Archive

Technology

The tech world has finally woken up to the safety and privacy risks in the app economy. Path’s silent address book mining sparked widespread outrage, and has had ripples for lots of web services and mobile apps that had, until now, seen as “industry best practice” the long-term retention and mining of customers’ contacts (UPDATE: more on Big Tech’s repeated privacy stumbles – including privacy-trashing kids’ apps – from the New York Times’ Nick Bilton). In the report I led for WITNESS last year, Cameras Everywhere, we pinpointed these practices as a massive potential vulnerability for human rights activists and for citizens and consumers more broadly (see p.27, Recommendation 2) . We specifically suggested that technology companies should take this stewardship seriously, and:

Follow the principle of privacy by design, and for products already in circulation, privacy by default. This is particularly important for products, apps and services that share this data with third parties that may not exercise the same diligence.

This might include revising the terms under which app developers can participate in App Stores for different platforms – for example, by issuing new guidelines requiring that third-party developers follow industry-class privacy practices – or it could even involve providing app developers with off-the-shelf privacy solutions directly. (WITNESS itself is a partner in ObscuraCam and InformaCam, Android apps that demonstrate privacy and human rights-sensitive ways to handle data, particularly visual data, generated by mobile phones.) Many app developers creating iOS, Android or other apps are small shops that have few staff, and no legal or privacy counsel to help them navigate tricky waters. What’s more, they are scattered in many jurisdictions that have extremely varied data protection laws and requirements. Frankly, it’s a no-brainer that they need help and guidance. (Update: I want to thank publicly Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum for pointing us along this path of inquiry during a research interview for Cameras Everywhere. Very exciting to see that he is involved in driving forward better industry-wide practices with the Application Privacy Summit in April 2012.)

We have made the argument for greater privacy protections in the app economy publicly and in private to the major technology companies, as well as app developers, VCs and policy-makers – we felt that it’s a central and intimate issue not just to activists, but to any and all users. We didn’t get much traction – we’re not technologists, and maybe the solutions we outline are inelegant or technically problematic, but that doesn’t mean the problem is a phantom one.

I hope that this recent upsurge in attention and scrutiny provides a window for companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Twitter and Blackberry to realise that the concern is a real one (just as Apple did with mobile tracking data, for example), and to re-examine how their app ecosystems work. Ultimately, they need to take more responsibility for their app users’ privacy and safety, even if those apps are designed and built by third-parties elsewhere in the world – after all, only they really have the leverage, authority and know-how to make the app economy a safer place for us all.

I forgot to cross-post this, which I wrote in December for the UNA-USA’s The Interdependent:

How we communicate and connect, how we see and document the world around us, how we express ourselves—all have been transformed over the past decade. Hundreds of millions of us on every continent experience this directly in our daily lives, from receiving a text message or making a mobile call to video-chatting with relatives or colleagues around the world.

As 2011 made so pointedly clear, communication technologies and networks of this kind are now so intrinsic to how many of us live, work, and interact that they are influencing how we think about, claim, and advocate for human rights. As the UN celebrated International Human Rights Day on December 10, for instance, it chose to highlight how “social media helped activists organize peaceful protest movements in cities across the globe—from Tunis to Madrid, from Cairo to New York—at times in the face of violent repression.”

This new reality is something that advocates and activists need to face head-on, urgently and collectively. Human rights concerns are at the heart of the technologies we use, the more domesticated, indispensable and close-to-home they become. But what does this mean in practical terms?

Read More

Wikipedia goes dark in protest at SOPA and PIPA

A few years back, before all this internet/smartphone/ubiquitous stuff, I worked for a media development NGO, helping to strengthen public-interest media in the developing world, as a critical part of public debate and social change. One of the ways we used to articulate why it was important to support these independent, public and community media was “imagine a world without media”… Unthinkable.

Now, with the space for individual communication and agency expanding and affecting so many facets of our lives, a flotilla of sites “going dark” is a critical action that demonstrates where we might all end up if this kind of legislation, which seeks to protect archaic modes of production and value creation, at the behest of entrenched lobbies and interests, is not stopped in its tracks. SOPA and PIPA must be stopped.

[And, if laws such as these pass in the US, then these flawed and failed legal standards will then be exported to other nations, with drastic results for free speech, and the creation of value (cultural, economic, and network) worldwide.]

I’ve finally got around to posting my notes for a presentation I gave at a convening in May 2011 on Media, Social Media, and Democratic Governance at Wilton Park (here’s a PDF of the conference programme – and here’s some more about the history of Wilton Park). It was a few months before Cameras Everywhere was published, and it was a much-appreciated opportunity to explain some of the thinking behind the report, and to pull out some underlying themes as they related to the people at the convening: a mix of media development, intergovernmental, governmental, donors and citizen/social media specialists. You’ll find the main themes after the jump (and if you want to read the whole thing, and to find out why the internet is not a horse, go here): Read More

This year’s Newsfoo felt to me rather different from the 2010 edition. There seemed to be less discussion of how to sustain or resource news, or about the contexts of news consumption, and more about how to deal with some of the cognitive, knowledge-management and even ethical issues of news journalism. This post is on initiatives/tools for fact-checking and knowledge management in the news [Update: a more current list is here.]

Knowledge management, fact-checking in news organisations

After last year’s Newsfoo, I pondered whether “a key emerging role for news media and journalists might lie in more systematically tracking and unpacking the nature and web of connections, instances and influences that flow to and through and from events” – Bruno Latour’s Macospol is one example of how this might be done. Some human rights organisations are using new tools to collect and mine data, build and visualise patterns, and draw conclusions and present evidence (e.g. B’Tselem’s pretty jaw-dropping forensic collaboration with Situ Studio and Goldsmiths). What kinds of tools and methods are news organisations using to conduct this kind of work – establishing facts, establishing connections, and building a web of evidence that helps people decide what is happening around them?

Three Newsfoo discussions in particular prompted this post (alongside Baratunde‘s reminder to us all that The Onion has fact-checkers):
– Jonathan Stray asked first how news organisations could implement better knowledge management as they gather and process information – in a sense, a “context layer” for the web. As one person put it in another discussion, “the process of journalism is very lossy”, in that a lot of labour-intensive, useful information gathered in the process of doing journalism never gets used, or stored and made available to others to search or build on.
– Dan Schultz and Sasha Costanza-Chock talked about how to provide a “truth and credibility layer” for news consumers when they interact with journalism: how do you know if a statement reported online is true or not?
– a range of participants came together for a session specifically on fact-checking, looking in part of how Politifact works, and other initiatives (like this) enabling quite granular analysis of political and business discourse and reporting.

Also, a week before Newsfoo, Craig Newmark had posted on how he’s extremely dissatisfied with the state of fact-checking [UPDATE: and a new post from Craig Newmark at Nieman Lab continues to argue that fact-checking and -challenging is a critical part of how news organisations earn, retain and grow trust]. And a week ago, Ethan Zuckerman wrote helpfully about Morningside Analytics’ work on the US online fact-checking ecosystem, and Lucas Graves’ work on the landscape of fact-checking in the US. There’s a lot of discussion about the state of fact-checking generally at the moment, so I won’t retread the discussions had in these sessions at Newsfoo (not least since there was a fair amount of FrieNDA.)

So read on for a list of resources mentioned in these Newsfoo sessions, along with some others I’ve added to round things out a bit – I hope it’s of use. Most of these are US/UK only – who’s doing this in other parts of the world, in other languages? Thoughts? Additions? Let me know through the comments box!

Read More