How hate groups forced online platforms to reveal their true nature

John Herman writes: The recent rise of all-encompassing internet platforms promised something unprecedented and invigorating: venues that unite all manner of actors — politicians, media, lobbyists, citizens, experts, corporations — under one roof. These companies promised something that no previous vision of the public sphere could offer: real, billion-strong mass participation; a means for affinity groups to find one another and mobilize, gain visibility and influence. This felt and functioned like freedom, but it was always a commercial simulation. This contradiction is foundational to what these internet companies are. Nowhere was this tension more evident than in the case of Cloudflare, a web-infrastructure company. Under sustained pressure to drop The Daily Stormer as a client, the company’s chief executive, Matthew Prince, eventually assented. It was an arbitrary decision, and one that was out of step with the company’s stated policies. This troubled Prince. ‘‘I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet,’’ he wrote in an email to his staff. ‘‘No one should have that power.’’

Social platforms tend to refer to their customers in euphemistic, almost democratic terms: as ‘‘users’’ or ‘‘members of a community.’’ Their leaders are prone to statesmanlike posturing, and some, like Mark Zuckerberg, even seem to have statesmanlike ambitions. Content moderation and behavioral guidelines are likewise rendered in the terms of legal governance, as are their systems for dispute and recourse (as in the ubiquitous post-ban ‘‘appeal’’). Questions about how platforms like Twitter and Reddit deal with disruptive users and offensive content tend to be met with defensive language invoking free speech.

In the process of building private communities, these companies had put on the costumes of liberal democracies. They borrowed the language of rights to legitimize arbitrary rules, creating what the technology lawyer Kendra Albert calls ‘‘legal talismans.’’ This was first and foremost operationally convenient or even necessary: What better way to avoid liability and responsibility for how customers use your product? It was also good marketing. It’s easier to entrust increasingly large portions of your private and public life to an advertising and data-mining firm if you’re led to believe it’s something more. But as major internet platforms have grown to compose a greater share of the public sphere, playing host to consequential political organization — not to mention media — their internal contradictions have become harder to ignore. Far before Charlottesville, they had already become acute. [Continue reading…]

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Putin signs controversial law tightening internet restrictions

RFE/RL reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed controversial legislation prohibiting the use of Internet proxy services — including virtual private networks, or VPNs — and cracking down on the anonymous use of instant messaging services.

The law on proxy services, signed by Putin on July 29 and published by the government on July 30, was promoted by lawmakers who said it is needed to prevent the spread of extremist materials and ideas.

Critics say Putin’s government often uses that justification to suppress political dissent.

Almost all of the changes under the law are set to take effect on November 1, months ahead of a March 2018 presidential election in which Putin is widely expected to seek and win a new six-year term.

Under the law, Internet providers will be ordered to block websites that offer VPNs and other proxy services. Russians frequently use such websites to access blocked content by routing connections through servers abroad.

A second law also signed by Putin on July 29 — and published July 30 — will require operators of instant messaging services, such as messenger apps, to establish the identity of those using the services by their phone numbers. [Continue reading…]

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How censorship works

Ai Weiwei writes: In the space of a month in 2014, at separate art exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai that included my work, my name was blotted out — in one case by government officials and by exhibitors themselves in the other case. Some people might take such treatment in stride, as nothing to get huffy about. But as an artist, I view the labels on my work as a measure of the value I have produced — like water-level markers at a riverbank. Other people might just shrug, but I can’t. I have no illusions, though, that my unwillingness to shrug affects anyone else’s willingness to do so.

Life in China is saturated with pretense. People feign ignorance and speak in ambiguities. Everyone in China knows that a censorship system exists, but there is very little discussion of why it exists.

At first glance, the censorship seems invisible, but its omnipresent washing of people’s feelings and perceptions creates limits on the information people receive, select and rely upon. The content offered by the Chinese state media, after its processing by political censors, is not free information. It is information that has been chosen, filtered and assigned its place, inevitably restricting the free and independent will of readers and viewers.

The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life; it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness.

Censoring speech removes the freedom to choose what to take in and to express to others, and this inevitably leads to depression in people. Wherever fear dominates, true happiness vanishes and individual willpower runs dry. Judgments become distorted and rationality itself begins to slip away. Group behavior can become wild, abnormal and violent. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan expands his crackdown on dissent

The New York Times reports: The Turkish government expanded its crackdown on dissent and free expression over the weekend, purging nearly 4,000 more public officials, blocking access to Wikipedia and banning television matchmaking shows.

