Jigsaw – the missing piece in policing the internet?

jigsaw

Should Google and others influence our online behaviours? (Image c/o Cindee Snider Re on Flickr.)

Earlier this month, the results of a pilot project run by Jigsaw (a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc – formerly Google) to send those seeking information on ISIS towards counter-propaganda anti-ISIS materials on YouTube were revealed. Over the course of the two month program, according to Wired, 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Furthermore, “searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign”. The success of the programme has led to plans to relaunch the program focusing on North American extremists, targeting white supremacists as well as potential ISIS recruits.

But the efforts of Jigsaw to police the internet doesn’t begin and end with counter-propaganda designed to stop individuals from being sucked into a violent ideology. According to Wired’s Andy Greenberg:

The New York-based think tank and tech incubator aims to build products that use Google’s massive infrastructure and engineering muscle not to advance the best possibilities of the internet but to fix the worst of it: surveillance, extremist indoctrination, censorship. The group sees its work, in part, as taking on the most intractable jobs in Google’s larger mission to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful”.

Although there are elements of that mission that are to be welcomed, there is much also that is problematic at best and highly unethical at worst.

With regards to the determination to challenge extremist indoctrination, there are very obvious and serious questions that need to be asked here, not least how do we define extremism? Communism and anarchism have, for many decades, been perceived to be “extremist ideologies”, should anyone investigating such ideologies also be exposed to counter-propaganda? Is it Google/Jigsaw who determine whether such ideologies are “extremist”? And, if so, how “neutral” can we expect them to be about ideologies that would see corporations such as themselves broken up and no longer permitted to operate in the ways in which they currently operate? We know that such tech companies are susceptible to state pressure (as with Google, so it is also with Yahoo! and others).

Of course, this is nothing new. Large tech companies are increasingly seeing themselves as a form of global police force that acts as a form of privatised global state department. Much as I value the defence that Apple put up when the FBI demanded access to the infamous San Bernardino phone, is it really appropriate that they refused to do so? My gut instinct is to say, in this particular example, yes (I should add I am an iPhone user so I am somewhat seeing it through the prism of the protection of my communications etc). But should a large multinational corporation get to pick and choose which laws it abides by? If an individual in a liberal Western democracy refused to accede to a request by the security services, you can be sure that both sides wouldn’t be arguing across the media. They’d be arguing through the bars of a jail cell.

This tech company as global internet police force has also been exposed by the revelations that Facebook has been working closely with the Israeli government to “monitor posts that incite violence”. Needless to say, in the context of the long and complicated history of the region, such work opens a whole series of questions about the consequence of such a partnership, particularly given Israel’s questionable attitude towards Arab-Israeli comments on social media. As Freedom House’s 2015 report on Israel notes:

In July 2014, a professor at Bar-Ilan University was publicly rebuked by his dean for sending an e-mail to his students expressing sympathy for victims on both sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict, a rebuke which drew objections from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Similarly during the conflict, students at some universities, particularly Arab students, were reportedly subjected to monitoring and sanctions for social-media comments that were deemed offensive or extremist.

One can’t help but wonder whether Facebook will actually make such action significantly easier.

Should multi-national corporations either act as independent arms of the state, policing the internet and tackling censorship or directing individuals to counter-propaganda at will? Aren’t there serious ethical issues at play here when such corporations either act as independent arms of the state, or proxies for the state in which they operate? Are we not effectively making multi-national corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple as arbiters of liberty and freedom?

Jigsaw intends to “end censorship within a decade” (Wired, Nov 16). A fine goal. But it is also about to launch Conversation AI which intends to “selectively silence” voices to protect the speech of others. Squaring the circle of ending censorship and “selectively silencing” voices is a question for the engineers at Jigsaw. However, the question for all of us must surely be to what extent are we prepared to permit large multi-national corporations to make ethical judgements on behalf of all of us? Should issuing counter-propaganda and tackling abuses of free speech be considered a social good when it is at the whim of a corporation or programs using algorithms created by individuals that work for such corporations? Ultimately, do we really need or should we even permit a (as Greenberg describes it) “Digital Justice League”? Or should corporations stay out of complex ethical issues? It seems to me that such corporations should be responsive to our needs and requests (eg harassment reports on social media) rather than deciding for us. By all means, tackle racism, harassment, misogyny and hatred, but it should be on our terms, not theirs.

