The Internet as Metaphor

I am old enough to remember when we had trouble explaining the Internet. It was 1994 or 1995, and everyone was talking about America Online. When telling someone a web address, people would say, “Go to h, t, t, p, colon, slash, slash, w, w, w, dot.” People didn’t even know how to pronounce @ or explain the Internet.

To explain the Internet, we’d use metaphors and analogies. It’s like TV, kind of. It’s like a printing press for everyone. A computer billboard. Electronic mail. It’s one to one and one to many and many to many, unlike TV which is one to many and phone which is one to one.

For the past few years, the Internet is so embedded that we now use even websites as metaphors for other websites: “it’s like Uber, for food,” “it’s like Airbnb, for dogs.” Even our understanding of the brain’s neuron networks seems to borrow heavily from a metaphor to computer networks.  Essentially, it’s so familiar that we intuitively understand it, and have to make sense of new things by reference to the old and familiar–the Internet.

Recurring Myths about the Legal Obligations of Online Platforms

In recent months, some copyright holders, pharmaceutical companies, and  state attorneys general have made allegations against Internet companies that help users find and share information. In short, they claim that because some users engage in copyright infringement, sell counterfeit products, or otherwise encourage potentially criminal activity on the Internet, the users’ Internet platforms should be held responsible for these misdeeds. That is, Google should be punished for any user’s copyright infringement on YouTube, Facebook for any user’s harassing post, and Twitter for any user’s slanderous tweet. According to the critics, that is, these companies should screen all users’ speech and take on the role of editors or publishers, rather than being open platforms for the speech of millions.

Many of these allegations focus exclusively on the biggest company in the space, Google, even though Google already invests considerable resources in reducing infringement, counterfeiting, and unlawful activity on its platforms. One state attorney general accused Google of “a failure to stop illegal sites from selling stolen intellectual property,” as though Google has the obligation or even the ability to stamp out copyright infringement on every “site” on the Internet.

For those who follow Internet policy, these types of arguments should sound familiar, stale, and still misguided. These arguments have failed repeatedly in federal courts, Congress, and the court of public opinion. One wonders why, like zombies in a classic horror movie, these arguments just keep coming back from the dead.

As recently as 2011, some in Congress supported a now-infamous bill called SOPA designed to target Internet intermediaries for their users’ copyright misdeeds. SOPA’s co-sponsors also targeted Google and similarly served on committees focused on intellectual property—committees that often show an unbalanced attentiveness to the copyright industry’s concerns over those of average users and over important principles of free speech more generally.

To ensure digital platforms for user expression, Congress has wisely held that speech platforms should generally not be guilty of their users’ misdeed. Congress has done so through established and widely praised laws such as section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Courts have construed 230 of the CDA “broadly in all cases arising from the publication of user-generated content.”

Nonetheless, every few years, we see attempts to undermine intermediary immunity. While many such attempts might be well-intentioned  they are deeply flawed and would threaten the Internet’s role as an engine of free expression for hundreds of millions of Americans.

In this post, I respond to the recent allegations by rights-holders and state attorneys general. These critics mistakenly accuse companies of turning a blind eye to users’ potentially illegal behavior on search engines and video platforms. They also advance legal claims that technology platforms should be liable for any abuse on any of its services, despite a lack of support for such claims in the case law (and considerable support for the opposite position). As many of these arguments are specific to Google, I reply to those arguments and explain how my responses apply more broadly to other Internet companies.

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American Cloud Firms Suffer From Customers’ PRISM Fears

Fallout from the NSA PRISM revelations continues, and American cloud providers may be one of the groups paying the price. Jaikumar Vijayan writing for ComputerWorld reports on how European customers are reacting:

A Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) survey found that 10% of 207 officials at non-U.S. companies have canceled contracts with U.S. service providers following the revelation of the NSA spy program last month. The alliance, a non-profit organization with over 48,000 individual members, said the survey also found that 56% of non-U.S. respondents are now hesitant to work with any U.S.-based cloud service providers.

In the full survey, more than half of 456 representatives of companies in the U.S., Europe and Asia said they are less likely to use American cloud service providers because of concerns over U.S government access to their data.

Yesterday’s cnet story from Declan McCullagh about the federal government seeking user passwords from tech companies will further exacerbate the situation:

“I’ve certainly seen them ask for passwords,” said one Internet industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We push back.”

A second person who has worked at a large Silicon Valley company confirmed that it received legal requests from the federal government for stored passwords. Companies “really heavily scrutinize” these requests, the person said. “There’s a lot of ‘over my dead body.'”

The companies’ zeal for protecting user privacy aside, customers are undoubtedly more concerned than ever about the security of the information they entrust to American firms.

In a Politico oped in March, Marvin and I warned of how American surveillance laws could lead to a situation in which American businesses suffer economic harm due to privacy concerns of their users:

Many foreign companies are converging toward a common argument for why they’re better than their American competitors. It’s not that the foreign-made technology is better, more resilient, or more ubiquitous, nor that the foreign companies are more innovative or better managed. They compare not their businessmen but their politicians. They argue simply that American laws undermine any American product — that these laws fail to protect privacy of personal or business information of all users. This argument works partly because consumers claim to “avoid doing business” with companies they don’t trust to protect their privacy.

While this business argument exaggerates the problems with American privacy law, it should still concern policymakers, who unwittingly help less innovative foreign companies compete by providing a germ of truth to foreign privacy concerns.

