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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Democracy Now: What Amy didn't say on Friday

On Friday's Democracy Now, Amy Goodman spent a long segment with Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org talking about threats to the Internet. The timing was particularly appropriate because an extremely serious threat to our Internet freedoms made important advances last week and an alarm needs to be sounded. Unfortunately that's not what Amy talked about. Instead of enlightenment, Amy and Eli offered diversion and confusion. I was very disappointed.

Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Protect IP Act. This legislation, if it becomes law, will make the Internet in the US like the Internet in China; both will be filtered by their governments. Like the Internet Blacklist bill [COICA] that they couldn't get passed last year, this new bill authorizes the Attorney General to create a list of websites that are to be blocked. COICA would have made legal the Federal government practice of seizing domain names without a notice or a hearing. This is a power that the AG started exercising on his own authority last year, after they failed to get their eggs hatched in the Senate. But as I pointed out last December, they have figured out that seizing domain names is pretty impotent if the search engines continue to do their job of indexing the web for us as they find it. So now they have come out with an "improved version" that forces even more draconian controls on the Internet.

Governments all over the world are much more concerned with controlling the Internet after seeing the role it played in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. So this Internet Blacklist bill Version 2.0 [Protect IP Act] now also makes it illegal for any web services, including search engines, to refer to the banned websites or their content. In China, the government was forcing Google to filter out certain search results for say "Tiananmen Square", that's why they left China. I don't know who in the Chinese government determines what search engines are allowed to find on the Internet but if this act becomes law, it will be the Justice Department in the US.

This bill was voted out of committee about three weeks after it was introduced. It has been on a very fast track and as such has gone unnoticed by a lot of people, for example Amy has never mentioned it, not on Friday nor on any earlier show. But it hasn't gone unnoticed by Google because it's their business to know what's happening with regards to the Internet. This dairy has already reported on how Google's CEO Eric Schmidt likened Protect IP to the censorship they ultimately refused in China and he said that if it was passed into law, Google would still oppose it. He told The Guardian at a London conference on 19 May 2011:
"If there is a law that requires DNSs to do X and it's passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President of the United States and we disagree with it then we would still fight it."
This is the bill that was passed by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Other government threats to the free Internet have also emerged in recent weeks. They include Obama's new "Cybersecurity Initiative" announced on 15 May and government proposals at last week's eG8 conference. At that conference, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the Internet organizations "You can't be exempt from minimum rules" [which help] "your companies to contribute fairly to national ecosystems." The headline The Telegraph ran about that conference was "Google's Eric Schmidt clashes with Nicolas Sarkozy at eG8."

A major fight between freedom of speech and government censorship on the Internet is brewing and Google is at the center of it, but none of this was spoken of on Democracy Now on Friday. That surprised me because the topic was "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You." Instead of informing her viewers and listeners about the real and present danger that these government moves pose to our Internet freedoms, Amy and her guest choose to misrepresent certain Internet realities so that they could engage in a bit of fear mongering and misdirection.

Amy's co-host, Juan Gonzalez began the segment:
When you follow your friends on Facebook or run a search on Google, what information comes up, and what gets left out? That’s the subject of a new book by Eli Pariser called The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. According to Pariser, the internet is increasingly becoming an echo chamber in which websites tailor information according to the preferences they detect in each viewer.
Amy continues:
The top 50 websites collect an average of 64 bits of personal information each time we visit and then custom-designs their sites to conform to our perceived preferences. While these websites profit from tailoring their advertisements to specific visitors, users pay a big price for living in an information bubble outside of their control.
Actually virtually all websites, not just the top 50, collect more that 64 bits of "personal information" when you visit them. I will explain to you why this is ordinary and necessary and really no big deal. And far from being outside of your control, I will show you how you can block this gathering of personal information absolutely but I will also tell you why you probably won't want to. Amy could have done a great service if she had used her show to tell you this, or point you to links on how to block access to your personal information rather than telling people this information gathering is "outside of their control" but this segment was all about misdirection, making mountains out of mole hills and creating a climate of fear, not teaching knowledge and spreading solutions.

Eli Pariser is the leader of MoveOn.org. Last summer they organized the "Google Don't Be Evil" campaign. Today he was on Democracy Now to talk about his new book. After introductions, he describes what he sees as the problem:
That’s right. I was surprised. I didn’t know that that was, you know, how it was working, until I stumbled across a little blog post on Google’s blog that said "personalized search for everyone." And as it turns out, for the last several years, there is no standard Google. There’s no sort of "this is the link that is the best link." It’s the best link for you. And the definition of what the best link for you is, is the thing that you’re the most likely to click. So, it’s not necessarily what you need to know; it’s what you want to know, what you’re most likely to click.
He is wrong. There is still a "standard Google." That's the Google you will get if they know nothing about you because they don't know who you are. There are easy ways to be anonymous on the web but Eli doesn't mention them. He is into fear mongering and solutions take away your fears.

