Federal Judge Rules That Trump Blocking Users On Twitter Is A Violation Of First Amendment Rights

Our ideas about freedom of speech and First Amendment rights need to evolve in this social media age. Almost a year ago I wrote about a lawsuit against Donald Trump for banning people from his Twitter feed. Usual ideas about a private Twitter account did not seem to apply in this case with Trump making frequent public proclamations on Twitter. Sean Spicer, while White House press secretary, had stated that Trump’s tweet’s should be considered official statements. A federal judge has issued a ruling that it is a violation of the First Amendment for Trump to ban people from his Twitter feed. The Hill reports:

A federal district court judge on Wednesday ruled that President Trump can’t block people from viewing his Twitter feed over their political views.

Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said President Trump’s Twitter account is a public forum and blocking people who reply to his tweets with differing opinions constitutes viewpoint discrimination, which violates the First Amendment.

The court’s ruling is a major win for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of seven people who were blocked from the @realDonaldTrump account because of opinions they expressed in reply tweets.

Buchwald, who was appointed by former President Clinton, rejected Trump’s argument that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the president’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of the plaintiffs.

She suggested in her 75-page opinion that Trump could have ignored his opponents’ reply tweets.

“No First Amendment harm arises when a government’s ‘challenged conduct’ is simply to ignore the [speaker], as the Supreme Court has affirmed ‘that it is free to do,’ ” she wrote. “Stated otherwise, ‘a person’s right to speak is not infringed when government simply ignores that person while listening to others,’ or when the government ‘amplifies’ the voice of one speaker over those of others.”

Buchwald explained that blocking someone on Twitter goes further than just muting them.

“Muting preserves the muted account’s ability to reply to a tweet sent by the muting account, blocking precludes the blocked user from ‘seeing or replying to the blocking user’s tweets’ entirely,” she said…

Josh Geltzer, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said the court’s ruling is a critical victory in preserving free speech in the digital age.

“The court’s thorough decision recognizes that the President’s use of @realDonaldTrump on Twitter makes it the type of public forum in which the government may not, under the First Amendment, silence its critics,” he said in a statement.

While this might help preserve free speech in the digital age, there are many other threats. While Facebook has come under intense scrutiny for its violations of the privacy of its users, I’ve considered the censorship of political views on both the left and right to be an even more serious threat to civil liberties in an era when communication on Facebook has become the digital equivalent of the old fashioned town square.

Do The Morons Running Facebook Really Think They Are Fighting Spam When They Censor Political Views?

Facebook has released ts first quarterly Community Standards Enforcement Report, bragging about how they have closed fake accounts and shut down spam. Never mind that much of what they block includes political views on both the left and right which vary from their establishment Democratic Party views, along with certain verboten topics which I will not list here to decrease the risk that this is censored from Facebook groups. While Facebook brags about eliminating spam, among the “spam” they have censored this year has been this post on the corporate money being taken by members of the party with the donkey symbol, even when they make noise about not taking corporate money. That post was enough to put me in Facebook Jail for three days, and I have any Facebook friends who have spent far more time there this year.

The Guardian has more on the report:

In its first quarterly Community Standards Enforcement Report, Facebook said the overwhelming majority of moderation action was against spam posts and fake accounts: it took action on 837m pieces of spam, and shut down a further 583m fake accounts on the site in the three months. But Facebook also moderated 2.5m pieces of hate speech, 1.9m pieces of terrorist propaganda, 3.4m pieces of graphic violence and 21m pieces of content featuring adult nudity and sexual activity…

Facebook also managed to increase the amount of content taken down with new AI-based tools which it used to find and moderate content without needing individual users to flag it as suspicious. Those tools worked particularly well for content such as fake accounts and spam: the company said it managed to use the tools to find 98.5% of the fake accounts it shut down, and “nearly 100%” of the spam.

Automatic flagging worked well for finding instances of nudity, since, Schultz said, it was easy for image recognition technology to know what to look for. Harder, because of the need to take contextual clues into account, was moderation for hate speech. In that category, Facebook said, “we found and flagged around 38% of the content we subsequently took action on, before users reported it to us”.

Facebook has made moves to improve transparency in recent months. In April, the company released a public version of its guidelines for what is and is not allowed on the site – a year after the Guardian revealed Facebook’s secret rules for content moderation.

Either their AI-based tools are failing miserably with an incredible amount of false positive results or they are failing to disclose their true criteria for blocking material on Facebook. Either way, it is a serious problem with a site which has become a major avenue for speech around the world.

