Speaking Freely: Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso

2 weeks ago

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.*

Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso is the executive director of FORUM-Asia. She has worked for many years in human rights organizations in the Philippines and internationally, and is best known for her work on enforced disappearances. She has received several human rights awards at home and abroad, including the Emilio F. Mignone International Human Rights Prize conferred by the Government of Argentina and the Franco-German Ministerial Prize for Human Rights and Rule of Law. In addition to her work at FORUM-Asia, she currently serves as the president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED) and is a senior lecturer at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines.

York: What does free expression mean to you? And can you tell me about an experience, or experiences, that shaped your views on free expression?

To me, free speech or free expression means the exercise of the right to express oneself and to seek and receive information as an individual or an organization. I’m an individual, but I’m also representing an organization, so it means the ability to express thoughts, ideas, or opinions without threats or intimidation or fear of reprisals. 

Free speech is expressed in various avenues, such as in a community where one lives or in an organization where one belongs at the national, regional, or international levels. It is the right to express these ideas, opinions, and thoughts for different purposes, for instance; influencing behaviors, opinions, and policy decisions; giving education; addressing, for example, historical revisionism—which is historically common in my country, the Philippines. Without freedom of speech people will be kept in the dark in terms of access to information, in understanding and analyzing information, and deciding which information to believe and which information is incorrect or inaccurate or is meant to misinform people. So without freedom of speech people cannot exercise their other basic human rights, like the right of suffrage and, for example, religious organizations who are preaching will not be able to fulfill their mission of preaching if freedom of speech is curtailed. 

I have worked for years with families of the disappeared—victims of enforced disappearance—in many countries. And this forced disappearance is a consequence of the absence of free speech. These disappeared people are forcibly disappeared because of their political beliefs, because of their political affiliations, and because of their human rights work, among other things. And they were deprived of the right to speech. Additionally, in the Philippines and many other Asian countries, rallies, for example, and demonstrations on various legitimate issues of the people are being dispersed by security forces in the name of peace. That’s depriving legitimate protesters from the rights to speech and to peaceful assembly. So these people are named as enemies of the state, as subversives, as troublemakers, and in the process they’re tear-gassed, arrested, detained, etcetera. So allowing these people to exercise their constitutional rights is a manifestation of free speech. But in many Asian countries—and many other countries in other regions also—such rights, although provided for by the Constitution, are not respected. Free speech in whatever country you are in, wherever you go, is freedom to study the situation of that country to give your opinion of that situation and share your ideas with others. 

York: Can you share some experiences that helped shape your views on freedom of expression? 

During my childhood years, when martial law was imposed, I’d heard a lot of news about detention, arrest and detention of journalists because of their protest against martial law that was imposed by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr, who was the father of the present President of the Philippines. So I read a lot about violations of human rights of activists from different sectors of society. I read about farmers, workers, students, church people, who were arrested, detained, tortured, disappeared, and killed because of martial law. Because they spoke against the Marcos administration. So during those years when I was so young, this actually formed my mind and also my commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association. 

Once, I was arrested during the first Marcos administration, and that was a very long time ago. That is a manifestation of the curtailment of the right of free speech. I was together with other human rights defenders—I was very young at the time. We were rallying because there was a priest who was made to disappear forcibly. So we were arrested and detained. Also, I was deported by the government of India on my way to Kashmir. I was there three times, but on my third time I was not allowed to go to Kashmir because of our human rights work there. So even now, I am banned in India and I can not go back there. It was because of those reports we made on enforced disappearances and mass graves in Kashmir. So free speech means freedom without thread, intimidation, or retaliation. And it means being able to use all avenues in various contexts to speak in whatever forms—verbal speeches, written speeches, videos, and all forms of communication.

Also, the enforced disappearance of my husband informed my views on free expression. Two weeks after we got married he was briefly forcibly disappeared. He was tortured, he was not fed, and he was forced to confess that he was a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. He was together with one other person he did not know and did not see, and they were forced to dig a grave for themselves to be buried alive inside. Another person who was disappeared then escaped and informed us of where my husband was. So we told the military that we knew where my husband was. They were afraid that the other person might testify so they released my husband in a cemetery near his parent’s house.

And that made an impact on me, that’s why I work a lot with families of enforced disappearances both in the Philippines and in many other countries. I believe that the experience of enforced disappearance of my husband, and other family members of the disappeared and their experience of having family members disappeared until now, is a consequence of the violation of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech. And also my integration or immersion with families of the disappeared has contributed a lot to my commitment to human rights and free speech. I’m just lucky to have my husband back. And he’s lucky. But the way of giving back, of being grateful for the experience we had—because they are very rare cases where victims of enforced disappearances surfaced alive—so I dedicate my whole life to the cause of human rights. 

York: What do you feel are some of the qualities that make you passionate about protecting free expression for others?

Being brought up by my family, my parents, we were taught about the importance of speaking for the truth, and the importance of uprightness. It was also because of our religious background. We were taught it is very important to tell the truth. So this passion for truth and uprightness is one of the qualities that make me passionate about free expression. And the sense of moral responsibility to rectify wrongs that are being committed. My love of writing, also. I love writing whenever I have the opportunity to do it, the time to do it. And the sense of duty to make human rights a lifetime commitment. 

York: What should we know about the role of social media in modern Philippine society? 

I believe social media contributed a lot to what we are now. The current oppressive administration invested a lot in misinformation, in revising history, and that’s why a lot of young people think of martial law as the years of glory and prosperity. I believe one of the biggest factors of the administration getting the votes was their investment in social media for at least a decade. 

York: What are your feelings on how online speech should be regulated? 

I’m not very sure it should be regulated. For me, as long as the individuals or the organizations have a sense of responsibility for what they say online, there should be no regulation. But when we look at free speech on online platforms these online platforms have the responsibility to ensure that there are clear guidelines for content moderation and must be held accountable for content posted on their platforms. So fact-checking—which is so important in this world of misinformation and “fake news”—and complaints mechanisms have to be in place to ensure that harmful online speech is identified and addressed. So while freedom of expression is a fundamental right, it is important to recognize that this can be exploited to spread hate speech and harmful content all in the guise of online freedom of speech—so this could be abused. This is being abused. Those responsible for online platforms must be accountable for their content. For example, from March 2020 to July 2020 our organization, FORUM-Asia and its partners, including freedom of expression group AFAD, documented around 40 cases of hate speech and dangerous speech on Facebook. And the study scope is limited as it only covered posts and comments in Burmese. The researchers involved also reported that many other posts were reported and subsequently removed prior to being documented. So the actual amount of hate speech is likely to be significantly higher. I recommend taking a look at the report. So while FORUM-Asia acknowledges the efforts of Facebook to promote policies to curb hate speech on the platform, it still needs to update and constantly review all these things, like the community guidelines, including those on political advertisements and paid or sponsored content, with the participation of the Facebook Oversight Board. 

York: Can you tell me about a personal experience you’ve had with censorship, or perhaps the opposite, an experience you have of using freedom of expression for the greater good?

In terms of censorship, I don’t have personal experience with censorship. I wrote some opinion pieces in the Union of Catholic Asian News and other online platforms, but I haven’t had any experience of censorship. Although I did experience negative comments because of the content of what I wrote. There are a lot of trolls in the Philippines and they were and are very supportive of the previous administration of Duterte, so there was negative feedback when I wrote a lot on the war on drugs and the killings and impunity. But that’s also part of freedom of speech! I just had to ignore it, but, to be honest, I felt bad. 

York: Thank you for sharing that. Do you have a free expression hero? 

I believe we have so many unsung heroes in terms of free speech and these are the unknown persecuted human rights defenders. But I also answer that during this week we are commemorating the Holy Week [editor’s note: this interview took place on March 28, 2024] so I would like to say that I would like to remember Jesus Christ. Whose passion, death, and resurrection Christians are commemorating this week. So, during his time, Jesus spoke about the ills of society, he was enraged when he witnessed how defenseless poor were violated of their rights and he was angry when authority took advantage of them. And he spoke very openly about his anger, about his defense for the poor. So I believe that he is my hero.

Also, in contemporary times, Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, who was canonized as a Saint in 2018, I consider him as my free speech hero also. I visited the chapel where he was assassinated, the Cathedral of San Salvador, where his mortal remains were buried. And the international community, especially the Salvadoran people, celebrated the 44th anniversary of his assassination last Sunday the 24th of March, 2024. Seeing the ills of society, the consequent persecution of the progressive segment of the Catholic church and the churches in El Salvador, and the indiscriminate killings of the Salvadoran people in his communities San Romero courageously spoke on the eve of his assassination. I’d like to quote what he said. He said:

“I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

So as a fitting tribute to Saint Romero of the Americas the United Nations has dedicated the 24th of March as the International Day for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Guarantees of Non-repetition. So he is my hero. Of course, Jesus Christ being the most courageous human rights defender during these times, continues to be my hero. Which I’m sure was the model of Monsignor Romero. 

Jillian C. York

Podcast Episode: Antitrust/Pro-Internet

2 weeks 1 day ago

Imagine an internet in which economic power is more broadly distributed, so that more people can build and maintain small businesses online to make good livings. In this world, the behavioral advertising that has made the internet into a giant surveillance tool would be banned, so people could share more equally in the riches without surrendering their privacy.

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(You can also find this episode on the Internet Archive and on YouTube.)

That’s the world Tim Wu envisions as he teaches and shapes policy on the revitalization of American antitrust law and the growing power of big tech platforms. He joins EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Jason Kelley to discuss using the law to counterbalance the market’s worst instincts, in order to create an internet focused more on improving people’s lives than on meaningless revenue generation. 

In this episode you’ll learn about: 

  • Getting a better “deal” in trading some of your data for connectedness. 
  • Building corporate structures that do a better job of balancing the public good with private profits. 
  • Creating a healthier online ecosystem with corporate “quarantines” to prevent a handful of gigantic companies from dominating the entire internet. 
  • Nurturing actual innovation of products and services online, not just newer price models. 

Timothy Wu is the Julius Silver Professor of Law, Science and Technology at Columbia Law School, where he has served on the faculty since 2006. First known for coining the term “net neutrality” in 2002, he served in President Joe Biden’s White House as special assistant to the President for technology and competition policy from 2021 to 2023; he also had worked on competition policy for the National Economic Council during the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration. Earlier, he worked in antitrust enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission and served as enforcement counsel in the New York Attorney General’s Office. His books include “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age” (2018), "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads” (2016), “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” (2010), and “Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World” (2006).


What do you think of “How to Fix the Internet?” Share your feedback here


I think with advertising we need a better deal. So advertising is always a deal. You trade your attention and you trade probably some data, in exchange you get exposed to advertising and in exchange you get some kind of free product.

You know, that's the deal with television, that's been the deal for a long time with radio. But because it's sort of an invisible bargain, it's hard to make the bargain, and the price can be increased in ways that you don't necessarily notice. For example, we had one deal with Google in, let's say, around the year 2010 - if you go on Google now, it's an entirely different bargain.

It's as if there's been a massive inflation in these so-called free products. In terms of how much data has been taken, in terms of how much you're exposed to, how much ad load you get. It's as if sneakers went from 30 dollars to 1,000 dollars!

That's Tim Wu – author, law professor, White House advisor. He’s something of a swiss army knife for technology law and policy. He spent two years on the National Economic Council, working with the Biden administration as an advisor on competition and tech policy. He worked on antitrust legislation to try and check some of the country’s biggest corporations, especially, of course, the tech giants.

I’m Cindy Cohn - executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And I’m Jason Kelley - EFF’s Activism Director. This is our podcast, How to Fix the Internet. Our guest today is Tim Wu. His stint with the Biden administration was the second White House administration he advised. And in between, he ran for statewide office in New York. And that whole thing is just a sideline from his day job as a law professor at Columbia University. Plus, he coined the term net neutrality!

On top of that, Tim basically writes a book every few years that I read in order to tell me what's going to happen next in technology. And before that he's been a programmer and a more traditional lab based scientist. So he's kind of got it all.

Sounds like I'm a dilettante.

Well, I think you've got a lot of skills in a lot of different departments, and I think that in some ways, I've heard you call yourself a translator, and I think that that's really what all of that experience gives you as a superpower is the ability to kind of talk between these kinds of spaces in the rest of the world.

Well, I guess you could say that. I've always been inspired by Wilhelm Humboldt, who had this theory that in order to have a full life, you had to try to do a lot of different stuff. So somehow that factors into it somewhere.

That's wonderful. We want to talk about a lot of things in this conversation, but I kind of wanted to start off with the central story of the podcast, which is, what does the world look like if we get this right? You know, you and I have spent a lot of years talking about all the problems, trying to lift up obstacles and get rid of obstacles.

But if we reach this end state where we get a lot of these problems right, in Tim Wu's world, what, what does it look like? Like, what does your day look like? What do people's experience of technology look like?

I think it looks like a world in which economic power surrounding the internet and surrounding the platforms is very much more distributed. And, you know, what that means practically is it means a lot of people are able to make a good living, I guess, based on being a small producer or having a service based skill in a way that feels sustainable and where the sort of riches of the Internet are more broadly shared.

So that's less about what kind of things you click on or, you know, what kind of apps you use and more about, I guess, the economic structure surrounding the Internet, which I think, you know, um, I don't think I'm the only person who thinks this, you know, the structure could be fairer and could work for more people.

It does feel like the potential and, you know, we've all lived through that potential starting in the 90s of this kind of economically liberating force that would be the basis for a lot of people to make a decent living has seemed to turn into something more where a lot of money aggregates in a few places.

Yeah, I remember, people still talk about the long tail, right, as a way in which the digitization of materials created a revenue stream that's more than just, you know, the flavor of the week that a movie studio or a book publisher might want us to pay attention to on kind of the cultural side, right?

That there was space for this. And that also makes me think of a conversation we just had with the folks in the right to repair movement talking about like their world includes a place where there's mom and pop shops that will help you fix your devices all over the place. Like this is another way in which we have centralized economic power.

We've centralized power and if we decentralize this or, or, or spread it more broadly, uh, we're going to create a lot of jobs and opportunities for people, not just as users of technology, but as the people who help build and offer it to us.

I'm writing a new book, um, working title, Platform Capitalism, that has caused me to go back and look at the, you know, the early promise of the internet. And I went back and I was struck by a book, some of you may remember, called "An Army of Davids," by Glenn Reynolds the Instapundit.
Yeah, and he wrote a book and he said, you know, the future of the American economy is going to be all these kind of mom and pop sellers who, who take over everything – he wrote this about 2006 – and he says, you know, bloggers are already competing with news operations, small sellers on eBay are already competing with retail stores, and so on, journalists, so on down the line that, uh, you know, the age of the big, centralized Goliath is over and the little guys are going to rule the future.

Kind of dovetailed, I went back and read Yochai Benkler's early work about a production commons model and how, you know, there'll be a new node of production. Those books have not aged all that well. In fact, I think the book that wins is Blitzscaling. That somewhere along the line, instead of the internet favoring small business, small production, things went in the exact opposite direction.

And when I think about Yochai Benkler's idea of sort of production-based commons, you know, Waze was like that, the mapping program, until one day Waze was just bought by Google. So, I was just thinking about those as I was writing that chapter of the book.

Yeah, I think that's right. I think that identifying and, and you've done a lot of work on this, identify the way in which we started with this promise and we ended up in this other place can help us figure out, and Cory Doctorow, our colleague and friend has been doing a lot of work on this with choke point capitalism and other work that he's done for EFF and elsewhere.

And I also agree with him that, like, we don't really want to create the good old days. We want to create the good new days, right? Like, we want to experience the benefits of an Internet post-1990s, but also have those, those riches decentralized or shared a little more broadly, or a lot more broadly, honestly.

Yeah, I think that's right, and so I think part of what I'm saying, you know, what would fix the internet, or what would make it something that people feel excited about. You know, I think people are always excited about apps and videos, but also people are excited about their livelihood and making money.

And if we can figure out the kind of structure that makes capitalism more distributed surrounding platforms, you know, it's not abandoning the idea of you have to have a good site or a product or something to, to gain customers. It's not a total surrender of that idea, but a return to that idea working for more people.

I mean, one of the things that you taught me in the early days is how kind of ‘twas ever so, right? If you think about radio or broadcast medium or other previous mediums, they kind of started out with this promise of a broader impact and broader empowerment and, and didn't end up that way as much as well.

And I know that's something you've thought about a lot.

Yeah, the first book I wrote by myself, The Master Switch, had that theme and at the time when I wrote it, um, I wrote a lot of it in the, ‘09, ‘08, ‘07 kind of period, and I think at that point I had more optimism that the internet could hold out, that it wouldn't be subject to the sort of monopolizing tendencies that had taken over the radio, which originally was thousands of radio stations, or the telephone system – which started as this ‘go west young man and start your own telephone company’ kind of technology – film industry and and many others. I was firmly of the view that things would be different. Um, I think I thought that, uh, because of the CCP IP protocol, because of the platforms like HTML that were, you know, the center of the web, because of net neutrality, lasting influence. But frankly, I was wrong. I was wrong, at least when I was writing the book.

As you've been talking about the sort of almost inevitable funneling of the power that these technologies have into a single or, or a few small platforms or companies, I wonder what you think about newer ideas around decentralization that have sort of started over the last few years, in particular with platforms like Mastodon or something like that, these kinds of APIs or protocols, not platforms, that idea. Do you see any promise in that sort of thing? Because we see some, but I'm wondering what you think.

I do see some promise. I think that In some ways, it's a long overdue effort. I mean, it's not the first. I can't say it's the first. Um, and part of me wishes that we had been, you know, the idealistic people. Even the idealistic people at some of these companies, such as they were, had been a bit more careful about their design in the first place.

You know, I guess what I would hope … the problem with Mastodon on some of these is they're trying to compete with entities that already are operating with all the full benefits of scale and which are already tied to sort of a Delaware private corporate model. Uh, now this is a little bit, I'm not saying that hindsight is 20/20, but when I think about the major platforms and entities the early 21st century, it's really only Wikipedia that got it right in my view by structurally insulating themselves from certain forces and temptations.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that, uh, part of me wishes we'd done more of this earlier. I do think there's hope in them. I think it's very challenging in current economics to succeed. And sometimes you'd have to wonder if you go in a different, you know, that it might be, I don't want to say impossible, very challenging when you're competing with existing structures. And if you're starting something new, you should start it right.
That said, AI started in a way structurally different and we've seen how that's gone recently.

Oh, say more, say more!

Yeah. Yeah. Keep, keep talking about AI.

I'm very curious about your thinking about that.

