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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’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

I’m somewhat belatedly 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 POLIS Director, Charlie Beckett’s notes from his presentation are here.).

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“The Internet Is Not A Horse”: presentation at Wilton Park, May 2011

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with the human rights organisation WITNESS on a new initiative that aims to help those using video for human rights to do so more safely, more ethically and more effectively. As part of this initiative, we have produced a report [published in September 2011], called Cameras Everywhere, as WITNESS’ first toe in the waters of technology policy.

Why would an organisation that has focused on advocacy campaigns to expose and end specific human rights abuses suddenly decide to engage in the world of technology policy? Finding and sharing new ways to use new technologies for documenting and exposing violations remains a central part of what WITNESS does. But in the process of building and running human rights projects that involve technology, we have been forced to confront a range of extremely thorny technical, legal, editorial and ethical challenges woven through the evolving communication environment. And in conversations with technologists, say, we’d raise issues about ethics, and they’d say, “Well, we’d never thought about it that way.” And with policy-makers, “Ah, now I hadn’t really thought about the human rights impacts of copyright enforcement.” Or with NGO colleagues, “Well, we’d like to be more involved in debates about technology, but we don’t know where to start.”

We felt it important to share in an accessible way the lessons we have learned, and to try to stitch together a perspective for our partners, donors and fellow activists, for technologists building the tools we all use, and for policy-makers who set the laws and policies that govern these same technologies. Law and policy set and shape the parameters for what technology can do – indeed law is sometimes embedded within technology – and therefore what it is possible for activists (and citizens more broadly) to do, and what protections they can enjoy and exercise.

This report is based both on our own analysis and experience, and on more than 40 in-depth interviews with highly-placed experts from settings as diverse as academia, technology policy, grassroots activism and broadcast journalism. We hope that it will provide a springboard for further discussion and help bring these various stakeholders a few inches closer together in common understanding and dialogue. Read More

The FT’s Business Life Editor, Ravi Mattu (diclosure: Ravi’s an old friend) covered Cameras Everywhere in his FT column last Thursday (it’s paywalled, unfortunately):

When the Egyptian government shut down the internet during the protests in Tahrir Square, it was seen as a form of repression.

Should access to technology now be seen in the same way as access to, say, clean water? And does this mean that the companies behind those technologies have a particular moral obligation to their users?

The authors of Cameras Everywhere, a report published earlier this month by Witness, a non-governmental organisation focused on using video to expose human rights abuse, argue that they do. (Full disclosure: Sameer Padania is the report’s co-author and a friend.) They looked at the role of mobile telephones and social media, as well as technology providers including Google, Twitter and Dailymotion, in documenting human rights abuses.

It’s a sign of the enormous shifts around us that even a paper like The FT can find room on its pages for a relatively specialised report of this kind. Next step is to encourage media outlets with paywalled content to make their human rights stories publicly accessible…

I spoke at last Thursday’s The Power of Information conference in London, organised by the Indigo Trust, the Institute for Philanthropy, and the Omidyar Network, on a human rights-focused panel alongside Stephanie Hankey of Tactical Technology Collective, Erica Hagen of GroundTruth / MapKibera, John Kipchumbah of SODNet, and Patrick Meier of Ushahidi (here’s a picture of the panelists, and here’s the Indigo Trust’s video of my talk). I also summarised this panel on a plenary round-up at the end of the day (here’s a video and a PDF of the notes I was talking from – in case you’re wondering what I was gesticulating about). [Text updated on 23 Sept to include videos from Indigo Trust. And on 26 Sept to add Indigo Trust’s coverage of the Cameras Everywhere report.]

My talk slides and words (a mix of what I wrote and on-the-day adaptations) are after the “more” link below. Before that, and besides the WITNESS Cameras Everywhere report I drew on for my presentation, here are the principal resources I mentioned on both panels that might be of interest both to attendees at the conference, and to those who followed the hashtag #giveandtech.

Interesting recent research:
– Joe Karaganis of the SSRC’s epic Media Piracy in Emerging Economies (2011) – if you are searching for empirical research on copyright and intellectual property around the world, this is an essential read (see also the Washington Declaration below).
– Aeron Davis’ 2009 paper New Media and Fat Democracy, on how ICTs are creating wider gaps between a growing empowered core of citizens, and a much larger group of disengaged citizens (thanks to Ben Wagner for the pointer).
– Andrew Chadwick’s new paper The Hybrid Media System, which takes aim at false dichotomies between new and more established media.
– UNESCO’s recent Freedom of Connection, Freedom of Expression report.

Collaboration between multiple stakeholders:
– The remarkable Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest (and my personal perspective on it).

Talking to donors: 
– Chris Blattman makes the case to DfID for conducting R&D, rather than M&E, in a recent post and presentation (PDF) called Evaluation 3.0.
– [not mentioned on the day, but very useful nonetheless –>] James Deane, Head of Policy at the BBC World Service Trust, and my former boss at Panos London, on lessons he has drawn from recent high-level meetings on talking with donors about media development – but which seem instructive for, and broadly applicable to ICTs and human rights too.

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