Haspel Evades Questions On Torture, Cheney Backs It, And Will Democrats Back Down On Resisting Once Again?

The American Civil Liberties Union has outlined how Gina Haspel evaded multiple questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. This included a question from Kamala Harris whether she found torture to be immoral. She evaded questions from Ron Wyden about whether she had wanted the use of torture “to be continued or expanded” between 2005 and 2007. She refused to recuse herself from decisions on declassifying her role in torture, with Haskel making the decisions regarding which documents the CIA will release. She misrepresented the content of torture tapes. She evaded questions on Trump’s views on torture.

While Haspel evaded questions, Dick Cheney had no qualms about presenting his views, which unfortunately consist of strong support for resuming the use of torture. He also said that that he thinks Haspel would “be a great CIA director.”

The vote on Haspel could be very close. So far one Democrat, Joe Manchin, said he would vote for her while John McCain has said he would vote against. Rand Paul previously stated he would oppose the confirmation of both Pompeo and Haspel, but folded on Pompeo.

Stopping her confirmation will depend upon the remaining Democrats sticking together, along with additional Republican defections. Glenn Greenwald questions whether the Democrats will stick together to block her nomination:

It is difficult to be optimistic, to put that mildly. The history of Democrats throughout the war on terror is to ensure that just enough members of their caucus join with the GOP majority to ensure passage of even the most extremist pieces of legislation or nominees justified in the name of terrorism or national security.

The ruse Democrats typically use to accomplish these dirty deeds is quite ingenious: The defectors change so that no one member bears the blame for enabling right-wing measures, while the party itself is able to claim that a majority opposed the extremism. In 2010 — as the Bush-era tactic of Democratic defections to the GOP continued under Barack Obama — I referred to this tactic as “Villain Rotation” and described it this way:

The primary tactic in this game is Villain Rotation.  They always have a handful of Democratic Senators announce that they will be the ones to deviate this time from the ostensible party position and impede success, but the designated Villain constantly shifts, so the Party itself can claim it supports these measures while an always-changing handful of their members invariably prevent it.  One minute, it’s Jay Rockefeller as the Prime Villain leading the way in protecting Bush surveillance programs and demanding telecom immunity; the next minute, it’s Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer joining hands and “breaking with their party” to ensure Michael Mukasey’s confirmation as Attorney General; then it’s Big Bad Joe Lieberman single-handedly blocking Medicare expansion; then it’s Blanche Lincoln and Jim Webb joining with Lindsey Graham to support the de-funding of civilian trials for Terrorists; and now that they can’t blame Lieberman or Ben Nelson any longer on health care (since they don’t need 60 votes), Jay Rockefeller voluntarily returns to the Villain Role, stepping up to put an end to the pretend-movement among Senate Democrats to enact the public option via reconciliation.

We most recently saw the Democrats act more like collaborators than a resistance civil liberties during the votes on FISA renewal with eighteen Democrats siding with the Republicans to prevent consideration of amendments to reform the law. The eighteen Democrats provided exactly the number of votes for cloture to pass.

US Ranking Falls On Press Freedom Index

The threats to freedom of the press under Donald Trump have led to Reporters Without Borders dropping the rating of the United States to 45th, continuing its downward trend. The United States previously finished No. 43 in 2017 and No. 41 in 2016. Even before Trump, they note restrictions in press freedom due to the prosecution of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act which predated his presidency.

From their report on the United States:

The United States’ ranking fell from 43 to 45 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index, continuing its downward trend in the first year of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. In contrast, its northern neighbor Canada gained 4 places due to steps taken to safeguard the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.

Donald Trump furthers First Amendment decline

In 2017, the 45th President of the United States helped sink the country to 45th place by labeling the press an “enemy of the American people” in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempts to block White House access to multiple media outlets, routine use of the term “fake news” in retaliation for critical reporting, and calling for media outlets’ broadcasting licenses to be revoked. President Trump has routinely singled out news outlets and individual journalists for their coverage of him, and retweeted several violent memes targeting CNN.

The violent anti-press rhetoric from the White House has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protestsor simply attempting to ask public officials questions. Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job.

Press freedom violations in the country of the First Amendment in fact have become so frequent of late that RSF joined a coalition of more than two dozen press freedom organizations to launch the US Press Freedom Tracker in August, which documented 34 arrests of journalists in 2017, the majority while covering protests (find out more on the tracker).

