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January 17, 2019

Misforgotten

European_Court_of_Justice_(ECJ)_in_Luxembourg_with_flags.jpg"It's amazing. We're all just sitting here having lunch like nothing's happening, but..." This was on Tuesday, as the British Parliament was getting ready to vote down the Brexit deal. This is definitely a form of privilege, but it's hard to say whether it's confidence born of knowing your nation's democracy is 900 years old, or aristocrats-on-the-verge denial as when World War I or the US Civil War was breaking out.

Either way, it's a reminder that for many people historical events proceed in the background while they're trying to get lunch or take the kids to school. This despite the fact that all of us in the UK and the US are currently hostages to a paralyzed government. The only winner in either case is the politics of disgust, and the resulting damage will be felt for decades. Meanwhile, everything else is overshadowed.

One of the more interesting developments of the past digital week is the European advocate general's preliminary opinion that the right to be forgotten, part of data protection law, should not be enforceable outside the EU. In other words, Google, which brought the case, should not have to prevent access to material to those mounting searches from the rest of the world. The European Court of Justice - one of the things British prime minister Theresa May has most wanted the UK to leave behind since her days as Home Secretary - typically follows these preliminary opinions.

The right to be forgotten is one piece of a wider dispute that one could characterize as the Internet versus national jurisdiction. The broader debate includes who gets access to data stored in another country, who gets to crack crypto, and who gets to spy on whose citizens.

This particular story began in France, where the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), the French data protection regulator, fined Google €100,000 for selectively removing a particular person's name from its search results on just its French site. CNIL argued that instead the company should delink it worldwide. You can see their point: otherwise, anyone can bypass the removal by switching to .com or .co.jp. On the other hand, following that logic imposes EU law on other countries, such as the US's First Amendment. Americans in particular tend to regard the right to be forgotten with the sort of angry horror of Lady Bracknell contemplating a handbag. Google applied to the European Court of Justice to override CNIL and vacate the fine.

A group of eight digital rights NGOs, led by Article 19 and including Derechos Digitales, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Clinique d'intérêt public et de politique d'Internet du Canada (CIPPIC), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Open Net Korea, and Pen International, welcomed the ruling. Many others would certainly agree.

The arguments about jurisdiction and censorship were, like so much else, foreseen early. By 1991 or thereabouts, the question of whether the Internet would be open everywhere or devolve to lowest-common-denominator censorship was frequently debated, particularly after the United States v. Thomas case that featured a clash of community standards between Tennessee and California. If you say that every country has the right to impose its standards on the rest of the world, it's unclear what would be left other than a few Disney characters and some cat videos.

France has figured in several of these disputes: in (I think) the first international case of this kind, in 2000, it was a French court that ruled that the sale of Nazi memorabilia on Yahoo!'s site was illegal; after trying to argue that France was trying to rule over something it could not control, Yahoo! banned the sales on its French auction site and then, eventually, worldwide.

Data protection law gave these debates a new and practical twist. The origins of this particular case go back to 2014, when the European Court of Justice ruled in Google Spain v AEPD and Mario Costeja González that search engines must remove links to web pages that turn up in a name search and contain information that is irrelevant, inadequate, or out of date. This ruling, which arguably sought to redress the imbalance of power between individuals and corporations publishing information about them and free expression. Finding this kind of difficult balance, the law scholar Judith Rauhofer argued at that year's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, is what courts *do*. The court required search engines to remove from the search results that show up in a *name* search the link to the original material; it did not require the original websites to remove it entirely or require the link's removal from other search results. The ruling removed, if you like, a specific type of power amplification, but not the signal.

How far the search engines have to go is the question the ECJ is now trying to settle. This is one of those cases where no one gets everything they want because the perfect is the enemy of the good. The people who want their past histories delinked from their names don't get a complete solution, and no one country gets to decide what people in other countries can see. Unfortunately, the real winner appears to be geofencing, which everyone hates.


Illustrations:

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.

January 10, 2019

Secret funhouse mirror room

Lost_City_-_Fun_House.jpg"Here," I said, handing them an old pocket watch. "This is your great-grandfather's watch." They seemed a little stunned.

