Policing the Web

The InternetLately there has been a lot of talk about policing the web – about keeping terrorist organizations from benefitting from the web, but also about cutting down on hate talk and other kinds of undesirable speech on social media. It seems to me that all attempts towards regulating speech on the Internet will instantly run into the proverbial slippery slope.

Certainly it would be hard to find anybody who doesn’t want to take down web sites that are the direct mouthpiece for ISIL and on which they make claims for terrorist attacks or directly solicit others to make attacks in the west. President Obama was said we need “high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”

While the US war against ISIL is still undeclared, since we are spending billions to fight them in Syria it makes sense that we wouldn’t give them free reign on the web.

The president isn’t just talking about public web sites for ISIL, but rather their entire online network for communications, money-laundering, and all of the other activities that are on the web and which make it easier for them to operate. I think we should categorize what the president has in mind as making cyberwar against ISIL in the same manner we are making real war. I can’t imagine being against that.

Meanwhile, I have been seeing similar discussions about social media. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, was quoted in the New York Times saying we “should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media — sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment.”

The idea of the US blocking the web from a handful of worldwide bad actors like ISIL, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram is the sort of thing that can be decided as part of a national defense strategy. I personally see nothing wrong with the US government using cyber techniques to neutralize groups that clearly mean us harm.

But where do you draw the line after that handful of examples? For every bad thing said on the web by these international terrorist groups there are just as many totally repugnant things being said by domestic groups who spew hate, racism, and a call for rebellion against the US government. It’s hard sometime to see the difference between what the worst of them say and what ISIL says.

If it’s okay for the government to block ISIL web sites then is it just as okay for them to block sites for domestic radical militia groups, the KKK, or neo-Nazi groups? And if that is okay, then what about the next in line – groups that promote blocking abortion clinics or those who say that people should stop paying taxes? It seems to me that no matter where you draw the line there is going to be a group that is just barely over that line, and it is always going to tempting to block the next one up.

Worse, we aren’t discussing just blocking the web for groups with repugnant beliefs – but also people. The web is a place full of the disgruntled, the disenfranchised and the crazy who say all sorts of nutty and repugnant things. We have the freedom in the US to believe whatever we want as long as it doesn’t cause direct harm to somebody else. And there are people with some of the most unbelievable beliefs you can imagine.

But when Eric Schmidt talks about making a hate and harassment filter for social media he is talking about blocking people, not groups. Of course, companies like Facebook are private companies and they can choose to allow or disallow anything they want – that’s their right. Facebook already quietly blocks a number of things like nudity. But it would be a big step for them to start somehow monitoring content and to ban, banish, or delete conversations that might be considered as hate speech or harassment. It’s really easy to see the slippery slope in this, and I suspect Facebook would lose a huge number of subscribers if they go too far with this. Are algorithms really going to be able to see the difference between hate speech and satire?

I personally like living in a society that values free speech. People should be able to say any ridiculous or repugnant thing they want – and then live with the consequences. I think that hate and prejudice are the most scary when they are hidden under a rock and hidden from the light of day. I much prefer a world where the racists can openly be racists so that we all know who they are. I hope we don’t make the mistake of going too far down this slippery slope.

The Future According to Google

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I just read The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt of Google and Jared Cohen. I am always intrigued by books that look at the future. I was most fascinated by the book because Eric Schmidt is the executive chairman at Google and one has to imagine that the things in this book are discussed at Google all of the time. When he talks about a new product or technology that will be around you can bet that Google is working on it in some manner.

The book takes a look at upcoming technology and how it might change everyday life. The book predicts a lot of things that are already today in the early stages of development but that will become routine in the future. He predicts, for example, that 3D printing will have a much bigger impact in the third world than in the first world. Poor villages will pool their resources to get a 3D printer which will allow them to make things they would otherwise not be able to afford or get.

One of the most promising uses of technology will be with medicine and the book predicts that we will carry nanotechnology inside of us that will alert us when there is any kind of imbalance or at the very first sign of cancer. If you need a new body part technicians will be able to grow one for you from stem cells using a technology that is related to the 3D printers. Everybody’s DNA will be sampled and drugs will be modified specifically to match your genetic patterns to eliminate side effects.

The book predicts that we will see a huge leap in productivity tools such as robotics, artificial intelligence and voice recognition. Keyboards will be a thing of the past and we will interface with our computers by voice, thoughts or gestures. Translation programs will allow us to carry on a conversation with anybody on the planet.

Of course, there are also the more fun things like cars that drive themselves, and entertainment that starts to look like Star Trek holodecks. Entertainment will be personalized, immersive and ubiquitously available on any device.

A lot of the book is spent looking at technology’s impact on society and how it will affect war, peace, freedom, democracy and terrorism.  Schmidt predicts that virtually everybody on earth will become connected using cell phones and this will be a game changer. Certainly technology is not the panacea and it will not eliminate hunger and lack of resources. But it will give everybody the same basic access to information and will eliminate barriers that stop the third world from any chance of competing. Education may continue to have a classroom component in richer countries, but most of the people in the planet are going to be able to learn the same things if they so choose from on-line resources.

Technology will have a huge impact on the interaction of people and their government. Repressive governments will try to keep information away from their populace. But blocking Internet connectivity is what drove Egyptians to the street last year and caused the overthrow of the government. It is going to be a lot harder for a government to lie to its citizens when everybody is connected and has more powerful tools than today for finding the truth. While the natural tendency for governments is to obscure things, the upcoming digital age will tend to illuminate the facts through the widespread availability of data.

To some degree it will be easier for people on the local level to rebel against bad government. The beginning of this was seen in the various Arab spring uprisings in the last year. But governments will also have new tools also for identifying dissenters and autocratic regimes will have the ability to single out ringleaders of revolts. The book does not predict whether the people or governments will win these battles, but the battle will be different from today when you consider that there will be a more fully informed and totally connected populace armed with facts. Certainly the people will have the power to shine light on corruption and bad government and corrupt politicians.

Some of the technologies that will be coming will make it somewhat easier to be a terrorist. Communications will make it easier of people with like mindsets to find each other, and artificial intelligence will make it easier for bad guys to find or make nefarious tools and identify targets. But on the flip side, it is going to be a lot harder for anybody in the future to remain anonymous. It’s like that if you catch one terrorist you will quickly know their whole circle of associates. We saw the bare inkling of future police capability with the Boston Marathon bombings. Police were able to access data quickly and then used crowdsourcing to quickly identify the suspects. In the future that will be even easier with highly accurate facial recognition software that will be able to identify most people quickly.

This book says that the upcoming decades are going to see change coming faster than at any time in history, and I believe that. There is amazing progress being made in almost every technological field and the number of new technologies and devices that are appearing in our lives is astonishing. As a technology geek I love change and I hope the world is ready for the next couple of very interesting decades.