Monday, January 18, 2021

Our Unelected Big-Tech Overlords

 

Last week I blogged about how Twitter kicked off @realDonaldTrump, and how decisions like that give the lie to Twitter's claim of common-carrier-like protection against lawsuits granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  Normally I like to change topics every week, but this week is an exception. 

 

A week ago today, on Jan. 10, Amazon Web Services shut down its web-hosting services for the social-media network Parler, taking it off the Internet and capping a series of moves by Amazon, Apple, and Google that effectively ended the company's ability to serve its customers.  It was an extraordinary and united show of the power that large tech companies have to censor social-media speech.  Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the action was justified, it now appears that not only can Big Tech edit content on its own sites as it pleases, it can exert the same editorial power on supposedly independent companies like Parler.

 

The background of this incident is informative.  As Twitter and other mainstream social-media outlets began ramping up their removal and suspension policies, Parler began to attract many of the users who left Twitter for that reason.  The New York Times reported that by Jan. 9, the day before Parler disappeared, it was the No. 1 free app for Apple's iPhones.

 

No matter.  Some things are more important than money.  Last week, Apple and Google announced that they were no longer going to allow Parler to be downloaded to phones with their proprietary operating systems, which meant that while existing customers could still use the service (at least till Jan. 10), nobody new could join.  But when Amazon pulled Parler's plug Sunday, even those apps became useless.

 

The reason given by Apple, Google, and Amazon is that in their view, Parler was not sufficiently monitoring the content of their posts for incitements to violence and crime.  I have no way of judging that, being a non-user of social media myself, but reports that Parler was used to coordinate the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol in Washington seem credible.  So we will allow that this was a problem. 

 

Reportedly, Apple gave Parler 24 hours on Friday, Jan. 8, to "clean up its act" and remove offending posts, but Parler's efforts were deemed inadequate, and Apple removed Parler from its app store on Saturday. 

 

In a piece in National Review, Wesley J. Smith points out that Big Tech—Apple, Google, Amazon, etc.—are now behaving more like a fourth branch of government than ever.  However tenuously, the three constitutional branches of the federal government—the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary—are beholden to the citizenry of the United States.  But no one elected the leaders of the media giants who can, unilaterally and without breaking any laws, decide that a competing social-media service that is growing rapidly and under the protection of the same Section 230 that allowed them to become what they are today, decide to kill a competitor like Parler in a matter of days. 

 

Historically, the United States has been a haven for freedom of speech.  It was a bedrock principle in the philosophical discussions which led to the founding of the country.  In 1798, seven years after the Bill of Rights was added to the U. S. Constitution, Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to make false statements critical of the federal government.  These acts proved very unpopular, contributing to Thomas Jefferson's victory in the presidential election of 1800, and the acts limiting free speech were allowed to expire by 1801. 

 

Jay Cost points out that tolerating a certain amount of offensive speech is the price of allowing freedom of speech, which is vitally necessary to a self-governed people.  He quotes Madison as saying, "Our First Amendment freedoms give us the right to think what we like and say what we please.  And if we the people are to govern ourselves, we must have these rights, even if they are misused by a minority."

 

The excessive restrictions of the Alien and Sedition Acts were duly removed in keeping with the idea that any significant restriction of free speech is inimical to the free exchange of views that a free citizenry needs in order to govern itself.  Madison realized that certain people would abuse that right, but he regarded it as the price we had to pay in order to avoid suppression of thoughts that the powerful in government disapproved of.

 

I am personally appalled by the execrable and deadly riot at the Capitol, and by anyone who uses the Internet to encourage violence.  But for some time now we have been trying to have our social-media cake and eat it too.  The vaunted freedom of social-media speech is no longer free if those who run the media empires can squash, not only speech on their own systems, but speech on rival companies by shutting them down.

 

One choice is to accept the fact that in order to use social media at all, we will be subject to the consensus censorship of the powerful few who run the "private" sevice providers, and we will simply have to accept whatever they think is right as far as what can be posted and can't be.  This is the direction we are heading.  And it looks to me no different than the regime imposed by the Alien and Sedition Acts, a situation in which anyone who wants to post anything that the powerful firms think goes too far is simply out of luck and can't do it, with no appeal.  Yes, we might agree that letting people organize an attack on the Capitol is not a good idea, but in killing Parler, Apple/Google/Amazon are acting as legislators (making their rules), executives (imposing the rules) and judges (deciding where the rules apply).  And if you don't agree with what they decide, which many of the millions of users of Parler who didn't post objectionable material didn't, well, you are just out of luck.