However, the Trump effect has only served to amplify the disappointing press freedom climate that predated his presidency. Whistleblowers face prosecution under the Espionage Act if they leak information of public interest to the press, while there is still no federal “shield law” guaranteeing reporters’ right to protect their sources. Journalists and their devices continue to be searched at the US border, while some foreign journalists are still denied entry into the US after covering sensitive topics like Colombia’s FARC or Kurdistan.

The US’ decline in press freedom is not simply bad news for journalists working inside the country; the downward trend has drastic consequences at the international level. “Fake news” is now a trademark excuse for media repression, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. Democratic governments from several countries in the Organisation of East Caribbean States (OECS), have adopted Trump’s favorite phrase when criticizing the work of journalists. Given that criminal defamation still remains on the books in many Caribbean countries, the spread of Trump’s anti-media rhetoric could have very serious consequences for the local press.

Norway and Sweden were ranked at the top for press freedom for the second straight year. North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Syria and China were at the bottom. The report also mentioned the impact of strongmen such as Vladimir Putin:

The Index also reflects the growing influence of “strongmen” and rival models. After stifling independent voices at home, Vladimir Putin’s Russia (148th) is extending its propaganda network by means of media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, while Xi Jinping’s China (176th) is exporting its tightly controlled news and information model in Asia. Their relentless suppression of criticism and dissent provides support to other countries near the bottom of the Index such as Vietnam (175th), Turkmenistan (178th) and Azerbaijan (163rd).

I noted last week how Edward Snowden had joined civil liberties organization in condemning restrictions on free communications in Russia. In a recent interview, Ed Schultz argued that Russia Today provides him with more independence than he had at MSNBC, which he says fired him for his support for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.

DNC Suit Against Wikileaks Is A Dangerous Attack On Freedom Of The Press

In 2016 the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton were exposed for undermining democratic principles by rigging the Democratic nomination and other acts of gross dishonesty. While there were many sources of information regarding this, email released by Wikileaks was instrumental in both verifying what was already suspected and providing new information. Rather than showing any remorse and instituting real reform, the Democratic Party has now initiated the absurd act of suing Wikileaks, Russia, and the Trump campaign based upon their unproven conspiracy theories that the 2016 election was stolen by these groups. In other words, the DNC is filing a lawsuit alleging damages because the truth about them was released by Wikileaks. The most alarming aspect is their attack on freedom of the press by including Wikileaks for publishing leaked or stolen emails provided to them.

This foolish action made the DNC the target of civil libertarians on a weekend in which Donald Trump was also attacking the press. The DNC is including Wikileaks in the suit not because of any claims that they had hacked the DNC, but purely because they posted email they received. Media organizations often publish stolen material and the DNC’s attempt to sue Wikileaks for doing is an attempt to intimidate the media for doing so. This includes The Pentagon Papers, The Panama Papers, and the revelations from Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance. The right of the media to publish stolen documents has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

As Glenn Greenwald and Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation wrote, “investigative journalism frequently entails media outlets receiving documents and other private information from people who have stolen them or otherwise broke the law to obtain and release them. To convert that into a legal transgression or part of an unlawful racketeering plot – as the DNC lawsuit seeks to do – is to turn a core part of journalism into something illegal.” They also noted:

Even WikiLeaks’ most devoted critics and enemies are constrained to acknowledge that WikiLeaks’ publications in general – and their disclosure of at least some of the DNC and Podesta emails in particular – informed the public about matters legitimately in the public interest. That’s why literally every major media outlet reported on their contents, why those documents forced the resignation of five top DNC officials and the firing of a CNN commentator, and why the DNC itself believes, as evidenced by this lawsuit, that it changed perceptions of Hillary Clinton.

For an entertaining history on this history in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of newspapers to publish stolen documents watch the recent movie The Post. To use an analogy to The Pentagon Papers, the DNC is not only suing what might be the equivalent of Daniel Ellsberg for stealing the papers, but also suing those in the position of The New York Times and The Washington Post (in the pre-Bezos era).

Is this really the position the DNC desires to be in if they want to have any hope of rebuilding bridges with the left? The Democrats have been the villains of this story. Their attempts to portray themselves as the victims, as opposed to cleaning up the party and embracing reform, is counterproductive if they hope to ever regain the trust of many on the left.

Democratic opposition to the publication of email which exposes the unethical actions of the DNC is also rather hypocritical considering that most of them have probably cheered on Rachel Maddow for airing information on leaked tax returns from Donald Trump.

