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April 2, 2021

Medical apartheid

swiss-cheese-virus-defence.jpgEver since 1952, when Clarence Willcock took the British government to court to force the end of wartime identity cards, UK governments have repeatedly tried to bring them back, always claiming they would solve the most recent public crisis. The last effort ended in 2010 after a five-year battle. This backdrop is a key factor in the distrust that's greeting government proposals for "vaccination passports" (previously immunity passports). Yesterday, the Guardian reported that British prime minister Boris Johnson backs certificates that show whether you've been vaccinated, have had covid and recovered, or had a test. An interim report will be published on Monday; trials later this month will see attendees to football matches required to produce proof of negative lateral flow tests 24 hours before the game and on entry.

Simultaneously, England chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the Royal Society of Medicine that most experts think covid will become like the flu, a seasonal disease that must be perennially managed.

Whitty's statement is crucial because it means we cannot assume that the forthcoming proposal will be temporary. A deeply flawed measure in a crisis is dangerous; one that persists indefinitely is even more so. Particularly when, as this morning, culture secretary Oliver Dowden tries to apply spin: "This is not about a vaccine passport, this is about looking at ways of proving that you are covid secure." Rebranding as "covid certificates" changes nothing.

Privacy advocates and human rights NGOs saw this coming. In December, Privacy International warned that a data grab in the guise of immunity passports will undermine trust and confidence while they're most needed. "Until everyone has access to an effective vaccine, any system requiring a passport for entry or service will be unfair." We are a long, long way from that universal access and likely to remain so; today's vaccines will have to be updated, perhaps as soon as September. There is substantial, but not enough, parliamentary opposition.

A grassroots Labour discussion Wednesday night showed this will become yet another highly polarized debate. Opponents and proponents combine issues of freedom, safety, medical efficacy, and public health in unpredictable ways. Many wanted safety - "You have no civil liberties if you are dead," one person said; others foresaw segregation, discrimination, and exclusion; still others cited British norms in opposing making compulsory either vaccinations or carrying any sort of "papers" (including phone apps).

Aside from some specific use cases - international travel, a narrow range of jobs - vaccination passports in daily life are a bad idea medically, logistically, economically, ethically, and functionally. Proponents' concerns can be met in better - and fairer - ways.

The Independent SAGE advisory group, especially Susan Michie, has warned repeatedly that vaccination passports are not a good solution for solution life. The added pressure to accept vaccination will increase distrust, she has repeatedly said, particularly among victims of structural racism.

Instead of trying to identify which people are safe, she argues that the government should be guiding employers, businesses, schools, shops, and entertainment venues to make their premises safer - see for example the CDC's advice on ventilation and list of tools. Doing so would not only help prevent the spread of covid and keep *everyone* safe but also help prevent the spread of flu and other pathogens. Vaccination passports won't do any of that. "It again puts the burden on individuals instead of spaces," she said last night in the Labour discussion. More important, high-risk individuals and those who can't be vaccinated will be better protected by safer spaces than by documentation.

In the same discussion, Big Brother Watch's Silkie Carlo predicted that it won't make sense to have vaccination passports and then use them in only a few places. "It will be a huge infrastructure with checkpoints everywhere," she predicted, calling it "one of the civil liberties threats of all time" and "medical apartheid" and imagining two segregated lines of entry to every venue. While her vision is dramatic, parts of it don't go far enough: imagine when this all merges with systems already in place to bar access to "bad people". Carlo may sound unduly paranoid, but it's also true that for decades successive British governments at every decision point have chosen the surveillance path.

We have good reason to be suspicious of this government's motives. Throughout the last year, Johnson has been looking for a magic bullet that will fix everything. First it was contact tracing apps (failed through irrelevance), then test and trace (failing in the absence of "and isolate and support"), now vaccinations. Other than vaccinations, which have gone well because the rollout was given to the NHS, these failed high-tech approaches have handed vast sums of public money to private contractors. If by "vaccination certificates" the government means the cards the NHS gives fully-vaccinated individuals listing the shots they've had, the dates, and the manufacturer and lot number, well fine. Those are useful for those rare situations where proof is really needed and for our own information in case of future issues, it's simple, and not particularly expensive. If the government means a biometric database system that, as Michie says, individualizes the risk while relieving venues of responsibility, just no.

