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January 15, 2021

One thousand

net.wars-the-book.gifIn many ways, this 1,000th net.wars column is much like the first (the count is somewhat artificial, since net.wars began as a 1998 book, then presaged by four years of news analysis pieces for the Daily Telegraph, and another book in 2001...and a lot of my other writing also fits under "computers, freedom, and privacy"; *however*). That November 2001 column was sparked by former Home Office minister Jack Straw's smug assertion that after 9/11 those of us who had defended access to strong cryptography must be feeling "naive". Here, just over a week after the Capitol invasion, three long-running issues are pertinent: censorship; security and the intelligence failures that enabled the attack; and human rights when demands for increased surveillance capabilities surface, as they surely will.

Censorship first. The US First Amendment only applies to US governments (a point that apparently requires repeating). Under US law, private companies can impose their own terms of service. Most people expected Twitter would suspend Donald Trump's account approximately one second after he ceased being a world leader. Trump's incitement of the invasion moved that up, and led Facebook, including its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp, Snapchat, and, a week after the others, YouTube to follow suit. Less noticeably, a Salesforce-owned email marketing company ceased distributing emails from the Republican National Committee.

None of these social media sites is a "public square", especially outside the US, where they've often ignored local concerns. They are effectively shopping malls, and ejecting Trump is the same as throwing out any other troll. Trump's special status kept him active when many others were unjustly banned, but ultimately the most we can demand from these services is clearly stated rules, fairly and impartially enforced. This is a tough proposition, especially when you are dependent on social media-driven engagement.

Last week's insurrection was planned on numerous openly accessible sites, many of which are still live. After Twitter suspended 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon, numerous Republicans complaining they had lost followers seemed to be heading to Parler, a relatively new and rising alt-right Twitterish site backed by Rebekah Mercer, among others. Moving elsewhere is an obvious outcome of these bans, but in this crisis short-term disruption may be helpful. The cost will be longer-term adoption of channels that are harder to monitor.

By January 9 Apple was removing Parler from the App Store, to be followed quickly by Android (albeit less comprehensively, since Android allows side-loading). Amazon then kicked Parler off its host, Amazon Web Services. It is unknown when, if ever, the site will return.

Parler promptly sued Amazon claiming an antitrust violation. AWS retaliated with a crisp brief that detailed examples of the kinds of comments the site felt it was under no obligation to host and noted previous warnings.

Whether or not you think Parler should be squashed - stipulating that the imminent inauguration requires an emergency response - three large Silicon Valley platforms have combined to destroy a social media company. This is, as Jillian C. York, Corynne McSherry, and Danny O'Brien write at EFF, a more serious issue. The "free speech stack", they write, requires the cooperation of numerous layers of service providers and other companies. Twitter's decision to ban one - or 70,000 - accounts has limited impact; companies lower down the stack can ban whole populations. If you were disturbed in 2010, when, shortly after the diplomatic cables release, Paypal effectively defunded Wikleaks after Amazon booted it off its servers, then you should be disturbed now. These decisions are made at obscure layers of the Internet where we have little influence. As the Internet continues to centralize, we do not want just these few oligarchs making these globally significant decisions.

Security. Previous attacks - 9/11 in particular - led to profound damage to the sense of ownership with which people regard their cities. In the UK, the early 1990s saw the ease of walking into an office building vanish, replaced by demands for identification and appointments. The same happened in New York and some other US cities after 9/11. Meanwhile, CCTV monitoring proliferated. Within a year of 9/11, the US passed the PATRIOT Act, and the UK had put in place a series of expansions to surveillance powers.

Currently, residents report that Washington, DC is filled with troops and fences. Clearly, it can't stay that way permanently. But DC is highly unlikely to return to the openness of just ten days ago. There will be profound and permanent changes, starting with decreased access to government buildings. This will be Trump's most visible legacy.

Which leads to human rights. Among the videos of insurrectionists shocked to discover that the laws do apply to them were several in which prospective airline passengers discovered they'd been placed preemptively on the controversial no-fly list. Many others who congregated at the Capitol were on a (separate) terrorism watch list. If the post-9/11 period is any guide, the fact that the security agencies failed to connect any of the dots available to them into actionable intelligence will be elided in favor of insisting that they need more surveillance powers. Just remember: eventually, those powers will be used to surveil all the wrong people.


Illustrations: net.wars, the book at the beginning.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.