 

Another alternative is to take Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act seriously, and go only after the individuals responsible for objectionable speech if they violate any laws, or prompt such violation of laws.  That is what Parler more or less tried to do, and you see what happened to them.  As deplorable as much of the material they carried on their system was, Parler was much more in the spirit of Madison's attitude toward free speech.

 

China shows that huge successful economies can thrive under a repressive government that makes people watch everything they say and hauls them off to a concentration camp if they say the wrong thing.  But, as I said, some things are more important than money.

 

Sources:  The New York Times report on the squelching of Parler appeared at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/technology/apple-google-parler.html.  Wesley J. Smith's editorial on Big Tech appeared in National Review at https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/big-tech-now-the-fourth-branch-of-government/.  Jay Cost's essay on James Madison and freedom of speech appeared in the same journal at https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/09/james-madison-free-speech-rights-must-be-absolute-nearly/.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Parler and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Trump, Twitter, and Section 230

 

The events in Washington, D. C. last Wednesday, and the subsequent permanent suspension by Twitter of the account @realDonaldTrump, throw into a spotlight glare the question of how responsible social-media companies are for the material that users post by the technical means that the companies provide.  They add urgency to a question that was already being raised:  should Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 be modified or repealed?

 

The critical part of Section 230 has been hailed as "the twenty-six words that created the Internet," which is also the title of a book by Jeff Kosseff.  In case you're wondering, the twenty-six words are, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  To see how these words apply to, for example, the thousands of tweets from President Trump, read "Twitter" for "provider . . . of an interactive computer service" and "President Trump" for "another information content provider." 

 

What this section did was to place the then-infant Internet in the category of common-carrier communications providers such as telephone companies, and not in the category of news providers such as the New York Times.  The traditional "old media" (newspapers, radio, TV) were regarded in law as the originators of what they printed or broadcast, and could be sued if their material proved libelous or otherwise harmful.  But if a blackmailer, for instance, called his victim on the phone and made a threat, the idea of suing the phone company because of the blackmailer's actions would be regarded as ridiculous.  So for the next two decades or so, the industries spawned by the Internet—notably Facebook, Twitter, Google, and their ilk—grew without concern for possibly crippling lawsuits regarding the content that their users posted.  Legally, it wasn't their fault what people put on their sites, generally speaking.

 

Few people (or lawmakers, who are also people) anticipated that the main source of news and information for millions of U. S. citizens would shift from the old-media world to the social-media world, but that is exactly what happened.  The techno-optimists who foresaw a brave new world of egalitarian news sharing have been disappointed to find that lies get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants.  (Neither Winston Churchill nor Mark Twain apparently wrote that, but it's worth saying anyway.)  In particular, the elaborate structure of lies coming from @realDonaldTrump since the Nov. 3 Presidential election has convinced many millions of people that (a) the election results were manipulated by evil conspirators who managed to hide their tracks from everyone except a few off-the-wall news sources and President Trump himself, (b) President Trump actually won the election and deserves to be president for another four years, at least, and (c) the alternative is the end of America, as the evil Biden administration takes charge and sends us all straight to perdition in a wicker container. 

 

After concocting increasingly incredible lawsuits challenging state vote counts, the President issued a call via Twitter for his followers to show up in Washington on Jan. 6, when a joint session of Congress would count the Electoral College votes and certify the result.  He fraudulently claimed that Vice-President Pence had the power to discard the results and reinstate the President, whereas nowhere in the Constitution or elsewhere does the Vice-President receive this power.  But by the technique of saying lies and repeating them over and over in the echo chamber of the Internet where people who like certain kinds of material get more of it, the President drew a crowd of thousands to Washington last Wednesday.  He spoke to them in person in a long, inflammatory speech that repeated many of the lies he originated over the past two months, and then sent them down the street to disrupt, invade, and vandalize the building where the duly elected representatives of these United States were legally carrying out their Constitutional responsibilities.  And Twitter helped him do it.

 

On Friday, Jan. 8, Twitter announced that they were permanently suspending @realDonaldTrump, citing that the President had violated their "Glorification of Violence policy."  To those who would say that Twitter is violating the President's freedom of speech, I would counter along with Justice Holmes that that someone who is "falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic" has forfeited his right to free speech, at least with regard to that particular statement.  And the President has abundantly shown that he is incapable of tweeting without straying into falsehood sooner or later.