Well, you know, I said that, The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. And OpenAI is now no longer open, nor non-profit, nor anything else. You know, it's kind of, uh, been extraordinary that the circuit breakers they tried to install have just been blown straight through. Um, and I think there's been a lot of negative coverage of the board. Um, because, you know, the business press is kind of narrow on these topics. But, um, you know, OpenAI, I guess, at some point, tried to structure itself more carefully and, um, and, uh, you know, now the board is run by people whose main experience has been, um, uh, taking good organizations and making them worse, like Quora, so, yeah, I, I, that is not exactly an inspiring story, uh, I guess of OpenAI in the sense of it's trying to structure itself a little differently and, and it, uh, failing to hold.

I mean, I think Mozilla has managed to have a structure that has a, you know, kind of complicated for profit/not-for-profit strategy that has worked a little better, but II hear you. I think that if you do a power analysis, right, you know, a nonprofit is going to have a very hard time up against all the money in the world.

And I think that that seems to be what happened for OpenAI. Uh, once all the money in the world showed up, it was pretty hard to, uh, actually impossible for the public interest nonprofit side to hold sway.

When I think about it over and over, I think engineers and the people who set up these, uh, structures have been repeatedly very naive about, um, the power of their own good intentions. And I agree. Mozilla is a good example. Wikipedia is a good example. Google, I remember when they IPO'd, they had some set up, and they said, ‘We're not going to be an ordinary company,’ or something like that. And they sort of had preferred stock for some of the owners. You know, Google is still in some ways an impressive company, but it's hard to differentiate them from any other slightly money grubbing, non-innovative colossus, um, of the kind they were determined not to become.

And, you know, there was this like, well, it's not going to be us, because we're different. You know, we're young and idealistic, and why would we want to become, I don't know, like Xerox or IBM, but like all of us, you begin by saying, I'm never going to become like my parents, and then next thing you know, you're yelling at your kids or whatever.

Yeah, it's, it's the, you know, meet the new boss the same as the old boss, right? When we, what we were hoping was that we would be free of some of the old bosses and have a different way to approach, but, but the forces are pretty powerful that stick people back in line, I think.

And some of the old structures, you know, look a little better. Like, I'm not going to say newspapers are perfect, but a structure like the New York Times structure, for example, basically is better than Google's. And I just think there was this sense that, Well, we can solve that problem with code and good vibes. And that turned out to be the great mistake.

One of the conversations that you and I have had over the years is kind of the role of regulation on, on the internet. I think the fight about whether to regulate or not to regulate the Internet was always a little beside the point. The question is how. And I'm wondering what you're thinking now. You've been in the government a couple times. You've tried to push some things that were pretty regulatory. How are you thinking now about something like a centralized regulatory agency or another approach to, you know, regulating the Internet?

Yeah, I, you know, I continue to have mixed feelings about something like the central internet commission, mostly for some of the reasons you said, but on the other hand, sometimes, if I want to achieve what I mentioned, which is the idea of platforms that are an input into a lot of people being able to operate on top of them and run businesses-like, you know, at times, the roads have been, or the electric system, or the phone network, um, it's hard to get away from the idea of having some hard rules, sometimes I think my sort of platonic form of, of government regulation or rules was the 1956 AT&T consent decree, which, for those who are not as deep in those weeds as I am, told AT&T that it could do nothing but telecom, and therefore not do computing and also force them to license every single one of their patents for free. And the impact of that was more than one -  one is because they were out of computing. They were not able to dominate it and you had companies then new to computing like IBM and others that got into that space and developed the American computing industry completely separate from AT&T.

And you also ended up, semiconductor companies start that time with the transistor patent and other patents they used for free. So you know, I don't know exactly how you achieve that, but I'm drawn to basically keeping the main platforms in their lane. I would like there to be more competition.
The antitrust side of me would love it. And I think that in some areas we are starting to have it, like in social media, for better or for worse. But maybe for some of the more basic fundamentals, online markets and, you know, as much competition as we can get – but some rule to stay out of other businesses, some rule to stop eating the ecosystem. I do think we need some kind of structural separation rules. Who runs those is a little bit of a harder question.

Yeah, we're not opposed to structural separation at EFF. I think we, we think a lot more about interoperability to start with as a way to, you know, help people have other choices, but we haven't been opposed to structural separation, and I think there are situations in which it might make a lot of good sense, especially, you know, in the context of mergers, right?

Where the company has actually swallowed another company that did another thing. That's, kind of the low hanging fruit, and EFF has participated a lot in commenting on potential mergers.

I'm not opposed the idea of pushing interoperability. I think that it's based on the experience of the last 100 years. It is a tricky thing to get right. I'm not saying it's impossible. We do have examples: Phone network, in the early 20th century, and interconnection was relatively successful. And right now, you know, when you change between, let's say, T-Mobile and Verizon, there's only three left, but you get to take your phone number with you, which is a form of interoperability.

But it has the risk of being something you put a lot of effort into and it not necessarily working that well in terms of actually stimulating competition, particularly because of the problem of sabotage, as we saw in the ‘96 Act. So it's actually not about the theory, it's about the practice, the legal engineering of it. Can you find the right thing where you've got kind of a cut point where you could have a good interoperability scheme?

Let’s take a quick moment to say thank you to our sponsor. “How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Enriching people’s lives through a keener appreciation of our increasingly technological world and portraying the complex humanity of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

And now back to our conversation with Tim Wu. I was intrigued by what he said about keeping platforms in their lane. I wanted to hear him speak more about how that relates to antitrust – is that spreading into other ecosystems what sets his antitrust alarm bells off? How does he think about that?

I guess the phrase I might use is quarantine, is you want to quarantine businesses, I guess, from others. And it's less of a traditional antitrust kind of remedy, although it, obviously, in the ‘56 consent decree, which was out of an antitrust suit against AT&T, it can be a remedy.

And the basic idea of it is, it's explicitly distributional in its ideas. It wants more players in the ecosystem, in the economy. It's almost like an ecosystem promoting a device, which is you say, okay, you know, you are the unquestioned master of this particular area of commerce. Maybe we're talking about Amazon and it's online shopping and other forms of e-commerce, or Google and search.

We're not going to give up on the hope of competition, but we think that in terms of having a more distributed economy where more people have their say, um, almost in the way that you might insulate the college students from the elementary school students or something. We're going to give other, you know, room for other people to develop their own industries in these side markets. Now, you know, there's resistance say, well, okay, but Google is going to do a better job in, uh, I don't know, shopping or something, you know, they might do a good job. They might not, but you know, they've got their returns and they're always going to be an advantage as a platform owner and also as a monopoly owner of having the ability to cross-subsidize and the ability to help themselves.

So I think you get healthier ecosystems with quarantines. That's basically my instinct. And, you know, we do quarantines either legally or de facto all the time. As I said, the phone network has long been barred from being involved in a lot of businesses. Banking is kept out of a lot of businesses because of obvious problems of corruption. The electric network, I guess they could make toasters if they want, but it was never set up to allow them to dominate the appliance markets.

And, you know, if they did dominate the appliance markets, I think it would be a much poorer world, a lot less interesting innovation, and frankly, a lot less wealth for everyone. So, yeah, I have strong feelings. It's more of my net neutrality side that drives this thinking than my antitrust side, I’ll put it that way.

You specifically worked in both the Obama and Biden administration sort of on these issues. I'm wondering if your thinking on this has changed. In experiencing those things from from the sort of White House perspective and also just how different those two, sort of, experiences were, obviously the moments are different in time and and and everything like that, but they're not so far apart – maybe light years in terms of technology, but what was your sort of experience between those two, and how do you think we're doing now on this issue?

I want to go back to a slightly earlier time in government, not the Obama, actually it was the Obama administration, but my first job in the, okay, sorry, my third job in the federal government, uh, I guess I'm a, one of these recidivists or something, was at the Federal Trade Commission.

Oh yeah, I remember.

Taking the first hard look at big tech and, in fact, we're investigating Google for the first time for antitrust possible offenses, and we also did the first privacy remedy on Facebook, which I will concede was a complete and absolute failure of government, one of the weakest remedies, I think. We did that right before Cambridge Analytica. And obviously had no effect on Facebook's conduct at all. So, one of the failed remedies. I think that when I think back about that period, the main difference was that the tech platforms were different in a lot of ways.

I believe that, uh, monopolies and big companies have, have a life cycle. And they were relatively early in that life cycle, maybe even in a golden age. A company like Amazon seemed to be making life possible for a lot of sellers. Google was still in its early phase and didn't have a huge number of verticals. Still had limited advertising. Most searches still didn't turn up that many ads.

You know, they were in a different stage of their life. And they also still felt somewhat, they were still already big companies. They still felt relatively in some sense, vulnerable to even more powerful economic forces. So they hadn't sort of reached that maturity. You know, 10 years later, I think the life cycle has turned. I think companies have largely abandoned innovation in their core products and turned to defense and trying to improve – most of their innovations are attempting to raise more revenue and supposed to make the product better. Uh, kind of reminds me of the airline industry, which stopped innovating somewhere in the seventies and started making, trying to innovate in, um, terms of price structures and seats being smaller, that kind of thing.

You know, there's, you reach this end point, I think the airlines are the end point where you take a high tech industry at one point and just completely give up on anything other than trying to innovate in terms of your pricing models.

Yeah, I mean, I, you know, our, our, we, Cory keeps coming up, but of course Cory calls it the “enshittification” of, uh, of services, and I think that is, uh, in typical Corrie way captures, this stage of the process.

Yeah, I just to speak more broadly. I you know, I think there's a lot of faith and belief that the, uh, company like Google, you know, in its heart meant well, and I do still think the people working there mean well, but I feel that, you know, the structure they set up, which requires showing increasing revenue and profit every quarter began to catch up with it much more and we’re at a much later stage of the process.


Or the life cycle. I guess I'd put it.

And then for you, kind of coming in as a government actor on this, like, what did that mean in terms of, like, was it, I'm assuming, I kind of want to finish the sentence for you. And that, you know, that meant it was harder to get them to do the right thing. It meant that their defenses were better against trying to do the right thing.

Like how did that impact the governmental interventions that you were trying to help make happen?

I think it was both. I think there was both, in terms of government action, a sense that the record was very different. The Google story in 2012 is very different than 2023. And the main difference is in 2023 Google is paying out 26.3 billion a year to other companies to keep its search engine where it is, and arguably to split the market with Apple.

You know, there wasn't that kind of record back in 2012. Maybe we still should have acted, but there wasn't that much money being so obviously spent on pure defensive monopoly. But also people were less willing. They thought the companies were great. They overall, I mean, there's a broader ideological change that people still felt, many people from the Clinton administration felt the government was the problem. Private industry was the solution. Had kind of a sort of magical thinking about the ability of this industry to be different in some fundamental way.

So the chair of the FCC wasn't willing to pull the trigger. The economists all said it was a terrible idea. You know, they failed to block over a thousand mergers that big tech did during that period, which it's, I think, very low odds that none of those thousands were anti-competitive or in the aggregate that maybe, you know, that was a way of building up market power.

Um, it did enrich a lot of small company people, but I, I think people at companies like Waze really regret selling out and, you know, end up not really building anything of their own but becoming a tiny sub-post of the Google empire.

Yeah, the “acquihire” thing is very central now and what I hear from people in the industry is that like, if that's not your strategy to get acquired by one of the ones, it's very hard to get funded, right? It feeds back into the VC and how you get funded to get something built.

If it's not something that one of the big guys is going to buy, you're going to have a hard time building it and you're going to have a hard time getting the support to get to the place where you might actually even be able to compete with them.

And I think sometimes people forget we had different models. You know, some of your listeners might forget that, you know, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and early 2000s, people did build companies not just to be bought...


...but to build fortunes, or because they thought it was a good company. I mean, the people who built Sun, or Apple, or, you know, Microsoft, they weren't saying, well, I hope I'm gonna be bought by IBM one day. And they made real fortunes. I mean, look, being acquired, you can obviously become a very wealthy person, but you don't become a person of significance. You can go fund a charity or something, but you haven't really done something with your life.

I'm going to flip it around again. And so we get to the place where the Tim Wu vision that the power is spread more broadly. We've got lots of little businesses all around. We've got many choices for consumers. What else, what else do you see in this world? Like what role does the advertising business model play in this kind of a better future. That's just one example there of many, that we could give.

Yeah, no, I like your vision of a different future. I think, uh, just like focus on it goes back to the sense of opportunity and, you know, you could have a life where you run a small business that's on the internet that is a respectable business and you're neither a billionaire nor you're impoverished, but you know, you just had to have your own business the way people have, like, in New York or used to run like stores and in other parts of the country, and in that world, I mean, in my ideal world, there is advertising, but advertising is primarily informational, if that makes sense.

It provides useful information. And it's a long way to go between here and there, but where, um, you know, it's not the default business model for informational sources such that it, it has much less corrupting effects. Um, you know, I think that advertising obviously everyone's business model is going to affect them, but advertising has some of the more, corrupting business models around.

So, in my ideal world, we would not, it's not that advertising will go away, people want information, but we'd strike a better bargain. Exactly how you do that. I guess more competition helps, you know, lower advertising, um, sites you might frequent, better privacy protecting sites, but, you know, also passing privacy legislation might help too.

I think that’s right, I think EFF has taken a position that we think we should ban behavioral ads. That's a pretty strong position for us and not what we normally do, um, to, to say, well, we need to ban something. But also that we need, of course, comprehensive privacy law, which is, you know, kind of underlines so many of the harms that we're seeing online right now is this, this lack of a baseline privacy protection.

I don't know if you see it the same way, but it's certainly it seems to be the through line for a lot of harms that are coming up as things people are concerned about. Yeah.

I mean, absolutely, and I, you know, don't want to give EFF advice on their views, but I would say that I think it's wise to see the totally unregulated collection of data from, you know, millions, if not billions of people as a source of so many of the problems that we have.

It drives unhealthy business models, it leads to real-world consequences, in terms of identity theft and, and so many others, but I think I, I'd focus first on what, yeah, the kind of behavior that encourages the kind of business model is encourages, which are ones that just don't in the aggregate, feel very good for the businesses or for, for us in particular.

So yeah, my first priority legislatively, I think if I were acting at this moment would be starting right there with, um, a privacy law that is not just something that gives supposed user rights to take a look at the data that's collected, but that meaningfully stops the collection of data. And I think we'll all just shrug our shoulders and say, oh, we're better off without that. Yes, it supported some, but we will still have some of the things – it's not as if we didn't have friends before Facebook.

It's not as if we didn't have video content before YouTube, you know, these things will survive with less without behavioral advertising. I think your stance on this is entirely, uh, correct.

Great. Thank you, I always love it when Tim agrees with me and you know, it pains me when we disagree, but one of the things I know is that you are one of the people who was inspired by Larry Lessig and we cite Larry a lot on the show because we like to think about things or organize them in terms of the four levels of, um, You know, digital regulation, you know, laws, norms, markets, and code as four ways that we could control things online. And I know you've been focusing a lot on laws lately and markets as well.

How do you think about, you know, these four levers and where we are and, and how we should be deploying them?

Good question. I regard Larry as a prophet. He was my mentor in law school, and in fact, he is responsible for most of my life direction. Larry saw that there was a force arising through code that already was somewhat, in that time, 90s, early 2000s, not particularly subject to any kind of accountability, and he saw that it could take forms that might not be consistent with the kind of liberties you would like to have or expect and he was right about that.

You know, you can say whatever you want about law or government and there are many examples of terrible government, but at least the United States Constitution we think well, there is this problem called tyranny and we need to do something about it.

There's no real equivalent for the development of abusive technologies unless you get government to do something about it and government hasn't done much about it. You know, I think the interactions are what interests me about the four forces. So if we agree that code has a certain kind of sovereignty over our lives in many ways and most of us on a day-to-day basis are probably more affected by the code of the devices we use than by the laws we operate under.

And the question is, what controls code? And the two main contenders are the market and law. And right now the winner by far is just the market, which has led codemakers in directions that even they find kind of unfortunate and disgraceful.

I don't remember who had that quote, but it was some Facebook engineer that said the greatest minds of our generation are writing code to try to have people click on random ads, and we have sort of wasted a generation of talent on meaningless revenue generation when they could be building things that make people's lives better.

So, you know, the answer is not easy is to use law to counter the market. And that's where I think we are with Larry's four factors.

Yeah, I think that that's right, and I agree that it's a little ro-sham-bo, right, that you can control code with laws and, and markets and you can control markets with code, which is kind of where interoperability comes in sometimes and laws and you know, norms play a role in kind of a slightly different whammy role in all of these things, but I do think that those interactions are really important and we've, again, I've always thought it was a somewhat phony conversation about, you know, "to regulate or not to regulate, that is the question" because that's not actually particularly useful in terms of thinking about things because we were embedded in a set of laws. It's just the ones we pay attention to and the ones that we might not notice, but I do think we're in a time when we have to think a lot harder about how to make laws that will be flexible enough to empower people and empower competition and not lock in the winners of today's markets. And we spend a lot of time thinking about that issue.

Well, let me say this much. This might sound a little contradictory in my life story, but I'm not actually a fan of big government, certainly not overly prescriptive government. Having been in government, I see government's limits, and they are real. But I do think the people together are powerful.

I think laws can be powerful, but what they most usefully do is balance out the market. You know what I'm saying? And create different incentives or different forces against it. I think trying to have government decide exactly how tech should run is usually a terrible idea. But to cut off incentives – you talked about behavioral advertising. So let's say you ban behavioral advertising just the way we ban child labor or something. You know, you can live without it. And, yeah, maybe we're less productive because we don't let 12 year olds work in factories. There's a marginal loss of revenue, but I frankly think it's worth it.

And, you know, and some of the other practices that have shown up are in some ways the equivalent. And we can live without them. And that's the, you know, it's sort of easy to say. we should ban child labor. But when you look for those kind of practices, that's where we need law to be active.

Well, Cindy, I came away from that with a reading list. I'm sure a lot of people are familiar with those authors and those books, but I am going to have to catch up. I think we'll put some of them, maybe all the books, in the, in the show notes so that people who are wondering can, can catch up on their end.

You, as someone who's already read all those books, probably have different takeaways from this conversation than me.

You know what I really, I really like how Tim thinks he's, you know, he comes out of this, especially most recently from an economics perspective. So his future is really an economics one.

It's about an internet that has lots of spaces for people to make a reasonable living as opposed to the few people make a killing, or sell their companies to the big tech giants. And I think that that vision dovetails a lot with a lot of the people that we've talked. to on this show that, you know, in some ways we've got to think about how do we redistribute the internet and that includes redistributing the economic benefits.

Yeah. And thinking about, you know, something you've said many times, which is this idea of rather than going backwards to the internet we used to have, or the world we used to have, we're really trying to build a better world with the one we do have.

So another thing he did mention that I really pulled away from this conversation was when antitrust makes sense. And that sort of idea of, well, what do you do when companies start spreading into other ecosystems? That's when you really have to start thinking about the problems that they're creating for competition.

