What the GPS Device on Antoine Jones’ Jeep Cherokee Means for Internet Privacy

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled on United States vs. Jones [PDF of court opinion], a case in which the FBI/DC police placed a GPS tracking device on the Jeep Cherokee of Antoine Jones, a club owner in DC who was suspected of dealing cocaine. The cops tracked Mr. Jones for 28 days, and, based on that evidence (as well as a CCTV camera pointing at the club door, a pen register (*) and a wiretap on Jones’s cellphone), charged him with conspiracy and possession with intent. Jones appealed, saying that the GPS data should be inadmissible since it was collected without a warrant.

The Supreme Court held up the ruling of the DC Court of Appeals in a unanimous 9-0 decision, saying that a) this was a search b) a car is a person’s property, or “effects”, and thus affixing a GPS to the undercarriage of the car violates the Fourth Amendment. From the ruling:

It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.

What’s interesting here is that there was a 5-4 split on why the Justices ruled as they did. Justice Sotomayor, writing a concurrent opinion, wrote, “When the Government physically invades personal property to gather information, a search occurs.The reaffirmation of that principle suffices to decide this case.” Since the government had invaded property, the Justices did not need to evaluate any of the other principles that this case brings up.

And there are many principles that this case brings up. Sotomayor talks about many of them: what about electronic surveillance if no property was trespassed upon? What about the chilling effects of potential long-term electronic surveillance? What about the fact that GPS monitoring gives far more specific information, and is far easier and cheaper, than traditional visual surveillance? What about the fact that this data can be stored and mined later? She writes:

I would take these attributes of GPS monitoring into account when considering the existence of a reasonable societal expectation of privacy in the sum of one’s public movements. I would ask whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the Government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on. I do not regard as dispositive the fact that the Government might obtain the fruits of GPS monitoring through lawful conventional surveillance techniques… I would also consider the appropriateness of entrusting to the Executive, in the absence of any oversight from a coordinate branch, a tool so amenable to misuse, especially in light of the Fourth Amendment’s goa lto curb arbitrary exercises of police power to and prevent “a too permeating police surveillance.”

But most awesomely, Sotomayor then goes on to critique the third party doctrine. This says that if you disclose information to a third party (whether that’s your sister, Google, or Ma Bell), you have no reasonable expectation of privacy governing that information, and the government has a right to access it. As Sotomayor writes, “This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks” like checking email, signing up for Facebook, or buying a pair of shoes online.

In a concurring opinion, four other judges agreed with the majority ruling, but not the use of the property doctrine to decide it. Instead, Alito, Ginsberg, Breyer and Kagan seem suspicious of electronic surveillance overall. In Alito’s concurring judgment, he mentions GPS, road CCTV cameras, electronic toll collectors, and, most interestingly, cell phone location data as potential invasions of privacy. He laments that Congress and state governments have done little or nothing to regulate the use of this data by law enforcement.

I think the SCOTUS is itching for a fight on digital privacy. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with similar cases in the future.

* Don’t get me started on pen registers. They track what numbers you call, and have the technical capability to track where your cellphone is and even your text messages. Yet the standard for ordering one is much lower than, say, wiretapping; the potential surveillee just has to be part of an ‘ongoing criminal investigation.’ Even more worryingly, Chris Soghoian has documented that law enforcement makes tens of thousands of requests to phone companies for cell phone location information. Requests to internet companies for location information are not even subject to the pen register standard; all they need is a subpoena.

How Parents Normalized Teen Password Sharing

In 2005, I started asking teenagers about their password habits. My original set of questions focused on teens’ attitudes about giving their password to their parents, but I quickly became enamored with teens’ stories of sharing passwords with friends and significant others. So I was ecstatic when Pew Internet & American Life Project decided to survey teens about their password sharing habits. Pew found that one third of online 12-17 year olds share their password with a friend or significant other and that almost half of those 14-17 do. I love when data gets reinforced.

Last week, Matt Richtel at the New York Times did a fantastic job of covering one aspect of why teens share passwords: as a show of affection. Indeed, I have lots of fun data that supports Richtel’s narrative — and complicates it. Consider Meixing’s explanation for why she shares her password with her boyfriend:

Meixing, 17, TN: It made me feel safer just because someone was there to help me out and stuff. It made me feel more connected and less lonely. Because I feel like Facebook sometimes it kind of like a lonely sport, I feel, because you’re kind of sitting there and you’re looking at people by yourself. But if someone else knows your password and stuff it just feels better.

For Meixing, sharing her password with her boyfriend is a way of being connected. But it’s precisely these kinds of narratives that have prompted all sorts of horror by adults over the last week since that NYTimes article came out. I can’t count the number of people who have gasped “How could they!?!” at me. For this reason, I feel the need to pick up on an issue that the NYTimes let out.