Illustrations: The Swiss Cheese Respiratory Virus Defence, created by virologist Ian McKay.

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.

March 26, 2021

Curating the curators

Zuck-congress-20210325_212525.jpgOne of the longest-running conflicts on the Internet surrounds whether and what restrictions should be applied to the content people post. These days, those rules are known as "platform governance", and this week saw the first conference by that name. In the background, three of the big four CEOs returned to Congress for more questioning, the EU is planning the Digital Services Act; the US looks serious about antitrust action, and debate about revising Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act continues even though few understandwhat it does; and the UK continues to push "online harms.

The most interesting thing about the Platform Governance conference is how narrow it makes those debates look. The second-most interesting thing: it was not a law conference!

For one thing, which platforms? Twitter may be the most-studied, partly because journalists and academics use it themselves and data is more available; YouTube, Facebook, and subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram are the most complained-about. The discussion here included not only those three but less "platformy" things like Reddit, Tumblr, Amazon's livestreaming subsidiary Twitch, games, Roblox, India's ShareChat, labor platforms UpWork and Fiverr, edX, and even VPN apps. It's unlikely that the problems of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter that governments obsess over are limited to them; they're just the most visible and, especially, the most *here*. Granting differences in local culture, business model, purpose, and platform design, human behavior doesn't vary that much.

For example, Jenny Domino reminded - again - that the behaviors now sparking debates in the West are not new or unique to this part of the world. What most agree *almost* happened in the US on January 6 *actually* happened in Myanmar with far less scrutiny despite a 2018 UN fact-finding mission that highlighted Facebook's role in spreading hate. We've heard this sort of story before, regarding Cambridge Analytica. In Myanmar and, as Sandeep Mertia said, India, the Internet of the 1990s never existed. Facebook is the only "Internet". Mertia's "next billion users" won't use email or the web; they'll go straight to WhatsApp or a local or newer equivalent, and stay there.

Mehitabel Glenhaber, whose focus was Twitch, used it to illustrate another way our usual discussions are too limited: "Moderation can escape all up and down the stack," she said. Near the bottom of the "stack" of layers of service, after the January 6 Capitol invasion Amazon denied hosting services to the right-wing chat app Parler; higher up the stack, Apple and Google removed Parler's app from their app stores. On Twitch, Glenhaber found a conflict between the site's moderatorial decision the handling of that decision by two browser extensions that replace text with graphics, one of which honored the site's ruling and one of which overturned it. I had never thought of ad blockers as content moderators before, but of course they are, and few of us examine them in detail.

Separately, in a recent lecture on the impact of low-cost technical infrastructure, Cambridge security engineer Ross Anderson also brought up the importance of the power to exclude. Most often, he said, social exclusion matters more than technical; taking out a scammer's email address and disrupting all their social network is more effective than taking down their more easily-replaced website. If we look at misinformation as a form of cybersecurity challenge - as we should, that's an important principle.

One recurring frustration is our general lack of access to the insider view of what's actually happening. Alice Marwick is finding from interviews that members of Trust and Safety teams at various companies have a better and broader view of online abuse than even those who experience it. Their data suggests that rather than being gender-specific harassment affects all groups of people; in niche groups the forms disagreements take can be obscure to outsiders. Most important, each platform's affordances are different; you cannot generalize from a peer-to-peer site like Facebook or Twitter to Twitch or YouTube, where the site's relationships are less equal and more creator-fan.

A final limitation in how we think about platforms and abuse is that the options are so limited: a user is banned or not, content stays up or is taken down. We never think, Sarita Schoenebeck said, about other mechanisms or alternatives to criminal justice such as reparative or restorative justice. "Who has been harmed?" she asked. "What do they need? Whose obligation is it to meet that need?" And, she added later, who is in power in platform governance, and what harms have they overlooked and how?

In considering that sort of issue, Bharath Ganesh found three separate logics in his tour through platform racism and the governance of extremism: platform, social media, and free speech. Mark Zuckerberg offers a prime example of the latter, the Silicon Valley libertarian insistence that the marketplace of ideas will solve any problems and that sees the First Amendment freedom of expression as an absolute right, not one that must be balanced against others - such as "freedom from fear". Following the end of the conference by watching the end of yesterday's Congressional hearings, you couldn't help thinking about that as Mark Zuckerberg embarked on yet another pile of self-serving "Congressman..." rather than the simple "yes or no" he was asked to deliver.