Free speech, librarianship and the chilling effect of surveillance

chilling effect

Image c/o glassghost on Flickr.

Free speech has become the hot topic de jour amongst the chattering classes. Barely a day goes by without some new threat to free speech emerging. Indeed, it seems to have become somewhat of a middle class obsession, which is perhaps unsurprising given that many of the so-called threats to free speech are actually threats to middle class privilege and effectively seek to strike a balance between those with privilege and those without (hello safe spaces). So threatened have the privileged become, the adolescent middle class journal of choice (hello Spiked!), has even launched a “campaign for free speech in higher education” – a campaign that peculiarly obsesses with one particular aspect of free speech, but spending little time on the broader issue.

To a certain extent (not entirely, I’m not for one moment suggesting most don’t engage in discussions around this topic), librarians and the profession in general have tended to neglect the debate on intellectual freedoms, preferring instead to pontificate on areas that are traditionally private sector obsessions. It’s curious as to why this is the case. After all, our profession is steeped in the principles of intellectual freedom. We believe people should read and access what they want, we believe that censorship is a bad thing, we believe that access to information should be equal to all. Yet despite this, whilst we live in an environment where intellectual freedoms are apparently up for discussion, there is little space occupied by a profession that should be seeking to defend such freedoms. There is certainly plenty for us to get worked up about…

Recent developments have highlighted the extent to which our non-engagement (our “neutrality”?) is having a detrimental effect on public discourse.  According to the principles outlined by CILIP, we are minded to ensure “commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination” and “respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users”.  Yet are either of these possible when mass surveillance exists? Does mass surveillance not pose a threat to our ethical principles and, by extension, our existence? Without our ethical principles, surely we are no better than the volunteers we claim deliver an inferior library service?

The threat to our ethical principles particularly manifests itself via the “chilling effect” of surveillance strategies – that is, that knowledge of surveillance activity impedes our intellectual freedom, resulting in modifying our communications and information seeking for fear of being watched and, ultimately, punished (regardless of whether the punishment is based on an incorrect interpretation of activity). This effect has long been debated and argued, and to an extent the jury is still out on the extent to which it exists. However, it does pose a particular threat to us as professionals, one that undermines our ethical principles and, therefore, calls into question our existence. (Surely ethical principles are what divide us from volunteers providing library services?)

This notion of a “chilling effect” is not exactly a radical one. In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice concluded that:

“In a democratic society privacy of communication is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively. Fear or suspicion that one’s speech is being monitored by a stranger, even without the reality of such activity, can have a seriously inhibiting effect upon the willingness to voice critical and constructive ideas.”

This was, of course, long before the kind of mass surveillance we are familiar with now had emerged. This impeding of the ability to voice critical and constructive ideas is one element of the impact of the “chilling effect”. But to be able to voice critical and constructive ideas you must be able to seek out ideas that challenge the status quo, that provoke critical reflection on the democratic process.

More recently, further research has suggested that there is a very real “chilling effect” following mainstream awareness of surveillance strategies conducted by the NSA and others. A recent study by Oxford’s John Penney [SSRN link, sorry!], for example, found a notable decrease in visits to contentious topics on Wikipedia following the Snowden disclosures. Penney found that there had been a

“20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.’”

This follows a 2015 paper which found that [sorry, SSRN again]:

“…users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U.S. government”

Furthermore, the US Department of Commerce underlined the extent to which a “lack of trust” in internet privacy and security may deter online activity. Following a survey asked of 41,000 households with more than one internet user, it was clear that many felt that government surveillance had an impact on their expression of ideas online. According to their analysis:

“The apparent fallout from a lack of trust in the privacy and security of the Internet also extends beyond commerce. For example, 29 percent of households concerned about government data collection said they did not express controversial or political opinions online due to privacy or security concerns, compared with 16 percent of other online households.”

They conclude that:

“…it is clear that policymakers need to develop a better understanding of mistrust in the privacy and security of the Internet and the resulting chilling effects. In addition to being a problem of great concern to many Americans, privacy and security issues may reduce economic activity and hamper the free exchange of ideas online.”

