Buzzmachine II

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On tools

@sivavaid and I have been having a conversation on Twitter about neutrality and technology. In Public Parts, I explore neutrality in the large sense — the impact technology has on us and the choices we have in the ways we use technology — but also in the basic political sense, saying simply that tools can be used by good people and bad. That is how I use “neutral” in this latter context in two snippets:

The first:

Evgeny Morozov, an editor at Foreign Policy and a fellow at Georgetown University, as well as a respected supplier of ballast to me and my fellow internet triumphalists, argues in Dissent and Prospect magazines that in Iran, Twitter was useful mainly to “a tiny and, most important, extremely untypical segment of the Iranian population,” as well as to Westerners who couldn’t get news from journalists who had been deported or restricted. He says Twitter “only add[ed] to the noise” and, along with Facebook, gave “Iran’s secret services superb platforms for gathering open source intelligence about the future revolutionaries. . . . ​Once, regimes used torture to get this kind of data; now it’s freely available on Facebook.”27 Yes, the tools can be used by either side in a dispute.

In Prospect, Shirky counters, “Because civic life is not just created by the actions of individuals, but by the actions of groups, the spread of mobile phones and internet connectivity will reshape that civic life, changing the way members of the public interact with one another.” He adds, “The new circumstances of coordinated public action, I believe, marks an essential change in the civilian part of the ‘arms race.’ ”28

Morozov and Shirky are both right. The internet is still new. It is a deep mine filled with unseen potential. It won’t be used in all the ways we want. It will surprise us for good and bad. But it would be a mistake to declare one use or impact null just because an early encounter did not meet overblown expectations. I, like Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody, take it as a matter of faith that the tools of the internet will facilitate coming together in new ways: to organize clubs, cults, companies, markets, revolutions, even new forms of governance that exist outside of government—as well as criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations.

The second:

The tools revolutionaries and disruptors use to tear down the old order may not be sufficient to build a new one. It is also true that the tools are neutral—they can be used by bad actors as well as good. After the Egyptian revolution, three CDs filled with ID photos of Egyptian security police were found in security headquarters. The photos were put online at Flickr so citizens could crowdsource identifying them. Flickr took them down.6 NPR’s Andy Carvin asked why and was told that they violated the site’s terms of service, which require users to post original photography, and that an unnamed user—a government?—had complained. Then Anonymous, a corps of hackers that often defends WikiLeaks, took the photos and put them online again.7 The truth cannot be stopped. In that instance, the tools were used for good. But Evgeny Morozov also tells the story of security forces in Iran who took photos from demonstrations and put them online so loyalists could identify protestors via crowdsourcing and police could then arrest them. He speculated that facial-recognition software could be used to do the job instantly. These tools can be used for evil purposes as well.

Should we regulate and control the internet so it can be used only for good? Rand’s Dewar says that early modern European nations that tried to control the printing press and suppress its allegedly dangerous aspects not only failed but also fell behind other neighboring nations. “It was more important to explore the upside of the technology than to protect against the downside. In the information age, this suggests to me that the internet should remain unregulated,” he writes.

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OTR is BS

This is what I just emailed to the advisory board I was asked to join for a trade group that had a call today with a Senate staffer who thanked them for agreeing to hold a conference call off the record (with no notice of that rule that I could find): 

Pardon for being inhospitable on my first meeting, but I was appalled
that today’s discussion was secret. This was an employee of our
government discussing public legislation with public companies and
entities, attempting to do the people’s business in secrecy and we
enabled such behavior. I saw no notice that this would be off the
record; I had no opportunity to object. Call me naive and I do not
care. Good lord, government employees have no right to do the people’s
business in private. This is our Senate, our legislation, our
internet. Disinvite me if you will, but the next time I am surprised
by secretly negotiated rules to be secret, I will hang up and complain
publicly.