Archive for the “Freedom of Speech” Category

The British voicemail hacking scandal just took a hugely dangerous turn. Scotland Yard is making war on the journalists who broke the voicemail-hacking scandal that Scotland Yard refused — corruptly or ineptly — to fully investigate on its own.

The police had all but ignored most of the immoral and almost certainly illegal acts of News Corp.’s top-selling and now defunct UK newspaper, News of the World (and maybe others). Scotland Yard’s lack of interest in the case — putting the lid on the investigation after several early arrests — may have been simple incompetence, but the other possible explanation is a corrupt alliance with crooked journalists and governments. 

But the Guardian (for which I write a weekly opinion piece) did its job when other journalists didn’t. Almost singlehandedly, the Guardian kept the story alive until the public saw more clearly what had happened.

Now the police are using one of the UK’s most draconian laws, the Official Secrets Act, against the newspaper. This is a blatant effort to punish the one news organization that dared to stand up for the public’s right to know about a scandal that implicated the nation’s most powerful media company, governments run by both major parties and, as increasingly seems safe to assume, the police themselves. 

Scotland Yard, stung by honest journalism, is attempting to criminalize that journalism. What an outrageous move. 

Tom Watson, the member of parliament who’s been on the case more than any other, puts it well in the Guardian’s coverage:

“It is an outrageous abuse and completely unacceptable that, having failed to investigate serious wrongdoing at the News of the World for more than a decade, the police should now be trying to move against the Guardian. It was the Guardian who first exposed this scandal.”

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Is it finally dawning on the news business that Apple is not a friend, nor an ally, nor even a partner in any true sense of the world?There are some signs of sanity emerging in the week since Apple announced its terms of engagement for offering subscriptions via mobile apps, rules that were arrogant even by that company’s standard.

To recap: The company’s new in-app subscription rules, issued a week ago in a press release purporting to quote Supreme Leader Steve Jobs, reinforced Apple’s determination to be publications’ gatekeeper in every sense of that word. What took publishers aback was the financial part of the rules: To publish via Apple’s iOS ecosystem — currently the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad) – news organizations must agree to give Apple a 30 percent cut of every transaction with audiences. Apple had already made it clear that it would take a cut of in-app advertising sales. Moreover, publishers were not allowed to charge a higher price for the app subscription than they do in any other format — and they couldn’t even put a link into the app showing potential customers how to buy subscriptions elsewhere.

This was too much even for some of Apple’s many media-business acolytes. Even so, the most serious protests have come not for news organizations but rather from companies like Rhapsody, which sells music subscriptions and realized that Apple’s plan was either to kill or own their businesses. News organizations, whether out of fear or caution or both, have been largely silent. A few have already acceded to Apple’s demands.

Meanwhile, after having adapted Readability software as part of its Safari browser, Apple refused to allow this tiny startup to offer the same functionality as an app — because that would interfere with Apple’s insistence that it alone will control how anyone makes money.

All of this goes to the bigger picture in the new publishing environment: the need for content creators to recognize that they need to actively seek options. One of the most interesting is Google’s One Pass system, which is more in the category of announcement-ware than reality at this point. The much lower cost to publishers — 10 percent instead of 30 percent — is the most obvious lure. Another, for publishers, is sharing key subscriber information, but if Google is smart it will offer users an opt-out in at least some circumstances.

An interesting experiment is Time’s Sports Illustrated mega-approach, called “All Access,” or a subscription to print plus online versions (other than iPad). The mistake here, I believe, is charging more for a digital-only subscription than a print one. The economics of that approach are good only for Time, not its customers who are not as stupid as the company thinks they are.

The All Access system also gives Time editorial control over what it produces. What remains the most publisher-antagonistic element of the Apple ecosystem is the one thing that most media companies still hate to discuss: To even exist in that ecosystem, they must give Apple — not their own editors — final say over whether the content they produce is acceptable under Apple’s “we’ll disallow or remove it if we don’t like it” rules.

You find not a hint of this, for example, in this week’s “Media Equation” column by the New York Times’ normally sensible David Carr. This isn’t the first time he’s neglected that particular elephant in the room (and the New York Times Co.’s dealings with Apple remain a mystery that gets no comment from the company), but I wish he’d address the issue one of these days, as it’s not trivial and goes to the heart of free speech in an online world.

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This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 21, 2010.

A partisan vote on Tuesday displeases everyone. And everyone’s right

The neutering of the Internet is now the unofficial policy of the Federal Communications Commission. Contrary to the happy talk from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at a rule-making announcement today in Washington, the move is well underway to turn the Internet into a regulated playground for corporate giants.

