April 18, 2024

Archives for April 2010

Google Publishes Data on Government Data and Takedown Requests

Citizens have long wondered how often their governments ask online service providers for data about users, and how often governments ask providers to take down content. Today Google took a significant step on this issue, unveiling a site reporting numbers on a country-by-country basis.

It’s important to understand what is and isn’t included in the data on the Google site. First, according to Google, the data excludes child porn, which Google tries to block proactively, worldwide.

Second, the site reports requests made by government, not by private individuals. (Court orders arising from private lawsuits are included, because the court issuing the order is an arm of government.) Because private requests are excluded, the number of removal requests is lower than you might expect — presumably removal requests from governments are much less common than those from private parties such as copyright owners.

Third, Google is reporting the number of requests received, and not the number of users affected. A single request might affect many users; or several requests might focus on a single user. So we can’t use this data to estimate the number of citizens affected in any particular country.

Another caveat is that Google reports the country whose government submitted the request to Google, but this may not always be the government that originated the request. Under Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties, signatory countries agree to pass on law enforcement data requests for other signatories under some circumstances. This might account for some of the United States data requests, for example, if other countries asked the U.S. government to make data requests to Google. We would expect there to be some such proxy requests, but we can’t tell from the reported data how many there were. (It’s not clear whether Google would always be able to distinguish these proxy requests from direct requests.)

With these caveats in mind, let’s look at the numbers. Notably, Brazil tops both the data-requests list and the takedown-requests list. The likely cause is the popularity of Orkut, Google’s social network product, in Brazil. India, where Orkut is also somewhat popular, appears relatively high on the list as well. Social networks often breed disputes about impersonation and defamation, which could lead a government to order release of information about who is using a particular account.

The U.S. ranks second on the data-requests list but is lower on the takedown-requests list. This is consistent with the current U.S. trend toward broader data gathering by law enforcement, along with the relatively strong protection of free speech in the U.S.

Finally, China is a big question mark. According to Google, the Chinese government claims that the relevant data is a state secret, so Google cannot release it. The Chinese government stands conspicuously alone in this respect, choosing to deny its citizens even this basic information about their government’s activities.

There’s a lot more information I’d like to see about government requests. How many citizens are affected? How many requests does Google comply with? What kinds of data do governments seek about Google users? And so on.

Despite its limitations, Google’s site is a valuable step toward transparency about governments’ attempts to observe and control their citizens’ online activities. I hope other companies will follow suit, and that Google will keep pushing on this issue.

April 27 Workshop at Princeton CITP: Internet Security, Internet Freedom

On April 27th, the Center for Information Technology Policy is hosting a one-day workshop on campus here at Princeton. We invite you to attend. Here is the summary of the event, called Internet Security, Internet Freedom:

The internet is at once a means for great openness and great control — expression and exclusion. These forces have long been at work online, but have recently come to the fore in debates over the United States’ cyber security policy and its increased focus on “internet freedom.” The country now has a Cybersecurity “czar” that has presented a 12-part national initiative, and also has a Secretary of State who has forcefully stated the case for internet freedom. But what do these principles mean in practice?

This workshop explores how security and freedom both compliment each other and compete. A spectrum of security risks at different layers of the network beg for technical and governance solutions. Flash points like the recent Google-in-China developments highlight the nexus of security and speech. A growing discourse about internet freedom calls out for workable theories and models. This event will bring together technologists, policymakers, and academics to discuss the state of play and viable ways forward.

The keynote speaker will be Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Office of Secretary of State. Alec will discuss the State Department’s increased focus on the issue of Internet freedom. He recently commented that 2009 was “the worst year in the history of the Internet as it related to Internet freedom.” The panelists feature a variety of experts on issues of online freedom as well as network security.

Please join us. For more information and instructions on how to register, see the workshop page here:
http://citp.princeton.edu/internet-security-internet-freedom/

Flash, Scratch, Ajax: Apple's War on Programming

Any ambitious regulatory scheme will face pressure to expand, in order to protect the flanks of the main regulation against users’ workarounds. Apple’s strategy of regulating which apps can run on the iPhone and iPod is just such a regulation, and over the last week or so Apple has been giving in to the pressure to expand its regulation.

To illustrate Apple’s regulatory problem, consider a hypothetical iPad app called Ed’s App World (EAW). EAW lets you download items called EdApps, which consist of instructions that the EAW app carries out. Any developer can create an EdApp which expresses its instructions in Ed’s Programming Language. It’s entirely possible to create an app like EAW.

Apple’s regulatory problem is that Ed’s App World is effectively a competing app store — EdApps can do anything that apps can do, and any developer can create and distribute an EdApp. If Apple wants to prevent competing app stores, it has to keep apps like Ed’s App World from existing.

Apple has long been trying to keep specific technologies like Adobe’s Flash off the iPhone and iPad because these technologies have EAW-like features. Now Apple has expanded its regulation to say that only certain programming methods are acceptable. Here’s section 3.3.1 of Apple’s iPhone developer license agreement:

3.3.1 — Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).

This rules out many common programming languages and tools. To developers, it looks like Apple is trying to micromanage how they do their work.

Apple’s ban on programmable apps goes beyond just Flash. This week Apple banned Scratch, a widely used educational tool that introduces students gently to computer programming by letting them construct animations. Why did Apple ban the Scratch app? Presumably because Scratch animations involve elements of programming. Computing educators were unhappy, to say the least. Mark Guzdial of Georgia Tech put it this way: “Want to be truly computing literate, where you write as well as read? There’s no app for that.”