 

But in doing so, Twitter has admitted that they do indeed bear the responsibility for the effects of information provided by another information content provider.  In a world where the main source of news for the bulk of the public is social media, social media can no longer pretend that they are a small, insignificant, hobby-type operation that people use mainly for amusement and sharing cookie recipes.  They now play a critical, essential role in the conduct of public affairs, and their increasing censorship of one kind or another (of which the strangling of @realDonaldTrump is only the chief example) amounts to rump editing, essentially no different from what the ink-stained newspaper editors of yore did with their letters to the editor columns.  To choose one letter is to reject all the rest, and to censor one tweet is to accept all the rest.

 

I have no easy solution to the problem of Section 230, but it is clear that things cannot go on the way they are now.  As for President Trump, I hope that Congress has sense and guts enough to impeach him with the penalty of never holding a federal office again.  But social media firms cannot have it both ways.  They must not enjoy the financial and cultural benefits of being the main purveyors of news while shirking the responsibility for the news (and lies) that pass through their hands. 

 

In calmer times, I would have taken notice in this space of the Boeing 737 that crashed off the coast of Jakarta on Jan. 9, but as of this writing there are few details available, and it will have to await a future column.

 

Sources:  The Twitter announcement of the banning of President Trump's account appeared at https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/suspension.html.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Twitter and Section 230.  The author of the "truth getting its pants on" quote is unknown, but researchers have traced the saying back at least to the 1700s.

Monday, January 04, 2021

The SolarWinds Data Breach: Should We Care?

 

The year 2020 will go down in history for a number of reasons, but the cherry on the disaster cake hit the news in mid-December.  Cybersecurity investigators discovered that some software provided by the Austin, Texas network-monitoring software firm SolarWinds was "trojaned" some time in early 2020.  Hackers, later identified as Russian, managed to insert malware into an update of Solar Winds's popular network-monitoring software, and this allowed the hackers to access customers' emails and other supposedly secure data from around March of 2020 until one of SolarWind's customers noticed that someone had stolen some of their cybersecurity tools, and notified the company.  In similar attacks, Microsoft software was similarly compromised.

 

This was a complicated and well-organized exploit, as the hackers focused their attention on high-value targets such as government agencies.  Wikipedia's article on the breach reads like a list of a spy's dream targets:  the Department of Defense, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the National Institutes of Health (in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet), the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Department of State, and the Department of the Treasury.  As in any spying operation, most of what they got won't be that useful to them, but some of it very well may be. 

 

Fortunately, the hackers did not use their access to lock files or cause other disruptions that might have drawn premature attention to what they were doing.  They were spying, not sabotaging.  But of course, what they learned may help them commit sabotage in the future.  We simply don't know.

 

How did this happen?  In the case of SolarWinds, the hackers gained access to the firm's "software-publishing infrastructure" way back in October of 2019.  Clearly, the company's own security measures were insufficient to prevent this initial breach, which if caught could have stopped the whole attack in its tracks.  But something as simple as carelessness with passwords can allow hackers into a system.  Hacking is like burglary, in that ordinary defenses stop the average burglar, but if a huge sophisticated gang decides to focus on your house, there's not a lot you can do to stop them.

 

And SolarWinds was the focus of the Russian hacking group known as "Cozy Bear" because of their critical place in the software supply chain.  Thousands of firms use their network-monitoring software, which meant that "trojanizing" a SolarWinds software update gave the hackers potential access to any of SolarWinds's customer's systems.  And that is exactly what happened.

 

Once the breach was discovered last month, SolarWinds went public and warned its customers of the problem.  But as one expert interviewed on the breach put it, fixing the leaks that the hackers established is like getting rid of bed bugs:  sometimes they are so spread out that finding each individual bug is an impossible task, and you have to burn the mattress.  The reason is that once the attackers got into a system, they could wander around and establish more access points.  And stopping the original breach does nothing about those access points, which can be hard to find.  So even though we know how the hackers got in, it's not going to be an easy matter making sure that they can't keep spying on their victims without throwing out a whole lot of software and starting over from scratch.

 

What difference does all this make to the average Joe or Jane?  If you don't work for one of the affected companies or agencies, should you even bother to put this on your already-lengthy worry list? 

 

In itself, the breach's consequences are unpredictable.  Governments keep some things secret for good reasons, mostly, and when those secrets are revealed, bad things can happen.  We are not currently in direct hand-to-hand conflicts with Russia, but there are low-level military operations going on all over the world, many of which the U. S. is involved in without the knowledge of the general public.  As in any military operation, intelligence about plans or proposed actions can be used against you if it leaks, so for one thing, our military forces have been put in a potentially bad situation.  But again, it's hard to tell yet.

