Computers, Freedom & Privacy: Day 2 (Part 1)
Creating the Future: Thinking about the past, glancing into the future Day 2 of the conference is right-side up again, starting with a keynote, going into some workshops and ending with emerging research.
The day basically started with the astounding news that China blocked access to Twitter, Hotmail, Windows Live, Bing, Flickr, YouTube, The Huffington Post, Blogspot, and some other sites in advance of the Tienanmen Square Anniversary. The shock and anger was widespread, though I tried to bring up the point that the first time Flickr was blocked in China, it actually proved extremely beneficial to rights advocates. Prior to that, many Chinese citizens did not actually know that they were being censored. After all, the threat of the Great Firewall is that the citizens don’t know about it. Unfortunately, the resident expert, Rebecca MacKinnon blogged about the event but didn’t respond to my point.
Anticipation in the room was palpable as Susan Crawford, President Obama’s special assistant for science, technology and innovation policy took the stage. She kicked off the day explaining the new administration’s strategy of short term recovery and long term innovation. This hinges on the real technological threat to the country – being so far behind on internet connectivity. “Our broadband connections as a country are slow and expensive.” No mention of the cellular networks though. She continues, discussing how if we are going to seriously tackle Obama’s campaign promises of reducing our carbon footprint, creating green jobs, improving education, and reducing the cost of healthcare, we’re going to need to have access.
Her views for 21st century statecraft, while already publicly espoused by those in the government, are still nice to hear and interesting to try and put into a tangible vision. She spoke of moving beyond government to government relations. instead needing to be more citizen-centered and engaging of alternative perspectives using alternative tools. “YouTube diplomacy” and the like. The Facebook-organized “fight against terror” in Columbia, where students arranged a protest against a paramilitary group, the FARC, and drew hundreds of thousands was highly touted. I couldn’t help but think of the recent “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova as a more recent counterexample and wondered who else at the conference was thinking the same. After all, in the latter case, the organizers and participants were tracked down and rounded up. Unsurprisingly, she took no questions.
The rest of the panel consisted of warnings about the Orwell/Kafka mashup that our society is headed towards as we move towards a national ID system from Caroline Fredrickson and Peter Swire with my favorite never actually seen Facebook quote of the day, that “the web 2.0 movement is opposed to the privacy movement.”
Ryan Singel of Wired Magazine shook things up again as the moderator for The Future of Security vs. Privacy. I’m still shocked by what I saw there. My tweet:
Question: greatest threat to online privacy in 10 years? Votes 1) US (50%) 2) China (5%) 3) Organized Crime (45%) [no “other”] #cfp09
People apparently still see the US government as the greatest threat to privacy? Fascinating! I wouldn’t have guessed this breakdown by a longshot, and was frustrated that there wasn’t an option for “other”. What kind of weird science is an informal audience show of hands without an “other”? The every person on the panel took one of these topics and did a wonderful job of explaining why they think that they are the biggest threat. Stewart Baker took China, Jim Harper on the US, and Valerie Caproni had organized crime. Bruce Schneier was also on the panel, I’m guessing to provide a broader perspective and rationality. Mr. Baker’s discussion of China’s ghostnet spy system in over 100 countries was a hard sell from a man presented to the audience as having won the big brother award himself. He concluded that organizations should focus on monitoring technologies NOT the NSA. Harper mostly said the opposite and Ms. Caproni emphasized that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to protect ourselves. Schneier brought this all into perspective by discussing the oft overlooked notion that power balance is the key. In those circumstances mutual disclosure doesn’t work. His example was well received: “When you go to the doctor’s office and he asks you to take off your clothes, you can’t respond with ‘you first, doc’.” Why do repressive regimes refuse open government? Because power balance is their key. I hope that Ms. Crawford was listening. I truly think/hope that open government is going to be the next policy of reconstruction in post-conflict socities.
Craig Newmark, listmaker and founder of Craigslist.com, took the stage to discuss the view from the technology trenches and emerged spouting the need for participatory democracy and open government. His perspective added a welcom Bay Area realism to the policy tones of the conference. Throughout his talk he was receiving messages on his cellular about San Francisco’s integration of Twitter with their 311 system and spoke about other methods of engaging citizens with techology, such as the FixMyStreet project in the UK where citizens can locate potholes (among other things) on their street to then be fixed by the government. He gave 3 reasons for the need of privacy: whistleblowers, general privacy matters, and lively discussion boards. He also stressed the need for access to really allow for the engagement that citizens need to have, but rather than pushing broadband as Crawford had, he recognized that mobiles are the way that most people are (and will) access and interact with information in the future. He managed to thankfully avoid spending too much time on the recently overhyped murder and sex cases involving his website. In the end I was underwhelmed by his response to my question about the responsibility of companies acting under repressive regimes such as China, Vietnam, and Burma. He stated that companies need to understand local cultures. This kind of apologist rhetoric (Chileans death squads are just their culture) was unfortunate to hear from a man who otherwise gave such fantastic insights into how the online sphere works.