Personally, I like the fact that Google searches keep getting better at finding "what you want to know" and not their idea or somebody else's idea of "what you need to know." But in case you are worried about this sort of thing please allow me to digress and take away your fears now by explaining a little about the technology and how you can avoid the use of personal information to tailor your web experience.

When you visit most modern websites, they will write a little data file to your hard drive that they can retrieve on subsequent visits. This is a well known Internet practice and there is nothing sinister about it. These little data files are known as "cookies." These cookies can store any information that the website has about you. Most typically cookies will store or point to any preferences you set for that website and other information such as login name and last page visited but it can be anything the website knows about you including information you have entered into forms on that website. Size limitations aside, the cookie will store whatever information the web server, say Google, has access to and tells it to store. Just about everything a website knows about you before you have positively identified yourself by logging-in is information it is stored via a cookie on your hard drive.

Nobody on Democracy Now mentions cookies, but this is how it works. Perhaps neither Democracy Now nor MoveOn.org understand these things. In that case they should consult an expert before they start talking about things they don't understand. No login and no cookie and you are pretty much anonymous to Google or any other website.

And the good news is that you can control cookies through your Internet browser, typically you can delete all or selected cookies and you can block cookies from all or selected websites. Like many things, exactly how you do this varies from browser to browser and is different in Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari. Here's a link with some specific instructions.

So if you are concerned that Google is shaping search results just for you, as Amy and Eli are, there's no reason to fret about it. Just become empowered and learn how to turn off that behavior in your setup. However, once you have banned cookies from your system you may find that there are a great many advantages to using them and having the website that you are communicating with know who it is communicating with but the choice will be yours. Democracy Now could have performed a great service by pointing to this easy solution to the Internet threat that most concerned them this week but they didn't.

Apart from cookies, there is another, even more basic way websites collect your "personal information." They read your ENVIRONMENTAL VARIABLES. ENVIRONMENTAL VARIABLES are standard pieces of info that your computer makes public in order to facilitate communication. For example REMOTE_ADDR is a variable that contains your Internet address and HTTP_USER_AGENT tells everyone what type of browser you are using and often by deduction, what type of computer you are using. Eli and Amy warn about this too, although again, they never refer to the proper terminology. Eli tells Amy:
Well, it’s really striking. I mean, even if you’re not—if you’re logged in to Google, then Google obviously has access to all of your email, all of your documents that you’ve uploaded, a lot of information. But even if you’re logged out, an engineer told me that there are 57 signals that Google tracks—"signals" is sort of their word for variables that they look at—everything from your computer’s IP address—that’s basically its address on the Internet—what kind of laptop you’re using or computer you’re using, what kind of software you’re using, even things like the font size or how long you’re hovering over a particular link. And they use that to develop a profile of you, a sense of what kind of person is this. And then they use that to tailor the information that they show you.

And this is happening in a whole bunch of places, you know, not just sort of the main Google search, but also on Google News.
And I would add that this happens not only with Google News but with absolutely every website on the planet. Internet Explorer responds differently from Firefox, Macs are different from PCs, Android different from iPhone. If you don't want your screens to dissolve into madness, you had better be willing to let the website know what kind of system it is talking to. If you know what you are doing you can delete HTTP_USER_AGENT from you computer but the results won't be pretty.

Likewise, a website, even one as smart as Google, has to know what font size you are using before they can know how many characters to send you on a single line. And if they don't have your Internet address, well, they won't even know were to send them. They measure how long you hover over a link so they can pop up an information window if you linger, or maybe they just take you to the link after so many seconds. That can be a very helpful behavior for those operating with certain handicaps. So I say to Eli, get a grip, take your meds! All communications requires that you surrender a little "personal information." If you want someone to call you on the phone, you will have to give them your phone number. If you want them to mail you something, they will want an address.

I hope I have gotten across to you just how ordinary and essential these variables are and just how ridiculous these complaints against them are.They are part of the Internet Protocol, they are as old as the web, all websites and browsers without exception use them and it is disingenuous to imply that especially Google reads your computer's Internet address or what size font you are using. They all do, even democracynow.org.

This is what I call fear mongering. This is what I call making a mountain out of a mole hill. Google has my IP address, oh my! Meanwhile the government is fixing to tell Google it can no longer find thepiratesbay.org when you search for it. On that subject Amy and Eli are silent.

Juan Gonzalez asks a good question:
And what are the options, the opt-out options, if there are any, for those who use, whether it’s Google or Yahoo! or Facebook? Their ability to control and keep their personal information?
Eli doesn't have a really good answer:
Well, you know, there aren’'t perfect opt-out options, because even if you take a new laptop out of the box, already it says something about you, that you bought a Mac and not a PC. I mean, it’s very hard to get entirely out of this. There’s no way to turn it off entirely at Google. But certainly, you can open a private browsing window. That helps.
Here he could have mentioned proxy servers but he didn't. Proxy servers empower you because they give you a way to be completely anonymous to Google or any other website. An anonymous proxy server acts as an intermediary between you and the website you are ultimately talking to, so for example, you talk to Google through a proxy; Google sends the results to the proxy and the proxy send the results to you. In that case Google doesn't even know your IP address or anything about you.

