Fighting for Woolly Days: why Google are thugs and censors

I founded the other version of Woolly Days on Google’s Blogspot in 2005 which has 1548 entries with well over a million words. In 2009 I duplicated the content here on WordPress. But all my writings between 2005 and early 2009 are only on Blogspot. Whether those words are worth saving is anyone’s guess but at moment Google does want anyone else to see them. You cannot visit the site because Google has locked it and made visible to me only as the author.

I’ve always found it difficult to dislike Google. Though they are one of the world’s largest information technology companies driven by profit imperative they continue to have good karma. Evangelists like Jeff Jarvis see them as the gamechanger benchmark constantly asking us in any situation what would Google do? Their search engine revolutionised our relationship to information. Over 10 years they ensured an enormous store of knowledge was no further away than our fingertips.

woolly days

I still use their search and I also love their maps, even their blogs (I update my second site Irish I’s irregularly where I post things that amuse me.) But my experiences with Google are increasingly dominated by their thuggish practices.

On January 20, 2013 I got a terse email from an address called “Google Blogger Support”. The email’s contents weren’t very supportive. Signed off by the “Google Team”, the email told me Google had received a Terms of Service complaint regarding malicious code on my blog. “After conducting our review, and in accordance with Google’s Terms of Service, we have removed the content at issue,” the “Google Team” said.

They provided links to the Terms of Service and their Content Policy but there was no explanation which element I was in breach of or what code was malicious. Was it some content that offended someone? There were plenty of  words bound to offend someone. Google wouldn’t say who made the complaint or how I could respond to the charge.

I responded immediately to the address “Blogger Support” that sent me the email. I replied this was absolutely outrageous, “Woolly Days is a respected blog of 7 years standing,” I said. “It covers serious issues of politics and media with over a million words. Why on earth has it been deleted without Snyder eexplanation (sic)? Please undo this disgraceful unwarranted action. Even a quick look would assure anyone of its merits.”

I was angry when I wrote it and in my hurry it had a very curious mistake.My “Snyder eexplanation” is a combination of a typo and ‘damn you autocorrect’ moment – it meant to read ‘any explanation’. I have no idea why my Google powered Android phone changed “any” to “Snyder”. But I need not have been embarrassed because Google paid no attention to my screed.

I got the standard auto reply “Unfortunately, we are unable to answer email that is sent directly to this email address.” They gave me places to go if I wanted help with a technical issue, answers from the help forum, wanted to learn about features or even if I wanted to report a violation of Blogger’s Terms of Service. But there was no place to go if you were a victim of such a report.

On my blogger dashboard, I found it was listed as a locked blog but I could request an unlock review. I did so but received no reply. When I next logged onto the dashboard I saw another cryptic message that the blog was “in violation of Blogger’s Terms Of Service”. They advised me to “fix the problem” before Google would re-review.

But what was the problem?  The Google terms of service are 1691 words long and I have no idea whether I am violating all of it or some sentence of it. Frustrated, I got rid of a few things they mentioned might be issues that I thought were harmless. I removed the html code for my stat counters and a few modest ads. But that didn’t help. I put in a second unlock review after I removed the possibly offending content. Google responded with silence. I remain in a Kafkaesque world guilty of some unknown offence with no way of redressing the problem.

I don’t know what the ‘malicious code’ (and doubt I have the html skills to be really malicious) nor do I how what the TOS violation is, but I suspect it is a very minor infraction of inconsistently-applied rules. I still want Google to unlock my blog though I will never update it again. Blogspot is their platform but Woolly Days is a part of the public record and Google have no right to interfere with it. It is the behaviour of thugs and censors.

MEAA criticises stalled press freedom in Australia

The journalist union MEAA has released its annual report card on the state of press freedom in Australia. Kicking at the Cornerstone of Democracy is a comprehensive survey of media law and Australian regulation as well as a look at the situation in New Zealand and Asia Pacific. According to MEAA secretary Chris Warren, the title of the report reflects what the union sees as a failure of government to fulfil promises. He says five years after the promises were made the project appears to have stalled.