These sentiments are echoed by Penney who argues that:

“If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”

But what has this got to do with librarianship? Returning to those CILIP ethical principles, it’s clear that we have an obligation to ensure equal access to “information, ideas and works of the imagination”. Furthermore, it is clear that in an environment of mass surveillance, where the populace are aware that their online activities are observed and processed, individuals cannot exercise this freedom to access information because the “chilling effects” impedes them. The consequence of this is not only a reluctance to seek out critical ideas, but also a reluctance to communicate them. You cannot, ultimately, have free speech when you exist in conditions of mass surveillance. The conditions brought about by this “chilling effect” do not allow for it, unless you have the privilege to possess knowledge and skills about the techniques you can use to protect your information seeking habits and communications of course.

For me, this is where we need to be much stronger…because our ethical principles demand that we are much stronger. We should not, as a profession, accept the Investigatory Powers Bill and the threat it poses to us as professionals, undermining a key ethical principle to which we supposedly adhere. Equally, we should do more to protect our communities. Here the United States is well ahead of us, thanks to organisations such as the Library Freedom Project, as well as some efforts by the ALA and the Electronic Frontier Federation (which is non-librarian, but has played a key role in advancing the cause of intellectual privacy). Whilst moves have been apparent in the UK (see the recently announced Crypto Party in Newcastle), we have been far too slow to defend these core ethical principles. Perhaps this is down to a historic indifference in the UK towards free speech (see our libel laws as an example for how little value we place upon it – another example of the extent to which liberal values are something that only the privileged can enjoy). The extent to which there is a “chilling effect” on intellectual activity is debatable but so long as it is, we need to be at the forefront of that debate – both in terms of discourse and action.

Do we really have a right to offend?

Image c/o ed_needs_a_bicycle on Flickr.

(Image c/o ed_needs_a_bicycle on Flickr.)

There has been a growing trend in recent years to argue that there is effectively a “right to offend”, that people do not have a right to take offence.  But is there a “right to offend”? It certainly seems that an increasing number of people believe that there is such a thing (this often comes mixed in with arguments over the right to free speech), from Cristina Odone to David Cameron to Stephen Fry to Ricky Gervais. Confounding what one might reasonably expect, this notion of the “right to cause offence” has embedded itself across the political spectrum. Everyone from the liberal left to the far-right have pushed the line that no-one has the “right to be offended”, based on the notion that people choose to be offended by speech and can choose not to expose themselves to hateful messages and harmful language if they don’t want to see it. As far as the defenders of this so-called “right” are concerned, words are incapable of causing actual harm and therefore any sense of “offence” is meaningless. Of course, this train of thought relies on the belief that words are devoid of any social, cultural or historical context and merely exist in isolation. Which, of course, they do not.

The right to offend

We’ve seen the rise in this “right to offend” mentality in light of the attack on the “satirical” magazine Charlie Hebdo. Here, again, the argument that we should be able to offend whoever we want emerges. It is, so the proponents argue, the right of the cartoonists to insult Muslims, whether they are rich or poor, in positions of power or the disenfranchised. Unlike good satire (which should always punch up not down), broad brush cartoons attacking Muslims are indiscriminate. They do not distinguish between those in power and those without.

When it comes to free speech, we have already accepted as a society that this is not an absolute right. There are limits enshrined in law (although there are those who argue that these limits should not apply). Freedoms have to be balanced, we cannot argue that all rights are absolute, as there are times when these freedoms come into conflict. For example, the right to be able to live in a safe environment and not feel threatened by others, surely trumps the right to free speech (particularly when it comes to racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia etc). Not for nothing did the German constitution of 1949 stipulate that:

“Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

We all have a right to live with dignity, to live free from the threatening and abusive conduct of others.

Furthermore, we cannot overlook our responsibilities in exercising our right to free speech. One cannot use language that is offensive or threatening to minorities or marginalised groups whilst also detaching oneself from the responsibilities inherent in using such language. As Will Self recently argued, “our society makes a fetish of ‘the right to free speech’ without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right”. We have to be responsible for the language we use and the harm it causes. We cannot wash our hands of it and push the responsibility solely onto the victim for their response.

It is necessary to accept that there are limits, whereas the “right to offend” suggests there are none. And yet, as a society we have accepted that there are limits. As Gary Younge points out in The Guardian, every country restrains free speech to a degree:

In 2005 Le Monde was found guilty of “racist defamation” against Israel and the Jewish people. In 2008 a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo was fired after refusing to apologise for making antisemitic remarks in a column. And two years before the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons of Muhammad in 2006, it rejected ones offering a light-hearted take on the resurrection of Christ for fear they would “provoke an outcry”.

