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.

Search Engine Privacy

Keep OutIn this country we have developed an interesting relationship between privacy and the web. We don’t treat all web content the same. And we do things very differently than Europe and the rest of the world.

For example, recently over a hundred female celebrities had their personal photos hacked from Apple and links to the pictures quickly proliferated over the web. One has to assume that millions of people saw the pictures and still have access to sites that have copies of them. Yet, if you go to Google or Bing to try to find sites with these pictures you will not find them. You will find dozens and dozens of stories about the hacking, but the search engines have effectively killed links to the pictures. This doesn’t mean that the pictures don’t exist all over the web, but it means that the search engines have stopped listing any page that has them.

This is due to US copyright law and we very efficiently enforce copyright in this country. In the case of these celebrities it was quickly very clear that each of them had ownership of the pictures involved, and it is that ownership that allowed them to request a takedown request to the search engines. The search engines have processes in place for this kind of takedown request because they process thousands of similar requests every day from content providers such as Hollywood studios, musicians and photographers.

But suppose instead that somebody like a paparazzi had been able to take naked pictures of one of these celebrities. In that case the celebrity would be powerless in the US to get such pictures removed from the web because they do not own the pictures. They would be free to sue the person who took and posted the pictures, but such suits are expensive and often are not successful. And meanwhile the offending pictures would proliferate all over the web.

Also suppose that instead that somebody wrote something mean and slanderous about one of the celebrities. The celebrity would have no power to remove the written word from the web due to the fact that the writer has a First Amendment right of free speech to say whatever they like. Again, the celebrity could go after the author and possibly could get a judgment against them, but the celebrity does not have any way to get Google or Bing to pull the offensive content off the web, unless somehow the content was illegal in some way. The search engines are allowed to block illegal content like child pornography or anything else that is clearly illegal.

Contrast all of this to Europe where they have similar copyright laws and a person can ask for a takedown request for content that they own. But Europe now has much stronger laws in other areas as well. It’s been about half a year since Google began implementing the court order in Europe that requires it to remove personal information that people find harmful about themselves. The original court order came from a Spanish man who objected to having records posted that showed that twenty years previously he had not paid his property taxes on time. The original posting came from a newspaper that had been scanned into Google. The man did not dispute that the facts were incorrect, but instead argued that he had a right to get rid of things on a web search that hurt his reputation. And the courts agreed. This new law is being referred to as the right to be forgotten.

Europe looks at privacy very differently than we do in the US. There, the laws and the general sentiment of most people is that privacy is more important than free speech. This is largely the result of various governments in Europe’s history, from the Nazis to the countries behind the Iron Curtain that tracked their citizens closely and trampled human rights. The European reaction to that history has been to make the right to privacy a fundamental human right. Here, we instead have made free speech into a fundamental right, and this difference is reflected in how we each treat the web.

Google and other search engines have been put into an awkward position in Europe in that they are having to decide what content should or should not be blocked on their search engines. Google has gotten about 120,000 requests to delete web data since the passage of the law and has granted about half of them. The way that Google is handling this is rather clever. In Europe each country has always had their own version of Google and when people in Spain ask for Google they actually get Google.es. This is true around the world and Google operates subsets of the database in different countries so that Google can give a different priority in search results in each country.

So when Google gets a request to delete something, it only blocks it in the version of Google that is seen in that country. But the underlying document is not deleted in the larger database of Google.com and the information can still be found by searching there. Google says this works because 95% of the searches it gets in Europe come through the country specific Google and not through Google.com. Interestingly, Google is getting criticized for not being aggressive enough with deletions and there is talk of imposing more restrictions on them.

It is going to be interesting to see over time what this difference means. For now the process is very new and Google and Bing are still feeling their way. But over time one has to think that having two very different philosophies controlling web content is going to make a difference between the web here and the web there.