And I think the word he used was quarantine. Is that right?

Yeah I love that image.

Yeah, that was just a helpful, I think, way for people to think about how antitrust can work. And that was something that I'll take away from this probably forever.

Yeah, I also liked his vision of what kind of deal we have with a lot of these free tools or AKA free tools, which is, you know, at one time when we signed up for, you know, a Gmail account, it's, you know, the, the deal was that it was going to look at what you searched on and what you wrote and then place you ads based on the context and what you did.

And now that deal is much, much worse. And I think he, he's right to likening that to something that, you know, has secretly gotten much more expensive for us, that the deal for us as consumers has gotten worse and worse. And I really like that framing because again, it kind of translates out from the issues that where we live, which is, you know, privacy and free speech and fairness and turns it into something that is actually kind of an economic framing of some of the same points.

I think that the kind of upshot of Tim and, and honestly, some of the other people we've talked to is this idea of ‘blitzscaling’, um, and growing gigantic platforms is really at the heart of a lot of the problems that we're seeing in free speech and in privacy and also in economic fairness. And I think that's a point that Tim makes very well.

I think that from, you know, The Attention Merchants, The Curse of Bigness, Tim has been writing in this space for a while, and he, what I appreciate is Tim is really a person, um, who came up in the Internet, he understands the Internet, he understands a lot of the values, and so he's, he's not writing as an outsider throwing rocks as much as an insider who is kind of dismayed at how things have gone and looking to try to unpack all of the problems. And I think his observation, which is shared by a lot of people, is that a lot of the problems that we're seeing inside tech are also problems we're seeing outside tech. It's just that tech is new enough that they really took over pretty fast.

But I think that it's important for us to both recognize the problems inside tech and it doesn't let tech off the hook. To note that these are broader societal problems, but it may help us in thinking about how we get out of them.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of How to Fix the Internet. If you have feedback or suggestions, we'd love to hear from you. Visit EFF. org slash podcast and click on listener feedback. While you're there, you can become a member, donate, maybe pick up some merch and just see what's happening in digital rights this week and every week.

We’ve got a newsletter, EFFector, as well as social media accounts on many, many, many platforms you can follow

This podcast is licensed Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, and includes music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by their creators.

In this episode you heard Perspectives *** by J.Lang featuring Sackjo22 and Admiral Bob, and Warm Vacuum Tube by Admiral Bob featuring starfrosch.

You can find links to their music in our episode notes, or on our website at eff.org/podcast.

Our theme music is by Nat Keefe of BeatMower with Reed Mathis

How to Fix the Internet is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program in public understanding of science and technology.

We’ll talk to you again soon.

I’m Jason Kelley

And I’m Cindy Cohn.

Josh Richman

"Infrastructures of Control": Q&A with the Geographers Behind University of Arizona's Border Surveillance Photo Exhibition

2 weeks 4 days ago

Guided by EFF's map of Customs & Border Protection surveillance towers, University of Arizona geographers Colter Thomas and Dugan Meyer have been methodologically traversing the U.S.-Mexico border and photographing the infrastructure that comprises the so-called "virtual wall."

Anduril Sentry tower beside the Rio Grande River. Photo by Colter Thomas (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

From April 12-26, their outdoor exhibition "Infrastructures of Control" will be on display on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, featuring more than 30 photographs of surveillance technology, a replica surveillance tower, and a blow up map based on EFF's data.

Locals can join the researchers and EFF staff for an opening night tour at 5pm on April 12, followed by an EFF Speakeasy/Meetup. There will also be a panel discussion at 5pm on April 19, moderated by journalist Yael Grauer, co-author of EFF's Street-Level Surveillance hub. It will feature a variety of experts on the border, including Isaac Esposto (No More Deaths), Dora Rodriguez (Salvavision), Pedro De Velasco (Kino Border Initiative), Todd Miller (The Border Chronicle), and Daniel Torres (Daniel Torres Reports).

In the meantime, we chatted with Colter and Dugan about what their project means to them.

MAASS: Tell us what you hope people will take away from this project?

MEYER: We think of our work as a way for us to contribute to a broader movement for border justice that has been alive and well in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands for decades. Using photography, mapping, and other forms of research, we are trying to make the constantly expanding infrastructure of U.S. border policing and surveillance more visible to public audiences everywhere. Our hope is that doing so will prompt more expansive and critical discussions about the extent to which these infrastructures are reshaping the social and environmental landscapes throughout this region and beyond.

THOMAS: The diversity of landscapes that make up the borderlands can make it hard to see how these parts fit together, but the common thread of surveillance is an ominous sign for the future and we hope that the work we make can encourage people from different places and experiences to find common cause for looking critically at these infrastructures and what they mean for the future of the borderlands.

An Integrated Fixed Tower in Southern Arizona. Photo by Colter Thomas (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

MAASS: So much is written about border surveillance by researchers working off documents, without seeing these towers first hand. How did your real-world exploration affect your understanding of border technology?

THOMAS: Personally I’m left with more questions than answers when doing this fieldwork. We have driven along the border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, and it is surprising just how much variation there is within this broad system of U.S. border security. It can sometimes seem like there isn’t just one border at all, but instead a patchwork of infrastructural parts—technologies, architecture, policy, etc.—that only looks cohesive from a distance.

An Integrated Fixed Tower in Southern Arizona. Photo by Colter Thomas (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

MAASS: That makes me think of Trevor Paglen, an artist known for his work documenting surveillance programs. He often talks about the invisibility of surveillance technology. Is that also what you encountered?

MEYER: The scale and scope of U.S. border policing is dizzying, and much of how this system functions is hidden from view. But we think many viewers of this exhibition might be surprised—as we were when we started doing this work—just how much of this infrastructure is hidden in plain sight, integrated into daily life in communities of all kinds.

This is one of the classic characteristics of infrastructure: when it is working as intended, it often seems to recede into the background of life, taken for granted as though it always existed and couldn’t be otherwise. But these systems, from surveillance programs to the border itself, require tremendous amounts of labor and resources to function, and when you look closely, it is much easier to see the waste and brutality that are their real legacy. As Colter and I do this kind of looking, I often think about a line from the late David Graeber, who wrote that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

THOMAS: Like Dugan said, infrastructure rarely draws direct attention. As artists and researchers, then, our challenge has been to find a way to disrupt this banality visually, to literally reframe the material landscapes of surveillance in ways that sort of pull this infrastructure back into focus. We aren’t trying to make this infrastructure beautiful, but we are trying to present it in a way that people will look at it more closely. I think this is also what makes Paglen’s work so powerful—it aims for something more than simply documenting or archiving a subject that has thus far escaped scrutiny. Like Paglen, we are trying to present our audiences with images that demand attention, and to contextualize those images in ways that open up opportunities and spaces for viewers to act collectively with their attention. For us, this means collaborating with a range of other people and organizations—like the EFF—to invite viewers into critical conversations that are already happening about what these technologies and infrastructures mean for ourselves and our neighbors, wherever they are coming from.

Dave Maass

Federal Court Dismisses X's Anti-Speech Lawsuit Against Watchdog

2 weeks 5 days ago

This post was co-written by EFF legal intern Melda Gurakar.

Researchers, journalists, and everyone else has a First Amendment right to criticize social media platforms and their content moderation practices without fear of being targeted by retaliatory lawsuits, a federal court recently ruled.

The decision by a federal court in California to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Elon Musk’s X against the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting online hate speech and misinformation, is a win for greater transparency and accountability of social media companies. The court’s ruling in X Corp. v. Center for Countering Digital Hate Ltd. shows that X had no legitimate basis to bring its case in the first place, as the company used the lawsuit to penalize the CCDH for criticizing X and to deter others from doing so.

Vexatious cases like these are known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs. These lawsuits chill speech because they burden speakers who engaged in protected First Amendment activity with the financial costs and stress of having to fight litigation, rather than seeking to vindicate legitimate legal claims. The goal of these suits is not to win, but to inflict harm on the opposing party for speaking. We are grateful that the court saw X’s lawsuit was a SLAPP and dismissed it, ruling that the claims lacked legal merit and that the suit violated California’s anti-SLAPP statute.

The lawsuit filed in July 2023 accused the CCDH of unlawfully accessing and scraping data from its platform, which X argued CCDH used in order to harm X Corp.'s reputation and, by extension, its business operations, leading to lost advertising revenue and other damages. X argued that CCDH had initiated this calculated “scare campaign” aimed at deterring advertisers from engaging with the platform, supposedly resulting in a significant financial loss for X. Moreover, X claimed that the CCDH breached its Terms of Service contract as a user of X.

The court ruled that X’s accusations were insufficient to bypass the protective shield of California's anti-SLAPP statute. Furthermore, the court's decision to dismiss X Corp.'s claims, including those related to breach of contract and alleged infringements of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, stemmed from X Corp.'s inability to convincingly allege or demonstrate significant losses attributable to CCDH's activities. This outcome not only is a triumph for CCDH, but also validates the anti-SLAPP statute's role in safeguarding critical research efforts against baseless legal challenges. Thankfully, the court also rejected X’s claim under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). X had argued that the CFAA barred CCDH’s scraping of public tweets—a erroneous reading of the law. The court found that regardless of that argument, the X had not shown a “loss” of the type protected by the CFAA, such as technological harms to data or computers.

EFF, alongside the ACLU of Northern California and the national ACLU, filed an amicus brief in support of CCDH, arguing that X Corp.'s lawsuit mischaracterized a nonviable defamation claim as a breach of contract to retaliate against CCDH. The brief supported CCDH's motion to dismiss, arguing that the term of service against CCDH as it pertains to data scraping should be deemed void, and is contrary to the public interest. It also warned of a potential chilling effect on research and activism that rely on digital platforms to gather information.

The ramifications of X Corp v. CCDH reach far beyond this decision. X Corp v. CCDH affirms the Center for Countering Digital Hate's freedom to conduct and publish research that critiques X Corp., and sets precedent that protects critical voices from being silenced online. We are grateful that the court reached this correct result and affirmed that people should not be targeted by lawsuits for speaking critically of powerful institutions.

Aaron Mackey

The White House is Wrong: Section 702 Needs Drastic Change

2 weeks 5 days ago

With Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act set to expire later this month, the White House recently released a memo objecting to the SAFE Act—legislation introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Mike Lee that would reauthorize Section 702 with some reforms. The White House is wrong. SAFE is a bipartisan bill that may be our most realistic chance of reforming a dangerous NSA mass surveillance program that even the federal government’s privacy watchdog and the White House itself have acknowledged needs reform.

As we’ve written, the SAFE Act does not go nearly far enough in protecting us from the warrantless surveillance the government now conducts under Section 702. But, with surveillance hawks in the government pushing for a reauthorization of their favorite national security law without any meaningful reforms, the SAFE Act might be privacy and civil liberties advocates’ best hope for imposing some checks upon Section 702.

Section 702 is a serious threat to the privacy of those in the United States. It authorizes the collection of overseas communications for national security purposes, and, in a globalized world, this allows the government to collect a massive amount of Americans’ communications. As Section 702 is currently written, intelligence agencies and domestic law enforcement have backdoor, warrantless access to millions of communications from people with clear constitutional rights.

The White House objects to the SAFE Act’s two major reforms. The first requires the government to obtain court approval before accessing the content of communications for people in the United States which have been hoovered up and stored in Section 702 databases—just like police have to do to read your letters or emails. The SAFE Act’s second reform closes the “data broker loophole” by largely prohibiting the government from purchasing personal data they would otherwise need a warrant to collect. While the White House memo is just the latest attempt to scare lawmakers into reauthorizing Section 702, it omits important context and distorts the key SAFE Act amendments’ effects

The government has repeatedly abused Section 702 by searching its databases for Americans’ communications. Every time, the government claims it has learned from its mistakes and won’t repeat them, only for another abuse to come to light years later. The government asks you to trust it with the enormously powerful surveillance tool that is Section 702—but it has proven unworthy of that trust.

The Government Should Get Judicial Approval Before Accessing Americans’ Communications

Requiring the government to obtain judicial approval before it can access the communications of Americans and those in the United States is a necessary, minimum protection against Section 702’s warrantless surveillance. Because Section 702 does not require safeguards of particularity and probable cause when the government initially collects communications, it is essential to require the government to at least convince a judge that there is a justification before the “separate Fourth Amendment event” of the government accessing the communications of Americans it has collected.

The White House’s memo claims that the government shouldn’t need to get court approval to access communications of Americans that were “lawfully obtained” under Section 702. But this ignores the fundamental differences between Section 702 and other surveillance. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement don’t get to play “finders keepers” with our communications just because they have a pre-existing program that warrantlessly vacuums them all up.

The SAFE Act has exceptions from its general requirement of court approval for emergencies, consent, and—for malicious software—“defensive cybersecurity queries.” While the White House memo claims these are “dangerously narrow,” exigency and consent are longstanding, well-developed exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. And the SAFE Act gives the government even more leeway than the Fourth Amendment ordinarily does in also excluding “defensive cybersecurity queries” from its requirement of judicial approval.

The Government Shouldn’t Be Able to Buy What It Would Otherwise Need a Warrant to Collect

The SAFE Act properly imposes broad restrictions upon the government’s ability to purchase data—because way too much of our data is available for the government to purchase. Both the FBI and NSA have acknowledged knowingly buying data on Americans. As we’ve written many times, the commercially available information that the government purchases can be very revealing about our most intimate, private communications and associations. The Director of National Intelligence’s own report on government purchases of commercially available information recognizes this data can be “misused to pry into private lives, ruin reputations, and cause emotional distress and threaten the safety of individuals.” This report also recognizes that this data can “disclose, for example, the detailed movements and associations of individuals and groups, revealing political, religious, travel, and speech activities.”

The SAFE Act would go a significant way towards closing the “data broker loophole” that the government has been exploiting. Contrary to the White House’s argument that Section 702 reauthorization is “not the vehicle” for protecting Americans’ data privacy, closing the “data broker loophole” goes hand-in-hand with putting crucial guardrails upon Section 702 surveillance: the necessary reform of requiring court approval for government access to Americans’ communications is undermined if the government is able to warrantlessly collect revealing information about Americans some other way. 

The White House further objects that the SAFE Act does not address data purchases by other countries and nongovernmental entities, but this misses the point. The best way Congress can protect Americans’ data privacy from these entities and others is to pass comprehensive data privacy regulation. But, in the context of Section 702 reauthorization, the government is effectively asking for special surveillance permissions for itself, that its surveillance continue to be subjected to minimal oversight while other other countries’ surveillance practices are regulated. (This has been a pattern as of late.) The Fourth Amendment prohibits intelligence agencies and law enforcement from giving themselves the prerogative to invade our privacy.  

Brendan Gilligan

In Historic Victory for Human Rights in Colombia, Inter-American Court Finds State Agencies Violated Human Rights of Lawyers Defending Activists

2 weeks 6 days ago

In a landmark ruling for fundamental freedoms in Colombia, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that for over two decades the state government harassed, surveilled, and persecuted members of a lawyer’s group that defends human rights defenders, activists, and indigenous people, putting the attorneys’ lives at risk. 

The ruling is a major victory for civil rights in Colombia, which has a long history of abuse and violence against human rights defenders, including murders and death threats. The case involved the unlawful and arbitrary surveillance of members of the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CAJAR), a Colombian human rights organization defending victims of political persecution and community activists for over 40 years.

The court found that since at least 1999, Colombian authorities carried out a constant campaign of pervasive secret surveillance of CAJAR members and their families. That state violated their rights to life, personal integrity, private life, freedom of expression and association, and more, the Court said. It noted the particular impact experienced by women defenders and those who had to leave the country amid threat, attacks, and harassment for representing victims.  

The decision is the first by the Inter-American Court to find a State responsible for violating the right to defend human rights. The court is a human rights tribunal that interprets and applies the American Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty ratified by over 20 states in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

In 2022, EFF, Article 19, Fundación Karisma, and Privacy International, represented by Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, filed an amicus brief in the case. EFF and partners urged the court to rule that Colombia’s legal framework regulating intelligence activity and the surveillance of CAJAR and their families violated a constellation of human rights and forced them to limit their activities, change homes, and go into exile to avoid violence, threats, and harassment. 

Colombia's intelligence network was behind abusive surveillance practices in violation of the American Convention and did not prevent authorities from unlawfully surveilling, harassing, and attacking CAJAR members, EFF told the court. Even after Colombia enacted a new intelligence law, authorities continued to carry out unlawful communications surveillance against CAJAR members, using an expansive and invasive spying system to target and disrupt the work of not just CAJAR but other human rights defenders and journalists

In examining Colombia’s intelligence law and surveillance actions, the court elaborated on key Inter-American and other international human rights standards, and advanced significant conclusions for the protection of privacy, freedom of expression, and the right to defend human rights. 

The court delved into criteria for intelligence gathering powers, limitations, and controls. It highlighted the need for independent oversight of intelligence activities and effective remedies against arbitrary actions. It also elaborated on standards for the collection, management, and access to personal data held by intelligence agencies, and recognized the protection of informational self-determination by the American Convention. We highlight some of the most important conclusions below.

Prior Judicial Order for Communications Surveillance and Access to Data

The court noted that actions such as covert surveillance, interception of communications, or collection of personal data constitute undeniable interference with the exercise of human rights, requiring precise regulations and effective controls to prevent abuse from state authorities. Its ruling recalled European Court of Human Rights’ case law establishing that “the mere existence of legislation allowing for a system of secret monitoring […] constitutes a threat to 'freedom of communication among users of telecommunications services and thus amounts in itself to an interference with the exercise of rights'.” 

Building on its ruling in the case Escher et al. vs Brazil, the Inter-American Court stated that

“[t]he effective protection of the rights to privacy and freedom of thought and expression, combined with the extreme risk of arbitrariness posed by the use of surveillance techniques […] of communications, especially in light of existing new technologies, leads this Court to conclude that any measure in this regard (including interception, surveillance, and monitoring of all types of communication […]) requires a judicial authority to decide on its merits, while also defining its limits, including the manner, duration, and scope of the authorized measure.” (emphasis added) 

According to the court, judicial authorization is needed when intelligence agencies intend to request personal information from private companies that, for various legitimate reasons, administer or manage this data. Similarly, prior judicial order is required for “surveillance and tracking techniques concerning specific individuals that entail access to non-public databases and information systems that store and process personal data, the tracking of users on the computer network, or the location of electronic devices.”  

The court said that “techniques or methods involving access to sensitive telematic metadata and data, such as email and metadata of OTT applications, location data, IP address, cell tower station, cloud data, GPS and Wi-Fi, also require prior judicial authorization.” Unfortunately, the court missed the opportunity to clearly differentiate between targeted and mass surveillance to explicitly condemn the latter.

