On the Record edited by Annie Harrison

January 20, 2012

Fighting Back Against SOPA and PIPA


Today's news that lawmakers will postpone action on the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy legislation demonstrated that Internet protests can make Congress sit up and listen. The nonprofit I work for, Benetech, took part in this week's actions blocking out portions of our website to protest the Internet blacklist bills. More than 75,000 websites, including Wikipedia, Google, and Reddit, took part in the protest. As EFF reported, the protest succeeded in briefly bringing down web traffic to Senate websites including that of my deeply misguided Senator, Dianne Feinstein, who is a sponsor of PIPA. An impressive 162 million people visited Wikipedia during the blackout and 8 million visitors looked up their representative's phone number.

Despite the postponement, SOPA and PIPA are far from dead. Wikipedia points out that while SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith has postponed his committee's hearing of the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has postponed the planned January 24 vote on PIPA, each made clear that legislators will move forward to refine both bills. Wikipedia expects changes in the legislation that will appear to tone down the worst impact of the measures without modifying their essential flaws.

I agree that both SOPA and PIPA will be reintroduced in slightly friendlier packaging. While we brace for the next round of Internet censorship legislation, it's useful to reflect on the impact that overbroad copyright enforcement measures could have had on one small nonprofit. The proposed bills would have placed Benetech's Bookshare library in legal jeopardy by allowing Visa and Mastercard to stop processing donations or subscription payments based on bogus accusations of copyright infringement. Bookshare operates under an exception in U.S. copyright law that makes accessible ebooks available to readers with print disabilities without requesting permission or paying royalties. While Bookshare opposes piracy of copyrighted works, the library is often contacted by authors and publishers who don't understand copyright law and demand that their books be removed.

SOPA and PIPA could also endanger Benetech's human rights projects including our Martus software which allows human rights activists to encrypt sensitive testimony to protect the identity of witnesses. If IP rights holders allege that Martus is being used to encrypt copyrighted works, human rights defenders could lose access to critical tools used around the world to combat violence, government surveillance and censorship. The same argument to be used to suppress TOR.

If you care about free speech, contact your representatives in both houses of Congress and tell them you oppose SOPA, PIPA and efforts by the entertainment industry to hijack the Internet.

November 3, 2011

Privacy Advocates Meet In Mexico City

A coalition of civil society groups have been meeting in Mexico city this week to review the Madrid Privacy Declaration and look at international privacy laws. The gathering was organized by The Public Voice and held in conjunction with the 33rd Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners Conference which took place today. The Public Voice event included a number of nonprofit organizations that promote privacy and free expression on the Internet. Katitza Rodriguez, International Rights Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), presented at the conference. Katitza and I wrote about the event on the EFF Deep Links blog.

The Madrid Declaration was drafted two years ago to set international standards for Internet privacy. The Public Voice gathering looked at strategies for expanding these protections and examined current privacy laws in Latin America and around the world. It reviewed surveillance technologies such as facial recognition applications, employment verification programs, automobile black boxes and smart meters that track electricity usage.

Privacy threats are particularly serious in Latin America where many democratically elected governments don't respect basic human rights. Government officials and intelligence agencies conduct illegal surveillance and misuse interception technologies to spy on politicians, dissidents, judges, human rights organizations and activists. Katitza and I have been examining cases involving revealed surveillance systems in Paraguay, Panama and Colombia that are used to identify, control and stifle dissent.

Civil society must show the world how surveillance technologies impact human rights and freedom of expression. We can help pressure governments in Latin America and the rest of the world to pass laws that provide meaningful privacy protections.

October 28, 2011

Technology For Human Rights Investigators

I work for several nonprofit technology companies including Benetech which is based on Palo Alto, California. The CEO of Benetech, Jim Fruchterman, and the organization's chief scientist, Patrick Ball, both spoke at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference this week. They talked about Benetech's Martus software which is used by organizations around the world to protect sensitive information and shield the identity of victims or witnesses who provide testimony on human rights abuses.