A total of 3,974 civil servants were fired on Saturday from several ministries and judicial bodies, and 45 civil society groups and health clinics were shut down, according to a decree published in Turkey’s official gazette.

Turkish internet users also woke up on Saturday to find that they no longer had access to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia written by volunteers.

The dismissals mean that an estimated 140,000 people have now been purged from the state and private sectors, and more than 1,500 civil groups closed, since a failed coup last year.

It also ends opposition hopes that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may ease the crackdown and build greater national consensus after his narrow victory in a recent referendum to expand the power of his office.

Instead, Mr. Erdogan has accelerated the process. Since the referendum, and before Saturday’s move, the police had detained more than 1,000 workers and suspended a further 9,000 accused of having ties to an Islamic group founded by a United States-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen.

The organization was once allied with Mr. Erdogan, but is now accused by the government of masterminding the failed attempt to overthrow him in July. Those purged on Saturday were also accused of having connections to Mr. Gulen. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey just banned Wikipedia, labeling it a ‘national security threat’

The Washington Post reports: If you try to open Wikipedia in Turkey right now, you’ll turn up a swirling loading icon, then a message that the server timed out.

Turkey has blocked Wikipedia. If you’re inside the country, you can only access the online encyclopedia through a virtual private network connection to a system outside the country.

Turkish officials reportedly asked the online encyclopedia to remove content by writers “supporting terror.”

Wikipedia “has started acting as part of the circles who carry out a smear campaign against Turkey in the international arena, rather than being cooperative in fight against terror,” ministry officials said, according to Al Jazeera. It tried to show Turkey “at the same level and in cooperation with terror groups.”

The Ministry of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications told the Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, that Wikipedia was blocked for “becoming an information source acting with groups conducting a smear campaign against Turkey in the international arena.” The ministry did not cite specific examples of offending content. Officials also said the site would not be unblocked until Wikipedia opened an office in the country and started paying taxes. [Continue reading…]

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It’s now illegal in Russia to share an image of Putin as a gay clown

Avi Selk and David Filipov write: Russia has banned a picture depicting President Vladimir Putin as a potentially gay clown.

Russian news outlets are having trouble reporting exactly which image of the Internet’s many Putin-gay-clown memes is now illegal to share. Because, you know, it’s been banned.

But the picture was described last week on the Russian government’s list of things that constitute “extremism.”

Item 4071: a picture of a Putin-like person “with eyes and lips made up,” captioned with an implicit anti-gay slur, implying “the supposed nonstandard sexual orientation of the president of the Russian Federation.”

The Moscow Times thinks it probably looks like this:


[Continue reading…]

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Canadian scientists were followed, threatened and censored. They warn that Trump could do the same

Avi Selk writes: The Environmental Protection Agency’s once-prolific Twitter account has not stirred since Inauguration Day. Neither has its blog, where staff used to write often about the agency’s research, regulations and “Why Science Matters” — as one of the last entries put it.

Both have been dark since President Trump took over the White House, not long after telling a reporter “nobody really knows” whether Earth’s climate is changing. His administration almost immediately moved to restrict scientific departments across the federal government from talking to the media and the public.

White House officials have denied trying to censor public research bodies. Their counterparts in Canada denied the same several years ago — as scientists in that country reported that government minders were following them around, listening in on them and threatening them for speaking out of turn in public.

Now, some who worked in government during former prime minister Stephen Harper’s years in power are warning Americans to expect their own regime of censored science.

“In Harper’s era, it was open warfare with the media,” Max Bothwell, an environmental scientist for the Canadian government, told Smithsonian Magazine. “I suspect something similar is about to happen in the U.S.”

Bothwell, who specializes in the seemingly apolitical study of rock algae, told the outlet about a local radio station’s request to interview him in 2013.

He said he had to ask permission through an array of “media control” bureaucrats that Harper had installed.

He got it, under one condition: “Unbeknownst to the Canadian radio listeners, the media control staffers would be listening in on the phone line, as well,” Smithsonian wrote. Bothwell refused. [Continue reading…]

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