The court had already recognized in Escher that the American Convention protects not only the content of communications but also any related information like the origin, duration, and time of the communication. But legislation across the region provides less protection for metadata compared to content. We hope the court's new ruling helps to repeal measures allowing state authorities to access metadata without a previous judicial order.

Indeed, the court emphasized that the need for a prior judicial authorization "is consistent with the role of guarantors of human rights that corresponds to judges in a democratic system, whose necessary independence enables the exercise of objective control, in accordance with the law, over the actions of other organs of public power.” 

To this end, the judicial authority is responsible for evaluating the circumstances around the case and conducting a proportionality assessment. The judicial decision must be well-founded and weigh all constitutional, legal, and conventional requirements to justify granting or denying a surveillance measure. 

Informational Self-Determination Recognized as an Autonomous Human Right 

In a landmark outcome, the court asserted that individuals are entitled to decide when and to what extent aspects of their private life can be revealed, which involves defining what type of information, including their personal data, others may get to know. This relates to the right of informational self-determination, which the court recognized as an autonomous right protected by the American Convention. 

“In the view of the Inter-American Court, the foregoing elements give shape to an autonomous human right: the right to informational self-determination, recognized in various legal systems of the region, and which finds protection in the protective content of the American Convention, particularly stemming from the rights set forth in Articles 11 and 13, and, in the dimension of its judicial protection, in the right ensured by Article 25.”  

The protections that Article 11 grant to human dignity and private life safeguard a person's autonomy and the free development of their personality. Building on this provision, the court affirmed individuals’ self-determination regarding their personal information. In combination with the right to access information enshrined in Article 13, the court determined that people have the right to access and control their personal data held in databases. 

The court has explained that the scope of this right includes several components. First, people have the right to know what data about them are contained in state records, where the data came from, how it got there, the purpose for keeping it, how long it’s been kept, whether and why it’s being shared with outside parties, and how it’s being processed. Next is the right to rectify, modify, or update their data if it is inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated. Third is the right to delete, cancel, and suppress their data in justified circumstances. Fourth is the right to oppose the processing of their data also in justified circumstances, and fifth is the right to data portability as regulated by law. 

According to the court, any exceptions to the right of informational self-determination must be legally established, necessary, and proportionate for intelligence agencies to carry out their mandate. In elaborating on the circumstances for full or partial withholding of records held by intelligence authorities, the court said any restrictions must be compatible with the American Convention. Holding back requested information is always exceptional, limited in time, and justified according to specific and strict cases set by law. The protection of national security cannot serve as a blanket justification for denying access to personal information. “It is not compatible with Inter-American standards to establish that a document is classified simply because it belongs to an intelligence agency and not on the basis of its content,” the court said.  

The court concluded that Colombia violated CAJAR members’ right to informational self -determination by arbitrarily restricting their ability to access and control their personal data within public bodies’ intelligence files.

The Vital Protection of the Right to Defend Human Rights

The court emphasized the autonomous nature of the right to defend human rights, finding that States must ensure people can freely, without limitations or risks of any kind, engage in activities aimed at the promotion, monitoring, dissemination, teaching, defense, advocacy, or protection of universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms. The ruling recognized that Colombia violated the CAJAR members' right to defend human rights.

For over a decade, human rights bodies and organizations have raised alarms and documented the deep challenges and perils that human rights defenders constantly face in the Americas. In this ruling, the court importantly reiterated their fundamental role in strengthening democracy. It emphasized that this role justifies a special duty of protection by States, which must establish adequate guarantees and facilitate the necessary means for defenders to freely exercise their activities. 

Therefore, proper respect for human rights requires States’ special attention to actions that limit or obstruct the work of defenders. The court has emphasized that threats and attacks against human rights defenders, as well as the impunity of perpetrators, have not only an individual but also a collective effect, insofar as society is prevented from knowing the truth about human rights violations under the authority of a specific State. 

Colombia’s Intelligence Legal Framework Enabled Arbitrary Surveillance Practices 

In our amicus brief, we argued that Colombian intelligence agents carried out unlawful communications surveillance of CAJAR members under a legal framework that failed to meet international human rights standards. As EFF and allies elaborated a decade ago on the Necessary and Proportionate principles, international human rights law provides an essential framework for ensuring robust safeguards in the context of State communications surveillance, including intelligence activities. 

In the brief, we bolstered criticism made by CAJAR, Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL), and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, challenging Colombia’s claim that the Intelligence Law enacted in 2013 (Law n. 1621) is clear and precise, fulfills the principles of legality, proportionality, and necessity, and provides sufficient safeguards. EFF and partners highlighted that even after its passage, intelligence agencies have systematically surveilled, harassed, and attacked CAJAR members in violation of their rights. 

As we argued, that didn’t happen despite Colombia’s intelligence legal framework, rather it was enabled by its flaws. We emphasized that the Intelligence Law gives authorities wide latitude to surveil human rights defenders, lacking provisions for prior, well-founded, judicial authorization for specific surveillance measures, and robust independent oversight. We also pointed out that Colombian legislation failed to provide the necessary means for defenders to correct and erase their data unlawfully held in intelligence records. 

The court ruled that, as reparation, Colombia must adjust its intelligence legal framework to reflect Inter-American human rights standards. This means that intelligence norms must be changed to clearly establish the legitimate purposes of intelligence actions, the types of individuals and activities subject to intelligence measures, the level of suspicion needed to trigger surveillance by intelligence agencies, and the duration of surveillance measures. 

The reparations also call for Colombia to keep files and records of all steps of intelligence activities, “including the history of access logs to electronic systems, if applicable,” and deliver periodic reports to oversight entities. The legislation must also subject communications surveillance measures to prior judicial authorization, except in emergency situations. Moreover, Colombia needs to pass regulations for mechanisms ensuring the right to informational self-determination in relation to intelligence files. 

These are just some of the fixes the ruling calls for, and they represent a major win. Still, the court missed the opportunity to vehemently condemn state mass surveillance (which can occur under an ill-defined measure in Colombia’s Intelligence Law enabling spectrum monitoring), although Colombian courts will now have the chance to rule it out.

In all, the court ordered the state to take 16 reparation measures, including implementing a system for collecting data on violence against human rights defenders and investigating acts of violence against victims. The government must also publicly acknowledge responsibility for the violations. 

The Inter-American Court's ruling in the CAJAR case sends an important message to Colombia, and the region, that intelligence powers are only lawful and legitimate when there are solid and effective controls and safeguards in place. Intelligence authorities cannot act as if international human rights law doesn't apply to their practices.  

When they do, violations must be fiercely investigated and punished. The ruling elaborates on crucial standards that States must fulfill to make this happen. Only time will tell how closely Colombia and other States will apply the court's findings to their intelligence activities. What’s certain is the dire need to fix a system that helped Colombia become the deadliest country in the Americas for human rights defenders last year, with 70 murders, more than half of all such murders in Latin America. 

Karen Gullo

Speaking Freely: Emma Shapiro

3 weeks ago

Emma Shapiro is an American artist, writer, and activist who is based in Valencia, Spain. She is the Editor-At-Large for the Don’t Delete Art campaign and the founder of the international art project and movement Exposure Therapy. Her work includes the use of video, collage, performance, and photography, while primarily using her own body and image. Through her use of layered video projection, self portraiture, and repeated encounters with her own image, Emma deconstructs and questions the meaning of our bodies, how we know them, and what they could be.

Regular censorship of her artwork online and IRL has driven Emma to dedicate herself to advocacy for freedom of expression. Emma sat down with EFF’s Jillian York to discuss the need for greater protection of artistic expression across platforms, how the adult body is regulated in the digital world, the role of visual artists as defenders of cultural and digital rights, and more.

York: What does free expression mean to you?

Free expression, to me, as primarily an artist—I’ve now also become an arts writer and an advocate for artistry things including censorship and suppression online of those who make art —but, primarily, I’m an artist. So for me free expression is my own ability to make my work and see the artwork of others. That is what is, baseline, the most important thing to me. And whenever I encounter obstacles to those things is when I know I’m facing issues with free expression. Besides that, how free we are to express ourselves is kind of the barometer for what kind of society we’re living in.

York: Can you tell me about an experience that shaped your views on freedom of expression?

The first times I encountered suppression and erasure of my own art work, which is probably the most pivotal moment that I personally had that shaped my views around this in that I became indignant and that led me down a path of meeting other artists and other people who were expressing themselves and facing the exact same problem. Especially in the online space. The way it operates is, if you’re being censored, you’re being suppressed. You’re effectively not being seen. So unless you’re seeking out this conversation – and that’s usually because it’s happened to you – you’re easily not going to encounter this problem. You’re not going to be able to interact with the creators this is happening to.

That was a completely ground-shifting and important experience for me when I first started experiencing this kind of suppression and erasure of my artwork online. I’ve always experienced misunderstanding of my work and I usually chalked that up to a puritan mindset or sexism in that I use my own body in my artwork. Even though I’m not dealing with sexual themes – I’m not even dealing with feminist themes – those topics are unavoidable as soon as you use a body. Especially a female-presenting body in your artwork. As soon as I started posting my artwork online that was when the experience of censorship became absolutely clear to me.

York: Tell me about your project Exposure Therapy. We’ve both done a lot of work around how female-presenting bodies are allowed to exist on social media platforms. I would love to hear your take on this and what brought you to that project. 

I’d be happy to talk about Exposure Therapy! Exposure Therapy came out of one of the first major instances of censorship that I experienced. Which was something that happened in real life. It happened at a WalMart in rural Virginia where I couldn’t get my work printed. They threatened me with the police and they destroyed my artwork in front of me. The reason they gave me was that it showed nipples. So I decided to put my nipples everywhere. Because I was like… this is so arbitrary. If I put my nipple on my car is my car now illicit and sexy or whatever you’re accusing me of? So that’s how Exposure Therapy started. It started as a physical offline intervention. And it was just my own body that I was using. 

Then when I started an Instagram account to explore it a little further I, of course, faced online censorship of the female-presenting nipple. And so it became a more complex conversation after that. Because the online space and how we judge bodies online was a deep and confusing world. I ended up meeting a lot of other activists online who are dealing with the same topic and incorporating other bodies into the project. Out of that, I’ve grown nearly everything I’ve done since as having to do with online spaces, the censorship of bodies, and particularly censorship of female-presenting bodies. And it’s been an extremely rewarding experience. It’s been very interesting to monitor the temperature shifts over the last few years since I began the project, and to see how some things have remained the same. I mean, even when I go out and discuss the topic of censorship of the female-presenting nipple, the baseline understanding people often have is they think that female nipples are genitalia and they’re embarrassed by them. And that’s a lot of people in the world – even people who would attend a lecture of mine feel that way!

York: If you were to be the CEO of a social media platform tomorrow how would you construct the rules when it comes to the human body? 

When it comes to the adult human body. The adult consenting human body. I’m interested more in user choice in online spaces and social media platforms. I like the idea of me, as a user, going into a space with the ability to determine what I don’t want to see or what I do want to see. Instead of the space dictating what’s allowed to be on the space in the first place. And I also am interested in some models that I’ve seen where the artist or the person posting the content is labeling the images themselves, like self-tagging. And those tags end up creating their own sub-tags. And that is very interactive – it could be a much more interactive and user-experience based space rather than the way social media is operating right now which is completely dictated from the top down. There basically is no user choice now. There might be some toggles that you can say that you want to see or that you don’t want to see “sensitive content,” but they’re still the ones labeling what “sensitive content” is. I’m mostly interested in the user choice aspect. Lips social media run by Annie Brown I find to be a fascinating experiment. Something that she is proving is that there is a space that can be created that is LGBTQ and feminist-focused where it does put the user first. It puts the creator first. And there’s a sort of social contract that you’re a part of being in that space. 

York: Let me ask you about the Don’t Delete Art Campaign. What prompted that and what’s been a success story from that campaign?

I’m not a founding member of Don’t Delete Art. My fellow co-curators, Spencer Tunick and Savannah Spirit, were there in the very beginning when this was created with NCAC (National Coalition Against Censorship) and Freemuse and ARC (Artists at Risk Connection), and there were also some others involved at the beginning. But now it is those three organizations and three of us artists/ activists. Since its inception in 2020, I believe, or the end of 2019, we had seen a shift in the way that certain things were happening at Meta. We mostly are dealing with Meta platforms because they’re mostly image-based. Of course there are things that happen on other social media platforms, but visual artists are usually using these visual platforms. So most of our work has had to do with Meta platforms, previously Facebook platforms.

And since the inception of Don’t Delete Art we actually have seen shifts in the way that they deal with the appeals processes and the way that there might be more nuance in how lens-based work is assessed. We can’t necessarily claim those as victories because no one has told us, “This is thanks to you, Don’t Delete Art, that we made this change!” Of course, they’re never going to do that. But we’re pretty confident that our input – our contact with them, the data that we gathered to give them – helps them hear a little more of our artistic perspectives and integrate that into their content moderation design. So that’s a win.

For me personally, since I came on board – and I’m the Editor at Large of Don’t Delete Art – I have been very pleased with our interaction with artists and other groups including digital rights groups and free expression groups who really value what we do. And that we are able to collaborate with them, take part in events that they’re doing, and spread the message of Don’t Delete Art. And just let artists know that when this happens to them – this suppression or censorship – they’re not alone. Because it’s an extremely isolating situation. People feel ashamed. It’s hard to know you’re now inaugurated into a community when this happens to you. So I feel like that’s a win. The more I can educate my own community, the artist community, on this issue and advance the conversation and advance the cause.

York: What would you say to someone who says nudity isn’t one of the most important topics in the discussion around content moderation?

That is something that I encounter a lot. And basically it’s that there’s a lot of aspects to being an artist online—and then especially an artist who uses the body online—that faces suppression and censorship that people tend to think our concerns are frivolous. This also goes hand in hand with  the “free the nipple” movement and body equality. People tend to look upon those conversations—especially when they’re online—as being frivolous secondary concerns. And what I have to say to that is… my body is your body. If my body is not considered equal for any reason at all and not given the respect it deserves then no body is equal. It doesn’t matter what context it’s in. It doesn’t matter if I’m using my body or using the topic of female nipples or me as an artist. The fact that art using the body is so suppressed online means that there’s a whole set of artists who just aren’t being seen, who are unable to access the same kinds of tools as other artists who choose a different medium. And the medium that we choose to express ourselves with shouldn’t be subject to those kinds of restrictions. It shouldn’t be the case that artists have to change their entire practice just to get access to the same tools that other artists have. Which has happened. 

Many artists, myself included, [and] Savannah Spirit, especially, speak to this: people have changed their entire practice or they don’t show entire bodies of work or they even stop creating because they’re facing suppression and censorship and even harassment online. And that extends to the offline space. If a gallery is showing an artist who faces censorship online, they would be less likely to include that artist’s work in their promotional material where they might have otherwise. Or, if they do host that artist’s work and the gallery faces suppression and censorship of their presence online because of that artist’s work, then in the future they might choose not to work with an artist who works with the body. Then we’re losing an entire field of art in which people are discussing body politics and identity and ancestry and everything that has to do with the body. I mean there’s a reason artists are working with the body. It’s important commentary, an important tool, and important visibility. 

York: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work that I haven’t asked you about? 

I do want to have the opportunity to say that—and it relates to the way people might not take some artists seriously or take this issue seriously—and I think that extends to the digital rights conversation and artists. I think it’s a conversation that isn’t being had in art communities. But it’s something that affects visual artists completely. Visual artists aren’t necessarily—well, it’s hard to group us as a community because we don’t have unions for ourselves, it’s a pretty individualistic practice, obviously—but artists don’t tend to realize that they are cultural rights defenders. And that they need to step in and occupy their digital rights space. Digital rights conversations very rarely include the topic of visual art. For example, the Santa Clara Principles is a very important document that doesn’t mention visual art at all. And that’s a both sides problem. That artists don’t recognize the importance of digital art in their practice, and digital rights groups don’t realize that they should be inviting visual artists to the table. So in my work, especially in the writing I do for arts journals, I have very specifically focused on and tried to call this out. That artists need to step into the digital rights space and realize this is a conversation that needs to be had in our own community.

York: That is a fantastic call to action to have in this interview, thank you. Now my final question- who, if anyone, is your free expression hero?

I feel somewhat embarrassed by it because it comes from a very naive place, but when I was a young kid I saw Ragtime on Broadway and Emma Goldman became my icon as a very young child. And of course I was drawn to her probably because we have the same name! Just her character in the show, and then learning about her life, became very influential to me. I just loved the idea of a strong woman spending her life and her energy advocating for people, activating people, motivating people to fight for their rights and make sure the world is a more equal place. And that has always been a sort of model in my mind and it’s never really gone away. I feel like I backed into what I’m doing now and ended up being where I want to be. Because I, of course, pursued art and I didn’t anticipate that I would be encountering this issue. I didn’t anticipate that I’d become part of the Don’t Delete Campaign, I didn’t know any of that. I didn’t set out for that. I just always had Emma Goldman in the back of my mind as this strong female figure whose life was dedicated to free speech and equality. So that’s my biggest icon. But it also is one that I had as a very young kid who didn’t know much about the world. 

York: Those are the icons that shape us! Thank you so much for this interview. 

Jillian C. York

Ola Bini Faces Ecuadorian Prosecutors Seeking to Overturn Acquittal of Cybercrime Charge

3 weeks 1 day ago

Ola Bini, the software developer acquitted last year of cybercrime charges in a unanimous verdict in Ecuador, was back in court last week in Quito as prosecutors, using the same evidence that helped clear him, asked an appeals court to overturn the decision with bogus allegations of unauthorized access of a telecommunications system.

Armed with a grainy image of a telnet session—which the lower court already ruled was not proof of criminal activity—and testimony of an expert witness to the lower court—who never had access to the devices and systems involved in the alleged intrusion—prosecutors presented the theory that, by connecting to a router, Bini made partial unauthorized access in an attempt to break into a  system  provided by Ecuador’s national telecommunications company (CNT) to a presidency's contingency center.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In an unfounded criminal case plagued by irregularities, delays, and due process violations, Ecuadorian prosecutors have for the last five years sought to prove Bini violated the law by allegedly accessing an information system without authorization.

Bini, who resides in Ecuador, was arrested at the Quito airport in 2019 without being told why. He first learned about the charges from a TV news report depicting him as a criminal trying to destabilize the country. He spent 70 days in jail and cannot leave Ecuador or use his bank accounts.

Bini prevailed in a trial last year before a three-judge panel. The core evidence the Prosecutor’s Office and CNT’s lawyer presented to support the accusation of unauthorized access to a computer, telematic, or telecommunications system was a printed image of a telnet session allegedly taken from Bini’s mobile phone.