As you would. A few weeks earlier, one of them had gotten a phone call from a state trooper. A cousin they'd never heard of had died, and they might be the next of kin.

"In this day and age," one of them told me apologetically, "I thought it must be a scam."

It wasn't. Through the combined offices of a 1940 divorce and a lifetime habit of taciturnity on personal subjects, a friend I'd known for 45 years managed to die without ever realizing his father had an extensive tree of living relatives. They would have liked each other, I think.

So they came to the funeral and met their cousin through our memories and the family memorabilia we found in his house. And then they went home bearing the watch, understandably leaving us to work out the rest.

Whenever someone dies, someone else inherits a full-time job. In our time, that full-time job is located at the intersection of security, privacy - and secrecy, the latter a complication rarely discussed. In the eight years since I was last close to the process of closing out someone's life, very much more of the official world has moved online. This is both help and hindrance. I was impressed with the credit card company whose death department looked online for obits to verify what I was saying instead of demanding an original death certificate (New York state charges $15 per copy). I was also impressed with - although a little creeped out by - the credit card company that said, "Oh, yes, we already know." (It had been three weeks, two of them Christmas and New Year's.)

But those, like the watch, were easy, accounts with physical embodiments - that is, paper statements. It's the web that's hard. All those privacy and security settings that we advocate for live someones fall apart when they die without disclosing their passwords. We found eight laptops, the most recent an actively hostile mid-2015 MacBook Pro. Sure, reset the password, but doing so won't grant access to any other stored passwords. If File Vault is turned on, a beneficent fairy - or a frustrated friend trying to honor your stated wishes that you never had witnessed or notarized - is screwed. I'd suggest an "owner deceased" mode, but how do you protect *that* for a human rights worker or a journalist in a war zone holding details of at-risk contacts? Or when criminals arrive knowing how to unlock it? Privacy and security are essential, but when someone dies they turn into secrecy that - I seem to recall predicting in 1997 - means your intended beneficiaries *don't* inherit because they can't unlock your accounts.

It's a genuinely hard problem, not least because most people don't want to plan for their own death. Personal computers operate in binary mode: protect everything, or nothing, and protect it all the same way even though exposing a secret not-so-bad shame is a different threat model from securing a bank account. But most people do not think, "After I'm dead, what do I care?" Instead, they think, "I want people to remember me the way I want and this thing I'm ashamed of they must never, ever know, or they'll think less of me." It takes a long time in life to arrive at, "People think of me the way they think of me, and I can't control that. They're still here in my life, and that must count for something." And some people never realize that they might feel more secure in their relationships if they hid less.

So, the human right to privacy bequeaths a problem: how do you find your friend's long-lost step-sibling, who is now their next of kin, when you only know their first name and your friend's address book is encrypted on a hard drive and not written, however crabbily, in a nice, easily viewed paper notebook?

If there's going to be an answer, I imagine it lies in moving away from binary mode. It's imaginable that a computer operating system could have a "personal rescue mode" that would unlock some aspects of the computer and not others, an extension of the existing facilities for multiple accounts and permissions, though these are geared to share resources, not personal files. The owner of such a system would have to take some care which information went in which bucket, but with a system like that they could give a prospective executor a password that would open the more important parts.

No such thing exists, of course, and some people wouldn't use it even if it did. Instead, the key turned out to be the modest-sized-town people network, which was and is amazing. It was through human connections that we finally understood the invoices we found for a storage unit. Without ever mentioning it, my friend had, for years, at considerable expense, been storing a mirror room from an amusement park funhouse. His love of amusement parks was no surprise. But if we'd known, the mirror room would now be someone's beloved possession instead of broken up in a scrapyard because a few months before he died my friend had stopped paying his bills - also without telling anyone.

Illustrations: The Lost City Fun House (via Wikimedia).

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.

January 3, 2019

Prognostalgia

1155px-New_Year_2019_NZ7_1370_(31616532097).jpg"What seems to you like the big technology story of 2018?" I asked a friend. "The lack of excitement," she replied.