Tuesday’s FCC vote on rules purportedly designed to ensure open and free networks was a 3-2 partisan charade, with Genachowski and the other two Democratic commissioners in favor and the two Republicans against. It did nothing of the sort. The short-term result will be confusion and jockeying for position. Genachowski’s claim that the rules bring “a level of certainty” to the landscape was laughable unless he was talking about lobbyists and lawyers; their futures are certainly looking prosperous. The longer-range result will be to solidify the power of the incumbent powerhouses — especially telecommunications providers and the entertainment industry — to take much more control over what we do online.

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This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 13, 2010.

Unfortunately, they’re not American journalists

It’s heartening to see some journalists standing up for principle in the WikiLeaks affair. A case in point is this letter to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It begins:

The leaking of 250,000 confidential American diplomatic cables is the most astonishing leak of official information in recent history, and its full implications are yet to emerge. But some things are clear. In essence, WikiLeaks, an organisation that aims to expose official secrets, is doing what the media have always done: bringing to light material that governments would prefer to keep secret.

In this case, WikiLeaks, founded by Australian Julian Assange, worked with five major newspapers around the world, which published and analysed the embassy cables. Diplomatic correspondence relating to Australia has begun to be published here.

The volume of the leaks is unprecedented, yet the leaking and publication of diplomatic correspondence is not new. We, as editors and news directors of major media organisations, believe the reaction of the US and Australian governments to date has been deeply troubling. We will strongly resist any attempts to make the publication of these or similar documents illegal. Any such action would impact not only on WikiLeaks, but every media organisation in the world that aims to inform the public about decisions made on their behalf. WikiLeaks, just four years old, is part of the media and deserves our support.

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This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 6, 2010.

Journalists should wake up and realize that the attacks on the whistle-blower are attacks on them, too

Journalists cover wars by not taking sides. But when the war is on free speech itself, neutrality is no longer an option.

The WikiLeaks releases are a pivotal moment in the future of journalism. They raise any number of ethical and legal issues for journalists, but one is becoming paramount.

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This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 3, 2010.

Attacks on WikiLeaks are part of an attack on free speech, aided by the companies that make up the Web’s backbone

UPDATED

The WikiLeaks affair is highlighting the Internet’s soft underbelly: the intermediaries on which we all rely to store our information and make it available. We are learning, to our dismay, that we cannot trust them. Combine that with increasing government intervention, we’re also learning that the Internet is somewhat easier to censor than we’d assumed.

This should worry anyone who believes that we’re going to move our data and online lives into the fabled “cloud” — the diffused online array of hardware and services where, proponents say, we can do our online work, play and commerce without the need for storing data on our own personal computers. Trusting the cloud is becoming an act of faith, and it’s time to question that faith.

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This article was originally published on Salon.com on November 29, 2010.

Among others: How secret are diplomatic cables when 3 million people have access to them?

UPDATED

Once again, WikiLeaks has thrown governments and journalists into a maelstrom of fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’ll be weeks, if not longer, before we know the full scope of the diplomatic cables, but a few things are already clear enough.

What we know is being covered relentlessly here and across the Web. It’s what we don’t know that I’d like to note. So, here are some questions, many of which prompted by tweets and commentary elsewhere, for the major players in this drama.

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This article was originally published on Salon on July 26, 2010.

Afghanistan diaries mock secrecy and highlight shifts in war, politics, media. Look for a counterattack

It’s hard to escape the sense that we’ve hit one of those historical pivot points in the wake of  WikiLeaks’ release of the Afghanistan war document trove. The conduct of politics, war and media — so intertwined these days — has changed irrevocably.

A few points seem clear (I plan to revise this as new information becomes available):

First: Daniel Ellsberg said today this is comparable to the Pentagon Papers, which he leaked to the New York Times and others back in the 1970s. I’m old enough to remember that event, and it was a pivotal moment in its own right. (The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows has valuable perspective on the larger meaning of both leaks, as well as their similarities in key ways, as they applied to American policy and war aims.)

If he was contemplating the same decision today, Ellsberg said in April, he’d just scan the documents and put them online. But just posting documents isn’t enough. While media are becoming democratized, there’s still the matter of getting people’s attention beyond a small circle of those who care deeply about any given topic. You want the biggest bang for the buck, you still take your story to the media organizations that will give your story a ride.

So the fact that WikiLeaks” Julian Assange gave an early look at the documents to three selected organizations — the New York Times, theGuardian and Der Spiegel — is proof of his incredible savvy at how traditional media actually operate. In a recent New Yorker profile, he lamented the general uninterest he perceived among journalists when it came to huge stories. When everybody has the story, he realized, they don’t care much about it.