The image shows the user requesting a telnet connection to an open server using their computer’s command line. The open server warns that unauthorized access is prohibited and asks for a username. No username is entered. The connection then times out and closes. Rather than demonstrating that Bini intruded into the Ecuadorean telephone network system, it shows the trail of someone who paid a visit to a publicly accessible server—and then politely obeyed the server's warnings about usage and access.

Bini’s acquittal was a major victory for him and the work of security researchers. By assessing the evidence presented, the court concluded that both the Prosecutor’s Office and CNT failed to demonstrate a crime had occurred. There was no evidence that unauthorized access had ever happened, nor anything to sustain the malicious intent that article 234 of Ecuador’s Penal Code requires to characterize the offense of unauthorized access.

The court emphasized the necessity of proper evidence to prove that an alleged computer crime occurred and found that the image of a telnet session presented in Bini’s case is not fit for this purpose. The court explained that graphical representations, which can be altered, do not constitute evidence of cybercrime since an image cannot verify whether the commands illustrated in it were actually executed. Building on technical experts' testimonies, the court said that what does not emerge, or what can't be verified from digital forensics, is not proper digital evidence.

Prosecutors appealed the verdict and are back in court using the same image that didn’t prove any crime was committed. At the March 26 hearing, prosecutors said their expert witness’s analysis of the telnet image shows there was connectivity to the router. The witness compared it to entering the yard of someone’s property to see if the gate to the property is open or closed. Entering the yard is analogous to connecting to the router, the witness said.

Actually, no. Our interpretation of the image, which was leaked to the media before Bini’s trial, is that it’s the internet equivalent of seeing an open gate, walking up to it, seeing a “NO TRESPASSING” sign, and walking away. If this image could prove anything it is that no unauthorized access happened.

Yet, no expert analysis was conducted in the systems allegedly affected. The  expert witness’s testimony was based on his analysis of a CNT report—he didn’t have access to the CNT router to verify its configuration. He didn’t digitally validate whether what was shown in the report actually happened and he was never asked to verify the existence of an IP address owned or managed by CNT.

That’s not the only problem with the appeal proceedings. Deciding the appeal is a panel of three judges, two of whom ruled to keep Bini in detention after his arrest in 2019 because there were allegedly sufficient elements to establish a suspicion against him. The detention was later considered illegal and arbitrary because of a lack of such elements. Bini filed a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian state, including the two judges, for violating his rights. Bini’s defense team has sought to remove these two judges from the appeals case, but his requests were denied.

The appeals court panel is expected to issue a final ruling in the coming days.  

Karen Gullo

U.S. Supreme Court Does Not Go Far Enough in Determining When Government Officials Are Barred from Censoring Critics on Social Media

3 weeks 4 days ago

After several years of litigation across the federal appellate courts, the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion has finally crafted a test that lower courts can use to determine whether a government official engaged in “state action” such that censoring individuals on the official’s social media page—even if also used for personal purposes—would violate the First Amendment.

The case, Lindke v. Freed, came out of the Sixth Circuit and involves a city manager, while a companion case called O'Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier came out of the Ninth Circuit and involves public school board members.

A Two-Part Test

The First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring individuals’ speech in public forums based on the viewpoints that individuals express. In the age of social media, where people in government positions use public-facing social media for both personal, campaign, and official government purposes, it can be unclear whether the interactive parts (e.g., comments section) of a social media page operated by someone who works in government amount to a government-controlled public forum subject to the First Amendment’s prohibition on viewpoint discrimination. Another way of stating the issue is whether a government official who uses a social media account for personal purposes is engaging in state action when they also use the account to speak about government business.  

As the Supreme Court states in the Lindke opinion, “Sometimes … the line between private conduct and state action is difficult to draw,” and the question is especially difficult “in a case involving a state or local official who routinely interacts with the public.”

The Supreme Court announced a fact-intensive test to determine if a government official’s speech on social media counts as state action under the First Amendment. The test includes two required elements:

  • the official “possessed actual authority to speak” on the government’s behalf, and
  • the official “purported to exercise that authority when he spoke on social media.”

Although the court’s opinion isn’t as generous to internet users as we had asked for in our amicus brief, it does provide guidance to individuals seeking to vindicate their free speech rights against government officials who delete their comments or block them outright.

This issue has been percolating in the courts since at least 2016. Perhaps most famously, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and others sued then-president Donald Trump for blocking many of the plaintiffs on Twitter. In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s holding that President Trump’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account violated the First Amendment. EFF has also represented PETA in two cases against Texas A&M University.

Element One: Does the official possess actual authority to speak on the government’s behalf?

There is some ambiguity as to what specific authority the Supreme Court believes the government official must have. The opinion is unclear whether the authority is simply the general authority to speak officially on behalf of the public entity, or instead the specific authority to speak officially on social media. On the latter framing, the opinion, for example, discusses the authority “to post city updates and register citizen concerns,” and the authority “to speak for the [government]” that includes “the authority to do so on social media….” The broader authority to generally speak on behalf of the government would be easier to prove for plaintiffs and should always include any authority to speak on social media.

Element One Should Be Interpreted Broadly

We will urge the lower courts to interpret the first element broadly. As we emphasized in our amicus brief, social media is so widely used by government agencies and officials at all levels that a government official’s authority generally to speak on behalf of the public entity they work for must include the right to use social media to do so. Any other result does not reflect the reality we live in.

Moreover, plaintiffs who are being censored on social media are not typically commenting on the social media pages of low-level government employees, say, the clerk at the county tax assessor’s office, whose authority to speak publicly on behalf of their agency may be questionable. Plaintiffs are instead commenting on the social media pages of people in leadership positions, who are often agency heads or in elected positions and who surely should have the general authority to speak for the government.

“At the same time,” the Supreme Court cautions, “courts must not rely on ‘excessively broad job descriptions’ to conclude that a government employee is authorized to speak” on behalf of the government. But under what circumstances would a court conclude that a government official in a leadership position does not have such authority? We hope these circumstances are few and far between for the sake of plaintiffs seeking to vindicate their First Amendment rights.

When Does the Use of a New Communications Technology Become So “Well Settled” That It May Fairly Be Considered Part of a Government Official’s Public Duties?

If, on the other hand, the lower courts interpret the first element narrowly and require plaintiffs to provide evidence that the government official who censored them had authority to speak on behalf of the agency on social media specifically, this will be more difficult to prove.

One helpful aspect of the court’s opinion is that the government official’s authority to speak (however that’s defined) need not be written explicitly in their job description. This is in contrast to what the Sixth Circuit had, essentially, held. The authority to speak on behalf of the government, instead, may be based on “persistent,” “permanent,” and “well settled” “custom or usage.”  

We remain concerned, however, that if there is a narrower requirement that the authority must be to speak on behalf of the government via a particular communications technology—in this case, social media—then at what point does the use of a new technology become so “well settled” for government officials that it is fair to conclude that it is within their public duties?

Fortunately, the case law on which the Supreme Court relies does not require an extended period of time for a government practice to be deemed a legally sufficient “custom or usage.” It would not make sense to require an ages-old custom and usage of social media when the widespread use of social media within the general populace is only a decade and a half old. Ultimately, we will urge lower courts to avoid this problem and broadly interpret element one.

Government Officials May Be Free to Censor If They Speak About Government Business Outside Their Immediate Purview

Another problematic aspect of the Supreme Court’s opinion within element one is the additional requirement that “[t]he alleged censorship must be connected to speech on a matter within [the government official’s] bailiwick.”

The court explains:

For example, imagine that [the city manager] posted a list of local restaurants with health-code violations and deleted snarky comments made by other users. If public health is not within the portfolio of the city manager, then neither the post nor the deletions would be traceable to [his] state authority—because he had none.

But the average constituent may not make such a distinction—nor should they. They would simply see a government official talking about an issue generally within the government’s area of responsibility. Yet under this interpretation, the city manager would be within his right to delete the comments, as the constituent could not prove that the issue was within that particular government official’s purview, and they would thus fail to meet element one.

Element Two: Did the official purport to exercise government authority when speaking on social media? Plaintiffs Are Limited in How a Social Media Account’s “Appearance and Function” Inform the State Action Analysis

In our brief, we argued for a functional test, where state action would be found if a government official were using their social media account in furtherance of their public duties, even if they also used that account for personal purposes. This was essentially the standard that the Ninth Circuit adopted, which included looking at, in the words of the Supreme Court, “whether the account’s appearance and content look official.” The Supreme Court’s two-element test is more cumbersome for plaintiffs. But the upside is that the court agrees that a social media account’s “appearance and function” is relevant, even if only with respect to element two.

Reality of Government Officials Using Both Personal and Official Accounts in Furtherance of Their Public Duties Is Ignored

Another problematic aspect of the Supreme Court’s discussion of element two is that a government official’s social media page would amount to state action if the page is the “only” place where content related to government business is located. The court provides an example: “a mayor would engage in state action if he hosted a city council meeting online by streaming it only on his personal Facebook page” and it wasn’t also available on the city’s official website. The court further discusses a new city ordinance that “is not available elsewhere,” except on the official’s personal social media page. By contrast, if “the mayor merely repeats or shares otherwise available information … it is far less likely that he is purporting to exercise the power of his office.”

This limitation is divorced from reality and will hamstring plaintiffs seeking to vindicate their First Amendment rights. As we showed extensively in our brief (see Section I.B.), government officials regularly use both official office accounts and “personal” accounts for the same official purposes, by posting the same content and soliciting constituent feedback—and constituents often do not understand the difference.

Constituent confusion is particularly salient when government officials continue to use “personal” campaign accounts after they enter office. The court’s conclusion that a government official “might post job-related information for any number of personal reasons, from a desire to raise public awareness to promoting his prospects for reelection” is thus highly problematic. The court is correct that government officials have their own First Amendment right to speak as private citizens online. However, their constituents should not be subject to censorship when a campaign account functions the same as a clearly official government account.

An Upside: Supreme Court Denounces the Blocking of Users Even on Mixed-Use Social Media Accounts

One very good aspect of the Supreme Court’s opinion is that if the censorship amounted to the blocking of a plaintiff from engaging with the government official’s social media page as a whole, then the plaintiff must merely show that the government official “had engaged in state action with respect to any post on which [the plaintiff] wished to comment.”  

The court further explains:

The bluntness of Facebook’s blocking tool highlights the cost of a “mixed use” social-media account: If page-wide blocking is the only option, a public of­ficial might be unable to prevent someone from commenting on his personal posts without risking liability for also pre­venting comments on his official posts. A public official who fails to keep personal posts in a clearly designated per­sonal account therefore exposes himself to greater potential liability.

We are pleased with this language and hope it discourages government officials from engaging in the most egregious of censorship practices.

The Supreme Court also makes the point that if the censorship was the deletion of a plaintiff’s individual comments under a government official’s posts, then those posts must each be analyzed under the court’s new test to determine whether a particular post was official action and whether the interactive spaces that accompany it are government forums. As the court states, “it is crucial for the plaintiff to show that the official is purporting to exercise state authority in specific posts.” This is in contrast to the Sixth Circuit, which held, “When analyzing social-media activity, we look to a page or account as a whole, not each individual post.”

The Supreme Court’s new test for state action unfortunately puts a thumb on the scale in favor of government officials who wish to censor constituents who engage with them on social media. However, the test does chart a path forward on this issue and should be workable if lower courts apply the test with an eye toward maximizing constituents’ First Amendment rights online.

Sophia Cope

Restricting Flipper is a Zero Accountability Approach to Security: Canadian Government Response to Car Hacking

3 weeks 5 days ago

On February 8, François-Philippe Champagne, the Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced Canada would ban devices used in keyless car theft. The only device mentioned by name was the Flipper Zero—the multitool device that can be used to test, explore, and debug different wireless protocols such as RFID, NFC, infrared, and Bluetooth.

EFF explores toilet hacking

While it is useful as a penetration testing device, Flipper Zero is impractical in comparison to other, more specialized devices for car theft. It’s possible social media hype around the Flipper Zero has led people to believe that this device offers easier hacking opportunities for car thieves*. But government officials are also consuming such hype. That leads to policies that don’t secure systems, but rather impedes important research that exposes potential vulnerabilities the industry should fix. Even with Canada walking back on the original statement outright banning the devices, restricting devices and sales to “move forward with measures to restrict the use of such devices to legitimate actors only” is troublesome for security researchers.

This is not the first government seeking to limit access to Flipper Zero, and we have explained before why this approach is not only harmful to security researchers but also leaves the general population more vulnerable to attacks. Security researchers may not have the specialized tools car thieves use at their disposal, so more general tools come in handy for catching and protecting against vulnerabilities. Broad purpose devices such as the Flipper have a wide range of uses: penetration testing to facilitate hardening of a home network or organizational infrastructure, hardware research, security research, protocol development, use by radio hobbyists, and many more. Restricting access to these devices will hamper development of strong, secure technologies.

When Brazil’s national telecoms regulator Anatel refused to certify the Flipper Zero and as a result prevented the national postal service from delivering the devices, they were responding to media hype. With a display and controls reminiscent of portable video game consoles, the compact form-factor and range of hardware (including an infrared transceiver, RFID reader/emulator, SDR and Bluetooth LE module) made the device an easy target to demonize. While conjuring imagery of point-and-click car theft was easy, citing examples of this actually occurring proved impossible. Over a year later, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single instance of a car being stolen with the device. The number of cars stolen with the Flipper seems to amount to, well, zero (pun intended). It is the same media hype and pure speculation that has led Canadian regulators to err in their judgment to ban these devices.

Still worse, law enforcement in other countries have signaled their own intentions to place owners of the device under greater scrutiny. The Brisbane Times quotes police in Queensland, Australia: “We’re aware it can be used for criminal means, so if you’re caught with this device we’ll be asking some serious questions about why you have this device and what you are using it for.” We assume other tools with similar capabilities, as well as Swiss Army Knives and Sharpie markers, all of which “can be used for criminal means,” will not face this same level of scrutiny. Just owning this device, whether as a hobbyist or professional—or even just as a curious customer—should not make one the subject of overzealous police suspicions.

It wasn’t too long ago that proficiency with the command line was seen as a dangerous skill that warranted intervention by authorities. And just as with those fears of decades past, the small grain of truth embedded in the hype and fears gives it an outsized power. Can the command line be used to do bad things? Of course. Can the Flipper Zero assist criminal activity? Yes. Can it be used to steal cars? Not nearly as well as many other (and better, from the criminals’ perspective) tools. Does that mean it should be banned, and that those with this device should be placed under criminal suspicion? Absolutely not.

We hope Canada wises up to this logic, and comes to view the device as just one of many in the toolbox that can be used for good or evil, but mostly for good.

*Though concerns have been raised about Flipper Devices' connection to the Russian state apparatus, no unexpected data has been observed escaping to Flipper Devices' servers, and much of the dedicated security and pen-testing hardware which hasn't been banned also suffers from similar problems.

Bill Budington

EFF Asks Oregon Supreme Court Not to Limit Fourth Amendment Rights Based on Terms of Service

3 weeks 6 days ago

This post was drafted by EFF legal intern Alissa Johnson.

EFF signed on to an amicus brief drafted by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers earlier this month petitioning the Oregon Supreme Court to review State v. Simons, a case involving law enforcement surveillance of over a year’s worth of private internet activity. We ask that the Court join the Ninth Circuit in recognizing that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their browsing histories, and that checking a box to access public Wi-Fi does not waive Fourth Amendment rights.

Mr. Simons was convicted of downloading child pornography after police warrantlessly captured his browsing history on an A&W restaurant’s public Wi-Fi network, which he accessed from his home across the street. The network was not password-protected but did require users to agree to an acceptable use policy, which noted that while web activity would not be actively monitored under normal circumstances, A&W “may cooperate with legal authorities.” A private consultant hired by the restaurant noticed a device on the network accessing child pornography sites and turned over logs of all of the device’s unencrypted internet activity, both illegal and benign, to law enforcement.

The Court of Appeals asserted that Mr. Simons had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his browsing history on A&W’s free Wi-Fi network. We disagree.

Browsing history reveals some of the most sensitive personal information that exists—the very privacies of life that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect. It can allow police to uncover political and religious affiliation, medical history, sexual orientation, or immigration status, among other personal details. Internet users know how much of their private information is exposed through browsing data, take steps to protect it, and expect it to remain private.

Courts have also recognized that browsing history offers an extraordinarily detailed picture of someone’s private life. In Riley v. California, the Supreme Court cited browsing history as an example of the deeply private information that can be found on a cell phone. The Ninth Circuit went a step further in holding that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their browsing histories.

People’s expectation of privacy in browsing history doesn’t disappear when tapping “I Agree” on a long scroll of Terms of Service to access public Wi-Fi. Private businesses monitoring internet activity to protect their commercial interests does not license the government to sidestep a warrant requirement, or otherwise waive constitutional rights.

The price of participation in public society cannot be the loss of Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable government infringement on our privacy. As the Supreme Court noted in Carpenter v. United States, “A person does not surrender all Fourth Amendment protection by venturing into the public sphere.” People cannot negotiate the terms under which they use public Wi-Fi, and in practicality have no choice but to accept the terms dictated by the network provider.

The Oregon Court of Appeals’ assertion that access to public Wi-Fi is convenient but not necessary for participation in modern life ignores well-documented inequalities in internet access across race and class. Fourth Amendment rights are for everyone, not just those with private residences and a Wi-Fi budget.

Allowing private businesses’ Terms of Service to dictate our constitutional rights threatens to make a “crazy quilt” of the Fourth Amendment, as the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out in Smith v. Maryland. Pinning constitutional protection to the contractual provisions of private parties is absurd and impracticable. Almost all of us rely on Wi-Fi outside of our homes, and that access should be protected against government surveillance.

We hope that the Oregon Supreme Court accepts Mr. Simons’ petition for review to address the important constitutional questions at stake in this case.

Andrew Crocker

Meta Oversight Board’s Latest Policy Opinion a Step in the Right Direction

4 weeks ago

EFF welcomes the latest and long-awaited policy advisory opinion from Meta’s Oversight Board calling on the company to end its blanket ban on the use of the Arabic-language term “shaheed” when referring to individuals listed under Meta’s policy on dangerous organizations and individuals and calls on Meta to fully implement the Board’s recommendations.

Since the Meta Oversight Board was created in 2020 as an appellate body designed to review select contested content moderation decisions made by Meta, we’ve watched with interest as the Board has considered a diverse set of cases and issued expert opinions aimed at reshaping Meta’s policies. While our views on the Board's efficacy in creating long-term policy change have been mixed, we have been happy to see the Board issue policy recommendations that seek to maximize free expression on Meta properties.