 

During World War II, the Germans were largely unaware that the Allies had breached their most-secure code system with the Turing-inspired "bombes" of Bletchley Park, because any military advantage that the Allies' decoding operations gave them was carefully disguised to look like luck.  So we can expect Russia to disguise any advantages it's attained from the Cozy Bear attacks similarly, although we now know roughly what they've been up to. 

 

Institutions change slowly, and the old saying that generals in a new war start out by fighting with the previous war's weapons is still true.  There will always be a need for troops on the ground in some situations, but as more and more commerce and activity of national importance takes place in cyberspace, future battles will also be staged more and more in the digital realm. 

 

As we know from bitter experience in other areas of engineering ethics, it usually takes a spectacular tragedy to inspire major institutional change that could have prevented the tragedy in the first place.  We have been relatively fortunate that bad consequences from cyberattacks on U. S. targets have not approached the magnitude of a 9/11, for example.  Probably the worst ones have been ransomware attacks mounted by apparently private criminal groups that shake down organizations for money, usually in the form of bitcoin.  While serious for the organizations targeted, these sorts of attacks have not up to now appeared to be part of a coordinated terrorist-like systematic assault on the nation's infrastructure.

 

Such an attack could come at any time, however.  And the fact that Cozy Bear hackers were reading the Pentagon's mail for the last nine months does not inspire confidence in the ability of our nation's cyber-warfare personnel to prevent such attacks.  Until we take cyberwarfare fully as seriously, if not more seriously, than attacks with conventional weapons, we are effectively inviting hackers to see what they can do to disrupt life in the United States.  Let's hope they don't try any time soon.

 

Sources:  I referred to an article by Kara Carlson of the USA Today Network which appeared on the Austin  American-Statesman's website on Dec. 30 at https://www.statesman.com/story/business/2020/12/30/solarwinds-breach-could-shape-cybersecurity-future/3999961001/.  I also referred to a chronology of the attacks on the channele2e website at https://www.channele2e.com/technology/security/solarwinds-orion-breach-hacking-incident-timeline-and-updated-details/, and the Wikipedia article "2020 United States federal government data breach."

Monday, December 28, 2020

Trust and the COVID-19 Vaccine

 

In the last three weeks, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two vaccines for use against COVID-19.  Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were developed in less than a year, a stunning technical achievement that relied on cutting-edge science and engineering.  Now the big question is, how many people will be willing to take it? 

 

The only vaccine rollout of comparable importance in my lifetime was the advent of polio vaccines in the late 1950s.  I was not old enough to be reading the newspaper regularly when I ate the sugar cube the Sabin vaccine came on, being about eight years of age, but I understood by the way my parents acted that it was a big deal. 

 

Polio was a terrifying disease for two reasons:  it tended to strike children and teenagers, and it usually crippled rather than killed you, putting many of its victims in clumsy braces, wheelchairs, or a medieval-looking contraption called an iron lung.  So it's not surprising that polio vaccines received near-universal acceptance in the far-off days when your doctor's word was tantamount to the word of God and the only people who objected to vaccines were Christian Scientists and other minority groups.

 

Things are different now in a lot of ways.  Public trust in expertise of all kinds has seen a decline in recent years.  There is now a substantial anti-vaccine movement motivated by a variety of factors, but sharing a common belief that the harm vaccines do may well outweigh the good, and assurances to the contrary by scientists or the medical profession should not be trusted.  Surveys asking people whether they will be willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine turn up substantial numbers of people who don't want it, although recent trends have been in the more-willing direction.  For example, a Kaiser Foundation survey conducted between Nov. 30 and Dec. 8 and reported in U. S. News says that 41% of Americans say they will definitely get it and 30% will "probably" get it.  The number of people who say they definitely won't get a vaccination is 15%, and 12% say probably not. 

 

The poll broke down respondents by rural versus urban, Republican versus Democrat, and African-American versus everything else.  Those in rural areas, Republicans, and African-Americans are less willing than other groups to get vaccinated for COVID-19.  Why is this?

 

One factor cited for the reluctance of African-Americans to receive the vaccine is the bad track record of medical experimentation on Black Americans exemplified by the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study conducted between 1932 and 1972, which followed the course of the untreated disease in African-American men by lying to them that they were receiving free medical treatment, when in fact they were not being helped at all, just observed as the disease progressed to its fatal conclusion.  This study is a poster child for unethical experimentation on human subjects, and it's not surprising that after betraying trust in this manner, the U. S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control find that Blacks are less than enthusiastic than other ethnic groups about government-supported vaccine programs. 