Proxy servers have played a big role in providing access and insuring the anonymity of Internet activists involved in the ongoing uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. In fact Google has been one of the players hosting proxy servers for these activists. These activists found themselves involved in a life or death struggle to hide their Internet identities from governments not large Internet companies. Since Democracy Now choose to raise concerns about Google and other websites collecting your personal information; they really should have told you where to find proxy servers and how to use them. They should have empowered you rather than imply there was really nothing you could do. Here's a link that will help you stay anonymous on the web.

Now that I have explained to you how you can protect your privacy on-line, let's get back to the thrust of the Democracy Now segment because if the truth is to be told, Google's use of our IP addresses and font sizes really didn't go to the core of their concerns. They are most concerned that Google isn't giving you the search results they think you should have.
ELI PARISER: Yeah. You know, if you look at how they talked about the original Google algorithm, they actually talked about it in these explicitly democratic terms, that the web was kind of voting—each page was voting on each other page in how credible it was. And this is really a departure from that. This is moving more toward, you know, something where each person can get very different results based on what they click on. [my note: that is not true but the message being promoted here is that Google is turning bad.]

And when I did this recently with Egypt—I had two friends google "Egypt"—one person gets search results that are full of information about the protests there, about what’s going on politically; the other person, literally nothing about the protests, only sort of travel to see the Pyramids websites.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, wait, explain that again. I mean, that is astounding. So you go in. The uprising is happening in Egypt.

ELI PARISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, today there’s a mass protest in Tahrir Square. They’re protesting the military council and other issues. So, if I look, and someone who likes to travel look, they may not even see a reference to the uprising?

ELI PARISER: That’s right. I mean, there was nothing in the top 10 links. And, you know, actually, the way that people use Google, most people use just those top three links. So, if Google isn’'t showing you sort of the information that you need to know pretty quickly, you can really miss it.
Of course if you only give Google that one word clue as to what you are looking for, it will be pretty much of a crap shoot what you get back. Ask Google to run a search on the word "Egypt" and it will bring back over 400 million results. If you just search on the one word you really aren't being helpful. It's almost like you are asking Google to read your mind. Still it will try it's damnedest to discern just what about Egypt you are interested in and put those in the first few pages of results. If it has access to your past search requests or other information, it will use them in trying to determine what you want to know about Egypt.

I would suggest that if Eli wants to have more control over what search results Google gives him them he needs to give it more information not less. Try Googling on "Egypt travel" or "Egypt uprising" and he will get more explicit results. I guarantee it. He should tell the search engine what he is looking for rather than asking it to pick the top ten of 400 million for him.

Clearly, Amy thinks that the uprisings in Egypt should be in the top ten of any search on the word Egypt no matter what they are really looking for. That's because the uprisings in Egypt are now all the rage at Democracy Now. It doesn't matter that Google was showing references to the uprisings in Egypt for weeks before it found any on the Democracy Now website. Now that Amy has become aware of how important it is, she seems to think that Google has a moral responsibility to make sure everybody knows.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, what about the responses of those who run these search engines, that they’re merely responding to the interests and needs of the people who use the system?

ELI PARISER: Well, you know, I think—they say, "We’re just giving people what we want." And I say, "Well, what do you mean by 'what we want'?" Because I think, actually, all of us want a lot of different things. And there’s a short-term sort of compulsive self that clicks on the celebrity gossip and the more trivial articles, and there’s a longer-term self that wants to be informed about the world and be a good citizen. And those things are in contention all the time. You know, we have those two forces inside us. And the best media helps us sort of—helps the long-term self get an edge a little bit. It gives us some sort of information vegetables and some information dessert, and you get a balanced information diet. This is like you’re just surrounded by empty calories, by information junk food.
So the gist of their complaint is that these "search engines" just give people what they want whereas Eli and Amy want them to take on some parental responsibilities, to force us to eat our "information vegetables" as it were, look out for our "longer-term self" and help us "be a good citizen."

So what do they propose as the solution to all these nasty fears they have raised with us? Of the problem, Eli says,
It’s a natural by product of consolidating so much of what we do online in a few big companies that really don’t have a whole lot of accountability, you know, that aren’t being pushed very hard by governments to do this right or do it responsibly.
So maybe we should be giving the government more authority to control just what search results Google and the other search engines give us? Say, doesn't the Protect IP bill just pasted by the Judiciary Committee yesterday do something like that? Oh that, we're not talking about that, not on Democracy Now!

UPDATE 31-01-11: While this bill has been voted out of committee as I said in the beginning, the good news is that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has blocked the legislation for now. IT MUST BE DEFEATED! Opposition to the bill is growing rapidly. Yahoo, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, Consumer Electronics Association, and Net Coalition have joined Google in publicly opposing the Protect IP Act.

The main group that seems to be organizing against it now is Demand Progress. Please visit their site, add your name to the petition, check for updates and other ways to contribute to it's defeat.

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