The policy advisory opinion, issued Tuesday, addresses posts referring to individuals as 'shaheed' an Arabic term that closely (though not exactly) translates to 'martyr,' when those same individuals have previously been designated by Meta as 'dangerous' under its dangerous organizations and individuals policy. The Board found that Meta’s approach to moderating content that contains the term to refer to individuals who are designated by the company’s policy on “dangerous organizations and individuals”—a policy that covers both government-proscribed organizations and others selected by the company— substantially and disproportionately restricts free expression.

The Oversight Board first issued a call for comment in early 2023, and in April of last year, EFF partnered with the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL) to submit comment for the Board’s consideration. In our joint comment, we wrote:

The automated removal of words such as ‘shaheed’ fail to meet the criteria for restricting users’ right to freedom of expression. They not only lack necessity and proportionality and operate on shaky legal grounds (if at all), but they also fail to ensure access to remedy and violate Arabic-speaking users’ right to non-discrimination.

In addition to finding that Meta’s current approach to moderating such content restricts free expression, the Board noted thate importance of any restrictions on freedom of expression that seek to prevent violence must be necessary and proportionate, “given that undue removal of content may be ineffective and even counterproductive.”

We couldn’t agree more. We have long been concerned about the impact of corporate policies and government regulations designed to limit violent extremist content on human rights and evidentiary content, as well as journalism and art. We have worked directly with companies and with multi stakeholder initiatives such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, Tech Against Terrorism, and the Christchurch Call to ensure that freedom of expression remains a core part of policymaking.

In its policy recommendation, the Board acknowledges the importance of Meta’s ability to take action to ensure its platforms are not used to incite violence or recruit people to engage in violence, and that the term “shaheed” is sometimes used by extremists “to praise or glorify people who have died while committing violent terrorist acts.” However, the Board also emphasizes that Meta’s response to such threats must be guided by respect for all human rights, including freedom of expression. Notably, the Board’s opinion echoes our previous demands for policy changes, as well as those of the Stop Silencing Palestine campaign initiated by nineteen digital and human rights organizations, including EFF.

We call on Meta to implement the Board’s recommendations and ensure that future policies and practices respect freedom of expression.

Jillian C. York

Speaking Freely: Robert Ssempala

4 weeks ago

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Robert Ssempala is a longtime press freedom and social justice advocate. He serves as Executive Director at Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, a network of journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection, and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media. Under his leadership, his organization has supported hundreds of journalists who have been assaulted, imprisoned, and targeted in the course of their work. 

 York: What does free speech or free expression mean to you?

 It means being able to give one’s opinions and ideas freely without fear of reprisals or without fearing facing criminal sanctions, and without being concerned about how another feels about their ideas or opinions. Sometimes even if it’s offensive, it’s one’s opinion. For me, it’s entirely how one wants to express themselves that is all about having the liberty to speak freely.

 York: What are the qualities that make you passionate about free expression?

 For me, it is the light for everyone when they’re able to give their ideas and opinions. It is having a sense of liberty to have an idea. I am very passionate about listening to ideas, about everyone getting to speak what they feel is right. The qualities that make me passionate about it are that, first, I’m from a media background. So, during that time I learned that we are going to receive the people’s ideas and opinions, disseminate them to the wider public, and there will be feedback from the public about what has come out from one side to the other. And that quality is so dear to my heart. And second, it is a sense of freedom that is expressed at all levels, in any part of the country or the world, being the people’s eyes and ears, especially at their critical times of need.

 York: I want to ask you more about Uganda. Can you give us a short overview of what the situation for speech is like in the country right now?

 The climate in Uganda is partly free and partly not free, depending on the nature of the issues at hand. Those that touch civil and political rights are very highly restricted and it has attracted so many reprisals for those that seek to express themselves that way. I work for the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) which is a non-governmental media rights organization, so we monitor and document annually the incidents, trends, and patterns touching freedom of expression and journalists’ rights. Most of the cases that we have received, documented, and worked on are stemming from civil and political rights. We receive less of those that touch economic, social, and cultural rights. So depending on where you’re standing, those media houses and journalists that are critically independent and venture into investigative practices are highly targeted. They have been attacked physically, their gadgets have been confiscated and sometimes even damaged deliberately. Some have lost their jobs under duress because a majority of media ownership in this country is by the political class or lean toward the ruling political party. As such, they want to be seen to be supportive of the regime, so they kind of tighten the noose on all freedom of expression spaces within media houses and prevail over their journalists. This by any measure has led to heightened self-censorship.

 But also, those journalists that seem to take critical lines are targeted. Some are even blacklisted. We can say that from the looks of things that times around political campaigns and elections are the tightest for freedom of expression in this country, and most cases have been reported around such times. We normally have elections every five years. So every three years after an election electioneering starts. And that’s when we see a lot of restrictions coming from the government through its regulation bodies like the Uganda Communications Commission, which is the communications regulator in my country. Also from the Media Council of Uganda, which was put in place by an act of Parliament to oversee the practices of media. And from the police or security apparatus in this country. So it’s a very fragile environment within which to practice. The journalists operate under immense fear and there are very high levels of censorship. The law has increasingly been used to criminalize free speech. That’s how I’d describe the current environment.

 York: I understand that the Computer Misuse Act as well as cybercrime legislation have been used to target journalists. Have you or any of your clients experienced censorship through abuse of computer crime laws?

 We have a very Draconian law called the Computer Misuse Amendment Act. It was amended just last year to make it even worse. It has been now the walking stick of the proponents of the regime that don’t want to be subjected to public scrutiny, that don’t want to be held accountable politically in their offices. So abuses of public trust and power of their offices are hidden under the Computer Misuse Amendment Act. And most journalists, most editors, most managers have been, from time to time, interrogated at the Criminal Investigations Directorate of the police over what they have written about the powerful personalities especially in the political class – sometimes even from the business class – but mainly it’s from the political class. So it is used to insulate the powerful from being held accountable. Sadly, most of these cases are politically motivated. Most of them have not even ended up in courts of law, but have been used to open up charges against the media practitioners who have, from time to time, kept reporting and answering to the police for a long time without being presented to court or that are presented at a time when they realize that the journalists in question are becoming a bit unruly. So these laws are used to contain the journalists.

 Since most of the stories that have been at the highlight of the regime have been factual, they have not had reason to run to Court, but the effect of this is very counterproductive to the journalists’ independence, to their ability to concentrate on more stories – because they’re always thinking about these cases pending before them. Also, media houses now become very fearful and learn how to behave to not be in many cases of that nature. So the Computer Misuse Act, criminal defamation and now the most recent one, the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) – which was passed by Parliament with very drastic clauses– are clawback legislation for press freedom in Uganda. The AHA in itself fundamentally affected the practice of journalism. The legislation falls short of drawing a clear distinction between what amounts to promotion or education [with regards to sharing material related to homosexuality]. Yet one of the crucial roles of the media is to educate the population about many things, but here, it’s not clear when the media is promoting and when it is educating. So it wants to slap a blackout completely on when you’re discussing the LGBTQI+ issues in the country. So, this law is very ambiguous and therefore susceptible to abuse at the expense of freedom speech

 And it also introduces very drastic sanctions. For instance, if one writes about homosexuality their media operating license is revoked for ten years. And I’m sure no media house can stand up again after ten years of closure and can still breathe life. Also, the AHA generalizes the practice of an individual journalist. If, for instance, one of your journalists writes something that the law looks at as against it, the entire media house license is revoked for ten years, but also you’re imprisoned for five years – you as the writer. In addition, you receive a hefty fine of the equivalent of 1 billion Uganda shillings, that’s about 250,000 euros. Which is really too much for any media house operating in Uganda.

 So that alone has created a lot of fear to discuss these issues, even when the law was passed in such a rushed manner with total disregard for the input of key stakeholders like the media, among others. As a media rights organization, we had looked at the draft bill and we were planning to make a presentation before the Parliamentary Committee. But within a week they closed all public hearings opinions, which limited the space for engagement. Within a few days the law had been written, presented again, and then assented to by the President. No wonder it’s being challenged in the Constitutional Court. This is the second time actually that such a law has been challenged. Of course, there are many other laws, like the Anti-Terrorism Act, which has not clearly defined the role of a journalist who speaks to a person who engages in subversive activities as terrorism. Where the law presupposes that before interviewing a person or before hosting them in your shows, you must have done a lot of background checks to make sure they have not engaged in such terrorism acts. So if you do not, the law here presses a criminal liability on the talk show host for promoting and abetting terrorism. And if there’s a conviction, the ultimate punishment is being sentenced to death. So these couple of laws are really used to curtail freedom of expression.

 York: Wow, that’s incredible. I understand how this impacts media houses, but what would you say the impact is on ordinary citizens or individual activists, for example?

 Under the Computer Misuse Amendment Act, the amended Act is restrictive and inhibitive to freedom of expression in regards to citizen journalism. It introduces such stringent conditions, like, if I’m going to record a video of you, say that I’m a journalist, citizen journalist or an activist who is not working for a media house, I must seek your permission before I record you in case you’re committing a crime. The law presupposes that I have no right to record you and later on disseminate the video without your explicit permission. Notably, the law is silent on the nature of the admissible permission, whether it is an email, SMS, WhatsApp, voice note, written note, etc. Also, the law presupposes that before I send you such a video, I must seek for your permission as the intended recipient of the said message. For instance, if I send you an email and you think you don’t need it, you can open a case against me for sending you unsolicited information. Unsolicited information – that’s the word that’s used.

 So the law is so amorphous in this nature that it completely closes out the liberty of a free society where citizens can engage in discussions, dialogues, or give opinions or ideas. For instance, I could be a very successful farmer, and I think the public could benefit from my farming practices, and I record a lot of what I do and I disseminate those videos. Somebody who receives this, wherever they are, can run to court and use this amended Computer Misuse Act to open up charges against me. And the fines are also very hefty compared to the crimes that the law talks about. So it is so evident that the law is killing citizen journalism, dissent, and activism at all levels. The law does not seem to cater to a free society where the individual citizens can express themselves at any one time, can criticize their leaders, and can hold them accountable. In the presence of this law, we do not have a society that can hold anyone accountable or that can keep the powerful in check. So the spirit of the law is bad. The powerful fence themselves off from the ordinary citizens that are out there watching and not able to track their progress of things or raise red flags through the different social media platforms. But we have tried to challenge this law. There is a group of us, 13 individual activists and CSOs that have gone to the Constitutional Court to say, “this law is counterproductive to freedom of expression, democracy, rule of law and a free society.” We believe that the court will agree with us given its key function of promoting human rights, good governance, democracy, and the rule of law.

 York: That was my next question- I was going to ask how are people fighting against these laws?

 People are very active in terms of pushing back and to that extent we have many petitions that are in court. For instance, the Computer Misuse Amendment is being challenged. We had the Anti-pornographic Act of 2014 which was so amorphous in its nature that it didn’t clearly define what actually amounts to pornography. For instance, if I went around people in a swimming pool in their swimming trunks and took photos and carried those in the newspaper or on TV, that would be promoting pornography. So that was counterproductive to journalism so we went to court. And, fortunately, a court ruled in our favor. So the citizens are really up in arms to fight back because that’s the only way we can have civic engagements that are not restricted through a litany of such laws. There has been civic participation and engagement through mass media, dialogues with key actors, among others. However, many fear to speak out due to fear of reprisals, having seen the closure of media houses, the arrest and detention of activists and journalists, and the use of administrative sanctions to curtail free expression.

 York: Are there ways in which international groups and activists can stand in solidarity with those of you who are fighting back against these laws?

 There’s a lot of backlash on organizations, especially local ones, that tend to work a lot with international organizations. The government seems to be so threatened by the international eye as compared to local eyes, because recently it banned the UN Human Rights Office. They had to wind up business and leave the country. Also, the offices of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), which was a basket of embassies and the EU that were the biggest funding entity for the civil society. And actually for the government, too, because they were empowering citizens, you know, empowering the demand side to heighten its demand for services from the supply side. The government said no and they had to wind up their offices and leave. This has severely crippled the work of civil society, media, and, generally, governance.

The UN played an important role before they left and we now have that gap. Yet this comes at a time when our national Uganda Human Rights Commission is at its weakest due to a number of structural challenges characterizing it. The current leadership of the Commission is always up in arms against the political opposition for accusing government of committing human rights excesses against its members. So we do our best to work with international organizations through sharing our voices. We have an African Hub, like the African IFEX, where the members try to replicate voices from here. In that nature we do try a lot, but it’s not very easy for them to come here and do their practices. Just like you will realize a lot of foreign correspondents, foreign journalists, who work in Uganda are highly restricted. It’s a tug of war to have their licenses renewed. Because it’s politically handled. It was taken away from the professional body of the Media Council of Uganda to the Media Centre of Uganda, which is a government mouthpiece.  So for the critical foreign correspondents their licenses are rarely renewed. When it comes to election times most of them are blocked from even coming here to cover the elections. The international media development bodies can help to build capacities of our media development organizations, facilitate research, provide legal aid support, and engage the government on the excesses of the security forces and some emergency responses for victims, among others.

 York: Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you’d like to share with our readers?

 One thing I was to add is about trying to have an international focus on Uganda in the build up to elections. There’s a lot of havoc that happens to the citizens, but most importantly, to the activists and human rights defenders. Either cultural activists or media activists- a lot happens. And most of these things are not captured well because it is prior to the peak of campaigns or there is fear by the local media of capturing such situations. So by the time we get international attention, sometimes the damage is really too irreparable and a lot has happened. As opposed to if there was that international focus from the world. To me, that should really be captured because it would mitigate a lot that has happened. 


Jillian C. York

Podcast Episode: About Face (Recognition)

4 weeks 1 day ago

Is your face truly your own, or is it a commodity to be sold, a weapon to be used against you? A company called Clearview AI has scraped the internet to gather (without consent) 30 billion images to support a tool that lets users identify people by picture alone. Though it’s primarily used by law enforcement, should we have to worry that the eavesdropper at the next restaurant table, or the creep who’s bothering you in the bar, or the protestor outside the abortion clinic can surreptitiously snap a pic of you, upload it, and use it to identify you, where you live and work, your social media accounts, and more?

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(You can also find this episode on the Internet Archive and on YouTube.)

New York Times reporter Kashmir Hill has been writing about the intersection of privacy and technology for well over a decade; her book about Clearview AI’s rise and practices was published last fall. She speaks with EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Jason Kelley about how face recognition technology’s rapid evolution may have outpaced ethics and regulations, and where we might go from here. 

In this episode, you’ll learn about: 

  • The difficulty of anticipating how information that you freely share might be used against you as technology advances. 
  • How the all-consuming pursuit of “technical sweetness” — the alluring sensation of neatly and functionally solving a puzzle — can blind tech developers to the implications of that tech’s use. 
  • The racial biases that were built into many face recognition technologies.  
  • How one state's 2008 law has effectively curbed how face recognition technology is used there, perhaps creating a model for other states or Congress to follow. 

Kashmir Hill is a New York Times tech reporter who writes about the unexpected and sometimes ominous ways technology is changing our lives, particularly when it comes to our privacy. Her book, “Your Face Belongs To Us” (2023), details how Clearview AI gave facial recognition to law enforcement, billionaires, and businesses, threatening to end privacy as we know it. She joined The Times in 2019 after having worked at Gizmodo Media Group, Fusion, Forbes Magazine and Above the Law. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The Washington Post. She has degrees from Duke University and New York University, where she studied journalism. 


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Madison Square Garden, the big events venue in New York City, installed facial recognition technology in 2018, originally to address security threats. You know, people they were worried about who'd been violent in the stadium before, or Or perhaps the Taylor Swift model of, you know, known stalkers wanting to identify them if they're trying to come into concerts.

But then in the last year, they realized, well, we've got this system set up. This is a great way to keep out our enemies, people that the owner, James Dolan, doesn't like, namely lawyers who work at firms that have sued him and cost him a lot of money.

And I saw this, I actually went to a Rangers game with a banned lawyer and it's, you know, thousands of people streaming into Madison Square Garden. We walk through the door, put our bags down on the security belt, and by the time we go to pick them up, a security guard has approached us and told her she's not welcome in.

And yeah, once you have these systems of surveillance set up, it goes from security threats to just keeping track of people that annoy you. And so that is the challenge of how do we control how these things get used?

That's Kashmir Hill. She's a tech reporter for the New York Times, and she's been writing about the intersection of privacy and technology for well over a decade.

She's even worked with EFF on several projects, including security research into pregnancy tracking apps. But most recently, her work has been around facial recognition and the company Clearview AI.

Last fall, she published a book about Clearview called Your Face Belongs to Us. It's about the rise of facial recognition technology. It’s also about a company that was willing to step way over the line. A line that even the tech giants abided by. And it did so in order to create a facial search engine of millions of innocent people to sell to law enforcement.

I'm Cindy Cohn, the Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And I'm Jason Kelley, EFF’s Activism Director. This is our podcast series How to Fix the Internet.

The idea behind this show is that we're trying to make our digital lives BETTER. At EFF we spend a lot of time envisioning the ways things can go wrong — and jumping into action to help when things DO go wrong online. But with this show, we're trying to give ourselves a vision of what it means to get it right.

It's easy to talk about facial recognition as leading towards this sci-fi dystopia, but many of us use it in benign - and even helpful - ways every day. Maybe you just used it to unlock your phone before you hit play on this podcast episode.

Most of our listeners probably know that there's a significant difference between the data that's on your phone and the data that Clearview used, which was pulled from the internet, often from places that people didn't expect. Since Kash has written several hundred pages about what Clearview did, we wanted to start with a quick explanation.

Clearview AI scraped billions of photos from the internet -

Billions with a B. Sorry to interrupt you, just to make sure people hear that.

Billions of photos from, the public internet and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, LinkedIn. At the time I first wrote about them in January, 2020, they had 3 billion faces in their database.

They now have 30 billion and they say that they're adding something like 75 million images every day. So a lot of faces, all collected without anyone's consent and, you know, they have paired that with a powerful facial recognition algorithm so that you can take a photo of somebody, you know, upload it to Clearview AI and it will return the other places on the internet where that face appears along with a link to the website where it appears.

So it's a way of finding out who someone is. You know, what their name is, where they live, who their friends are, finding their social media profiles, and even finding photos that they may not know are on the internet, where their name is not linked to the photo but their face is there.


Wow. Obviously that's terrifying, but is there an example you might have of a way that this affects the everyday person. Could you talk about that a little bit?


Yeah, so with a tool like this, um, you know, if you were out at a restaurant, say, and you're having a juicy conversation, whether about your friends or about your work, and it kind of catches the attention of somebody sitting nearby, you assume you're anonymous. With a tool like this, they could take a photo of you, upload it, find out who you are, where you work, and all of a sudden understand the context of the conversation. You know, a person walking out of an abortion clinic, if there's protesters outside, they can take a photo of that person. Now they know who they are and the health services they may have gotten.

