WELCOME to Connected Rights, your finger on the trigger of digital rights news and analysis.
DONALD TRUMP’S JUSTICE DEPARTMENT has gone after a US web host, Dreamhost, in an attempt to identify the many visitors to an anti-Trump website that uses the company’s servers: http://for.tn/2w6AwJL
Dreamhost is fighting the DOJ’s efforts to seize its records for DisruptJ20.org. The site was used to organise protests at Trump’s inauguration and is now being used to organise legal help for the hundreds of protestors that were arrested in the capital on January 20.
The company and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is providing it with professional support (though not representing it), have noted that the seizure request is over-broad and unconstitutional. The government wants all the 1.3 million IP addresses that could identify the computers used to access the site.
What’s not clear is the government’s reason for wanting this information in the first place, given that there was nothing illegal about visiting the website. It’s already unusual that so many people – around 200 – are facing felony charges for participating in the protests, which partly turned violent. What is clear is that this is shaping up to be a major constitutional battle, with significant implications for online privacy in the US.
SPEAKING OF AMERICAN PRIVACY, top technologists such as Ashkan Soltani, Ed Felten and Matt Blaze have waded into a crucial Supreme Court case that’s about the warrantless seizure of people’s cellphone location records: http://bit.ly/2fI5EZd
As in the Dreamhost case, what’s at stake in Carpenter v. United States is the Fourth Amendment – the one that bans unreasonable searches and seizures. In their amicus brief, the tech experts said the court must see the amendment as covering the requisitioning of “cell site location information” from mobile operators.
“The government’s surveillance powers have outpaced constitutional protections meant to prevent overreach and abuse. Government agents shouldn’t be able to track a person’s movements for weeks or months without first obtaining a warrant from a judge,” said Alex Abdo, senior staff attorney at Columbia University’s Knight Institute, which is representing the experts.
The case involves a guy who’s appealing his conviction for aiding and abetting a robbery. The cops charged him based on his proximity to the crime, as originally determined by the movements of his phone.
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HOW MUCH DID SOCIAL MEDIA COMPANIES HELP TRUMP get elected? A BBC documentary about his election campaign shows how it targeted individuals based on information such as the “kind of things they look at on the internet”: http://bit.ly/2v0DYRo
The controversial profiling outfit Cambridge Analytica had an office in the campaign headquarters, while representatives of companies such as Facebook, Google and YouTube were also there. “When you’re pumping in millions and millions of dollars to these social platforms, you’re going to get white club treatment, so they would send people… to ensure that all of our needs were being met,” said Theresa Hong, who worked on the campaign.
The problem here (well, one of them) is that different people are shown different things, based on tracking information that they don’t know is being glued together in some backroom. In an election, that matters, because the citizenry are not having a common conversation. It’s bad for democracy, and it shows how meaningful online tracking and profiling really is.
YOUTUBE MAY HAVE RECENTLY CLAIMED THAT ITS ALGORITHMS are sometimes better than people at flagging up illegal content (see http://bit.ly/2x3IPTh), but the system clearly doesn’t always work.
Check out this irate tirade of tweets from Eliot Higgins, who is best known for his citizen-journalist work covering the conflict in the Ukraine: http://bit.ly/2vHGGgE. Higgins has also done an awful lot of work covering the Syrian conflict, and YouTube suddenly took down his many videos and video playlists on the subject.
“So far YouTube’s attempts to remove ISIS and Jihadi content has proven to be a total flop, loads of false positives,” he tweeted. “YouTube’s new anti ISIS AI has also shut down multiple channels with years of videos from Syria, irreplaceable documentation of the conflict… The playlists were put together other 5 years, collections of videos on chemical attacks and war crimes. Next to impossible to recreate.”
Eventually, after much shouting on Higgins’ part, YouTube restored not only the videos but the playlists. Ironically, as he noted, his work is funded by Google’s own Digital News Initiative. If you want to see the playlists in question, here you go: http://bit.ly/2uIsFBR
MEANWHILE, JOURNALISTS HAVE BEGUN TESTING an automated system that fact-checks claims made in the media. The anti-fake-news tool comes from the London-based Full Fact organisation, which is funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and investor George Soros: http://bit.ly/2hGBUfX
In the algorithmic war for truth, this seems like a much better approach than that adopted by YouTube – use technology to flag up bad things more quickly than people can, but then use those results to help actual people make sensible decisions.
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IN LAST WEEK’S CONNECTED RIGHTS (see http://bit.ly/2x3tXnZ), I noted how the Indian authorities had ordered the blocking of the Internet Archive – a decision that at the time came with no explanation.
Not long after, an explanation surfaced: two Bollywood production companies had come up with a list of sites that helped people watch pirated copies of a couple of their movies, and that they wanted the court to order blocked. The Internet Archive was one of those 2,650 sites: http://bbc.in/2hJN57q. And as far as I can tell from across the world, it’s still blocked. (If I’m wrong, let me know.)
WHY DO GIRLS BELONG ONLINE? Seems like a silly question, but girls face more abuse online than boys do. So Plan International, which works to advance children’s rights and equality for girls, wants the United Nations to update the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to explicitly explain how children’s human rights apply in the digital context.
To help it build its case, the non-profit is conducting a survey. “We’ll use your answers to explain to the UN committee on the convention why countries across the globe need guidance on how to prioritise girls’ rights online, and how to protect the rights of all young people in the digital space,” it says.
You can take part here: http://bit.ly/2wX0gVz