Illustrations: Mark Zuckerberg, testifying in Congress on March 25, 2021.

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.

March 19, 2021

Dystopian non-fiction

Screenshot from 2021-03-18 12-51-27.pngHow dumb do you have to be to spend decades watching movies and reading books about science fiction dystopias with perfect surveillance and then go on and build one anyway?

*This* dumb, apparently, because that what Shalini Kantayya discovers in her documentary Coded Bias, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. I had missed it until European Digital Rights (EDRi) arranged a streaming this week.

The movie deserves the attention paid to The Social Dilemma. Consider the cast Kantayya has assembled: "math babe" Cathy O'Neil, data journalism professor Meredith Broussard, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, Big Brother Watch executive director Silkie Carlo, human rights lawyer Ravi Naik, Virginia Eubanks, futurist Amy Webb, and "code poet" Joy Buolamwini, who is the film's main protagonist and provides its storyline, such as it is. This film wastes no time on technology industry mea non-culpas, opting instead to hear from people who together have written a year's worth of reading on how modern AI disassembles people into piles of data.

The movie is framed by Buoalmwini's journey, which begins in her office at MIT. At nine, she saw a presentation on TV from MIT's Media Lab, and, entranced by Cynthia Breazeal's Kismet robot, she instantly decided: she was going to be a robotics engineer and she was going to MIT.

At her eventual arrival, she says, she imagined that coding was detached from the world - until she started building the Aspire Mirror and had to get a facial detection system working. At that point, she discovered that none of the computer vision tracking worked very well...until she put on a white mask. She started examining the datasets used to train the facial algorithms and found that every system she tried showed the same results: top marks for light-skinned men, inferior results for everyone else, especially the "highly melanated".

Teaming up with Deborah Raji, in 2018 Buolamwini published a study (PDF) of racial and gender bias in Amazon's Rekognition system, then being trialed with law enforcement. The company's response leads to a cameo, in which Buolamwini chats with Timnit Gebru about the methods technology companies use to discredit critics. Poignantly, today's viewers know that Gebru, then still at Google was only months away from becoming the target of exactly that behavior, fired over her own critical research on the state of AI.

Buolamwini's work leads Kantayya into an exploration of both algorithmic bias generally, and the uncontrolled spread of facial recognition in particular. For the first, Kantayya surveys scoring in recruitment, mortgage lending, and health care, and visits the history of discrimination in South Africa. Useful background is provided by O'Neil, whose Weapons of Math Destruction is a must-read on opaque scoring, and Broussard, whose Artificial Unintelligence deplores the math-based narrow conception of "intelligence" that began at Dartmouth in 1956, an arrogance she discusses with Kantayya on YouTube.

For the second, a US unit visits Brooklyn's Atlantic Plaza Towers complex, where the facial recognition access control system issues warnings for tiny infractions. A London unit films the Oxford Circus pilot of live facial recognition that led Carlo, with Naik's assistance, to issue a legal challenge in 2018. Here again the known future intervenes: after the pandemic stopped such deployments, BBW ended the challenge and shifted to campaigning for a legislative ban.

Inevitably, HAL appears to remind us of what evil computers look like, along with a red "I'm an algorithm" blob with a British female voice that tries to sound chilling.

But HAL's goals were straightforward: it wanted its humans dead. The motives behind today's algorithms are opaque. Amy Webb, whose book The Big Nine profiles the nine companies - six American, three Chinese - who are driving today's AI, highlights the comparison with China, where the government transparently tells citizens that social credit is always watching and bad behavior will attract penalties for your friends and family as well as for you personally. In the US, by contrast, everyone is being scored all the time by both government and corporations, but no one is remotely transparent about it.

For Buolamwini, the movie ends in triumph. She founds the Algorithmic Justice League and testifies in Congress, where she is quizzed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-NY) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who looks shocked to learn that Facebook has patented a system for recognizing and scoring individuals in retail stores. Then she watches as facial recognition is banned in San Francisco, Somerville, Massachusetts, and Oakland, and the electronic system is removed from the Brooklyn apartment block - for now.