Sadly new developments continue to confirm these warnings. Our concerns aren’t meant to malign the motives of our intelligence agencies or  diminish their efforts to protect the security of the United States. On the contrary, the need for intelligence collection to safeguard the country from foreign threats is clear and justified. But the revelations of late are having a detrimental effect on American businesses, the full implications of which remain to be seen.  As members of Congress debate whether to impose limitations on the intelligence gathering capabilities of our national security agencies, they should carefully consider the harm befalling American businesses, and weigh that harm in their decision-making process.

WordPress Blogging With Google Glass–in Iceland

I am going on vacation in July this year and will be traveling around Iceland.

On this trip, I will be taking photos with Google Glass and automatically posting them from Glass to this WordPress site. I am sure you are wondering how that’s possible.

For my trip, my partners at Silica Labs decided to build the first WordPress integration for Google Glass. This will make it possible for me to directly blog from Glass to WordPress, sharing photos and text directly from the device to a blog. (Already, a Google Glass user can directly share to Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, thanks to apps developed by those companies.)

I think the Glass-Wordpress integration can help people tell the stories of their travels and journeys.

I am a huge fan of WordPress and of Google Glass, so I’m glad we have integrated the two. Silica Labs has been working with media companies like National Geographic, and Glass integration with WordPress should provide a useful tool.

I think the photos from Glass will be cool. I’ve been to Iceland before and took some of the best photos of my life there. It has volcanic ash beaches, interlocking bays, mountain ranges, and geothermal pools evoking an almost alien beauty. You feel like you’re in a movie about another planet or an ancient realm. Here, look:

iceland lunar

Fred Wilson: The Economic Case For Privacy

In June, venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures spoke with WSJ reporter Spencer Ante about mobile technology and other topics at SourceDigital2013.

At around the 3:30  mark, the conversation turns to privacy in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal. Wilson says:

I would hope that the people who worry about business interests in our government are fighting with the people who are worried about national security interests and having a debate about this specific issue, because if Western Europeans stop using Dropbox because they’re afraid the US government is able to see everything they put in their Dropbox, they may start using a service that’s based in Iceland or Sweden or Germany or France or something like that. That’s going to be really bad for Dropbox. It wouldn’t surprise me that some of that will happen. How much of it is a bigger question, right? So many people are upset about this at some level, but the question is whether people will change their behavior.

Back in March, Marvin and I made a similar case in Politico, arguing that privacy is not only a civil liberties issue but also an economic issue. We also warned that policymakers are helping foreign competitors win customers from American companies:

Other nations exaggerate the flaws in our privacy laws to edge out American tech companies for both enterprise and personal users. Our lawmakers are doing them a favor by casting a black cloud of legal uncertainty over our own industry and refusing to fix the most obvious problems. Now is the time to act.

An article on Politico this morning suggests that the NSA scandal may be waking up Congress to this issue, possibly to a strong enough degree for action. If policymakers want to ensure American tech companies remain competitive, they’ll need to swiftly pass legislation to protect privacy.

Code.org Continues To Inspire

Last week, I received an update from Code.org, the group behind this well-known video, encouraging kids to learn to code:

According to Hadi Partovi, Code.org’s founder, the organization has done a lot of good in the four months since its launch:

Thanks to your sharing & tweeting, 3.5 million kids tried learning to code online, 12,000 schools asked our help to teach computer science, and 25,000 software engineers volunteered too!  We’ve connected thousands of schools with opportunities and helped set up hundreds of classes.

In a piece in The Atlantic from last year, Marvin described why it is so important for younger generations to learn this skill:

Thinking like a programmer is not only helpful to succeed in any technical career, it will also become integral to simply navigating our increasingly digital world. Code consists of languages that can be taught just as we already teach the “language” of math, the language of music, and the language of Spanish vocabulary and grammar. Students could decide whether or not they want to pursue greater fluency and expertise in coding (or Spanish), and (if nothing else) students would benefit from the distinct problem-solving framework of a coding mentality — which may be a more entrepreneurial mentality than memorizing the dates of famous battles in the Thirty Years War. It would help students to think critically — to analyze and solve problems.

Marvin argues that teaching programming in and out of the classroom can pay dividends far down the road, and ensure that America remains competitive in the global economy. Code.org is one of the organizations leading the way, and over 718,000 people have signed its petition, arguing that “Every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn to code.”

No doubt that number will continue to grow, as will the number of students who take a crack at developing this valuable skill set. Check out the site if you want to learn more.

Ammori and Meinrath Publish in Emory Int’l Law Review

Marvin and Sascha Meinrath, Director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, published an article for the Emory International Law Review’s Symposium on “International Law and the Internet: Adapting Legal Framework In Response To Online Warfare and Revolutions Fueled By Social Media.” Their piece examines the recent conflicts over Internet freedom and how new technologies can foster a more open society, if we allow them to do so.

From the piece:

Which brings us to another conundrum in the battle between the Internet Freedom Fighters and the Cold Warriors—how do we empower free society while creating technological mechanisms to police malfeasance? The same “good” surveillance technologies are used regularly for such evil purposes, yet have been so impotent in actually stopping piracy in the first place.

Like any powerful tool, technology offers both tremendous boons for adept users and dramatic new pitfalls for an unsuspecting public. But the battles over SOPA and PIPA give us hope.

You can read their article here.

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