Wikileaks has been victorious in previous cases in which claims that they were involved in the theft of documents they posted. They have also been the target of Democrats in the past, including several false claims about them from Hillary Clinton.

Wikileaks has responded to this suit stating in a Tweet stating, “As an accurate publisher of newsworthy information @WikiLeaks is constitutionally protected from such suits.” They are also requesting contributions for a counter-suit: “Help us counter-sue. We’ve never lost a publishing case and discovery is going to be amazing fun.”

There are also questions regarding the validity of other aspects of the suit. The generally pro-Democratic blog Vox writes:

…there were many hacks and claims of hacks during 2016, and it hasn’t yet been shown whether any of these Trumpworld and Russia contacts involved coordination on the DNC email leak itself, or even whether any cooperation effort between Trump’s team and Russia involving hacked material did materialize.

The DNC may well be hoping to use this new suit to surface more evidence of this, should it proceed to the discovery stage — but as of now, they don’t have the goods on any Trumpworld involvement with the hack and leak that damaged Democrats specifically.

Slate points out that, “Russia and WikiLeaks are unlikely to cooperate with a U.S. civil proceeding.” They also note that, “The DNC’s evidence of Trump participation in the scheme is limited to suggestive but not conclusive information that has already appeared in media reports.” They questioned the point of this suit, which appears to be primarily a stunt, when these matters are already under investigation by Robert Mueller (and we have yet to see evidence to support many of the claims coming from the DNC). They also noted that some Democrats questioned spending money on this during a conference call reviewing the suit. Slate was not impressed with the response from the DNC:

“We’re not getting into costs regarding this litigation” is not the kind of thing you say, in my opinion, when you are really confident that you are spending your donors’ money wisely during a crucial election year!

Edward Snowden Joins Civil Liberties Groups In Protesting Restrictions On Free Speech In Russia

Edward Snowden has joined civil liberties organizations including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Freedom of the Press Foundation in condemning Russia for its attempts to suppress a widely used messenger app used to avoid government monitoring of communications. Newsweek reports:

Whistleblower Edward Snowden has backed a prominent critic of the Kremlin in a tense standoff between Russian authorities and a private messaging app used by millions.

The National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower, who fled to Russia from the U.S. in 2013, risked the wrath of the Kremlin when he tweeted his support on Tuesday for messaging app Telegram and its founder Pavel Durov, who is flouting a government request to cease operations in Russia.

“I have criticized Telegram’s security model in the past, but Durov’s response to the Russian government’s totalitarian demand for backdoor access to private communications—refusal and resistance—is the only moral response, and shows real leadership,” Snowden wrote on Twitter.

The messenger tool is facing a formal ban from Russia’s state watchdogs for refusing to allow authorities access to users’ private conversations, despite numerous requests. A Russian court ruled in favor of the ban last week, after authorities argued that Telegram’s encrypted chat feature could be used for criminal or terrorist activities.

Telegram’s privacy is one of its main selling points, and foiling Russian security agents’ attempts to eavesdrop on private chats was part of its raison d’etre, Durov has previously said. The Russian-born developer has refused to comply with the government’s demands and recently pledged millions of dollars toward a “digital resistance” to circumvent the ban.

Durov has said the ban has not resulted in a major disruption of Telegram’s operations, as social media users have shared tips online on tools that help inoculate against blocking the app. The most widely cited tool appears to be the use of so-called VPN anonymizers, which disguise an internet user’s location and allow residents of Russia to access the internet as though they were abroad.

Snowden has also retweeted posts opposing the suppression of Telegraph from civil liberties organizations.

Bloomberg notes that Google and Amazon have become involved in the fight:

Russia’s attempts to ban access to the Telegram messaging service threaten to drag U.S. tech giants including Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. into the war with founder Pavel Durov as he turns to proxy servers to bypass the blocking measures.

Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor has already blocked 18 Google and Amazon sub-networks that Telegram used to avoid restrictions, the watchdog’s head Alexander Zharov told the Izvestia daily on Wednesday. More than 15 million IP addresses were blocked as a result, making some third-party internet resources unavailable in Russia, according to Qrator Labs.
 Durov rejected as “unconstitutional” Russian officials’ demands to turn over encryption keys to allow the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, to access users’ messages on Telegram to intercept communications of terrorists. Roskomnadzor started blocking access to the messenger on Monday, after a Moscow court ruled last week that Durov was in breach of Russian law.