In regulation, the report reflects the disappointment the MEAA expressed at the Finkelstein Report which it said would stifle media freedom. While the MEAA is in favour of Press Council reform, it disagrees governments should impose self-regulation on the news industry by statute. Warren said Justice Finkelstein’s judgement was clouded by News Corp’s scandals. With one eye on membership numbers, Warren’s take was “Finkelstein talks of a reference to the Productivity Commission in two years time – will this be too late? Journalists are losing their jobs now.”
Secrecy is another major concern. The report says Australia has 500 secrecy provisions in 176 pieces of legislation across the country with 358 criminal offenses which attract a wide range of penalties up to 10 years in prison. This is despite the Australia Law Reform Commission releasing its report Secrecy Laws and Open Government in Australia two years ago. That report called for 61 recommendations of reform, none of which have yet been acted on. The MEAA supports supported the ALRC’s call for secrecy provisions in the Crimes Act to be replaced with a general secrecy offence limited to disclosures that clearly harm the public interest.
Freedom of Information is another serious problem, one that anyone that has tried to access government data will find. The MEAA quotes an international FOI survey that puts Australia 39th out of 85 countries. The Center for Law and Democracy measured indicators such as right of access, scope, requesting procedures, exemptions, appeals, sanctions and promotional measures. Australia’s mediocre performance was put down to a lack of constitutional right of access to information as well as numerous exemptions to FOI.
The MEAA said Shield Laws were getting bogged down in the issue of who was or wasn’t a journalist. The Commonwealth passed legislation in 2010 that protects anyone involved in the publication of news but the NSW legislation of 2011 narrowed it down to those in “the occupation of journalist in connection with the publication of information in a news medium”. Victoria and WA seem set to follow the NSW threshold while journalists are also under pressure from various “star chambers” to reveal sources.
These “star chambers” are extra-judicial bodies that exist in all states to investigate police and public service corruption. While the aims of these investigative authorities may be laudable, they have extraordinary coercive powers including the power to compel witnesses to produce evidence or other “things” to help the investigation. Some can even deny witnesses legal representation. Journalists Linton Besser and Dylan Welch were served subpoenas to produce mobile phones and SIM cards after they wrote articles critical of the NSW Crime Commission. The Commission eventually backed down from the request.
Other issues in the 2012 report include restrictive access to detention centres, the growing menace of spin and the “comment cycle” (which is replacing hard news), the growth in suppression orders, a review into copyright exceptions in the digital environment, the Convergence Review and concentrated media ownership and continued need for the public broadcasters ABC and SBS.

Eritrea remains the black hole of news

The Horn of Africa nation Eritrea won a dubious award this week: the world’s most censored nation. The list of the world’s 10 worst countries was put together by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Eritrea fought off competition from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Belarus to win this uncoveted award. The CPJ research is based on 15 benchmarks, including blocking of websites, restrictions on electronic recording and dissemination, the absence of privately owned or independent media, and restrictions on journalist movements.

Eritrea has allowed no foreign journalists in since 2007 and domestic media are tightly controlled in a dictatorship lasting 20 years since it achieved independence in a bloody war with Ethiopia. Domestic media are controlled by the government and the Orwellian Ministry of Information directs every detail of coverage. CPJ quoted an exiled journalist who said every time they had a story the Ministry arranged interview subjects and gave instructions on the news angle. Eight journalists from Eritrea are on CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program which supports exiled journalists who cannot be helped by advocacy alone.