New stuff - the future - used to be a lot more fun, a phenomenon that New York Times writer Eric Schulmuller has dubbed prognostalgia. While Isaac Asimov, in predicting the world of 2019 in 1983 or of 2014 in 1964, correctly but depressingly foresaw that computers might exacerbate social and economic divisions, he also imagined that this year we'd be building bases on other planets. These days, we don't even explore the unfamiliar corners of the Internet.

So my friend is right. The wow! new hardware of 2018 was a leather laptop. We don't hear so much about grand visions like organizing the world's information or connecting the world. Instead, the most noteworthy app of 2018 may have been Natural Cycles - particularly for its failures.

Smartphones have become commodities, even in Japan. In 2004, visiting Tokyo seemed like time-traveling the future. People loved their phones so much they adorned them with stuffed animals and tassels. In 2018, people stare at them just as much but the color is gone. If Tokyo still offers a predictive glimpse, it looks like meh.

In technopolitics, 2018 seems to have been the most relentlessly negative since 1998, when the first Internet backlash was paralleling the dot-com boom. Then, the hot, new kid on the block was Google, which as yet was - literally - a blank page: logo, search box, no business model. Nothing to fear. On the other hand...the stock market was wildly volatile, especially among Internet stocks, which mostly rose 1929-style at every glance (Amazon, despite being unprofitable, rose 1,300%). People were fighting governments over encryption, especially to block key escrow. There was panic about online porn. A new data protection law was abroad in the land. A US president was under investigation. Yes, I am cherry-picking.

Over the course of 2018 net.wars has covered the modern versions of most of these. Australia is requiring technology companies to make cleartext available when presented with a warrant. The rest of the Five Eyes apparently intend to follow suit. Data breaches keep getting bigger, and although security issues keep getting more sophisticated and more pervasive, the causes of those breaches are often the same old stupid mistakes that we, the victims, can do nothing about. A big theme throughout the year was the ethics of AI. Finally, there has been little good news for cryptocurrency fanciers, no matter what their eventual usefulness may be. About bitcoin, at least, our previous skepticism appears justified.

The end of the year did not augur well for what's coming next. We saw relatively low-cost cyber attacks that disrupted daily physical life as opposed to infrastructure targets: maybe-drones shut down Gatwick Airport and the malware disrupted printing and distribution on a platform shared by numerous US newspapers. The drone if-it-was attack is probably the more significant: uncertainty is poisonously disruptive. As software is embedded into everything, increasingly we will be unable to trust the physical world or predict the behavior of nearby objects. There will be much more of this - and a backlash is also beginning to take physical form, as people attack Waymo self-driving cars in Arizona. Jurisdictional disputes - who gets to compel the production of data and in which countries - will continue to run. The US's CLOUD Act, a response to the Microsoft case, requires US companies to turn over data on US citizens when ordered to do so no matter its location. Be the envy of other major governments. These are small examples of the incoming Internet of Other People's Things.

A major trend that net.wars has not covered much is China's inroads into supplying infrastructure to various countries in Africa and elsewhere, such as Venezuela. The infrastructure that is spreading now comes from a very different set of cultural values than the Internet of the 1990s (democratic and idealistic) or the web of the 2000s (commercial and surveillant).

So much of what we inevitably write about is not only negative but repeatedly so, as the same conflicts escalate inescapably year after year, that it seems only right to try to find a few positive things to start 2019.

On Twitter, Lawrence Lessig notes that for the first time in 20 years work is passing into the public domain. Freed for use and reuse are novels from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carl Sandberg, DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and Agatha Christie. Music: "Who's Sorry Now?" and works by Bela Bartok. Film: early Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Unpause, indeed.

In the US, Democrats are arriving to reconfigure Congress, and while both parties have contributed to increasing surveillance, tightening copyright, and extending the US's territorial reach, the restoration of some balance of powers is promising.

In the UK, the one good thing to be said about the Brexit mess is that the acute phase will soon end. Probably.

So, the future is no fun and the past is gone, and we're left with a messy present that will look so much better 50 years from now. Twas ever thus. Happy new year.


Illustrations: New Year's fireworks in Sweden (via Wikimedia.

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.