Telegram’s Russian founder fought back, offering to pay administrators of proxy servers in bitcoins to help bypass restrictions and saying he plans to spend millions of dollars on what he called “Digital Resistance.” Telegram “remained available for the majority of Russia’s residents” despite the blocking attempts, Durov said Wednesday on Twitter.

Snowden also tweeted, “Journalists working the story of being blocked in Russia should be absolutely clear that if and halt its access to their cloud platform or remove the app from their stores, they are witting collaborators in a censorship campaign, not victims of it.”

In related news, The Verge reports that recent actions by Google to discontinue domain-fronting will hinder attempts at circumventing censorship:

App developers won’t be able to use Google to get around internet censorship anymore. The Google App Engine is discontinuing a practice called domain-fronting, which let services use Google’s network to get around state-level internet blocks.

The article quotes Access Now in protesting this change:

“Google has long claimed to support internet freedom around the world, and in many ways the company has been true to its beliefs,” said Nathan White of Access Now. “Allowing domain fronting has meant that potentially millions of people have been able to experience a freer internet and enjoy their human rights. We urge Google to remember its commitment to human rights and internet freedom and allow domain fronting to continue.”

(more…)

Homeland Security Plans To Compile Database Of Journalists and Bloggers

The Department of Homeland Security wants to start monitoring “media influencers” according to a report at Bloomberg Law:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants to monitor hundreds of thousands of news sources around the world and compile a database of journalists, editors, foreign correspondents, and bloggers to identify top “media influencers.”

It’s seeking a contractor that can help it monitor traditional news sources as well as social media and identify “any and all” coverage related to the agency or a particular event, according to a request for information released April 3.

The data to be collected includes a publication’s “sentiment” as well as geographical spread, top posters, languages, momentum, and circulation. No value for the contract was disclosed.

“Services shall provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers,” according to the statement. DHS agencies have “a critical need to incorporate these functions into their programs in order to better reach federal, state, local, tribal, and private partners,” it said.

The DHS wants to track more than 290,000 global news sources, including online, print, broadcast, cable, and radio, as well as trade and industry publications, local, national and international outlets, and social media, according to the documents. It also wants the ability to track media coverage in more than 100 languages including Arabic, Chinese, and Russian, with instant translation of articles into English.

This  might be yet another over-reaction to the Russia hysteria. Forbes add:

DHS says the “NPPD/OUS [National Protection and Programs Directorate/Office of the Under Secretary] has a critical need to incorporate these functions into their programs in order to better reach Federal, state, local, tribal and private partners.” Who knows what that means, but the document also states the NPPD’s mission is “to protect and enhance the resilience of the nation’s physical and cyberinfrastructure.”

That line makes it sound as if the creation of this database could be a direct response to the rampant allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — though President Donald Trump, who has normalized the term “fake news,” can’t seem to decide whether that’s even an issue or not.

There is no word as to what they plan to do with this information, but this appears to be a far greater threat to our democracy than the lame Facebook ads purchased by Russians.

Study Shows How Ineffective Twitter Bots Are In Changing Political Views

This study is not at all surprising, but provides yet another reason to doubt those who claim that the election was stolen from Hillary Clinton due to Russian trolls or other unfavorable comments on social media. The study looked at people arguing politics on Twitter and, as I could have told them, people do not change their political views based upon arguments on line. Here is the abstract:

There is mounting concern that social media sites contribute to political polarization by creating  “echo chambers” that insulate people from opposing views about current events. We surveyed a large sample of Democrats and Republicans who visit Twitter at least three times each week about a range of social policy issues. One week later, we randomly assigned respondents to a treatment condition in which they were offered financial incentives to follow a Twitter bot for one month that exposed them to messages produced by elected officials, organizations, and other opinion leaders with opposing political ideologies. Respondents were re-surveyed at the end of the month to measure the effect of this treatment, and at regular intervals throughout the study period to monitor treatment compliance. We find that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative post-treatment, and Democrats who followed a conservative Twitter bot became slightly more liberal post-treatment. These findings have important implications for the interdisciplinary literature on political polarization as well as the emerging field of computational social science.

It is very doubtful that people changed their view of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump based upon Russian bots or anything else they read on Twitter.

I bet that the same would apply to Facebook. Of course there are also multiple other reasons to question the claims that Russian bots or others caused Clinton to lose, as I most recently discussed in this post. Censoring social media, as Hillary Clinton has been suggesting, and Facebook has been practicing, would serve no positive purpose. There are obviously strong reasons to resist such censorship, although establishment Democrats appear oblivious to the impact on civil liberties.