 

But that doesn't explain why 27% of the U. S. population still doesn't want a COVID-19 vaccination. 

 

Part of the reason may simply be that younger people don't think catching COVID-19 will hurt them that much, whereas the vaccine makers are admitting up front that the second of the two necessary injections makes many people mildly ill for a day or two.  Absent a job requirement to receive the vaccine (and I'm not aware of any organizations which have yet implemented such a requirement), that is a judgment call that is up to the individual. 

 

The novel factor in this whole situation is the way that a vaccine that can keep you from contracting a widespread potentially fatal disease has become a political football, with Republicans showing more reluctance to take it than Democrats.  The simplistic answer to this question, namely that followers of Donald Trump are a bunch of ignorant morons who he can lead around by their noses, won't do.  At least before the November election, Trump was boasting about how fast Operation Warp Speed was going to produce and distribute the vaccine.  So why aren't Republicans all on board with it? 

 

A better answer may be that trust in governmental institutions in general, rather than in individual politicians, has undergone severe erosion in the last decade or two, and perhaps more so among Republicans than among Democrats.  The Gallup poll organization publishes annual samplings of how ethical various professions and members of institutions are perceived to be.  The poll asks, "Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields—very high, high, average, low, or very low?"  Their findings are instructive.

 

Members of Congress, for example, don't do very well in these polls.  In the latest poll conducted earlier this month, Congresspeople rated only 1% very high, 7% high, 29% average, 39% low, and 24% very low.  Contrast this to the public perception of, say, engineers (in 2019):  17% very high, 49% high, 31% average, 2% low, and 1% very low (1% had no opinion).  This is better than engineers were doing in the 1970s, for example, when only 10% of respondents rated them very high. 

 

Now engineers don't have to run for public office by raising millions of dollars of campaign funds, and if they did, their public perception might be different.  Interestingly, of all the major professions, nurses come out even better than engineers:  41% of the public in December 2020 thought nurses' ethics and honesty were very high and 48% thought they were high.  So maybe public-service ads featuring nurses encouraging you to get a COVID-19 vaccine would be more effective than government pronouncements.

 

As you probably know, the vaccines will not begin to affect the overall spread and persistence of COVID-19 until a substantial fraction of the public receives effective vaccines.  Estimates of the substantial fraction vary, but it's somewhere around half.  And one thing that is still unknown is whether the vaccines only prevent people from suffering adverse symptoms of COVID-19 (it's pretty clear that they do that), or whether they prevent people from spreading it as well.  There simply hasn't been enough time to determine their effectiveness at reducing infectiousness.

 

Well, my sister (a nurse, whom I trust) received the first of her pair of COVID-19 vaccine injections last week, and assuming it's eventually available to people in my category (engineer, college teacher, over 65), I plan to get it too.  But I can understand that people may have reasons to refuse, and so far, this is a free enough country where you can do that.

 

Sources:  The U. S. News report on the Kaiser poll about willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine appeared at https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2020-12-15/americans-willingness-to-get-coronavirus-vaccine-increases-poll-finds.  The Gallup organization has posted historical and up-to-date responses to its honesty-and-ethics polls at https://news.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx.  I also consulted the Wikipedia article on "Tuskegee Syphilis Study."

Monday, December 21, 2020

Agreeing On Evil: Sexual Exploitation and PornHub

 

As New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof revealed in a Dec. 4 article, "The Children of Pornhub," the pornographic-video-sharing website Pornhub encourages the sexual exploitation of women and girls by allowing sexually explicit videos of them to be uploaded for viewing by anybody.  Many of these videos are uploaded without the participant's consent, and such actions can literally wreck lives. 

 

Pornhub is owned by the Canadian company MindGeek, which for protection against legal challenges in the U. S. hides behind Section 230 of the ironically-named Communications Decency Act.  That act generally exempts internet service providers from being sued about content uploaded by third parties.  But Section 230 was never intended to protect pornographers and their enablers who exploit victims of human trafficking and other vulnerable populations for profit.

 

A National Review report last week describes how Sens. Ben Sasse and Jeff Markley have co-sponsored a bill called the "Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act" which aims to enable those who find themselves unwillingly portrayed in such videos to fight back.  The bill would require pornographic websites to obtain written consent from every person portrayed in a video before it could be uploaded, and would require identity verification of the person doing the uploading.  If someone in the video still objects to its being posted, the bill creates a "private right of action" (presumably, the right to sue) agains the uploader for anyone portrayed.  Websites would be required to maintain a 24-hour hotline for removal requests and to remove any video within two hours of receiving such a request.  The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the law, and the Department of Justice would maintain a database of those who do not consent to sharing of their pornographic material online.