The country’s president Isaias Afewerki, who has ruled since independence, dominates coverage which is universally positive. The media had no idea how to react when Afewerki had a health scare recently so reported nothing for several weeks. Intense rumour-mongering filled the vacuum. Opposition websites and social media commented on the fact president had not appeared on television for nearly a month and speculated on whether he had died.
(photo of Afewerki: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)
On 29 April, Information Minister Ali Abdu told the BBC he saw Afewerki every day and the 66-year-old president was “in robust health.” A day later Afewerki went on television to dispel the rumours. “I do not have any kind of sickness,” he said and accused those peddling such rumours of being “sick” and indulging in psychological warfare to “disturb” the people.
The real psychological warfare is being conducted by a government suspicious of its own people. Spies report opinions in the street and even intimidate their opponents abroad. Internet service providers are required to connect to the web through government-operated EriTel. While Eritrea’s journalists in exile run diaspora websites from London, Houston and Toronto, domestic Internet access is only affordable for the elite. In 2011 Eritrea planned to implement mobile Internet capability but as the social media impact on the Arab Spring became widely known, Afewerki abandoned the idea.
His government has become increasingly paranoid as the country becomes an international pariah. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009 for its support of Al Shabaab and insurgents fighting Somalia’s transitional government. The UN resolution also references a longstanding border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti and demanded Eritrea cease “arming, training, and equipping armed groups that aim to destabilize the region or incite violence and civil strife in Djibouti.”
Eritrea’s friendlessness has allowed another longstanding enemy make incursions into its territory. In March, the Guardian reported Ethiopia had attacked Eritrea for the first time in a decade with few repercussions. Ethiopia’s forces carried out a dawn raid in what it called a successful attack against military targets. Ethiopia claimed Eritrea used the military base to train an Ethiopian rebel group which has killed foreigners in Afar.
The Guardian put the lack of international attention to the border incursion down to Afewerki whom it called “a piece of work”. It quoted a Wikileak cable by US ambassador to Eritrea, Ronald McMullen, which said Afewerki was an unhinged dictator and his regime controlled every aspect of Eritrean society. Media censorship is a key part of that control. As far back as 2005 Reporters Without Borders described Eritrea as a “black hole for news”. And as the San Francisco Chronicle says, no one cares.  Seven years later nothing has yet emerged from Afewerki’s vortex.

Wikipedia pulls Italian version in protest at wiretapping laws

Wikipedia has taken its Italian language version down in protest at new privacy laws before Italy’s parliament. The draft law would oblige websites to amend content within 48 hours if the subject is deemed harmful or biased. Wikipedia said their Italian version may be no longer able to continue. “As things stand, the page you want still exists and is only hidden, but the risk is that soon we will be forced by Law to actually delete it,” Wikipedia said. “The very pillars on which Wikipedia has been built – neutrality, freedom, and verifiability of its contents – are likely to be heavily compromised by paragraph 29 of a law proposal, also known as ‘DDL intercettazioni’.”

The Italian Parliament is debating DDL intercettazioni which requires all websites to publish a correction of any content the applicant deems detrimental to his/her image within 48 hours without comment. Wikipedia said the law does not require a third party evaluation of the claim and anyone offended by online content has the right for a correction unaltered on the page regardless of the truth of the allegation. Wikipedia said this law would distort its principles and would bring to a paralysis of the “horizontal” method of access and editing, putting “an end to its existence as we have known until today”.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi introduced the draft bill in 2010 saying it was needed to protect the rights of private citizens. The bill restricts the right of police and prosecutors to plant bugs and record telephone conversations and proposes fines for journalists publishing transcripts of recordings. Journalists across Italy went on strike in July 2010 in protest at the laws. Head of the Italian journalists union, Roberto Natale said the real objective was to prevent reporting of judicial cases with high political impact, “the ones that can generate, and have generated, embarrassment.”

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemned the law. They said the laws went beyond just the national domain. “It would send a disastrous signal to other countries and would encourage dictatorships to use it as a model for restricting the investigative capacity of their local press with even more dramatic consequences,” RSB said. They said telephone taps were often the main evidence in support of stories about corruption and organised crime. “The sole practical aim of this bill is to prevent any investigative reporting.”

Berlusconi has been the victim of several wiretaps. Most recently judges released wiretaps at the conclusion of an investigation into Gianpaolo Tarantini, who paid women to sleep with the prime minister at his home. The wiretaps revealed a man with a large sexual appetite but whether this is something for the public domain is debatable. Berlusconi didn’t think so. “My private life is not a crime, my lifestyle may or may not please, it is personal, reserved and irreproachable,” he said.