(Hat tip to Salon for link to study).

Edward Snowden On Putin, Obama, Trump And Questioning Power

With the high level of McCarthyism coming from pro-Clinton Democrats in recent months, it has been commonplace recently for such Democrats to falsely attack those they disagree with as being pro-Russia. They fail to understand that people can be opposed to Clinton, Trump, and Putin–with all three actually sharing many characteristics with their mutual lack of respect for the norms of liberal democracy. This week several blogs on the left have pointed out that Edward Snowden has joined others in posting videos exposing ballot box stuffing in the recent Russian election:

Snowden posted the video with this caption: “The ballot stuffing seen today in Moscow and elsewhere in the Russian election is an effort to steal the influence of 140+ million people. Demand justice; demand laws and courts that matter. Take your future back.”

Glenn Greenwald retweeted this and said, “How many days will elapse until we see the next tweets claiming that Snowden never criticizes Putin or Russia – something he in fact does with great vigor and frequency?”

Stefania Maurizi recently interviewed Edward Snowden for La Repubblica. The first question was about the Democrats who joined with Republicans to support mass surveillance:

Five years have passed since you revealed the NSA’s mass surveillance activities, and we have just seen dozens of US Democrats voting with the Trump Administration to renew the NSA’s surveillance powers, we’ve seen Italy approve a law which extends mandatory data retention to six years, but we’ve also seen a UK Court ruling that the UK’s mass surveillance regime is unlawful. The debate is still ongoing and the picture is mixed. In the long run, will mass surveillance be downsized in our democracies, or will it continue to flourish?

“That’s a big question…(he smiles). For one it’s certainly a real shame, I think, for the Democratic party, and unfortunately this has become quite routine, that the party that is presenting itself as a progressive force is so often joining in to limit the rights that the public enjoys. I don’t think this is unique to the Democratic Party, we see this happening even in countries that don’t share the same dynamics. What we are seeing is a new kind of creeping authoritarianism spreading across the globe.

Having said that, we have made some limited progress: in the United States, of course, we had the passage of the USA Freedom Act, which is the first surveillance law in 40 years that limited the powers of intelligence agencies rather than expanding them, but it is not guaranteed that this progress will continue, and in fact we see laws like the section 702 of the FISA [the NSA’s surveillance powers reauthorized by the U.S. Congress]…

He was later asked about Obama and Trump:

We saw that President Obama, who was an outsider to the US military-intelligence complex, initially wanted to reign in the abuses of agencies like the CIA and the NSA, but in the end he did very little. Now we see a confrontation between president Trump and so-called Deep State, which includes the CIA and the NSA. Can a US president govern in opposition to such powerful entities?

“Obama is certainly an instructive case. This is a president who campaigned on a platform of ending warrantless wiretapping in the United States, he said “that’s not who we are, that’s not what we do”, and once he became the president, he expanded the program.  He said he was going to close Guantanamo but he kept it open, he said he was going to limit extrajudicial killings and drone strikes that has been so routine in the Bush years. But Obama went on to authorize vastly more drone strikes than Bush. It became an industry.

As for this idea that there is a Deep State, now the Deep State is not just the intelligence agencies, it is really a way of referring to the career bureaucracy of government. These are officials who sit in powerful positions, who don’t leave when presidents do, who watch presidents come and go, they influence policy, they influence presidents and say: this is what we have always done, this is what we must do, and if you don’t do this, people will die. It is very easy to persuade a new president who comes in, who has never had these powers, but has always wanted this job and wants very, very badly to do that job well. A bureaucrat sitting there for the last twenty years says: I understand what you said, I respect your principles, but if you do what you promised, people will die. It is very easy for a president to go: well, for now, I am going to set this controversy to the side, I’m going to take your advice, let you guys decide how these things should be done, and then I will revisit it, when I have a little more experience, maybe in a few months, maybe in a few years, but then they never do.

This is what we saw quite clearly happen in the case of Barack Obama: when this story [of Snowden exposing the NSA’s mass surveillance] came forward in 2013, when Obama had been president for five years, one of the defences for this from his aides and political allies was: oh, Obama was just about to fix this problem!  And sure enough, he eventually was forced from the wave of criticism to make some limited reforms, but he did not go far enough to end all of the programs that were in violation of the law or the constitution of the United States.