 

These days it is hard to get bipartisan agreement on what time of day it is, let alone a significant piece of legislation such as this.  But Republican Sasse and Democrat Markley have not only managed to agree on the proposed law, but are trying to attract others to their cause on both sides of the aisle.  Surely, most reasonable people can agree on the principle that an unwilling victim of sexual exploitation should be able to do something about the continual use of pornographic material in which he or she appears.

 

The old saying that "technology is neutral, it's only people who are good or bad" often comes up in discussions of engineering ethics.  It is at best a half-truth, in that some technological systems lend themselves much more easily to evil purposes than to good ones.  While the Internet has conferred many benefits upon modern societies, the portion of its traffic devoted to pornography (which is a considerable part of overall Internet traffic) is a bleeding sore whose negative consequences are manifold.

 

The tip of the evil iceberg of Internet porn is the plight of those who end up having images of themselves posted for the pleasure of anonymous eyes, against their will.  Some of these victims have lapses of judgment that they later regret.  Others are tricked into getting involved in pornography by enticing lies that involve human trafficking.  Whatever the reason, when a person decides that they no longer wish to be exploited in this way, any meaningful measure of human decency requires that the law defend that person against whatever entity is continuing to exploit their image. 

 

MindGeek, the corporation that operates PornHub and similar sites, is a large corporation with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue.  As such, it can afford fancy lawyers and legal defenses that easily overpower the attempts of individuals to restrict the use of uploaded pornographic materials. 

 

The bill sponsored by Sens. Sasse and Markley would be a step toward redressing this wrong.  It is precisely targeted at the specific abuse of internet porn using images of people who object to the use of those images, and would not otherwise disturb the precedent of Section 230.  This means that it stands a better chance of passage than broader measures floated from time to time which would abolish Section 230 altogether.  No one wants to be the one who kills the Internet goose that lays golden eggs, and while opinions differ about the role that Section 230 has played in the growth of the Internet, it would be unwise at this point to undertake major tinkering with it.

 

On the other hand, I can't image anyone other than pornographers, their enablers, and hard-core customers being opposed to the idea that before porn is posted online for anyone to see, everyone portrayed in it should affirmatively consent to such posting, and retain the right to change their minds later.  Imagine that you participated in such a video out of poor judgment, intoxication, or coercion.  Later you regret what you've done.  But without this legislation, MindGeek can keep embarrassing images of you online for anyone to see indefinitely. 

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my least favorite authors, but his novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the heroine Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a red "A" for the rest of her life, created a vivid portrayal of the way a society can inflict suffering on a person long after the sinner has repented of her sin.  In allowing evil organizations such as PornHub to keep exploiting the victims of sexual exploitation indefinitely, we as a society are allowing a similar kind of torment to be visited on those who either regret their earlier involvement in pornography or had no real choice in the matter.  Hawthorne's Puritans are universally condemned by many of today's opinion-makers, but PornHub effectively follows around thousands of women with explicitly public reminders of their past indiscretions. 

 

With COVID-19 and all the other political shenanigans we have witnessed lately, the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act may not get the attention it deserves.  But I hope that the partisan strife in Washington can die down long enough for Congress to enact, and the President to sign, this bill that every decent human being should support.

 

Sources:  Nicholas Kristof's article "The Children of Pornhub" appeared on Dec. 4 at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.html.  National Review's website carried the article by Alexandra DeSanctis "Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Require Consent before Sharing Pornography Online" at https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/senators-introduce-bipartisan-bill-to-require-consent-before-sharing-pornography-online/.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Mindgeek.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Is China Moving Toward Geoengineering?

 

Earlier this month, the State Council of China (its main administrative body) announced that it was planning to expand its weather-modification efforts to cover an area of about 5.5 million square kilometers, which is more than half the size of the United States.  In addition to rainmaking (which the announcement called "precipitation control"), the government-funded efforts include prevention of hailstorms, enhanced accuracy of weather forecasts, and emergency response plans to deal with crises such as forest fires.

 

This is not China's first venture into weather modification.  To prevent rain from dampening the festivitives at the opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing on August 8 of that year, over a thousand rockets filled with silver iodide crystals were fired into the skies prior to the event.  Whether the party would have been rained out without the rockets is something we'll never know, but the Party leaders didn't want to take a chance that rain would spoil their parade.