When a few selected journalists at major institutions get it first, that’s how you create buzz. This says more about journalists’ competitive instincts and their Pavlovian response to “exclusives” than it does about their willingness to actually do their jobs for their audiences.

Second: WikiLeaks’ roles — intermediary, publisher, P.R. agent and more — is not utterly unprecedented, but the size and importance of this story takes the shifting changes in media to new levels. (Do read Jay Rosen’s smart instant analysis on all of this.) What do we make of such a “stateless news organization,” as Jay elegantly puts it, which works so hard to subvert so many media assumptions of the past?

Even though the New York Times took huge care in what it printed, and kept some of the material out of its own reports at the request of the Obama administration, a newspaper’s redaction is not very important if WikiLeaks puts out everything on its own.

That’s a big “if” — because WikiLeaks hasn’t put everything out. On its War Diary front page, here’s this item:

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually, in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing traditional news organizations delay publication or broadcasts at the request of governments. The New York Times, you’ll recall, held off for more than a year when it came to telling the American people about the Bush administration’s illegal surveillance of our communications — a decision made in what the paper considered journalistic good faith but which to many of us was an outright betrayal of the craft.

Journalists also do what sources demand, if that’s what it takes to get stories. This is why so many articles have so many unnamed sources.

In this instance, WikiLeaks is holding back, at least temporarily, to keep its source happy. You and I can’t judge whether this is really about minimizing harm or something else. We have to take WikiLeaks at its word, for now. One reason we may be more inclined to do so is the promise that these new documents will be released in full at some point.

Third: A week ago — seems longer, doesn’t it? — the Washington Post ran a superb series of articles on how America’s national-security state is emerging from the 9/11 paranoia, a “Top Secret America” that is at once terrifying and expected given the public’s twitchy fears and politicians’ eagerness to cater to our worst instincts. We learned that almost 900,000 people holding “top-secret” clearance are part of an apparatus that almost certainly spies on everything and everyone it can identify as even remotely, potentially, possibly suspicious — with no real oversight.

(This helps explain the White House’s panicky response to the WikiLeaks war documents, including the spectacle of administration officials complaining that Assange is antiwar and therefore must not be trusted. What if he is? The documents speak for themselves. Or do they? It’s an impressive number, 90,000 documents with the promise of 15,000 more, but do they provide full context? We don’t know. I’ll discuss this in an update later.)

Whatever our keepers of intelligence secrets do know, and whatever abuses they’ve done to our civil liberties to learn them, they must feel less sure today about keeping it all contained. When that many people have access to information, however compartmentalized their bosses may think they’ve made the system, some of it will get out, which leads to something else we should worry about.

Fourth: The WikiLeaks war diary will absolutely spur our powerful institutions to look for increasingly draconian ways to clamp down on how we share information. What WikiLeaks represents is what governments and corporations fear: a threat to their cultures of secrecy and dominance in their domains.

Look for Washington and our corporate media to call for new laws to stop this kind of thing. Politicians and bureaucrats who don’t trust us to know what’s really going on — they are legion in both major parties — have allies among the traditional media and the entertainment industry that would gain enormously if the Internet were to be turned into a slightly more interactive version of 20th century print and broadcast media.

If you think the rich and powerful people who run governments and corporate media aren’t working every day to turn back the clock on information they can’t control, you’re not paying attention. WikiLeaks may well have given them new ammunition for pushing the harshest kinds of restrictions. Do we want to be like Saudi Arabia and China? We may find out one of these days, sooner rather than later.

Finally, this: I have donated money to WikiLeaks in the past. I plan to donate in the future. What Assange and his team are doing is an inevitable result of what technology has brought us in democratizing our media. Some of what they do troubles me. But the bottom line seems to be this: They are performing a public service.

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This article was originally published on Salon on June 22, 2010.

Unfortunately, it takes abuses before we wake up to dangers of untrammeled executive authority

Last week, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano declared the need for “legal tools to do things like monitor the recruitment of terrorists via the Internet.” She wasn’t specific about what she meant by that, but her remarks were widely understood, no doubt correctly, as a harbinger of yet another Obama administration encroachment on American civil liberties. (The most surprising part of Napolitano’s pitch, in fact, was the word “legal” — after all, the administration hasn’t bothered with such niceties in any number of other situations, as Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has repeatedly pointed out.)

Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld a law that can put you in jail for the “crime” of advocating lawful, nonviolent activity, if the government decides that your advocacy is somehow helping a group the government declares is engaging in terrorism. Authoritarian right wingers reading this may be pleased to hear that Jimmy Carter could be a criminal under this ruling. They should also be thrilled to know that the Obama administration fought hard for this ruling, and that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, as solicitor general, argued for this gross encroachment on free speech and the First Amendment.

Again and again, this administration has endorsed and expanded on the Bush administration’s consistent stance that the Bill of Rights, apart from the Second Amendment, must take a distant second place to the “war on terror” that by definition can never end. Politicians and pundits who once claimed to believe in civil liberties are in hiding. It speaks volumes about our media today that Jon Stewart is one of the few commentators to speak truth to power on these issues.

So the more I watch Obama channel and extend Bush administration claims of essentially unlimited presidential power, the more I conclude that we have essentially one hope at this point — and it rests, in part, on an awakening among conservatives who are today so enamored of authoritarian rule.

True civil libertarians of all political persuasions should hope, perversely, that Obama will abuse the powers he’s claimed — and which, given Congress’ craven acceptance, appear to be a bipartisan Washington consensus. Moreover, we have to hope that he’ll abuse them broadly, against people who support him as well as those who don’t, and not just against the Guantanamo prisoners who seem to have dropped off America’s radar screen or in several somewhat random cases.

The bipartisan disdain for liberty breaks recent precedent. In the Clinton years, a significant number of Republicans hammered what they believed (accurately in some cases) was the White House’s tendency to claim executive powers that they were certain would be abused. Indeed, for a time it was the GOP that defended civil liberties — hypocritically in many cases, as it was mostly reflexive anti-Clinton paranoia, but useful nonetheless for those of us who were glad to see someone, anyone, pushing back.

During the Bush years, a few Democrats at least talked a good game, decrying the administration’s wholesale claims of absolute power. But the Democrats were craven in the extreme when it came to applying actions to words; almost every opportunity they had to take a stand for liberty, they went the other way.

Having turned cowardice into an art form, the Democrats seem to figure it’s OK to pander relentlessly to fear and expand presidential power because a good person is in charge at the moment — and because lots of Democrats have deeply authoritarian impulses as well. The latter may actually be the more important motivation.

What of the Republicans and their allies on the political right? There’s a huge amount of fury today about Obama’s policies, including what many claim is a takeover of the economy and other dictatorial powers being assumed by the president. Yet while the Limbaughs and Becks and their political followers rant and rave about “the regime” and its excesses, they’re applauding every time the administration insists on trulydictatorial authority in matters of national security, a term that has grown and grown in its scope.

This disconnect makes sense only if you assume, as I do, that the right wing has concluded that Obama actually won’t abuse his police powers, at least in ways they or their major supporters will find objectionable. They’re threading a needle. The right wing’s sane leaders must surely fear the possibility that some supporters might actually use their weapons to “take back the country,” because that would give Obama a reason to act against them using those police powers. Rather, they must want supporters to get organized at protests and political meetings and ultimately in voting booths. Their goal is for Obama to fail, in ways that have historically led to right-wing surges, so they can get back all three branches of government again. Actual violence by their supporters would make that much more difficult. But the political right is surely licking its chops, confident that when it returns to power there will be absolutely no constraints on their pro-authority agenda.

If that happens, Obama will have given them cover. He, as much as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, will have laid the groundwork for a regime that goes all the way to the edge, if not over it.

Most depressing of all, the majority of the American people would probably welcome such a government. Our preference for the illusion of safety over the recognition and acceptance of risk has only grown. We are a society too afraid of our own shadows to confront reality, I fear. Someday, perhaps as soon as the next successful terrorist attack, we’ll get what we seem to want.

Which is why I come back to my perverse hope that Obama will abuse his powers enough to pull enough scales from enough eyes, especially in Washington, to make people understand what history teaches again and again: Untrammeled executive authority only seems like the easier road — until you’re in the way of the bulldozer.

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Bruce Tognazzini: Apple & the Dark Cloud of CensorshipIn the grand scheme of things, men like William Randolph Hearst, who had a propensity for involving the United States in the occasional war as long as it would sell newspapers, was far more influential and far more dangerous than Steve Jobs. However, Steve Jobs is not even a journalist. He just makes really, really good paper. What’s going on here is unprecedented.

Apple is displaying the cowardice so in vogue among large corporate entities today, instantly swayed by any pressure group that wants to feign outrage, holding to the most bland, dumbed-down, middle-of-the-road content in order to avoid upsetting anyone about anything. This is the traditional position of, for example, network TV broadcasters, but not Apple, and certainly not Steve Jobs.

I think it’s arrogance, not cowardice. But it’s an outrage either way.

 

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