Earlier, however, Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality, issued a warning that seems prescient now, when the coronavirus has exposed all our inequities and social fractures. When people cite William Gibson's "The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed", she says, they typically mean that new tools spread from rich to poor. "But what I've found is the absolute reverse, which is that the most punitive, most invasive, most surveillance-focused tools that we have, they go into poor and working communities first." Then they get ported out, if they work, to those of us with higher expectations that we have rights. By then, it may be too late to fight back.

See this movie!


Illustrations: Joy Buolamwini, in Coded Bias.

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.

February 19, 2021

Vaccine conoisseurs

800px-International_Certificates_of_Vaccination.jpgThis is one of those weeks when numerous stories update. Australia's dispute over sharing news has spawned deals that are bad for everyone except Facebook, Google, and Rupert Murdoch; the EU is beginning the final stages of formulating the ePrivacy Regulation; the UK awaits its adequacy decision on data protection; 3D printed guns are back; and the arrival of covid vaccines has revived the push for some form of vaccination certificate, which may (or may not) revive governments' desires for digital identities tied to each of us via biometrics and personal data.

To start with Australia: since the lower house of the Australian parliament has passed the law requiring Google and Facebook to negotiate licensing fees with publishers, Facebook began blocking Australian users from sharing "news content" - and the rest of the world from sharing links to Australian publishers - without waiting for final passage. The block is as overbroad as you might expect.

Google has instead announced a three-year deal under which it will pay Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation for the right to showcase it's output - which is almost universally paywalled.

Neither announcement is good news. Google's creates a damaging precedent of paying for links, and small public interest publishers don't benefit - and any publisher that does becomes even more dangerously dependent on the platforms to keep them solvent. On Twitter, Kate Crawford calls Facebook's move deplatforming at scale.

Next, as Glyn Moody helpfully explains, where GDPR protects personal data at rest, the ePrivacy Regulation covers personal data in transit. It has been pending since 2017, when the European Commission published a draft, which the European Parliament then amended. Massive amounts of lobbying and now-resolved internal squabbling over the text within the Council of the EU have finally been resolved so the three legs of this legislative stool can begin negotiations. Moody highlights two areas to watch: provisions exempting metadata from the prohibition on changing use without consent, and the rules regarding cookie walls. As negotiations proceed, however, there may be more.

As a no-longer EU member, the UK will have to actively adopt this new legislation. The UK's motivation to do so is simple: it wants - or should want - an adequacy decision. That is, for data to flow between the UK and the EU, the EU has to agree that the UK's privacy framework matches the EU's. On Tuesday, The Register reported that such a decision is imminent, a small piece of good news for British businesses in the sea of Brexit issues arising since January 1.

The original panic over 3D-printed guns was in 2013, when the US Department of Justice ordered the takedown of Defcad. In 2018, Defcad's owner, Cody Wilson, won his case against the DoJ in a settlement. At the time, 3D-printed plastic guns were too limited to worry about, and even by 2018 3D printing had failed to take off on the consumer level. This week Gizmodo reported that home-printing alarmingly functional automated weapons may now be genuinely possible for someone with the necessary obsession, home equipment, and technical skill.

Finally, ever since the beginning of this pandemic there has been concern that public health would become the vector for vastly expanded permanent surveillance that would be difficult to dislodge later.

The arrival of vaccinations has brought the weird new phenomenon of the vaccine connoisseur. They never heard of mRNA until a couple of months ago, but if you say you've been vaccinated they'll ask which one. And then say something like, "Oh, that's not the best one, is it?" Don't be fussy! If you're offered a vaccination, just take it. Every vaccine should help keep you alive and out of the hospital; like Willie Nelson's plane landings you can walk away from, they're *all* perfect. All will also need updates.

Israel is first up with vaccination certificates, saying that these will be issued to everyone after their second shot. The certificate will exempt them from some of the requirements for testing and isolation associated with visiting public places.

None of the problems surrounding immunity passports (as they were called last spring) has changed. We are still not sure whether the vaccines halt transmission or how long they last, and access is still enormously limited. Certificates will almost certainly be inescapable for international travel, as for other diseases like yellow fever and smallpox. For ordinary society, however, they would be profoundly discriminatory. In agreement on this: Ada Lovelace Institute, Privacy International, Liberty, Germany's ethics council. At The Lancet some researchers suggest they may be useful when we have more data, as does the the Royal Society; others reject them outright.