Far from being “sacred”, as some have claimed, freedom of speech is always contingent. All societies draw lines, that are ill-defined, constantly shifting and continually debated, about what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse when it comes to cultural, racial and religious sensitivities. The question is whether those lines count for Muslims too.

Indeed, France has been struggling with this in the light of the terrorist attacks, arresting those who have made distasteful “jokes” seen to be in support of those responsible for the series of murders that rocked the country.

We have, as a society, broadly accepted that there is a right to be offended (albeit in very particular terms ie hate speech). It’s no real surprise to find that the vast majority of those who defend the “right to offend” are white, middle class males. These individuals cannot be “offended” because their culture is not under threat they are the ones who, after all, wield the power in our society. When you have power, what is there to be offended by?

Free speech and religion

Although I am a (fairly militant) atheist, I tend to see that there is a significant difference between criticising a religion such as Islam and Christianity in the West. We often hear that Christianity is an easy target – we’re all happy to laugh at Christianity, but wouldn’t dream of doing so with regard to Islam. There is, of course, a substantial difference between the two. We live in a country built on Christian beliefs, on Christian traditions. I grew up in a Christian country. A country where Christianity wields power that other religions do not – 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords and can make or break government legislation. No other religious group has such representation at the seat of power.

We do not have a “right” to mock Christianity per se, but mockery in the face of a force that wields power is reasonable, particularly as it is the dominant religious identity. Islam, on the other hand, is not. It is not part of my cultural heritage and is certainly not accepted as part of our supposed “shared cultural identity”. I have no connection to it. It is something ‘other’. It is not my place to lampoon it because it is not my culture to lampoon. I have no understanding of Islam and its tenets (even if I did, I would still feel uncomfortable exclusively ridiculing a religion that is not part of my cultural heritage). However, I do have ample understanding of Christianity. Mocking Islam as someone brought up in a Western Christian cultural environment makes me feel very uncomfortable. I would not mock other aspects of others’ cultural heritage or identity so why should I mock their beliefs, no matter how irrational they appear to be?

Our freedoms…

Meanwhile, whilst the best efforts have been made to ensure our eyes are diverted towards the many millions of people who had nothing to do with the attack (apart from suffering from the attackers’ lie that they are one of them), the real satire has been gradually unfolding. We’ve been subjected to passionate pontifications about the importance of the freedom of the press, pontifications that ring more than a little hollow when placed in their proper context. As is typical of those in power in desperate need of some good PR, leaders with a questionable commitment to human rights have used the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to assert commitments to free speech and a free press. Not only are our leaders engaging in such stunning cynicism, but prominent voices in the media (ironically) have also been keen to jump on Islam and assert the importance of a free press.

Take Douglas Murray for example. Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society and media spokesperson for the neoliberal far-right. Whilst he laments the state of the free press with regard to its collective failure in the UK to reprint the cartoons that supposedly led to the deaths of 12 individuals, he has not always been the greatest defender of a free press when it comes to confronting the danger of an over-powerful state. A free press when it comes to attacking those least likely to do us harm, versus that of a state that can exert its power over us at will.

Then there are the numerous leaders who announced that they were “Charlie Hebdo” on the streets of Paris. How hollow their words sounded when they are guilty of repressing the free press within their own states. And this hypocrisy didn’t just afflict those from countries in the Middle East and beyond. Indeed, no sooner had David Cameron announced to the world “je suis Charlie”, than he was back home announcing his (laughably idiotic) intentions to ensure that no-one can ever have a private conversation ever again.

A free press should only be defended, it appears, if it is sticking the knife into a minority group rather than those occupying the seats of power. Yes, this is the kind of free speech that must, apparently, be defended – the kind that punches down rather than punches up.

What we should be watching is not the many millions of Muslims throughout the world who merely wish to practice their religion in peace (no matter what we may feel about religion in general) but, as any good satirist would tell you, it’s the state. The powerful. We should be looking up, not looking down. For whilst the state wants us to focus on millions of people who have nothing to do with the atrocities supposedly carried out in their name, they will use this opportunity to remove the freedoms they claim bind us together as part of some notion of shared values. It happens time after time (even to those who are supposed to be watching the state closer than most). They preach solidarity with us, but the reality is that the state is often the enemy of the people and we should never allow their games of distraction to permit us to forget this.

