without public debate, without public consent. That decision belongs exclusively to the people of that country and I think it’s wrong [applause] I think it’s wrong of him, of any politician, to take away the public seat at the table of government and say ‘you’ll just have to trust us’…”

Later, at 1:15:43, he says “It doesn’t matter, necessarily, if there’s mass surveillance in New Zealand if the people say they want it…”

I disagree vehemently. There are reasons that certain protections for democracy exist. Although several friends have told me that this is an unacceptable comparison (and I admit, legally speaking, it’s not ideal), I’m going to use it anyway: Is it okay if, by democratic vote, the people of Saudi Arabia vote to continue oppressing women by banning them from driving or wearing what they please? Is it only unacceptable because the decision is made behind closed doors, in the same way that New Zealand’s decisions about surveillance are?

Here’s perhaps a better comparison: If the people of, let’s say, Egypt vote for censorship, does that make censorship acceptable? If the people of the United States decide tomorrow to ban pornography, does that make it okay?

Absolutely, unequivocally no.

*edited to add: As Tarzie points out, this isn’t the first time Snowden has made such a statement.

Let’s talk about terrorism and Facebook

I came across this fascinating (and horrifying) article by Ellie Hall yesterday on the “women of ISIS,” many of whom are foreigners who have traveled from “Western” countries to join the fighters in Syria.  The piece is worth a read, but I was particularly struck by the first paragraph, in which—for the first time, I believe—a Facebook spokesperson states outright that it’s company policy to remove terrorist organizations.

It isn’t actually news to me that this is happening across social networks. Twitter has grappled with the issue, from dealing with calls from the State Department to, more recently, attempting to shut down ISIS accounts (most of which pop right back up again like in a game of whack-a-mole).  Twitter is fairly inconsistent in their practice and opaque in their policy, which bans threats of violence, but not terrorist organizations.

Now, if you clicked through the links above, you’ll know that my opinion is that these companies are incapable of regulating content consistently and that, in any case, there are good reasons to allow terrorist groups to remain on these networks (take, for example, Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist organization that is also a legitimate political party in its home country of Lebanon).  That’s a separate point for a separate conversation, however.  What I want to discuss today is, specifically, how Facebook regulates this content.

Let’s start with the rules. Facebook’s Terms of Service, written in legalese, do not mention the word “terror” in any of its iterations.  Its Principles, which provide for “the freedom to connect online with anyone” and to share whatever information they desire, also don’t mention it. The Community Standards, which are meant to guide users in non-legal terms as to what they can and cannot do on the site, do mention “terror” in their section on “violence and threats,” which reads [bold is mine]:

Safety is Facebook’s top priority. We remove content and may escalate to law enforcement when we perceive a genuine risk of physical harm, or a direct threat to public safety. You may not credibly threaten others, or organize acts of real-world violence. Organizations with a record of terrorist or violent criminal activity are not allowed to maintain a presence on our site. We also prohibit promoting, planning or celebrating any of your actions if they have, or could, result in financial harm to others, including theft and vandalism.

“Terrorist or violent criminal activity.”  Seems clear enough, and yet, no statement on what governs this principle. If such a rule were governed by law, it would perhaps be limited to US-designated terror organizations. If it was inclusive, surely it would include groups designated as “terrorist” by governments other than the US. And if it was truly inclusive, it would also include state violence (given that the aforementioned Principles specifically refer to the equality of users, one would truly hope so).

And so I did a little experiment.  The first thing I noticed was quite interesting. A few years back, Facebook designated official “Pages” that pulled information from Wikipedia’s API. Take, for example, my own name – when you search for it, you find three results: My personal, friends-only profile; a “fan page” set up years ago by a friend, and my “official” Page with information gleaned from Wikipedia.

Results for a Facebook search of "Hezbollah"

Results for a Facebook search of “Hezbollah”

I decided to do a few searches for organizations that fit the above criteria. Starting with Hezbollah, I found a number of results (left). The first, “Hezbollah Movement in Iraq,” is an official pull from Wikipedia. The second, “Hezbollah Tube,” is a “community” page for what I can only imagine is a YouTube channel. The third, the “official” page for Hezbollah, should pull from Wikipedia, but as you can see from the lack of image, it’s oddly blank. Click through, and you’ll find that the entire page is blank.  You can tell it’s meant to pull from Wikipedia by the note at the bottom, and the page still allows “likes,” but for some reason Facebook has killed the page’s content.

And so I did a few more searches, to see if the same applied to other groups. “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant”‘s “official” page was (very troublingly) labeled a “country” but the content was empty. The page of Islamic Jihad Union, a lesser-known Uzbek US-designated FTO, was also empty.  Al-Shabaab‘s page, however was full, as was that of Al-Manar (both designated FTOs).  The Jewish Defense League’s English page was blank, but its French one was alive and well.  Interestingly, the official page for the Westboro Baptist Church (not a designated terrorist group, but certainly prone to hateful speech) also came up blank.

Of course, there are always numerous “fan” or “community” pages for designated terrorist groups. It’s unclear whether Facebook is proactively removing them, but they are undoubtedly being reported and taken down.

What fascinates me about this is that, while Facebook is willing to remove the Wikipedia content (undoubtedly neutral information) for these pages, it was reluctant some months ago to remove a page calling for the death of Palestinians.  Similarly, state organizations that promote violence (such as the Israel Defense Forces) are not only allowed to say whatever they please but are glorified with a “verified” button.  Now, of course this comes as no surprise to me, except for the fact that such “official” groups (with or without the verified button) aren’t held to the same standards as other users, despite Facebook’s “principles.”

Remember how social networks removed the accounts of users who re-posted the video of James Foley’s horrific beheading? The same standard wasn’t applied to the New York Post or the Israeli consulate of Ireland, both of which also reposted the content on Twitter. In fact, the Israel in Ireland Facebook account contains all sorts of racist content and content glorifying Israel’s recent attack on Gaza.  But search for Hamas, and you can’t even read content from Wikipedia to understand who they are and come to your own conclusions.

This is an issue of neutrality and of consistency. If Facebook’s principles serve to treat users equally and to prevent the spread of violent content, then users should be able to seek information on terrorist groups; at the very least, neutral information from Wikipedia should remain available. And on the flipside, state organizations shouldn’t be able to glorify violence on their pages either.  By treating these groups different, Facebook is essentially meddling in global affairs. The US might see Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but Lebanese view it as a political party (and given that Samir Geagea might soon become President, the effect Facebook’s censorship of one side could have is exceptionally troubling). If Facebook seeks to enable political participation (which it surely does based on its actions), then it must either step away from US centrism in its rules* or apply them consistently across the board.


*Someone will inevitably cry “but material support laws!” to which I point out that there is not yet any case law related to whether or not hosting content from such a group constitutes a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 2339A or 18 U.S. Code § 2339B (laws that have been incredibly problematic in their application) and as such, I propose that a content host should test the waters.

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