There is an ancillary concern. Ever since identity papers were withdrawn after the end of World War II, UK governments have repeatedly tried to reintroduce ID cards. The last attempt, which ended in 2010, came close. There is therefore legitimate concern about immunity passports as ID cards, a concern not allayed by the government's policy paper on digital identities, published last week.

What we need is clarity about what problem certificates are intended to solve. Are they intended to allow people who've been vaccinated greater freedom consistent with the lower risks they face and pose? Or is the point "health theater" for businesses? We need answers.


Illustrations: International vaccination certificates (from SimonWaldherr at 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.

February 12, 2021

The spirit of Mother Jones

800px-Mother_Jones_1902-11-04.jpegThis week a commenter on one of the mailing lists I follow asked, perhaps somewhat plaintively, why, after watching 20 years of attempts to organize Silicon Valley workers that have led nowhere, suddenly the push of workers at Big Tech to unionize seems to be gaining traction. "What has changed?"

Well, for one thing, the existence of a history of 20 years of attempts to organize tech workers - which could be the nearly-flat portion of the famous venture capital hockey stick - by itself is a profound change,. "Why is she running when she has no chance?" people asked about Shirley Chisholm in 1972. Her campaign opened minds for Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris, VPOTUS.

The next month should give a solid indication of whether tech worker unions' moment is now. It very well might be. The same trend toward unaccountable power that have led the US Congress and many other countries to scrutinize the practices of the big platforms is surely felt even more by their employees. It shouldn't be a surprise; when you recruit people with the promise that they can improve the lives of millions of people you should expect them to be angry when they realize their efforts are being used to cause worldwide damage, especially when they see that little progress has been made on long-standing complaints such as the lack of diversity surrounding them.

One reason today's unionizing moves may come as a surprise is that the image of the tech worker has remained stuck on highly-compensated programmers and engineers and the perks, stock options, and salaries they receive. And yet, in 2014, Silicon Valley software engineers discovered that they, too, were just workers to their employers, who were limiting their career prospects via a no-poaching agreement in which Apple, Google, Intel, Dell, IBM, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Intuit, and dozens of other companies agreed not to recruit from each other's workforce. The result was to depress compensation across the board for millions of engineers and programmers.

And these are the high-caste workers; for years "lower-class" occupations have been filled at many companies by workers under all sorts of arrangements designed to keep them from being classed as employees to whom the company would owe medical insurance, paid leave, and other hard-won benefits. In 2018, Microsoft bug testers cited the Republican environment in Washington as the reason they gave up on a successful unionizing effort that had won them the right to negotiate directly with their temp agency. More recently, Uber and Lyft drivers have demanded employee status in numerous countries.

At Google, temporary, vendor, and contract workers, the majority of the workforce, have complained of being invisible. In November 2018, after the New York Times reported that the company had given seven-figure payouts to two executives accused of sexual harassment, 20,000 of these workers walked out demanding transparency, accountability, and structural change. Google's response was apparently enough to get them back to work at the time.

However, in December 2020, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint on behalf of two employees who said they were fired for their organizing efforts. Last month, hundreds of Google workers created the Alphabet Workers' Union, open to both full-time and contract workers. This union won't be formally recognized for collective bargaining, but will use other means to push for change. More than 200 of its members have signed on with the Communications Workers of America.

In an op-ed in the New York Times software engineers Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, the leaders of the new Alphabet Workers Union, cite that earlier walkout, the recent firing of leading AI researcher Timnit Gebru, as well as the company's general behavior. "Each time workers organize to demand change, Alphabet's executives make token promises, doing the bare minimum in the hopes of placating workers," they write.

The original question was, I think, inspired by the news that voting began Monday at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama on whether to unionize. As Lee Fang reports at The Intercept, Amazon has been campaigning against this development, hiring a union-busting law firm Morgan Lewis to mastermind a website, Facebook ads, and mass texts to workers. This is not really comparable to Google's union. The fact that these warehouse staff and delivery drivers work for a technology company is largely irrelevant except for the extra-creepiness of the surveillance Amazon is able to install in its warehouses and delivery vans. The same goes for Apple's retail store staff, whose efforts to organize failed in 2011.

Plus, the overall environment has changed. The pandemic has cast many issues of structural unfairness into sharper relief, and the US's new president has promised to strengthen unions. Add in generational shift to a group whose bleak present includes burdensome education debt, the climate crisis, and shrinking prospects. Yes, it really might be different now..


