UN Agency Aims to Increase State Control Over Internet

The International Telecommunication Union, an international agency originally formed in 1865 to regulate international telegraph lines, will meet this December to debate handing governments more control over the Internet.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications  will convene Dec. 3 in Dubai to update the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty, and may mark an unprecedented encroachment by the ITU into Internet-governance.

Delegates will be discussing a number of proposals championed by authoritarian regimes like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia aimed at enhancing governments’ ability to block and spy on online traffic, and reducing the control of U.S.-based Internet-governance bodies like ICANN (which assigns Web addresses).

Most alarming to Internet freedom advocates is an initiative called “Requirements for Deep Packet Inspection in Next Generation Networks,” a technology standard that would allow state telecom authorities to decrypt Internet communications traveling within their borders. The coalition of authoritarian states is also seeking more control over the assignment of IP addresses (which advocates fear could be used to muzzle online dissent) and an spam-blocking powers that some worry could be used to silence activists.

Aside from those specific proposals, online-freedom advocates are inherently skeptical of the ITU’s attempts to assert authority over the Internet, in part because the body is dominated not only by governments but also officials from incumbent telecoms, which are both generally seen as the open Internet’s natural enemies.  Telecoms in developing countries, for example, want to treat the Internet more like international phone calls, charging online firms like Google high fees to pay for network upgrades and maintenance.

UPDATE: [Dec. 3]  The level-headed Sam Biddle over at Gizmodo marked the first day of the Dubai conference by pointing out that try as they might, Russia, China and the Gulf States have no chance of succeeding with their online power grab for a number of reasons.  First off the ITU operates on a consensus basis, meaning that basically every one of the 193 countries represented have to sign off on a proposal for it to be adopted.  Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — the ITU has no enforcement mechanism, so even if it decides that something should happen, it has no way to actually make it happen.

Biddle imagines the conversation thusly:

ITU: “Hey, United States, almost all of us agree that ICANN shouldn’t be in charge of this important function of the Internet. Hand it over.”
USA: “No.”
ITU: “Well, all right.”

So we can hop down off the barricades and go back to playing Fruit Ninja.

House GOP Publishes Sane Copyright Reform Policy; Immediately Retracts It

Heads are still spinning after House Republicans’ stunning about-face on a copyright reform proposal that had Internet freedom advocates cheering — for about 24 hours.   Less than a day after declaring that “current copyright law does not merely distort some markets — rather it destroys entire markets,” the House GOP caucus retracted a position paper calling for more user-friendly policies.

The policy brief from the House  Republican Study Committee took a distinctly libertarian view of intellectual property familiar to many netizens who advocate greater freedom for consumers to access and use digital content now locked up with Digital Rights Management software.  Given that it was House Republicans, rather than Democrats, who scuttled the much-loathed Stop Online Piracy Act, it didn’t seem completely outlandish that the GOP caucus might see a twofer in appealing to a younger demographic at the expense of the Democratic party’s Hollywood paymasters.

Unfortunately, it took less than a day for lobbyists from the recording and movie industries to convince the GOP that the status quo on copyright was just fine, after all.

Explaining that the proposal “was published without adequate review,” officials from the Republican Study Committee effectively said that they didn’t really mean it when they declared “copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism” and  “hampers scientific inquiry.” In fact, after a good night’s sleep, the GOP even decided that it could no longer stand by the assertion that “in a world where everyone copies stuff at home all the time, the idea that your iPod could make you liable for a billion dollars in damages is excessive.”

The remarkable document immediately vanished from the RSC website, but lives on at the sites of groups seeking to preserve the unicorn-like appearance of a sensible copyright reform proposal from a major political party.  Entitled “Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix it,” the policy brief dismantles common misconceptions that rights holders rely on to maintain their monopolies over their intellectual properties:

1) That the purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator — the Constitution actually stipulates that the copyright system is meant to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

2) That copyright is a representation of free market capitalization — on the contrary, it actually establishes monopolies

3) That the current copyright regime leads to the greatest level of innovation and productivity — the paper notes that “excessive copyright protection leads to what economists call ‘rent-seeking’ which is effectively non-productive behavior that sucks economic productivity and potential from the overall economy” (see: patent troll)

The retracted paper made some common-sense recommendations for reform, including reforming a statutory damages regime that can leave teenagers liable for millions of dollars, expanding the range of “fair use” beyond only short snippets and parody, establishing penalties for false copyright claims, and imposing high fees (based on the revenues generated by the protected work) for copyright renewals.

It remains to be seen if any of these proposals will ever make their way into an actual copyright reform bill, but it looks doubtful that such a user-friendly bill will be coming out of the House GOP caucus.

Rate Your Polling Place with “Yelp for Democracy”

In anticipation of a Nov. 6 replay of the myriad problems that struck local polling places on Election Day in 2008 and 2004, an initiative dubbed MyFairElection aims to find which precincts experience the most difficulties.

The website is the brainchild of Archon Fung, a professor of democracy and citizenship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and he calls it something like “Yelp for democracy,” comparing his creation to the popular site where the public can rate businesses and contractors.

Those who register with the site will receive a voting reminder on Election day, and be invited to give their voting experience a rating of one to five stars.  If enough voters sign up and give ratings, MyFairElection will be able to create a real-time national “weather map” of voting conditions down to the precinct-level.  Then localized maps can help identify problem areas for journalists, civic groups and election authorities to examine more closely.