I mean, there's all kinds of different ways. You know, you go to a bar and you're talking to somebody. They're a little creepy. You never want to talk to them again. But they take your picture. They find out your name. They look up your social media profiles. They know who you are.
On the other side, you know, I do hear about people who think about this in a positive context, who are using tools like this to research people they meet on dating sites, finding out if they are who they say they are, you know, looking up their photos.

It's complicated, facial recognition technology. There are positive uses, there are negative uses. And right now we're trying to figure out what place this technology should have in our lives and, and how authorities should be able to use it.

Yeah, I think Jason's, like, ‘this is creepy’ is very widely shared, I think, by a lot of people. But you know the name of this is How to Fix the Internet. I would love to hear your thinking about how facial recognition might play a role in our lives if we get it right. Like, what would it look like if we had the kinds of law and policy and technological protections that would turn this tool into something that we would all be pretty psyched about on the main rather than, you know, worried about on the main.

Yeah, I mean, so some activists feel that facial recognition technology should be banned altogether. Evan Greer at Fight for the Future, you know, compares it to nuclear weapons and that there's just too many possible downsides that it's not worth the benefits and it should be banned altogether. I kind of don't think that's likely to happen just because I have talked to so many police officers who really appreciate facial recognition technology, think it's a very powerful tool that when used correctly can be such an important part of their tool set. I just don't see them giving it up.

But when I look at what's happening right now, you have these companies like not just Clearview AI, but PimEyes, Facecheck, Eye-D. There's public face search engines that exist now. While Clearview is limited to police use, these are on the internet. Some are even free, some require a subscription.  And right now in the U. S., we don't have much of a legal infrastructure, certainly at the national level about whether they can do that or not. But there's been a very different approach in Europe where they say, that citizens shouldn't be included in these databases without their consent. And, you know, after I revealed the existence of Clearview AI, privacy regulators in Europe, in Canada, in Australia, investigated Clearview AI and said that what it had done was illegal, that they needed people's consent to put them in the databases.

So that's one way to handle facial recognition technology is you can't just throw everybody's faces into a database and make them searchable, you need to get permission first. And I think that is one effective way of handling it. Privacy regulators actually inspired by Clearview AA actually issued a warning to other AI companies saying, hey, just because there's all these, there's all this information that's public on the internet, it doesn't mean that you're entitled to it. There can still be a personal interest in the data, and you may violate our privacy laws by collecting this information.

We haven't really taken that approach, in the U. S. as much, with the exception of Illinois, which has this really strong law that's relevant to facial recognition technology. When we have gotten privacy laws at the state level, it says you have the right to get out of the databases. So in California, for example, you can go to Clearview AI and say, hey, I want to see my file. And if you don't like what they have on you, you can ask them to delete you. So that's a very different approach, uh, to try to give people some rights over their face. And California also requires that companies say how many of these requests they get per year. And so I looked and in the last two years fewer than a thousand Californians have asked to delete themselves from Clearview's database and you know, California's population is very much bigger than that, I think, you know 34 million people or so and so I'm not sure how effective those laws are at protecting people at large.

Here’s what I hear from that. Our world where we get it right is one where we have a strong legal infrastructure protecting our privacy. But it’s also one where if the police want something, it doesn’t mean that they get it. It’s a world where control of our faces and faceprints rests with us, and any use needs to have our permission. That’s the Illinois law called BIPA - the Biometric Privacy Act, or the foreign regulators you mention.
It also means that a company like Venmo cannot just put our faces onto the public internet, and a company like Clearview cannot just copy them. Neither can happen without our affirmative permission.

I think of technologies like this as needed to have good answers to two questions. Number one, who is the technology serving - who benefits if the technology gets it right? And number two, who is harmed if the technology DOESN’T get it right?

For police use of facial recognition, the answers to both of these questions are bad. Regular people don’t benefit from the police having their faces in what has been called a perpetual line-up. And if the technology doesn’t work, people can pay a very heavy price of being wrongly arrested - as you document in your book, Kash.

But for facial recognition technology allowing me to unlock my phone and manipulate apps like digital credit cards, I benefit by having an easy way to lock and use my phone. And if the technology doesn’t work, I just use my password, so it’s not catastrophic. But how does that compare to your view of a fixed facial recognition world, Kash?

Well, I'm not a policymaker. I am a journalist. So I kind of see my job as, as here's what has happened. Here's how we got here. And here's how different, you know, different people are dealing with it and trying to solve it. One thing that's interesting to me, you brought up Venmo, is that Venmo was one of the very first places that the kind of technical creator of Clearview AI, Hoan Ton-That, one of the first places he talked about getting faces from.

And this was interesting to me as a privacy reporter because I very much remembered this criticism that the privacy community had for Venmo that, you know, when you've signed up for the social payment site, they made everything public by default, all of your transactions, like who you were sending money to.

And there was such a big pushback saying, Hey, you know, people don't realize that you're making this public by default. They don't realize that the whole world can see this. They don't understand, you know, how that could come back to be used against them. And, you know, some of the initial uses were, you know, people who were sending each other Venmo transactions and like putting syringes in it and you know, cannabis leaves and how that got used in criminal trials.

But what was interesting with Clearview is that Venmo actually had this iPhone on their homepage on Venmo.com and they would show real transactions that were happening on the network. And it included people's profile photos and a link to their profile. So Hoan Ton-That sent this scraper to Venmo.com and it would just, he would just hit it every few seconds and pull down the photos and the links to the profile photos and he got, you know, millions of faces this way, and he says he remembered that the privacy people were kind of annoyed about Venmo making everything public, and he said it took them years to change it, though.

We were very upset about this.

Yeah, we had them on our, we had a little list called Fix It Already in 2019. It wasn't a little, it was actually quite long for like kind of major privacy and other problems in tech companies. And the Venmo one was on there, right, in 2019, I think was when we launched it. In 2021, they fixed it, but that was right in between there was right when all that scraping happened.

And Venmo is certainly not alone in terms of forcing everyone to make their profile photos public, you know, Facebook did that as well, but it was interesting when I exposed Clearview AI and said, you know, here are some of the companies that they scraped from Venmo and also Facebook and LinkedIn, Google sent Clearview cease and desist letters and said, Hey, you know, you, you violated our terms of service in collecting this data. We want you to delete it, and people often ask, well, then what happened after that? And as far as I know, Clearview did not change their practices. And these companies never did anything else beyond the cease and desist letters.

You know, they didn't sue Clearview. Um, and so it's clear that the companies alone are not going to be protecting our data, and they've pushed us to, to be more public and now that is kind of coming full circle in a way that I don't think people, when they are putting their photos on the internet were expecting this to happen.

I think we should start from the source, which is, why are they gathering all these faces in the first place, the companies? Why are they urging you to put your face next to your financial transactions? There's no need for your face to be next to a financial transaction, even in social media and other kinds of situations, there's no need for it to be public. People are getting disempowered because there's a lack of privacy protection to begin with, and the companies are taking advantage of that, and then turning around and pretending like they're upset about scraping, which I think is all they did with the Clearview thing.

Like there's problems all the way down here. But I don't think that, from our perspective, the answer isn't to make scraping, which is often over limited, even more limited. The answer is to try to give people back control over these images.

And I get it, I mean, I know why Venmo wants photos. I mean, when I use Venmo and I'm paying someone for the first time, I want to see that this is the face of the person I know before I send it to, you know, @happy, you know, nappy on Venmo. So it's part of the trust, but it does seem like you could have a different architecture. So it doesn't necessarily mean that you're showing your face to the entire, you know, world. Maybe you could just be showing it to the people that you're doing transactions with.

What we were pushing Venmo to do was what you mentioned was make it NOT public by default. And what I think is interesting about that campaign is that at the time, we were worried about one thing, you know, that the ability to sort of comb through these financial transactions and get information from people. We weren't worried about, or at least I don't think we talked much about, the public photos being available. And it's interesting to me that there are so many ways that public defaults, and that privacy settings can impact people that we don't even know about yet, right?

I do think this is one of the biggest challenges for people trying to protect their privacy is, it's so hard to anticipate how information that, you know, kind of freely give at one point might be used against you or weaponized in the future as technology improves.

And so I do think that's really challenging. And I don't think that most people, when they're kind of freely putting Photos on the internet, their face on the internet were anticipating that the internet would be reorganized to be searchable by face.

So that's where I think regulating the use of the information can be very powerful. It's kind of protecting people from the mistakes they've made in the past.

Let’s take a quick moment to say thank you to our sponsor. “How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Enriching people’s lives through a keener appreciation of our increasingly technological world and portraying the complex humanity of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. And now back to our conversation with Kashmir Hill.

So a supporter asked a question that I'm curious about too. You dove deep into the people who built these systems, not just the Clearview people, but people before them. And what did you find? Are these like Dr. Evil, evil geniuses who intended to, you know, build a dystopia? Or are there people who were, you know, good folks trying to do good things who either didn't see the consequences of what they're looking at or were surprised at the consequences of what they were building

The book is about Clearview AI, but it's also about all the people that kind of worked to realize facial recognition technology over many decades.
The government was trying to get computers to be able to recognize human faces in Silicon Valley before it was even called Silicon Valley. The CIA was, you know, funding early engineers there to try to do it with those huge computers which, you know, in the early 1960s weren't able to do it very well.

But I kind of like went back and asked people that were working on this for so many years when it was very clunky and it did not work very well, you know, were you thinking about what you are working towards? A kind of a world in which everybody is easily tracked by face, easily recognizable by face. And it was just interesting. I mean, these people working on it in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, they just said it was impossible to imagine that because the computers were so bad at it, and we just never really thought that we'd ever reach this place where we are now, where we're basically, like, computers are better at facial recognition than humans.

And so this was really striking to me, that, and I think this happens a lot, where people are working on a technology and they just want to solve that puzzle, you know, complete that technical challenge, and they're not thinking through the implications of what if they're successful. And so this one, a philosopher of science I talked to, Heather Douglas, called this technical sweetness.

I love that term.

This kind of motivation where it's just like, I need to solve this, the kind of Jurassic Park, the Jurassic Park dilemma where it's like,it'd be really cool if we brought the dinosaurs back.

So that was striking to me and all of these people that were working on this, I don't think any of them saw something like Clearview AI coming and when I first heard about Clearview, this startup that had scraped the entire internet and kind of made it searchable by face. I was thinking there must be some, you know, technological mastermind here who was able to do this before the big companies, the Facebooks, the Googles. How did they do it first?

And what I would come to figure out is that. You know, what they did was more of an ethical breakthrough than a technological breakthrough. Companies like Google and Facebook had developed this internally and shockingly, you know, for these companies that have released many kind of unprecedented products, they decided facial recognition technology like this was too much and they held it back and they decided not to release it.

And so Clearview AI was just willing to do what other companies hadn't been willing to do. Which I thought was interesting and part of why I wrote the book is, you know, who are these people and why did they do this? And honestly, they did have, in the early days, some troubling ideas about how to use facial recognition technology.

So one of the first deployments was of, of Clearview AI, before it was called Clearview AI, was at the Deploraball, this kind of inaugural event around Trump becoming president and they were using it because It was going to be this gathering of all these people who had had supported Trump, the kind of MAGA crowd, O=of which some of the Clearview AI founders were part of. And they were worried about being infiltrated by Antifa, which I think is how they pronounce it, and so they wanted to run a background check on ticket buyers and find out whether any of them were from the far left.

And apparently this smartchecker worked for this and they identified two people who kind of were trying to get in who shouldn't have. And I found out about this because they included it in a PowerPoint presentation that they had developed for the Hungarian government. They were trying to pitch Hungary on their product as a means of border control. And so the idea was that you could use this background check product, this facial recognition technology, to keep out people you didn't want coming into the country.

And they said that they had fine tuned it so it would work on people that worked with the Open Society Foundations and George Soros because they knew that Hungary's leader, Viktor Orban, was not a fan of the Soros crowd.

And so for me, I just thought this just seemed kind of alarming that you would use it to identify essentially political dissidents, democracy activists and advocates, that that was kind of where their minds went to for their product when it was very early, basically still at the prototype stage.

I think that it's important to recognize these tools, like many technologies, they're dual use tools, right, and we have to think really hard about how they can be used and create laws and policies around there because I'm not sure that you can use some kind of technological means to make sure only good guys use this tool to do good things and that bad guys don't.

One of the things that you mentioned about sort of government research into facial recognition reminds me that shortly after you put out your first story on Clearview in January of 2020, I think, we put out a website called Who Has Your Face, which we'd been doing research for for, I don't know, four to six months or something before that, that was specifically trying to let people know which government entities had access to your, let's say, DMV photo or your passport photo for facial recognition purposes, and that's one of the great examples, I think, of how sort of like Venmo, you put information somewhere that's, even in this case, required by law, and you don't ever expect that the FBI would be able to run facial recognition on that picture based on like a surveillance photo, for example.

So it makes me think of two things, and one is, you know, as part of the book I was looking back at the history of the US thinking about facial recognition technology and setting up guardrails or for the most part NOT setting up guardrails.

And there was this hearing about it more than a decade ago. I think actually Jen Lynch from the EFF testified at it. And it was like 10 years ago when facial recognition technology was first getting kind of good enough to get deployed. And the FBI was starting to build a facial recognition database and police departments were starting to use these kind of early apps.

It troubles me to think about just knowing the bias problems that facial recognition technology had at that time that they were kind of actively using it. But lawmakers were concerned and they were asking questions about whose photo is going to go in here? And the government representatives who were there, law enforcement, at the time they said, we're only using criminal mugshots.

You know, we're not interested in the goings about of normal Americans. We just want to be able to recognize the faces of people that we know have already had encounters with the law, and we want to be able to keep track of those people. And it was interesting to me because in the years to come, that would change, you know, they started pulling in state driver's license photos in some places, and it, it ended up not just being criminals that were being tracked or people, not always even criminals, just people who've had encounters with law enforcement where they ended up with a mugshot taken.

But that is the the kind of frog boiling of ‘well we'll just start out with some of these photos and then you know we'll actually we'll add in some state driver's license photos and then we'll start using a company called Clearview AI that's scraped the entire internet Um, you know everybody on the planet in this facial recognition database.

So it just speaks to this challenge of controlling it, you know,, this kind of surveillance creep where once you start setting up the system, you just want to pull in more and more data and you want to surveil people in more and more ways.

And you tell some wonderful stories or actually horrific stories in the book about people who were misidentified. And the answer from the technologists is, well, we just need more data then. Right? We need everybody's driver's licenses, not just mugshots. And then that way we eliminate the bias that comes from just using mugshots. Or you tell a story that I often talk about, which is, I believe the Chinese government was having a hard time with its facial recognition, recognizing black faces, and they made some deals in Africa to just wholesale get a bunch of black faces so they could train up on it.

And, you know, to us, talking about bias in a way that doesn't really talk about comprehensive privacy reform and instead talks only about bias ends up in this technological world in which the solution is more people's faces into the system.

And we see this with all sorts of other biometrics where there's bias issues with the training data or the initial data.

Yeah. So this is something, so bias has been a huge problem with facial recognition technology for a long time. And really a big part of the problem was that they were not getting diverse training databases. And, you know, a lot of the people that were working on facial recognition technology were white people, white men, and they would make sure that it worked well on them and the other people they worked with.

And so we had, you know, technologies that just did not work as well on other people. One of those early facial recognition technology companies I talked to who was in business, you know, in 2000, 2001, actually used at the Super Bowl in Tampa in 2000 and in 2001 to secretly scan the faces of football fans looking for pickpockets and ticket scalpers.

That company told me that they had to pull out of a project in South Africa because they found the technology just did not work on people who had darker skin. But the activist community has brought a lot of attention to this issue that there is this problem with bias and the facial recognition vendors have heard it and they have addressed it by creating more diverse training sets.

And so now they are training their algorithms to work on different groups and the technology has improved a lot. It really has been addressed and these algorithms don't have those same kind of issues anymore.

Despite that, you know, the handful of wrongful arrests that I've covered. where, um, people are arrested for the crime of looking like someone else. Uh, they've all involved people who are black. One woman so far, a woman who was eight months pregnant, arrested for carjacking and robbery on a Thursday morning while she was getting her two kids ready for school.

And so, you know, even if you fix the bias problem in the algorithms, you're still going to have the issue of, well, who is this technology deployed on? Who is this used to police? And so yeah, I think it'll still be a problem. And then there's just these bigger questions of the civil liberty questions that still need to be addressed. You know, do we want police using facial recognition technology? And if so, what should the limitations be?

I think, you know, for us in thinking about this, the central issue is who's in charge of the system and who bears the cost if it's wrong. The consequences of a bad match are much more significant than just, oh gosh, the cops for a second thought I was the wrong person. That's not actually how this plays out in people's lives.

I don't think most people who haven't been arrested before realize how traumatic the whole experience can be. You know, I talk about Robert Williams in the book who was arrested after he got home from work, in front of all of his neighbors, in front of his wife and his two young daughters, spent the night in jail, you know, was charged, had to hire a lawyer to defend him.

Same thing, Portia Woodruff, the woman who was pregnant, taken to jail, charged, even though the woman who they were looking for had committed the crime the month before and was not visibly pregnant, I mean it was so clear they had the wrong person. And yet, she had to hire a lawyer, fight the charges, and she wound up in the hospital after being detained all day because she was so stressed out and dehydrated.

And so yeah, when you have people that are relying too heavily on the facial recognition technology and not doing proper investigations, this can have a very harmful effect on, on individual people's lives.

Yeah, I mean, one of my hopes is that when, you know, that those of us who are involved in tech trying to get privacy laws passed and other kinds of things passed can have some knock on effects on trying to make the criminal justice system better. We shouldn't just be coming in and talking about the technological piece, right?

Because it's all a part of a system that itself needs reform. And so I think it's important that we recognize, um, that as well and not just try to extricate the technological piece from the rest of the system and that's why I think EFF's come to the position that governmental use of this is so problematic that it's difficult to imagine a world in which it's fixed.

In terms of talking about laws that have been effective We alluded to it earlier, but Illinois passed this law in 2008, the Biometric Information Privacy Act, rare law that moved faster than the technology.

And it says if you want to use somebody's biometrics, like their face print or their fingerprint to their voice print, You need to get their consent, or as a company, or you'll be fined. And so Madison Square Garden is using facial recognition technology to keep out security threats and lawyers at all of its New York City venues: The Beacon Theater, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden.

The company also has a theater in Chicago, but they cannot use facial recognition technology to keep out lawyers there because they would need to get their consent to use their biometrics that way. So it is an example of a law that has been quite effective at kind of controlling how the technology is used, maybe keeping it from being used in a way that people find troubling.

I think that's a really important point. I think sometimes people in technology despair that law can really ever do anything, and they think technological solutions are the only ones that really work. And, um, I think it's important to point out that, like, that's not always true. And the other point that you make in your book about this that I really appreciate is the Wiretap Act, right?