Illustrations: Union organizer "Mother" Mary G. Harris Jones, "the most dangerous woman in America", in 1902, (via Wikipedia). The title is a reference to the folksinger Andy Irvine's biographical ode to the Union Maid, The Spirit of Mother Jones.

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 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.

October 16, 2020

The rights stuff

Humans-Hurt-synth.pngIt took a lake to show up the fatuousness of the idea of granting robots legal personality rights.

The story, which the AI policy expert Joanna Bryson highlighted on Twitter, goes like this: in February 2019 a small group of people, frustrated by their inability to reduce local water pollution, successfully spearheaded a proposition in Toledo, Ohio that created the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Its history since has been rocky. In February 2020, a farmer sued the city and a US district judge invalidated the bill. This week, three-judge panel from Ohio's Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled the February judge made a mistake. For now, the lake still has its rights. Just.

We will leave aside the question of whether giving lakes and the other ecosystems listed in the above-linked Vox article is an effective means of environmental protection. But given that the idea of giving robots rights keeps coming up - the EU is toying with the possibility - it seems worth teasing out the difference.

In response to Bryson, Nicholas Bohm noted the difference between legal standing and personality rights. The General Data Protection Regulation, for example, grants legal standing in two new ways: collective action and civil society representing individuals seeking redress. Conversely, even the most-empowered human often lacks legal standing; my outrage that a brick fell on your head from the top of a nearby building does not give me the right to sue the building's owner on your behalf.

Rights as a person, however, would allow the brick to sue on its own behalf for the damage done to it by landing on a misplaced human. We award that type of legal personhood to quite a few things that aren't people - corporations, most notoriously. In India, idols have such rights, and Bohm cites a case in which the trustee of a temple, because the idol they represented had these rights in India, was allowed to join a case claiming improper removal in England.

Or, as Bohm put it more succinctly, "Legal personality is about what you are; standing is about what it's your business to mind."

So if lakes, rivers, forests, and idols, why not robots? The answer lies in what these things represent. The lakes, rivers, and forests on whose behalf people seek protection were not human-made; they are parts of the larger ecosystem that supports us all, and most intimately the people who live on their banks and verges. The Toledoans who proposed granting legal rights to Lake Erie were looking for a way to force municipal action over the lake's pollution, which was harming them and all the rest of the ecosystem the lake feeds. At the bottom of the lake's rights, in other words, are humans in existential distress. Granting the lake rights is a way of empowering the humans who depend on it. In that sense, even though the Indian idols are, like robots, human-made, giving them personality rights enables action to be taken on behalf of the human community for whom they have significance. Granting the rights does not require either the lake or the idol to possess any form of consciousness.

In a paper to which Bryson linked, S.G. Solaiman argues that animals don't quality for rights, even though they have some consciousness, because a legal personality must be able to "enjoy rights and discharge duties". The Smithsonian National Zoo's giant panda, who has been diligently caring for her new cub for the last two months, is not doing so out of legal obligation.

Nothing like any of this can be said of rights for robots, certainly not now and most likely not for a long time into the future, if ever. Discussions such as David Gunkel's How to Survive a Robot Invasion, which compactly summarizes the pros and cons, generally assume that robots will only qualify for rights after a certain threshold of intelligent consciousness has been met. Giving robots rights in order to enable suffering humans to seek redress does not come up at all, even when the robots' owners hold funerals because the manufacturer has discontinued the product. Those discussions rightly focus on manufacturer liability.

In the 2015 British TV series Humans (a remake of the 2012 Swedish series Äkta människor), an elderly Alzheimer's patient (William Hurt) is enormously distressed when his old-model carer robot is removed, taking with it the only repository of his personal memories, which he can no longer recall unaided. It is not necessary to give the robot the right to sue to protect the human it serves, since family or health workers could act on his behalf. The problem in this case is an uncaring state.

The broader point, as Bryson wrote on Twitter, is that while lakes are unique and can be irreparably damaged, digital technology - including robots - "is typically built to be fungible and upgradeable". Right: a compassionate state merely needs to transfer George's memories into a new model. In a 2016 blog posting, Bryson also argues against another commonly raised point, which is whether the *robots* suffer: if designers can install suffering as a feature, they can take it out again.

So, the tl;dr: sorry, robots.


Illustrations: George (William Hurt) and his carer "synth", in Humans.

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.