Twitter – can censorship ever be justified?

The internet was alive with chatter on Friday in response to Twitter’s announcement that it was making a change in the extent to which it restricts content.  The change means that content that violates the laws of an individual state will be blocked.  Given the nature of the average Twitter user (generally opposed to censorship) and the impact the use of Twitter has had in a range ofdespotic regimes across the world, it was not surprising that there was uproar about this announcement. Such was the uproar, there were threats of widespread blackouts as people announced their intentions to boycott the service.  Judging by the volume of tweets, it appears that this didn’t really take hold.

However, as Twitter’s blog explained, things were a little more complicated than they initially appeared:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

In an update it went on to add:

We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page, http://chillingeffects.org/twitter, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.

Which appears to make the policy a little more understandable.  Indeed, a number of blog posts were subsequently published which argued that not only was the position taken by Twitter reasonable, it was also a victory for defenders of free speech.  As one blog put it:

The alternative would be to see Twitter blocked entirely in countries which consider its content to be a violation of their local laws. If the finger should be pointed at anyone, it isn’t Twitter, but rather the lawmakers that make it possible to censor content in the first place.

So is it really an issue? Should Twitter really be the target of a boycott?

It’s a tricky issue to get right.  Ultimately, the medium should be as lightly managed as possible, ensuring people can tweet freely and share information readily.  As has been seen in a number of cases, the impact of such freedom can have a positive impact upon our society.  But, of course, as with all freedom of speech issues, there are concerns and grey areas that need to be wrestled with.

So how do we resolve such issues?  Surely our viewpoint on censorship ultimately comes down to our own personal moral compass?  Do we believe that censorship is ultimately acceptable if the laws that the tweet breaks are only those we are sympathetic towards?  Would we be more inclined towards censorship if the content was gratuitously offensive to an ethnic minority than if it was content that is adjudged to be libellous to a large corporation?  Both would be in breach of the law, but is one easier than the other to justify?

Personally speaking, I firmly believe in the right to free speech.  I broadly believe that people should not be prosecuted for what they communicate.  But there difficult areas, and I am not really sure I have come to terms with them myself.  I absolutely believe that racist content should be removed.  But I am less sympathetic towards censorship of libellous tweets aimed at large corporations.  And yet both are subject to criminal prosecution.  Perhaps my view on censorship would be best summed up as a necessary evil if it defends the interests of the powerless or the weak, but absolutely avoided if it seeks to defend the interests of the powerful.  It’s not a satisfactory response to freedom of speech issues, but it’s the best I can come up with.

In terms of Twitter, I am not sure that this policy is a wholly bad thing, although it is probably best to see how things play out before rushing to judgement (although is that even a satisfactory response?).  Clearly it ensures that those in repressive regimes actually get access to the technology rather than endure a blanket ban.  It also ensures that tweets are only blocked according to location, so outside of that locality the tweets would be entirely visible – ensuring that in the case of repressive regimes the content still makes it out to the wider world.  This location aspect is certainly superior to some other methods utilised to control content.  As Zeynep Tufekci points out on her excellent post on this issue, Blogger is currently censoring a post on brutality conduced by security forces in Egypt.  This post is currently blocked globally without any indication as to the cause of its removal (unlike the policy that Twitter announced – which will supposedly ensure transparency over removal).  Furthermore, there is a commitment to only block content based on a ‘valid legal order’ which should ensure a degree of protection, providing Twitter doesn’t cave in to spurious government requests for removal.

So, overall I would say that whilst this move is not the most welcome news, I’m not so sure it is quite as regressive as it first appears.  I think the people at Twitter are smart enough to know that if censorship does become a major issue for users they will just move some place else.  It seems to me that they have tried to strike a middle ground ensuring it can protect itself from prosecution (after all, that would lead to the closure of the service for all) and ensure that content is relatively unaffected.  That said, this will need be monitored closely and, if there are attempts to cave into requests by government to censor content without ensuring that valid legal orders are applied, then the strongest possible pressure should be applied to ensure censorship on such grounds is no longer an option.  Time will tell whether this move by Twitter amounts to an attack on free speech or a smart way to defend it.