 

Not counting things such as Indian rain dances, the history of scientific weather modification goes back to the late 1940s, when meteorologist Bernard Vonnegut (brother of author Kurt) and the Nobelist Irving Langmuir independently found ways to encourage clouds to form precipitation.  Vonnegut's method involved silver iodide crystals, and the U. S. Army showed in large-scale experiments that spreading finely-divided crystals into actual clouds could cause or increase rainfall under certain conditions. 

 

In the U. S., large-scale cloud-seeding efforts are no longer common, although numerous experiments with hurricanes and conventional storms were carried out as late as the 1970s.  For one thing, it is difficult to do a controlled experiment with cloud seeding, as no two clouds are ever alike and the ideal of changing only one variable (to seed or not to seed) can never be achieved.  Consequently, the typical outcome of an experiment, which can cost many thousands of dollars in flight time, shells, or rockets, is "well, maybe it did something, but we're not sure."  Another issue is that if more rain comes down in location A, that same rain can't also fall in location B, and if A and B are in different states, for example, you have a potential conflict between administrative entities.

 

That may be one reason that, after employing weather modification to a limited extent in theVietnam War, the U. S. signed the Environmental Modification Convention in 1978, which  bans the use of weather modification for hostile purposes.  The Peoples' Republic of China is also a participant in that convention, but that may not make adjacent countries such as India feel much better, as China could always claim that their cloud seeding was for peaceful purposes.

 

The term "geoengineering" is usually reserved for technological activities that would affect the entire globe, not just a part of it.  For example, at various times scientists have floated the idea that to combat global warming, we should inject a lot of sulfur dioxide particles into the air in order to reduce the influx of radiation to the earth's surface and counteract the greenhouse effect of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  So far, weather modification efforts on the scale that we have seen historically don't amount to geoengineering.  But if the area in which such work is being done gets large enough, and 5.5 million square kilometers is pretty large, then you can begin to wonder whether we are putting the robustness of large-scale weather systems to a test.

 

We already know that seemingly subtle shifts in things such as the El Niño circulation off the Pacific coast of South America can have significant effects on our weather here in North America.  I don't know anything about typical weather patterns in the Far East, but it only stands to reason that mucking around with the weather over a large enough area of China is going to have some kind of effect in areas outside the region as well. 

 

Of course, this assumes that everything the State Council wants to do is successful.  If the history of weather modification tells us anything, it says that the best-laid plans in this field turn out to work less well than the designers hoped they would.  But most of the large-scale experiments in cloud seeding were carried out decades ago, before the advent of modern supercomputer-based weather modeling and enhanced automated weather data acquisition.  It's quite possible that with modern weather-forecasting technology, something closer to a truly controlled experiment can be carried out that will give us a better idea of whether all that silver iodide is doing any good, or whether it's just as useless as shooting off fireworks.

 

China has the dubious advantage of not having to worry about interstate lawsuits or any of the other administrative inconveniences that go with democracy.  Dictatorships can do large-scale, long-term things that democracies find difficult.  It's not an advantage that I personally think is worth the cost, but if the State Council decides to do a thing, there's not much anybody else can do to stop them, whether it's weather modification or a one-child policy. 

 

If the experiments turn out to be successful, I doubt that China will be very generous in sharing the results with the rest of the world, except maybe to brag.  And even if everything works as well as they hope, I'm not sure how applicable the results will be for the rest of the world, unless Russia or some other country dealing with huge land masses gets interested. 

 

You've probably heard someone say, "water is the new oil," meaning that as populations increase and live in cities with modern water supplies, the need for clean water may outstrip the need for fossil fuels.  While water resources will always be important, if weather modification turns out to be as useful as China thinks, that will add a new factor to the question of where future generations will find enough water to use.  My suspicion is that the basic natural processes that put water in the air in the first place are not going to change that much by means of weather modification, and any changes China or any other country can make will be relatively small-scale and short-term.  But I've been wrong before.

 

Sources:  The South China Morning Post carried an article describing the Chinese State Council's announcement of its plans for weather modification at https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/03/asia/china-weather-modification-cloud-seeding-intl-hnk/.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on cloud seeding, the Environmental Modification Convention, and El Niño.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Betrayal of Faith: Muslim Pro and the U. S. Military

 

Faithful Muslims are required to pray five times a day, facing toward Mecca.  In our smartphone era, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with an app that reminds the Muslim user that it's time to pray, and conveniently uses GPS data to direct the user toward Mecca from anywhere in the world.  Muslim Pro is the most popular app to do these and other helpful things for members of Islam, and has been downloaded some 98 million times. 