Martus is open source software that lets users create searchable and encrypted databases and back this data up remotely to their choice of servers. The software has been downloaded in more than one hundred counties around the world. Earlier this month, the Martus project received a 2-year grant from the U.S. State Department to train African human rights organizations who gather information about violations against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Two of the largest groups of Martus users are Burmese ex-patriot organizations that collect information about human rights violations in Burma, and investigators at the Guatemalan National Police Archive who are using the software to encrypt a vast collection of police records. Benetech's Human Rights Data Analysis Group has been working in partnership with archivists to analyze samples of the estimated 80 million pieces of paper inside the Archive. Many of the police documents were created during the country's internal armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, during which thousands of Guatemalans were killed and disappeared.

Analysis of randomly sampled documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive by Benetech statistician Daniel Guzmán served as key evidence in the conviction last year of two former Guatemalan National Police agents accused of complicity in the 1984 disappearance of 26-year-old student and union leader Edgar Fernando García. Both officers were sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Very few people have ever been held accountable for the atrocities that took place in Guatemala, especially commanding officers. Courts rightly demand evidence. Scientifically defensible data, secured by encryption tools like Martus, can help end impunity. Earlier this year, data from the Guatemalan National Police Archive was used to support the arrest of the former chief of the Guatemalan National Police, Hector Bol de la Cruz, and retired Guatemalan general Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes who has been accused of participating in genocide and crimes against humanity. These arrests will likely lead to historic war crimes trials in Guatemala. In the meantime, teams of archivists continue to scan, encrypt and upload thousands of police records using software developed in Silicon Valley.

October 26, 2011

The First Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference

I spent the last two days listening to a series of interesting presentations at the first ever Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference. Organized by the nonprofit group Access and sponsored by Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, Mozilla and other major tech companies, the conference included activists who participated in the Arab Spring and business people who create the tools protesters have been using to circumvent censorship. This morning we watched a live video feed of pro-democracy protesters in Yemen who have been following the discussions with interest.

The conference offered a stark reminder about the pressures on human rights activists and the complicity of companies who yield to authoritarian regimes. The event began with talks by two activists who may go to prison for exercising their right to free speech online. Thai journalist Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who directs a popular Thai news portal, was charged with defaming the Thai royal family after pseudonymous comments were posted to the site that Thai authorities deemed inappropriate. Alaa Abd El-Fatah, an Egyptian blogger and software developer who cofounded the Egyptian blog aggregators Manala and Omraneya, is set to be tried by a military tribunal. El-Fatah noted that 12,000 Egyptian civilians are now being held in military prisons for participating in the revolution. He observed that rate limits on Twitter, real name policies on Facebook and the drive to monetize every online transaction limits the usefulness of technology for activists.

Maria Al-Masani, founder of the Yemen Rights Monitor human rights group, told participants how her fellow activists use common applications to circumvent censorship. She recalled that when Yemen decided to ban Al-Jazeera, activists there bridged the gap by recording videos on their phones, posting the footage to YouTube and Facebook, linking content directly to the Al Jazeera live stream, and then Tweeting the story.

While this strategy is effective, Bob Boorstin, the Director of Public Policy at Google, told participants that forty democratic and authoritarian regimes around the world are actively blocking free speech - and companies are not doing enough to promote human rights. He acknowleged that Google itself does not have a spotless record. "You've got to be ready to lose some money in order to protect human rights," said Boorstin to applause. "And not a lot of companies are ready for that."

El-Fatah noted that Vodafone offered no resistance to the Egyptian's government's request for a kill switch that shut down cell phone services during that country's Arab Spring. El-Fatah said companies should resist having their products used to suppress dissent and must think carefully about the privacy rights of ordinary users. "We choose how to reveal who I am, on what terms and in what basis," said El-Fatah. "When you restrict me from doing this, you violate my human rights."

The conference offered some interesting discussions about pressuring companies to support basic human rights. It was well attended by a broad mix of government representatives, academics, civil society, private sector players, activists and human rights NGOs. I work for nonprofit technology organizations that support human rights activists and people I admire made strong presentations.

The final discussion of the gathering concerned the protection of emerging rights, especially the right to an unfiltered, uncensored and unmonitored Internet. If we want to establish and defend quality access, future discussions must focus on the edges of the Net, on the marginalized and excluded users whose freedom of speech is being criminalized.