What’s really interesting is that despite Apple’s best efforts to block these apps, there is an enormous EAW-type system that Apple hasn’t had the guts to block: the web. Thanks to so-called Ajax technologies, the web has become a vehicle for delivering app-like functionality (within web pages). Apple’s Safari browser on the iPhone and iPad supports these apps well. It’s hard to imagine that Apple could get away with blocking all of the Ajax-enabled sites we use every day. And Apple’s Ajax problem will become even worse as HTML 5 comes online, with even better support for web-based apps.

If you’re not a techie, this stuff may seem like inside baseball to you. But it does affect what you can do and see. You may not know all of the details of why the app store starts looking more and more like Disneyland, but you’ll notice that it’s happening.

Finally, I want to address the common objection that most people don’t care about limits on programming, because they don’t know how to program. To me, this is like saying that you don’t care about restaurant closings because nobody in your house knows how to cook. If you can’t cook for yourself, you should care more about restaurant quality. If all of the good restaurants close, good cooks will just make their own good meals — but you’ll be out of luck.

What Open Data Means to Marginalized Communities

Two symbols of this era of open data are President Obama’s Open Governance Initiative, a directive that has led agencies to post their results online and open up data sets, and Ushahidi, a tool for crowdsourcing crisis information. While these tools are bringing openness to governance and crisis response respectively, I believe we have yet to find a good answer to the question: what does open data means for the long-term social and economic development of poor and marginalized communities?

I came to Nairobi on a hunch. The hunch was that a small digital mapping experiment taking place in the Kibera slum would matter deeply, both for Kiberans who want to improve their community, and for practitioners keen to use technology to bring the voiceless into a conversation about how resources are allocated on their behalf.

So far I haven’t been disappointed. Map Kibera, an effort to create the first publicly available map of Kibera, is the brainchild of Mikel Maron, a technologist and Open Street Map founder, and Erica Hagen, a new media and development expert, and is driven by a group of 13 intrepid mappers from the Kibera community. In partnership with SODNET (an incredible local technology for social change group), Phase I was the creation of the initial map layer on Open Street Map (see Mikel’s recent presentation at Where 2.0). Phase II, with the generous support of UNICEF, will focus on making the map useful for even the most marginalized groups within the Kibera community.

What we have in mind is quite simple: add massive amounts of data to the map around 3 categories (health services, public safety/vulnerability and informal education) then experiment with ways to increase awareness and the ability to advocate for better service provision. The resulting toolbox, which will involve no tech (drawing on printed maps), and tech (SMS reporting, Ushahidi and new media creation) will help us collectively answer questions about how open data itself, and the narration of such data through citizen media and face-to-face conversations, can help even the most marginalized transform their communities.

We hope the methodology we develop, which will be captured on our wiki, can be incorporated into other communities around Kenya, and to places like Haiti, where it is critical to enable Haitians to own their own vision of a renewed nation.
cross-posted to the In An African Minute blog.

iPad: The Disneyland of Computers

Tech commentators have a love/hate relationship with Apple’s new iPad. Those who try it tend to like it, but many dislike its locked-down App Store which only allows Apple-approved apps. Some people even see the iPad as the dawn of a new relationship between people and computers.

To me, the iPad is Disneyland.

I like Disneyland. It’s clean, safe, and efficient. There are lots of entertaining things to do. Kids can drive cars; adults can wear goofy hats with impunity. There’s a parade every afternoon, and an underground medical center in case you get sick.

All of this is possible because of central planning. Every restaurant and store on Disneyland’s Main Street is approved in advance by Disney. Every employee is vetted by Disney. Disneyland wouldn’t be Disneyland without central planning.

I like to visit Disneyland, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

There’s a reason the restaurants in Disneyland are bland and stodgy. It’s not just that centralized decision processes like Disney’s have trouble coping with creative, nimble, and edgy ideas. It’s also that customers know who’s in charge, so any bad dining experience will be blamed on Disney, making Disney wary of culinary innovation. In Disneyland the trains run on time, but they take you to a station just like the one you left.

I like living in a place where anybody can open a restaurant or store. I like living in a place where anybody can open a bookstore and sell whatever books they want. Here in New Jersey, the trains don’t always run on time, but they take you to lots of interesting places.

The richness of our cultural opportunities, and the creative dynamism of our economy, are only possible because of a lack of central planning. Even the best central planning process couldn’t hope to keep up with the flow of new ideas.

The same is true of Apple’s app store bureaucracy: there’s no way it can keep up with the flow of new ideas — no way it can offer the scope and variety of apps that a less controlled environment can provide. And like the restaurants of Disneyland, the apps in Apple’s store will be blander because customers will blame the central planner for anything offensive they might say.

But there’s a bigger problem with the argument offered by central planning fanboys. To see what it is, we need to look more carefully at why Disneyland succeeded when so many centrally planned economies failed so dismally.

What makes Disneyland different is that it is an island of central planning, embedded in a free society. This means that Disneyland can seek its suppliers, employees, and customers in a free economy, even while it centrally plans its internal operations. This can work well, as long as Disneyland doesn’t get too big — as long as it doesn’t try to absorb the free society around it.

The same is true of Apple and the iPad. The whole iPad ecosystem, from the hardware to Apple’s software to the third-party app software, is only possible because of the robust free-market structures that create and organize knowledge, and mobilize workers, in the technology industry. If Apple somehow managed to absorb the tech industry into its centrally planned model, the result would be akin to Disneyland absorbing all of America. That would be enough to frighten even the most rabid fanboy, but fortunately it’s not at all likely. The iPad, like Disneyland, will continue to be an island of central planning in a sea of decentralized innovation.

So, iPad users, enjoy your trip to Disneyland. I understand why you’re going there, and I might go there one day myself. But don’t forget: there’s a big exciting world outside, and you don’t want to miss it.