Like the reason that a lot of the stuff that we're seeing is visual and not voice, // you can do voice prints too, just like you can do face prints, but we don't see that.

And the reason we don't see that is because we actually have very strong federal and state laws around wiretapping that prevent the collection of this kind of information except in certain circumstances. Now, I would like to see those circumstances expanded, but it still exists. And I think that, you know, kind of recognizing where, you know, that we do have legal structures that have provided us some protection, even as we work to make them better, is kind of an important thing for people who kind of swim in tech to recognize.

Laws work is one of the themes of the book.

Thank you so much, Kash, for joining us. It was really fun to talk about this important topic.

Thanks for having me on. It's great. I really appreciate the work that EFF does and just talking to you all for so many stories. So thank you.

That was a really fun conversation because I loved that book. The story is extremely interesting and I really enjoyed being able to talk to her about the specific issues that sort of we see in this story, which I know we can apply to all kinds of other stories and technical developments and technological advancements that we're thinking about all the time at EFF.

Yeah, I think that it's great to have somebody like Kashmir dive deep into something that we spend a lot of time talking about at EFF and, you know, not just facial recognition, but artificial intelligence and machine learning systems more broadly, and really give us the, the history of it and the story behind it so that we can ground our thinking in more reality. And, you know, it ends up being a rollicking good story.

Yeah, I mean, what surprised me is that I think most of us saw that facial recognition sort of exploded really quickly, but it didn't, actually. A lot of the book, she writes, is about the history of its development and, um, You know, we could have been thinking about how to resolve the potential issues with facial recognition decades ago, but no one sort of expected that this would blow up in the way that it did until it kind of did.

And I really thought it was interesting that her explanation of how it blew up so fast wasn't really a technical development as much as an ethical one.

Yeah, I love that perspective, right?

I mean, it’s a terrible thing, but it is helpful to think about, right?

Yeah, and it reminds me again of the thing that we talk about a lot, which is Larry Lessig's articulation of the kind of four ways that you can control behavior online. There's markets, there's laws, there's norms, and there's architecture. In this system, you know, we had. norms that were driven across.

The thing that Clearview did that she says wasn't a technical breakthrough, it was an ethical breakthrough. I think it points the way towards, you know, where you might need laws.
There's also an architecture piece though. You know, if Venmo hadn't set up its system so that everybody's faces were easily made public and scrapable, you know, that architectural decision could have had a pretty big impact on how vast this company was able to scale and where they could look.

So we've got an architecture piece, we've got a norms piece, we've got a lack of laws piece. It's very clear that a comprehensive privacy law would have been very helpful here.

And then there's the other piece about markets, right? You know, when you're selling into the law enforcement market, which is where Clearview finally found purchase, that's an extremely powerful market. And it ends up distorting the other ones.


Once law enforcement decides they want something, I mean, when I asked Kash, you know, like, what do you think about ideas about banning facial recognition? Uh, she said, well, I think law enforcement really likes it. And so I don't think it'll be banned. And what that tells us is this particular market. can trump all the other pieces, and I think we see that in a lot of the work we do at EFF as well.

You know, we need to carve out a better space such that we can actually say no to law enforcement, rather than, well, if law enforcement wants it, then we're done in terms of things, and I think that's really shown by this story.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of how to fix the internet.
If you have feedback or suggestions, we'd love to hear from you. Visit EFF. org slash podcast and click on listener feedback. While you're there, you can become a member, donate, maybe pick up some merch, and just see what's happening in digital rights this week and every week.

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We’ll see you next time.

I’m Jason Kelley.

And I’m Cindy Cohn.

Josh Richman

No KOSA, No TikTok Ban | EFFector 36.4

4 weeks 1 day ago

Want to hear about the latest news in digital rights? Well, you're in luck! EFFector 36.4 is out now and covers the latest topics, including our stance on the unconstitutional TikTok ban (spoiler: it's bad), a victory helping Indybay resist an unlawful search warrant and gag order, and thought-provoking comments we got from thousands of young people regarding the Kids Online Safety Act.

You can read the full newsletter here, or subscribe to get the next issue in your inbox automatically! You can also listen to the audio version of the newsletter on the Internet Archive, or by clicking the button below:


EFFector 36.4 | No KOSA, No TikTok Ban

Since 1990 EFF has published EFFector to help keep readers on the bleeding edge of their digital rights. We know that the intersection of technology, civil liberties, human rights, and the law can be complicated, so EFFector is a great way to stay on top of things. The newsletter is chock full of links to updates, announcements, blog posts, and other stories to help keep readers—and listeners—up to date on the movement to protect online privacy and free expression. 

Thank you to the supporters around the world who make our work possible! If you're not a member yet, join EFF today to help us fight for a brighter digital future.

Christian Romero

Responding to ShotSpotter, Police Shoot at Child Lighting Fireworks

1 month ago

This post was written by Rachel Hochhauser, an EFF legal intern

We’ve written multiple times about the inaccurate and dangerous “gunshot detection” tool, Shotspotter. A recent near-tragedy in Chicago adds to the growing pile of evidence that cities should drop the product.

On January 25, while responding to a ShotSpotter alert, a Chicago police officer opened fire on an unarmed “maybe 14 or 15” year old child in his backyard. Three officers approached the boy’s house, with one asking “What you doing bro, you good?” They heard a loud bang, later determined to be fireworks, and shot at the child. Fortunately, no physical injuries were recorded. In initial reports, police falsely claimed that they fired at a “man” who had fired on officers.

In a subsequent assessment of the event, the Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability (“COPA”) concluded that “a firearm was not used against the officers.” Chicago Police Superintendent Larry Snelling placed all attending officers on administrative duty for 30 days and is investigating whether the officers violated department policies.

ShotSpotter is the largest company which produces and distributes audio gunshot detection for U.S. cities and police departments. Currently, it is used by 100 law enforcement agencies. The system relies on sensors positioned on buildings and lamp posts, which purportedly detect the acoustic signature of a gunshot. The information is then forwarded to humans who purportedly have the expertise to verify whether the sound was gunfire (and not, for example, a car backfiring), and whether to deploy officers to the scene.

ShotSpotter claims that its technology is “97% accurate,” a figure produced by the marketing department and not engineers. The recent Chicago shooting shows this is not accurate. Indeed, a 2021 study in Chicago found that, in a period of 21 months, ShotSpotter resulted in police acting on dead-end reports over 40,000 times. Likewise, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office concluded that ShotSpotter had “minimal return on investment” and only resulted in arrest for 1% of proven shootings, according to a recent CBS report. The technology is predominantly used in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, contributing to the over-policing of these areas. Police responding to ShotSpotter arrive at the scenes expecting gunfire and are on edge and therefore more likely to draw their firearms.

Finally, these sensors invade the right to privacy. Even in public places, people often have a reasonable expectation of privacy and therefore a legal right not to have their voices recorded. But these sound sensors risk the capture and leaking of private conversation. In People v. Johnson in California, a court held such recordings from ShotSpotter to be admissible evidence.

In February, Chicago’s Mayor announced that the city would not be renewing its contract with Shotspotter. Many other cities have cancelled or are considering cancelling use of the tool.

This technology endangers lives, disparately impacts communities of color, and encroaches on the privacy rights of individuals. It has a history of false positives and poses clear dangers to pedestrians and residents. It is urgent that these inaccurate and harmful systems be removed from our streets.

Adam Schwartz

Cops Running DNA-Manufactured Faces Through Face Recognition Is a Tornado of Bad Ideas

1 month ago

In keeping with law enforcement’s grand tradition of taking antiquated, invasive, and oppressive technologies, making them digital, and then calling it innovation, police in the U.S. recently combined two existing dystopian technologies in a brand new way to violate civil liberties. A police force in California recently employed the new practice of taking a DNA sample from a crime scene, running this through a service provided by US company Parabon NanoLabs that guesses what the perpetrators face looked like, and plugging this rendered image into face recognition software to build a suspect list.

Parts of this process aren't entirely new. On more than one occasion, police forces have been found to have fed images of celebrities into face recognition software to generate suspect lists. In one case from 2017, the New York Police Department decided its suspect looked like Woody Harrelson and ran the actor’s image through the software to generate hits. Further, software provided by US company Vigilant Solutions enables law enforcement to create “a proxy image from a sketch artist or artist rendering” to enhance images of potential suspects so that face recognition software can match these more accurately.

Since 2014, law enforcement have also sought the assistance of Parabon NanoLabs—a company that alleges it can create an image of the suspect’s face from their DNA. Parabon NanoLabs claim to have built this system by training machine learning models on the DNA data of thousands of volunteers with 3D scans of their faces. It is currently the only company offering phenotyping and only in concert with a forensic genetic genealogy investigation. The process is yet to be independently audited, and scientists have affirmed that predicting face shapes—particularly from DNA samples—is not possible. But this has not stopped law enforcement officers from seeking to use it, or from running these fabricated images through face recognition software.

Simply put: police are using DNA to create a hypothetical and not at all accurate face, then using that face as a clue on which to base investigations into crimes. Not only is this full dice-roll policing, it also threatens the rights, freedom, or even the life of whoever is unlucky enough to look a little bit like that artificial face.

But it gets worse.

In 2020, a detective from the East Bay Regional Park District Police Department in California asked to have a rendered image from Parabon NanoLabs run through face recognition software. This 3D rendering, called a Snapshot Phenotype Report, predicted that—among other attributes—the suspect was male, had brown eyes, and fair skin. Found in police records published by Distributed Denial of Secrets, this appears to be the first reporting of a detective running an algorithmically-generated rendering based on crime-scene DNA through face recognition software. This puts a second layer of speculation between the actual face of the suspect and the product the police are using to guide investigations and make arrests. Not only is the artificial face a guess, now face recognition (a technology known to misidentify people)  will create a “most likely match” for that face.

These technologies, and their reckless use by police forces, are an inherent threat to our individual privacy, free expression, information security, and social justice. Face recognition tech alone has an egregious history of misidentifying people of color, especially Black women, as well as failing to correctly identify trans and nonbinary people. The algorithms are not always reliable, and even if the technology somehow had 100% accuracy, it would still be an unacceptable tool of invasive surveillance capable of identifying and tracking people on a massive scale. Combining this with fabricated 3D renderings from crime-scene DNA exponentially increases the likelihood of false arrests, and exacerbates existing harms on communities that are already disproportionately over-surveilled by face recognition technology and discriminatory policing. 

There are no federal rules that prohibit police forces from undertaking these actions. And despite the detective’s request violating Parabon NanoLabs’ terms of service, there is seemingly no way to ensure compliance. Pulling together criteria like skin tone, hair color, and gender does not give an accurate face of a suspect, and deploying these untested algorithms without any oversight places people at risk of being a suspect for a crime they didn’t commit. In one case from Canada, Edmonton Police Service issued an apology over its failure to balance the harms to the Black community with the potential investigative value after using Parabon’s DNA phenotyping services to identify a suspect.

EFF continues to call for a complete ban on government use of face recognition—because otherwise these are the results. How much more evidence do law markers need that police cannot be trusted with this dangerous technology? How many more people need to be falsely arrested and how many more reckless schemes like this one need to be perpetrated before legislators realize this is not a sustainable method of law enforcement? Cities across the United States have already taken the step to ban government use of this technology, and Montana has specifically recognized a privacy interest in phenotype data. Other cities and states need to catch up or Congress needs to act before more people are hurt and our rights are trampled. 

Paige Collings

EFF and 34 Civil Society Organizations Call on Ghana’s President to Reject the Anti-LGBTQ+ Bill 

1 month ago

MPs in Ghana’s Parliament voted to pass the country’s draconian ‘Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill’ on February 28th. The bill now heads to Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo to be signed into law. 

EFF has joined 34 civil society organizations to demand that President Akufo-Addo vetoes the Family Values Bill.

The legislation criminalizes being LGBTQ+ or an ally of LGBTQ+ people, and also imposes custodial sentences for users and social media companies in punishment for vague, ill-defined offenses like promoting “change in public opinion of prohibited acts” on social media. This would effectively ban all speech and activity online and offline that even remotely supports LGBTQ+ rights.

The letter concludes:

“We also call on you to reaffirm Ghana’s obligation to prevent acts that violate and undermine LGBTQ+ people’s fundamental human rights, including the rights to life, to information, to free association, and to freedom of expression.”

Read the full letter here.

Paige Collings

Disinformation and Elections: EFF and ARTICLE 19 Submit Key Recommendations to EU Commission

1 month ago
Global Elections and Platform Responsibility

This year is a major one for elections around the world, with pivotal races in the U.S., the UK, the European Union, Russia, and India, to name just a few. Social media platforms play a crucial role in democratic engagement by enabling users to participate in public discourse and by providing access to information, especially as public figures increasingly engage with voters directly. Unfortunately elections also attract a sometimes dangerous amount of disinformation, filling users' news feed with ads touting conspiracy theories about candidates, false news stories about stolen elections, and so on.

Online election disinformation and misinformation can have real world consequences in the U.S. and all over the world. The EU Commission and other regulators are therefore formulating measures platforms could take to address disinformation related to elections. 

Given their dominance over the online information space, providers of Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs), as sites with over 45 million users in the EU are called, have unique power to influence outcomes.  Platforms are driven by economic incentives that may not align with democratic values, and that disconnect  may be embedded in the design of their systems. For example, features like engagement-driven recommender systems may prioritize and amplify disinformation, divisive content, and incitement to violence. That effect, combined with a significant lack of transparency and targeting techniques, can too easily undermine free, fair, and well-informed electoral processes.

Digital Services Act and EU Commission Guidelines

The EU Digital Services Act (DSA) contains a set of sweeping regulations about online-content governance and responsibility for digital services that make X, Facebook, and other platforms subject in many ways to the European Commission and national authorities. It focuses on content moderation processes on platforms, limits targeted ads, and enhances transparency for users. However, the DSA also grants considerable power to authorities to flag content and investigate anonymous users - powers that they may be tempted to mis-use with elections looming. The DSA also obliges VLOPs to assess and mitigate systemic risks, but it is unclear what those obligations mean in practice. Much will depend on how social media platforms interpret their obligations under the DSA, and how European Union authorities enforce the regulation.

We therefore support the initiative by the EU Commission to gather views about what measures the Commission should call on platforms to take to mitigate specific risks linked to disinformation and electoral processes.

Together with ARTICLE 19, we have submitted comments to the EU Commission on future guidelines for platforms. In our response, we recommend that the guidelines prioritize best practices, instead of policing speech. Furthermore, DSA risk assessment and mitigation compliance evaluations should focus primarily on ensuring respect for fundamental rights. 

We further argue against using watermarking of AI content to curb disinformation, and caution against the draft guidelines’ broadly phrased recommendation that platforms should exchange information with national authorities. Any such exchanges should take care to respect human rights, beginning with a transparent process.  We also recommend that the guidelines pay particular attention to attacks against minority groups or online harassment and abuse of female candidates, lest such attacks further silence those parts of the population who are already often denied a voice.

EFF and ARTICLE 19 Submission: https://www.eff.org/document/joint-submission-euelections

Christoph Schmon

EFF Seeks Greater Public Access to Patent Lawsuit Filed in Texas

1 month ago

You’re not supposed to be able to litigate in secret in the U.S. That’s especially true in a patent case dealing with technology that most internet users rely on every day.

 Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in a case called Entropic Communications, LLC v. Charter Communications, Inc. The parties have made so much of their dispute secret that it is hard to tell how the patents owned by Entropic might affect the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications (DOCSIS) standard, a key technical standard that ensures cable customers can access the internet.

In Entropic, both sides are experienced litigants who should know that this type of sealing is improper. Unfortunately, overbroad secrecy is common in patent litigation, particularly in cases filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

EFF has sought to ensure public access to lawsuits in this district for years. In 2016, EFF intervened in another patent case in this very district, arguing that the heavy sealing by a patent owner called Blue Spike violated the public’s First Amendment and common law rights. A judge ordered the case unsealed.

As Entropic shows, however, parties still believe they can shut down the public’s access to presumptively public legal disputes. This secrecy has to stop. That’s why EFF, represented by the Science, Health & Information Clinic at Columbia Law School, filed a motion today seeking to intervene in the case and unseal a variety of legal briefs and evidence submitted in the case. EFF’s motion argues that the legal issues in the case and their potential implications for the DOCSIS standard are a matter of public concern and asks the district court judge hearing the case to provide greater public access.

Protective Orders Cannot Override The Public’s First Amendment Rights

As EFF’s motion describes, the parties appear to have agreed to keep much of their filings secret via what is known as a protective order. These court orders are common in litigation and prevent the parties from disclosing information that they obtain from one another during the fact-gathering phase of a case. Importantly, protective orders set the rules for information exchanged between the parties, not what is filed on a public court docket.

The parties in Entropic, however, are claiming that the protective order permits them to keep secret both legal arguments made in briefs filed with the court as well as evidence submitted with those filings. EFF’s motion argues that this contention is incorrect as a matter of law because the parties cannot use their agreement to abrogate the public’s First Amendment and common law rights to access court records. More generally, relying on protective orders to limit public access is problematic because parties in litigation often have little interest or incentive to make their filings public.

Unfortunately, parties in patent litigation too often seek to seal a variety of information that should be public. EFF continues to push back on these claims. In addition to our work in Texas, we have also intervened in a California patent case, where we also won an important transparency ruling. The court in that case prevented Uniloc, a company that had filed hundreds of patent lawsuits, from keeping the public in the dark as to its licensing activities.

That is why part of EFF’s motion asks the court to clarify that parties litigating in the Texas district court cannot rely on a protective order for secrecy and that they must instead seek permission from the court and justify any claim that material should be filed under seal.

On top of clarifying that the parties’ protective orders cannot frustrate the public’s right to access federal court records, we hope the motion in Entropic helps shed light on the claims and defenses at issue in this case, which are themselves a matter of public concern. The DOCSIS standard is used in virtually all cable internet modems around the world, so the claims made by Entropic may have broader consequences for anyone who connects to the internet via a cable modem.

It’s also impossible to tell if Entropic might want to sue more cable modem makers. So far, Entropic has sued five big cable modem vendors—Charter, Cox, Comcast, DISH TV, and DirecTV—in more than a dozen separate cases. EFF is hopeful that the records will shed light on how broadly Entropic believes its patents can reach cable modem technology.

EFF is extremely grateful that Columbia Law School’s Science, Health & Information Clinic could represent us in this case. We especially thank the student attorneys who worked on the filing, including Sean Hong, Gloria Yi, Hiba Ismail, and Stephanie Lim, and the clinic’s director, Christopher Morten.

Related Cases: Entropic Communications, LLC v. Charter Communications, Inc.
Aaron Mackey
2 hours 57 minutes ago
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