Italy is the wiretap champion of the western world. In 2005 Italian mobile operator TIM issued a fax to all Italian public prosecutors they have already over-stretched their capacity from 5000 to 7000 simultaneously intercepted mobile phones and had now reached their limit. In 2004, Italy orders 172 judicial intercepts per 100,000 inhabitants.

After being bogged down for a year, debate on the bill resumed on Wednesday. Centre-right politician Giulia Bongiorno sponsored the law through parliament but disowned it after Berlusconi’s PDL party added an amendment to see journalists jailed from six monthsto three years if they published “irrelevant” wiretaps. Bongiorno said she no longer recognised anything in the text of the bill and blamed the changes on Berlusconi’s intervention. The UK Independent says the parties have reached compromise to see the law applied only to registered online news services and not to amateur blogs. That compromise was not good enough for Wikipedia.

The politics of social media

“Corporations and politicians worldwide have latched onto social media to advertise their brand and get the message out. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election was supercharged by Facebook and social networking, which became the ultimate tool for gauging public opinion and speaking to the masses. But working with social media can fast go horribly wrong. US Congressman Anthony Weiner’s recent fall from grace was brutal and should be a lesson to all who merge online networking with real-time power chasing. Social media holds power potential for those who play the game correctly. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, hire someone else to do it right. And always keep your pants on.” Paul Barry, The Power Index
Hot on the heels of British plans to shut down social networks to stop rioting, comes news they have already been beaten to it by the US. Demonstrators in San Francisco had planned a protest to condemn the shooting death of Charles Hill. Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers killed Hill on 3 July 3 after they responded to complaints about a drunk man at a station.
A week later protesters shut down three BART stations and planned a second protest last week. This time BART interrupted wireless service for three hours at some BART stations, to “ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.” They claimed they asked providers to stop service, but later admitted they did it themselves as it is allowed to do under its contracts with the providers – Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
The move prompted hacking group Anonymous to hit back. They have planned Operation BART which they said was “meant to teach BART a lesson about the dangers of censoring people…and is supposed to be an educational experience for the operators.” Yesterday, they defaced BART affiliated websites and released user info for the website saying they “are just warmed up.”
Anonymous compared the San Francisco moves to government censorship in the Arab Spring. “In Egypt and Tunisia, we saw people struggling to make their voices heard,” Anonymous said. “We have seen companies such as Telecomix delve into the nastiness of political corruption in an attempt to free those censored individuals from their prisons of silence.”
Whatever the truth of that comparison, the Arab regimes remain suspicious of social networks. This week, an Egyptian has been charged with using Facebook to incite violence. The Egyptian Military Prosecution arrested activist and blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, 26 for defaming the junta and calling for armed rebellion. The court said Mahfouz used Facebook to call for the assassinations of Supreme Council of Armed Forces members and judges. “If justice is not achieved and the justice system fails us, no-one should feel upset or surprised if armed gangs emerge to carry out assassinations,” Mahfouz wrote. “As long as there is no law and there is no justice, anything can happen, and nobody should be upset.”
Mahfouz and others may be helped by the Telecomix site mentioned in the Anonymous post about BART. Telecomix is an international organisation “dedicated to informing the public about internet freedom issues”. Telecomix member Peter Fein likens it to guerrilla informational warfare. “We’re kind of like an inverse Anonymous,” Fein said. “We operate in a very similar way to Anonymous not just IRC (Internet Relay Chat ) but also the non-hierarchical structure. Except they break things and we build them.” When Egyptian authorities cut off the internet and telephones, Telecomix filled a a need for internal communication. “Not for people to be able to talk on Facebook or Twitter to the world, but amongst themselves … so there were a number of tools, mesh technology and so on — that we tried to help people figure out,” Fein said.
The experiences learned in North Africa may need to be re-applied to the Western world. British Prime Minister’s knee jerk “kill switch” proposal for social networks may sound idiotic and undemocratic but that does not mean it will not be tried if he thinks there are votes in it. Cameron’s statement to MPs said they were working with police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services “when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
People will plot violence regardless of the availability of social networks. But as the current Australian Government has shown with its internet censorship plans, moves to limit free speech are justified using tropes such as “not acceptable to civilised society” and protecting “young children”. China too has successfully mastered internet censorship with its Golden Shield (though 30 second Internet response times are throttling innovation). As Electronic Frontiers Foundation says of the Australian proposals, successful technology isn’t necessarily successful policy. “We’re still yet to hear a sensible explanation of what this policy is for, who it will help and why it is worth spending so much taxpayer money on,” said EFF.
Yet it is hardly surprising politicians are so wary of the technology. Most social media widely used today are still in their infancy and remain difficult to understand their use and potential effects. Yet as the Paul Barry quote illuminates, there is a coming of age of online political engagement, According to researchers Jim Macnamara and Gail Kenning (E-electioneering 2010: Trends in Social Media Use in Australian Political Communication) three-quarters of Australia’s federal politicians had a Facebook presence in 2010 while 57 per cent of citizens would like opportunities to comment on policies online and 36 per cent are interested in communication with their MPs online. But old habits die hard. Macnamara and Kenning found most politicians used social media primarily for one-way transmission of political messages, rather than citizen engagement or listening to the electorate. Maybe that will change as the technology matures, but equally likely it will be shackled to ensure powerbrokers keep their pants on.