Fung traces his inspiration not only to Yelp but also Ushahidi, a platform originally devised in 2008 to crowdsource the tracking of post-election violence in Kenya, which more recently has been used to coordinate disaster response around the world.

Another precursor to MyFairElection is Election Protection, which was one of the first attempts to crowdsource the reporting of widespread polling problems in the U.S.  After the 2004 Ohio fiasco, where the gross misallocation of voting machines may have swung the election, and widespread concerns about the reliability of electronic voting, groups like Election Protection sprang up to track voting problems using the now arcane-sounding method of a telephone hotline.

Fortunately for those voters still without a smartphone, that toll-free number — 866-OUR-VOTE — is up and running this election season and has already started posting reports received from early voters.

While groups like Election Protection collect more detailed reports about serious problems than the simple 5-star ratings to be gathered by MyFairElection, the hope is that this very simplicity will broaden participation, and also register the frequency of difficulties which may not be quite egregious enough to prompt an angry phone call to the Election Protection hotline.

Bayonets Are The New Binders

Whether or not the final presidential debate managed to sway any undecided voters, it certainly upheld the tradition of spawning a meme to capture the imagination of the American Twittersphere.

When Obama responded to Romney’s simplistic complaint about the U.S. having fewer ships than in 1916 by pointing out that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” it was the zinger that launched a thousand quips.

Actually, it launched 105,767 tweets-per-minute — the biggest Twitter spike of the debate — and #horsesandbayonets was still the top-trending term the next morning.

The Obama campaign was quick to capitalize of the meme, promoting tweets in search results for “horses and bayonets” before the debate was even over.

Romney Facebook App Finds Your Most Politically Influential Friends

In the final sprint to Election Day, the Romney camp is rolling out a new Facebook that searches supporters’ friends to micro-target those most useful to the campaign.

The Commit to Mitt app first searches users’ friend lists to select those living in swing states, so time and effort aren’t wasted reaching out to voters in that are already solidly red or blue.

Then the app uses Faceb0ok’s open graph platform to examine those friends’ interests, tastes and political preferences to identify which ones would be most receptive to direct outreach from the app user on behalf of the GOP nominee.

The user then gets a list of their friends that the Romney campaign recommends they contact with a personal appeal about the election.  If the app determines that a user is likely to influence friends with a broadcast message, it will also suggest post a voting appeal on their wall.

Romney campaign staffer Matt Lira told Tech Crunch that the app was inspired in part by recent research showing that political messages on Facebook can significantly boost voter turnout, which both campaigns agree will be crucial in this election.

 “All one needs to do is look at their own newsfeed to know that people want to talk about this election on Facebook; the question is, how can we make sure that activity is purposeful and effective at making a difference for the campaign,” Lira said.

“Binders Full of Women” Win Second Presidential Debate

The Punditariat may be undecided on whether the second presidential debate was a win, lose or draw for either candidate, but the clear winner of the post-debate meme race was Romney’s claim that he had “binders full of women” as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney made the now infamous comment in reference to his effort to find women to include in his cabinet :

“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

Moderator Candy Crowley had barely closed the Trapper Keeper on the debate before the binder meme had already launched a dedicated Tumblr blog and Facebook page and #bindersfullofwomen was trending on Twitter, where it spawned several parody accounts.

With #bindersfullofwomen still buoyant the next morning as the second-highest-trending hashtag in the U.S. Twittersphere, the Obama campaign even jumped on the memewagon, sponsoring a tweet to the top that stream:

On a more serious note, the tweet stream for #binders is topped by a Huffington Post item noting that Romney’s boast about “binders full of women” was an empty claim to begin with.

And on a much lighter note, the #binders meme also provided an opportunity for a (perhaps inevitable) cameo:

Wikileaks “Paywall” Angers Anonymous

Cash-strapped leak site Wikileaks.org has enraged Anonymous, the loose group of hackers that has been a key ally, by putting its latest release behind an apparent paywall that asks for a credit card donation before viewing the files.

This week Wikileaks began an election-themed drip release of over 200,000 emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor, releasing thousands of emails a day referring to Obama, Biden, Romney and the Republican and Democratic parties.

But the Stratfor files are hidden by a splash page, featuring a video of Obama clips intercut with comments from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, that appeared to require a donation before proceeding to the emails.

Wikileaks has been starved for funding after a financial blockade by banks and major credit cards, but recent court victories have allowed the site once again to receive credit card donations, and the “Vote Wikileaks” campaign was launched to take full advantage of that change.

The move provoked a furious backlash from Anonymous and allied groups, however, not least because the Stratfor emails were supplied to Wikileaks by members of Anonymous affiliate LulzSec who have since been arrested for that hack.

The Daily Dot reported that word quickly spread of work-arounds to avoid making a credit card donation, which some worried could be used to identify Wikileaks supporters:

Within an hour, the word went around Twitter that disabling JavaScript in your browser would get you around it, although that information was nowhere on the Web page. Other users reported that clicking to donate, then backing out before concluding the transaction, worked. Still others found that simply waiting (anywhere from ten minutes to an hour) exempted them from the importuning video. Others, that watching the video got you past it. And the Cryto Coding Collective released its own browser add-on specifically for the leaks.

Ars Technica noted that Wikileaks’ response to the backlash pointed out that the splash page wasn’t technically a “paywall” in the first place:

Justifying the call for donations, Assange wrote that the fund-raising was necessary to fund its “publishing and infrastructure costs,” and further to fund its legal action against the payment processors. WikiLeaks’ Twitter account also said that an overlay that allows you to share, tweet, or wait—or pay—isn’t a paywall anyway.