 

When a person downloads an app that is advertised to do a certain function, the question of what else it might be doing in the background rarely arises.  If the app is free, most people are aware at some level that the developer must make money somehow, typically through advertising.  But rarely does the typical user even read the boilerplate that sometimes appears during installation, because it would take a lawyer to figure out what it means, and all the relevant information might not even show up in the user agreement.  So there is an implied agreement or good-faith assumption on the part of the user, that the app developer won't do anything with the user's data that the user would object to.

 

Users of Muslm Pro received a shock last month when the Motherboard column of the website Vice revealed that through a third-party vendor, Muslim Pro had sold location data on its users to contractors for the U. S. military.  True, the data was "anonymized," meaning that names and other explicit identifying information was stripped from the data before it was sold.  But if a contractor obtains data from several different anonymized sources, it is often a fairly straightforward matter to "de-anonymize" the data and identify specific individuals.  If an anonymous individual spends a lot of time at a particular street address that can be associated independently with a particular name, so much for anonymity. 

 

Although no one has traced any specific military actions to the use of Muslim Pro data, users of the app have every right to feel betrayed.  Muslims aren't the only religious group using faith-related apps.  Just to pick a random example, the Catholic radio network Relevant Radio has developed an app that assists users in saying the Rosary and pursuing other devotional practices.  Imagine how users of that app in a Christian-hostile country would feel if they discovered that the network was selling location data gleaned from the app to representatives of the country that was persecuting them.  Betrayal is a mild word.

 

After Vice revealed the practice, Muslim Pro announced that it was cutting off its association with X-Mode, the company that was buying location data from Muslim Pro and other apps and selling it to contractors who specialize in providing intelligence data to the U. S. military.  For its part, X-Mode encourages developers who provide data to insert warning phrases in their user agreements.  Even if such verbiage was provided by each of the 400 or so apps that X-Mode obtains data from, it is unlikely that most users would even read it. 

 

I will admit that the first time I heard of a special watch that informed the wearer of the correct direction to pray toward Mecca, it struck me as incongruous, to say the least.  Here was a practice of a 1400-year-old faith being aided by up-to-date technology.  But religion is an important part of the lives of billions of people, and as technology advances and provides conveniences and assistance for every part of life, it's understandable that religious practices would take advantage of it too. 

 

The Muslim Pro-X-Mode revelation is a good example of how compartmentalizing is encouraged by the way large-scale technical systems work.  Most religions deal with the whole person, one at a time.  This is the opposite tendency of the way a company like X-Mode operates:  stripping identifying information from bits of location data and selling it wholesale to similar organizations that deal in dehumanized blocks of information, which however can be easily reversed to reveal the location of any particular individual.  Those who handle the data along the way—the programmers and managers and salesmen—easily forget that the only reason their data is valuable is because it pertains to human beings.  They would rather think about correlations and data quality and other mathematical measures, than to consider that just possibly, one of the bits of data they sell may be used to end the life of a human being. 

 

I am not a pacifist, and I realize that war is sometimes the least bad alternative in certain situations.  But historically, one of the most common practices a warring nation will adopt against a rival nation is to convince its own people that the rivals are not really human, but are something less than human—animals, maybe, or even just numbers in a census record somewhere.  In anonymizing the location data Muslim Pro collected, X-Mode unwittingly carried out that first step in making it easier for someone else to treat human beings as less than human.  What looked like a good thing—removing personal identifying data—turned out to be the first step in a process that wound up as a betrayal.

 

Information technology is an unavoidable part of our lives now, and can be the source or driving force behind many benefits.  Without computers and anonymized testing, we would not be looking forward to getting vaccines for COVID-19 within a year of the virus's spread to humans.  But those who use data derived from humans must never forget the humans behind the data, and everyone working in such fields needs to exercise their moral imaginations enough to ask, "Supposing I was a user, are we doing anything that I'd object to?"  And if the answer is yes, don't just shrug and go on about your business.

 

Sources:  The original report on X-Mode's use of Muslim Pro location data was "How the U. S. Military Buys Location Data from Ordinary Apps" by Joseph Cox, which appeared on the Vice website on Nov. 16, 2020 at https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqm5x/us-military-location-data-xmode-locate-x.  Articles derived from this source appeared in many locations including the Austin American-Statesman, where I first learned of it.