That too was an intentional choice: he could have certainly used the scandal to advocate for all of the changes that he had campaigned on, to deliver on all of his promises, but in those five years he had become president, he discovered something else, which is that there are benefits from having very powerful intelligence agencies, there are benefits from having these career bureaucrats on your side, using their spider web over government for your benefit.

Imagine you are Barack Obama, and you realise – yes, when you were campaigning you were saying: spying on people without a warrant is a problem, but then you realise: you can read Angela Merkel’s text messages. Why bother calling her and asking her opinion, when you can just read her mind by breaking the law? It sounds like a joke, but it is a very seductive thing. Secrecy is perhaps the most corrupting of all government powers, because it takes public officials and divorces them from accountability to the public.

When we look at the case of Trump, who is perhaps the worst of politicians, we see the same dynamic occurring. This is a president who said the CIA is the enemy, it’s like Nazi Germany, they’re listening to his phone calls, and all of these other things, some claims which are true, some claims which are absolutely not.  A few months later, he is authorizing major powers for these same agencies that he has called his enemies.

And this gets to the central crux of your question, which is: can any president oppose this?  The answer is certainly. The president has to have some familiarity going in with the fact that this pitch is going to be made, that they are going to try to scare him or her into compliance. The president has to be willing to stand strongly on line and say: ‘I was elected to represent the interests of the American people, and if you’re not willing to respect the constitution and our rights, I will disband your agency, and create a new one’. I think they can definitely be forced into compliance, because these officials fear prison, just like every one of us.”

He was asked about attacks claiming that he only exposes problems with  the United States:

How do you reply to those critics who attack you for “only” exposing the US mass surveillance and saying that the Chinese and the Russian surveillance complexes are no less threatening?

“This is an easy one: I am not Chinese, I am not Russian, I didn’t work for the Chinese secret services or Russian secret services, I worked for the US ones, so of course my information would be about the US”.

Critics say we should also expose the Russians and the Chinese…

“Yes, if I could, I would. We need more Chinese whistleblowers, we need more Russian whistleblowers, and unfortunately that becomes more difficult to make that happen when the United States is itself setting a precedent that whistleblowers get persecuted and attacked, rather than protected”.

How do you see this serious diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia?
“I haven’t followed it that closely, but the idea that political violence is being used in any form is reprehensible, it needs to be condemned. If the UK allegations are correct, poisoning people, particularly people who are long out of their service, and in a different country, is contemptible”.

Snowden did subsequently have the opportunity to help expose problems in Russia with the video in the tweet at the start of this post.

The interview concluded with Snowden’s being asked for his advice for young and talented people who want to do the right thing:

“Question power. I don’t want people to trust me, I want people to doubt me, but I want them to take that experience and apply that to the real powers of society, not just isolated, exiled whistleblowers. Think about politicians, business leaders, the people who shape your society. Shouldn’t it be that the ones who wield the most power in society are the ones who are held to the highest standard of behaviour?

And look at the way the system works in your country, around you today, and ask if in fact the most powerful people in society are being held to the highest standards, or if you see cases where if the ordinary person breaks the smallest law, they’re going to jail, but if the most powerful people in society are engaged in criminal activity on the grandest scales, they can simply apologize and face no consequences. If that is the case, think about what you can do to fix that. The first step is always to question if this is the way things should be, and if it’s not, it’s time to change it”.

China’s Social Credit System Sounds Orwellian, And Like An Extension Of Current Facebook Censorship

Recent reports on China’s  social credit system sound Orwellian, or like something out of Black Mirror. The Verge summarized how the system works:

Starting in May, Chinese citizens who rank low on the country’s burgeoning “social credit” system will be in danger of being banned from buying plane or train tickets for up to a year, according to statements recently released by the country’s National Development and Reform Commission.

With the social credit system, the Chinese government rates citizens based on things like criminal behavior and financial misdeeds, but also on what they buy, say, and do. Those with low “scores” have to deal with penalties and restrictions. China has been working towards rolling out a full version of the system by 2020, but some early versions of it are already in place.

Previously, the Chinese government had focused on restricting the travel of people with massive amounts of debt, like LeEco and Faraday Future founder Jia Yueting, who made the Supreme People’s Court blacklist late last year.

The new travel restrictions are the latest addition to this growing patchwork of social engineering, which has already imposed punishments on more than seven million citizens. And there’s a broad range when it comes to who can be flagged. Citizens who have spread “false information about terrorism,” caused “trouble” on flights, used expired tickets, or were caught smoking on trains could all be banned, according to Reuters.