Fiji turns the screws on the media

Opponents of Fiji’s media censorship want to set up a pirate radio station in international waters to broadcast news and music banned by the Frank Bainimarama dictatorship. Usaia Waqatairewa, the Sydney-based president of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement, told the ABC today they wanted to put an antenna on an American or Australian registered ship located outside Fiji’s legal jurisdiction. Waqatairewa says Internet access was rare in Fiji and people needed another means of getting news the Bainimarama government isn’t letting them hear. “What we’re planning to do is to if we could in some way set up a freedom radio that does not have the control of the regime in Fiji and be able to broadcast out the real news, instead of their propaganda and what they have censored themselves,” he said.
(photo by Jachin Sheehy)
The announcement comes just days after the Fijian dictator, who has ruled since 2006, claimed the country would probably not be “ready” for elections in 2014. It also comes a month after strict new laws further inhibited Fiji’s media from honestly reporting on what is happening there. On 29 June the military backed regime introduced its new “Media Industry Development Decree 2010” which brought in a new set of strict rules governing Fiji’s media. The laws strengthen already tough laws governing the media, military intimidation of reporters, censors in newsrooms and the deportation of foreign-born newspaper executives.One executive was Russell Hunter, managing-director of the Fiji Sun before he was deported in 2007. Hunter called the laws draconian and an erosion of freedom and basic human rights. The laws give the media authority the right to demand the name of confidential sources if the story relates to government corruption. Journalists could be fined $50,000 and jailed for two years for work deemed against the “public interest or order”. The most well-known provision is the 10 percent limit on foreign ownership as it directly affects the News Ltd owned Fiji Times, the country’s oldest and largest newspaper.

The Fijian Government has given News Ltd three months to sell the paper or be forcibly shut down. It also casts huge doubt over the viability of foreign investment in the country at the very time it is most needed. News Limited boss John Hartigan said the laws eroded the “basic tenets of democracy” in Fiji. “This illegal government has retrospectively withdrawn permission for foreign media investment in Fiji, which is not only grossly unfair but will inevitably be enormously damaging to Fiji’s reputation as an attractive investment opportunity,” he said.

The Fijian media regulator said the country’s media needs to be a part of the regime not an opponent. Former Canberra-based academic Satendra Nandan, chair of the Media Industry Development Authority, said action needed to be taken against newspapers such as The Fiji Times, which had acted against the Bainimarama government. Nandan told The Australian the Times’ coverage of the scrapping of the judiciary and constitution last year was “abusive and scurrilous”. “The Fiji Times took a strong stand against the current government and the abrogation of the constitution and they didn’t consider the national interest,” Nandan said.

