All posts filed under “Copyright and Censorship

A collection of post I’ve written about intellectual property and censorship

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Facebook giving China a censorship tool?

The New York Times reported this week that Facebook has ‘quitely developed’ a censorship tool, specifically for the Chinese government to suppress content on their platform. The piece writes:

“the social network quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added” – New York Times

The report goes on to say, that Facebook intends to grant that capability to a 3rd-party, who will “have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds“.

In short, they’re creating a censorship on demand for China, in exchange for access to the worlds largest market.

Censorship in an encrypted world

While Facebook have neither confirmed nor denied this, this will give China special priviledge to the platform, one that no other nation currently has. Today, most governments face an all-or-nothing approach to censorship on encrypted sites like Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. China famously censor of all Wikipedia on days leading up to the anniversary Tianamen square massacre, simply because they have no ability to censor specific pages.

If I were browsing for chicken curry recipes on Wikipedia, while you were researching political dissent on the same site, our traffic would look identical to anyone ‘sniffing’ along the line. These ‘in transit’ censorship attempts are failing, and for Governments like China, a ‘block the whole damn thing’ approach is the only alternative.

This new tool however, will grant them granular control, to block specific posts and news on the social network,because the censorship now will occur at source, rather than in-transit. It is a radical shift in the way censorship will be performed on the internet, not just in China, but across the world.

It’s also worthwhile to note, that other governments have tried these ‘all-or-nothing’ approaches as well, including Brazil who famously blocked all of Whatsapp (also owned by Facebook) for 72 hours, because a Judge was ‘unhappy’ that Whatsapp responded via email and in English. Fortunately for Brazilians, the ban didn’t last that long.

Whatsapp is a private communications tool, and Facebook is a social network–the similarity is that they both use encryption and this is problematic for governments. In the case of Whatsapp, the two ends of the encrypted channel belong to users, and Whatsapp would be unable to provide any content of communications within that channel–even if it wanted to. In the case of Facebook, since one end belongs to the company–it is able to provide some control.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Facebook and censorship in China–but first let’s take a look at Facebook.

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Anonymity and IP addresses

anonymous_guy_fawkes

This week, I’ll put the final touches on my move from Malaysia to Singapore.

So, I felt it would a good idea to read through some Singaporean tech articles to see how tech events played out on the little red dot, and offer some unsolicited  and completely useless advice on them.

It wasn’t easy shifting through a boat-load of gadget reviews masquerading as tech journalism (I guess some things are the same in every country), but underneath the hundreds of phone reviews and fiber broadband comparison, I found a little interesting report on illegal downloads.

The Singapore Straits time reports that:

A local law firm that started proceedings to go after illegal downloaders in Singapore on behalf of two Hollywood studios said it will cooperate with the local authorities to ensure no abuse of process.

It follows a rare intervention by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) in civil applications made by Samuel Seow Law Corp (SSLC) in the High Court last month.

“We will work with the local authorities to ensure that there will be no unnecessary alarm to consumers who receive the letters of demand we plan to send out,” Mr Samuel Seow, managing director of SSLC, told The Straits Times yesterday.

This is just a re-hashed version of what happened last year in Singapore, when the same law firm went after downloaders of another movie, the difference is that this time they’ll be doing it under the watchful eyes of the AGC.

There is something to be said here about copyright-trolling, the abuse of power and the bullying tactics usually involved. But, we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Today, I want to explore a little bit about anonymity and how many people have a mistaken notion about what it is.

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The Internet is slow because of illegal downloads

Let’s start with the quote that set off the rage in my heart—

“You can see today that our Internet is slow. Not because it itself is slow but because a lot of people are using it,” he said

The government agency chief blamed this on illegal downloads hogging Internet bandwidth here, adding that this does not happen in countries like Germany due to stricter enforcement.

“In Germany, the Internet is fast because if you download illegally, you will be charged by the authorities.

“You can’t download illegal movies, songs and pictures there, you need to pay but we here, anything also we download illegally right up to the pictures of our grandfathers.

“That is why the Internet highway is slow but we blame the government. The government has created proper Internet highways but we don’t know how to use it. Millions have been spent on this by the government,” he explained.

So apparently, Datuk Ibrahim Saad, the  National Civics Bureau (BTN) chief  thinks that the internet is slow in Malaysia (it’s not that slow), because illegal downloads are hogging up the pipelines.

Let’s start with his first sentence, an substitute the word ‘internet’ with the name of any Malaysian highway you choose, personally I like to use the LDP:

You can see today that our LDP is slow. Not because it itself is slow but because a lot of people are using it

Hmmm, I guess in his infinite wisdom that makes sense to the BTN chief, but to me that just sounds like the highway wasn’t built properly.

Let’s go to the 2nd statement:

In Germany, the Internet is fast because if you download illegally, you will be charged by the authorities.

“You can’t download illegal movies, songs and pictures there, you need to pay but we here, anything also we download illegally right up to the pictures of our grandfathers.

