Free again: Doctorow signals the danger of states pushing tech boundaries. Photo: Rex/Will Ireland/Future Publishing
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Betrayed by your smartphone: Cory Doctorow on the future of internet censorship

“Information doesn’t want to be free,” writes the sci-fi novelist and activist Cory Doctorow, “people want to be free.”

When in May the European Court of Justice issued the ruling that has become known as “the right to be forgotten”, allowing individuals to request their removal from search results, it startled many in the tech industry. The decision jarred with their respect for freedom of speech, and commentators pointed out that Google would have to develop an infrastructure for assessing and removing search results. This seemed a very big ask.

Yet Google already has an effective system of self-censorship. It exists to comply with takedown notices issued under copyright legislation, when rights holders want links to piracy sites removed from their search results. One of the main arguments the sci-fi novelist and activist Cory Doctorow makes in his new book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, is that the infrastructure for copyright enforcement is the same as that for censorship.

“Information wants to be free” is a rallying cry for many of those who fight against legal restrictions on the internet. The phrase was coined by the tech writer Stewart Brand in 1984 and referred to the way the web reduces many of the costs of producing and disseminating data to near zero. “Free” in this phrase has also come to mean “freedom”, because the internet makes it easy to avoid censorship.

Doctorow is challenging both interpretations – not because he doesn’t agree with them but because he thinks a crucial premise has been lost. “Information doesn’t want to be free,” he writes, “people want to be free.”

The first two-thirds of the book discusses ways in which artists are penalised by the internet’s present regulatory system. He criticises digital rights management (DRM) technology, which limits the platforms digital files can play on; not only does it mean we don’t “own” the files we pay for, but when a company that supports a file goes bust, the culture locked up in their DRM can be lost for ever. Doctorow describes this as “a library burning in slow motion”.

Many companies such as Apple sell devices that block you from downloading non-approved apps. “That is sold to creators as an anti-piracy measure,” Doctorow tells me when we speak on the phone. “But the most practical application has been to allow Apple to exert market power that it would never have had in any other world.”

This links to the final third of the book, which explores how systems for protecting copyrighted material can also be used for censorship.

Last month the security firm ESD America found dozens of “fake” mobile-phone towers across the US which were extracting data from users who unknowingly connected to them. Similar towers have been used at protests by police forces around the world to monitor activists. Doctorow argues that a government (he cites Ukraine as an example) could react to a protest by cross-referencing that data with information gleaned from domestic internet connections, because anti-digital piracy legislation often mandates “taps” on home web connections. Then it’s a simple job to establish protesters’ names and addresses. If they have a new smart thermostat, which is connected to the web, the state could even extract individual protesters’ thermostat ID. “Then they just cut off everybody’s heat that night,” he says. “Problem solved, done in one.”

Doctorow’s novels are often set in a technologically enabled dystopia. Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free offers a blend of mundane copyright policy recommendations and warnings about what will happen if our societies do not change course. “This,” he says, “is about whether our devices will betray us.”

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.