The New Zealand Herald says the media laws are part of an ongoing removal of Fijians’ rights including quashing the constitution, removing dissent and empty promises on a new election. With 60 percent of Fiji’s tourist income coming from New Zealand and Australia, the Herald suggest the time is right to reconsider holiday plans in Fiji. “Tourists might like to say that Fijian businesses and jobs should not be penalised for the sins of the regime,” the paper said. “But they are undermining their own country’s diplomatic efforts.”

IP not Idiot Proof: Britain passes bad Digital Economy Bill

The hilarity of yesterday’s news was provided by Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow who revealed the Minister for Digital Britain did not know what an IP address is. In a letter purporting to be from the Minister (Neither Boing Boing nor the Financial Times were certain it was genuine and Timms did not respond to an enquiry on the matter by Woolly Days) to a fellow Labour MP, an IP address is called an “Intellectual Property” address rather than a “Internet Protocol” address. Such a mistake is forgivable for lay people, but not only is Timms the relevant minister who should know better, but he has also has been responsible for legislation called the Digital Economy Bill that seriously sets back the cause of a free and open Internet. In this context the error takes on a whole new meaning.

The Digital Economy Bill was one of the last acts of the current British Government pushed through late on Wednesday night. It may have many long-lasting and unintended consequences. The bill is an extraordinarily wide-ranging piece of legislation affecting communications regulator Ofcom, Channel Four, Commercial TV, spectrum regulation, broadband, digital radio, video games, intellectual property (not Internet Protocol!) and internet domain registrations. MPs had just a few hours to digest its lengthy contents. All of it needs scrutiny but its recommendation on illegal downloads has generated the most controversy.As Gigaom says the bill tackles copyright infringement by forcing ISPs to cut off persistent file-sharers. In their rush to pass the legislation, it is looking leaky and undercooked and likely to have negative implications for digital freedoms. Among the concerns are the unintended consequence of forcing libraries and cafes to stop offering free Wi-Fi and it could also give the government the power to block sites like Wikileaks for hosting copyright-infringing material. By tackling those who download copyrighted content illegally, the bill also moves to suspend or slow down some web users’ connections.

The bill won cross-party support but one of the few voices in parliament against it was Labour MP Tom Watson. Watson understands what the digital economy actually means, and he described it as a mass (or mess) of “unintended consequences”. As Mike Butcher wrote in the Telegraph those consequences include potentially huge legal bills for Internet start-ups, and everyday parents who have little idea how their download limit is being used up by “teenage children, neighbours, or even someone parked outside their house.”

Another dissenter, Tory MP William Cash, made the point the impact and implications of the Bill’s many clauses are sophisticated and not immediately obvious, and supporting it should not be a given. “The Bill should not be rushed through,” he said. “It is not the Dangerous Dogs Bill; it is a very different type of Bill.”

TechCrunch Europe have seen it all before. They used a Churchill pre-war speech as a metaphor for what is happening now “The stations of uncensored expression are closing down,” said Churchill in 1938 and TechCrunch argued these stations were shutting down again today. Just as in the proposed Australian legislation the onus will be on ISPs to police the new laws. TechCrunch says ISPs will have to send letters to their subscribers linked to copyright infringements and, after these warnings, suspend their accounts. Copyright holders can apply for a court order to gain access to the names and addresses of serious infringers and take legal action.

Similar to the battle here in Australia over proposed Internet censorship plans, the British digital economy bill has lined up the tech savvy and civil libertarians on one side and mainstream politicians on the other. As in Australia, neither side has covered themselves in glory in an issue that does not resonate with the majority of the electorate. Politicians, with too many other issues to deal with, allow themselves to be swayed by party whips, vested interests and industry lobby groups. The tech savvy’s mobilisation of platforms such as Twitter starts by being a good focus of anger but ends up being a frustrated and vitriolic echo chamber of like-minded views. Politicians know these views fail to cut through to suburbia and the issues affecting marginal electorates. Those fighting the #nocleanfeed war in Australia should closely examine the way the Digital Economy Bill played out. An antipodean repeat is on the cards.