“That is why the Internet highway is slow but we blame the government

Now we come to the crux of the issue. If Malaysians weren’t illegally downloading, they’d have faster internet.

Here’s 4 reasons why he’s wrong.

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Hate Speech is defined by private companies

FirstAmendmentYou don’t have a right to freedom of speech.

Obviously true if you’re Malaysian, but even Americans only enjoy a liberty in freedom of speech and not an absolute right.

The difference is clear, liberties are protections you have from the government, while rights are something you have from everyone.

So if someone threatened your right to live, the government is obligated to intervene and protect that right, because your right to live is a protection you have from everyone, whether it be a common criminal, abusive husband or Ayotollah Khomeini.

On the other hand you only have a liberty in freedom of speech (at least in an American context), which means that the government can’t prevent you from speaking, or penalize you for something you said.

However, the government is under no obligation to ensure your speech gets equal ‘air-time’, a newspaper may decline to publish your article, an auditorium may elect to deny you their roster, and online platforms like Facebook may choose to remove your post–all of which do not violate your freedom of speech, because freedom of speech is protection only from the government (state actors) and not from private entities.

And like all liberties and rights, freedom speech is not absolute. Under strict conditions even the US government can impose limits to what they’re citizens can say, or penalize them for things they have said.

In the case of freedom of speech, a liberty defined in their first amendment, those strict conditions are very strict indeed. In order for the government to infringe on the freedom of speech, it must demonstrate a imminent danger that will result in a serious effect.

In other words the government must be able to prove that if the speech were given freedom, there would be an imminent threat of something serious. Both the imminence and seriousness must be proven, failing which the government cannot infringe on that speech. This is indeed a very tall hurdle to climb, and based on my cursory research no case has ever reached this limit.

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Court rules Hacking Team documents still confidential

internet censorshipUnder the current hype of the FBI ordering Apple to ‘install backdoors’ on their iPhones, a bit of interesting news seems to have slid under the radar.

A court in Singapore ruled that e-mails from the Hacking Team breach, published by the hacker Phineas Fisher via a torrent download, and available freely on Wikileaks–were still confidential in nature.

The news hits close to home, after all, I’ve written a 2,000 word article on it back in July, and have been harping on the issue over the past weeks, even going on BFM radio for an interview.

So was I using confidential information in my tech evangelism?!

Well, probably not, but this does raise some interesting questions.

Here’s the facts of the case.

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Netflix is setting back Piracy and Security

copying_is_not_piracy

Malaysian rejoiced last month when Netflix announced that they would be coming to our shores. We were all salivating over the massive amount of content we would finally have access too…except that it wasn’t so massive.

Malaysia would enjoy less than 20% of what was available to Netflix users in the US or even in the UK, and that looked like an especially lousy deal since we were paying the same amount for our subscriptions.

I wasn’t that interested in the news, after all, I had already subscribed to Netflix for more than 2 years, and used a VPN to enjoy US and even UK content. I loved Netflix because it had a lot of interesting content, but what really sealed the deal for me was Pocoyo and Dora the explorer…I’m a father of a 2-year-old, and having a video on demand service that lets me address my toddlers demand was a life-saver.

Netflix was far more effective than youtube for videos for my kid, first of all, the content was pure, and I could be sure that nobody was messing with it or adding commentary, but more importantly, it had no adverts, and when you have a 2-year-old the last thing you want them to watch is adverts.

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Medium blocked: Collateral Censorship vs. Collateral Freedom

Website Blocked

So the buzz around twitter is that Medium.com has been blocked by the Malaysian Authorities, and guess what? It’s true.

It was expected, after all Medium is where the ‘infamous’ Clare Rewcastle Brown uploads her articles to circumvent censorship of her own site, the equally diabolical SarawakReport.org.

Medium is like twitter without the character limits, and it’s quite a cool site to just browse around and look for interesting articles to read, The platform claims to be “community of readers and writers offering unique perspectives on ideas large and small”.

A lot of successful writers and bloggers have taken to Medium to host their content, including Stephen Levy, the author of In the Plex, one of my favorite books on Google. He’s using it (and only it) to start a Tech Hub  for his content, and placing it alongside millions of other articles contributed by both professional and amateur writers.

So it made sense for SarawakReport to take their content to Medium. After all, most of their readership is Malaysian, and since Malaysian ISPs ‘censored’ their content, using a neutral ‘un-censored’ platform like Medium was a perfect solution—well almost perfect!

It’s a phenomenon called ‘collateral freedom’, and for a while SarawakReport readers, and Malaysian internet users enjoyed that collateral freedom, Medium was free and un-censored, which made Sarawark also free and un-censored as long as it was on the platform.

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Block This!!

A notice posted on the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s (MCMC) Facebook page said the decision was made to block websites that “promote, spread information and encourage people to join the Bersih 4 demonstration“, on grounds that this will “threaten…