But the system, as it stands, is opaque; citizens are seemingly just as likely to be flagged for minor infractions like leaving bikes parked in a footpath or issuing apologies that are deemed “insincere” as major credit defaulters like Jia. And it’s often unclear whether they’re on a blacklist in the first place, let alone what kind of recourse is available. “Chinese government authorities clearly hope to create a reality in which bureaucratic pettiness could significantly limit people’s rights,” Maya Wang, senior researcher for the non-profit NGO Human Rights Watch, wrote in December.

Wired has further information on how the system works:

Individuals on Sesame Credit are measured by a score ranging between 350 and 950 points. Alibaba does not divulge the “complex algorithm” it uses to calculate the number but they do reveal the five factors taken into account. The first is credit history. For example, does the citizen pay their electricity or phone bill on time? Next is fulfilment capacity, which it defines in its guidelines as “a user’s ability to fulfil his/her contract obligations”. The third factor is personal characteristics, verifying personal information such as someone’s mobile phone number and address. But the fourth category, behaviour and preference, is where it gets interesting.

Under this system, something as innocuous as a person’s shopping habits become a measure of character. Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy. “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,” says Li Yingyun, Sesame’s Technology Director. “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.” So the system not only investigates behaviour – it shapes it. It “nudges” citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like.

Friends matter, too. The fifth category is interpersonal relationships. What does their choice of online friends and their interactions say about the person being assessed? Sharing what Sesame Credit refers to as “positive energy” online, nice messages about the government or how well the country’s economy is doing, will make your score go up…

Posting dissenting political opinions or links mentioning Tiananmen Square has never been wise in China, but now it could directly hurt a citizen’s rating. But here’s the real kicker: a person’s own score will also be affected by what their online friends say and do, beyond their own contact with them. If someone they are connected to online posts a negative comment, their own score will also be dragged down…

…people with low ratings will have slower internet speeds; restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs or golf courses; and the removal of the right to travel freely abroad with, I quote, “restrictive control on consumption within holiday areas or travel businesses”. Scores will influence a person’s rental applications, their ability to get insurance or a loan and even social-security benefits. Citizens with low scores will not be hired by certain employers and will be forbidden from obtaining some jobs, including in the civil service, journalism and legal fields, where of course you must be deemed trustworthy. Low-rating citizens will also be restricted when it comes to enrolling themselves or their children in high-paying private schools. I am not fabricating this list of punishments. It’s the reality Chinese citizens will face. As the government document states, the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.

This sounds a  lot like what was depicted on an episode of The Orville entitled Majority Rule.

The system is voluntary now and becomes mandatory in 2020. Wired suggests that people are signing up now out of fear of reprisals if they do not, and as high scores can be a status symbol:

Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch. A citizen’s score can even affect their odds of getting a date, or a marriage partner, because the higher their Sesame rating, the more prominent their dating profile is on Baihe.

Sesame Credit already offers tips to help individuals improve their ranking, including warning about the downsides of friending someone who has a low score. This might lead to the rise of score advisers, who will share tips on how to gain points, or reputation consultants willing to offer expert advice on how to strategically improve a ranking or get off the trust-breaking blacklist.

Wired compares this to “a big data gamified version of the Communist Party’s surveillance methods.” People are also likely to seek ways around the system:

We’re also bound to see the birth of reputation black markets selling under-the-counter ways to boost trustworthiness. In the same way that Facebook Likes and Twitter followers can be bought, individuals will pay to manipulate their score. What about keeping the system secure? Hackers (some even state-backed) could change or steal the digitally stored information…

In China, certain citizens, such as government officials, will likely be deemed above the system. What will be the public reaction when their unfavourable actions don’t affect their score? We could see a Panama Papers 3.0 for reputation fraud.

While this sounds absolutely Orwellian, businesses here are regularly rated on line, and their success can be affected by the whims of anonymous reviewers.

While we do not face restrictions as severe as those described in China, this is also analogous to the current censorship we are facing on Facebook. While the internet can increase opportunities for free expression when anyone can write from their own web page,  increasingly communication is being channeled through limited sources. Facebook has become indispensable for communicating, now with over two billion active users worldwide. Facebook will often cite violation of Community Standards to justify restricting individuals, but quite often there is no evidence of violating any of the Community Standards actually posted by Facebook, and no response to appeals. This has led many people to start using social media sites including MeWe, Steemit, Minds, and Tremr. Unfortunately it is far harder for Chinese to change where they live to avoid repression based upon unclear standards than it is to use alternative social media sites here.