The idea of teens sharing passwords didn’t come out of thin air. In fact, it was normalized by adults. And not just any adult. This practice is the product of parental online safety norms. In most households, it’s quite common for young children to give their parents their passwords. With elementary and middle school youth, this is often a practical matter: children lose their passwords pretty quickly. Furthermore, most parents reasonably believe that young children should be supervised online. As tweens turn into teens, the narrative shifts. Some parents continue to require passwords be forked over, using explanations like “because I’m your mother.” But many parents use the language of “trust” to explain why teens should share their passwords with them.

There are different ways that parents address the password issue, but they almost always build on the narrative of trust. (Tangent: My favorite strategy is when parents ask children to put passwords into a piggy bank that must be broken for the paper with the password to be retrieved. Such parents often explain that they don’t want to access their teens’ accounts, but they want to have the ability to do so “in case of emergency.” A piggy bank allows a social contract to take a physical form.)

When teens share their passwords with friends or significant others, they regularly employ the language of trust, as Richtel noted in his story. Teens are drawing on experiences they’ve had in the home and shifting them into their peer groups in order to understand how their relationships make sense in a broader context. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because this is all-too-common for teen practices. Household norms shape peer norms.

There’s another thread here that’s important. Think back to the days in which you had a locker. If you were anything like me and my friends, you gave out your locker combination to your friends and significant others. There were varied reasons for doing so. You wanted your friends to pick up a book for you when you left early because you were sick. You were involved in a club or team where locker decorating was common. You were hoping that your significant other would leave something special for you. Or – to be completely and inappropriately honest – you left alcohol in your locker and your friends stopped by for a swig. (One of my close friends was expelled for that one.) We shared our locker combinations because they served all sorts of social purposes, from the practical to the risqué.

How are Facebook passwords significantly different than locker combos? Truth be told, for most teenagers, they’re not. Teens share their passwords so that their friends can check their messages for them when they can’t get access to a computer. They share their passwords so their friends can post the cute photos. And they share their passwords because it’s a way of signaling an intimate relationship. Just like with locker combos.

Can password sharing be abused? Of course. I’ve heard countless stories of friends “punking” one another by leveraging password access. And I’ve witnessed all sorts of teen relationship violence where mandatory password sharing is a form of surveillance and abuse. But, for most teens, password sharing is as risky as locker combo sharing. This is why, even though 1/3 of all teens share their passwords, we only hear of scattered horror stories.

I know that this practice strikes adults as seriously peculiar, but it irks me when adults get all judgmental on this teen practice, as though it’s “proof” that teens can’t properly judge how trustworthy a relationship is. First, it’s through these kinds of situations where they learn. Second, adults are dreadful at judging their own relationships (see: divorce rate) so I don’t have a lot of patience for the high and mighty approach. Third, I’m much happier with teens sharing passwords as a form of intimacy than sharing many other things.

There’s no reason to be aghast at teen password sharing. Richtel’s story is dead-on. It’s pretty darn pervasive. But it also makes complete sense given how notions of trust have been constructed for many teens.

(Image Credit: Darwin Bell)

Two kinds of piracy

Just a quick follow up on the discussion of SOPA; people keep asking me what kind of legislation would be more appropriate than SOPA and PIPA, and that might have a better chance of gaining the support of the technology industries, users, and Congress. I’m not in the business of writing laws, but as a start, my sense of it is that there are two kinds of infringement: first, there are underground sites and networks dedicated to trading copyrighted music, software, games, and movies; they are determined to elude regulations, they often move offshore or spread their resources across national jurisdictions to make prosecution harder, and they are technologically sophisticated enough to work just with numerical IP addresses, set up mirror sites, and move when one site gets shut down. The second kind of infringement is when some fan, who may not know or appreciate the rules of copyright, uploads a clip to YouTube.

The mistake the entertainment industry continues to make is that they want to stop both kinds of piracy, and they seem unwilling to admit that they are different and start dealing with them as separate problems, with different tools, and with a different “threat level” in their rhetoric. SOPA was problematic in so may respects, but in particular because it tried to address both kinds of piracy at once, and failed to handle either appropriately. The kinds of measures it was suggesting for “rogue, foreign websites” (let’s assume they meant the hardcore piracy networks) wouldn’t be enough: if the DoJ got a court order to remove these sites from Google’s search and the major ISPs, you or I might not be able to access these sites. But determined file traders don’t find them through Google. And SOPA got so much blowback because it also tried to include the second kind of piracy at the same time – which, in fact, is handled relatively well with the “notice-and-takedown” rules that already apply to content platforms like YouTube.

It’s not only that these two kinds of piracy are so different that they require distinctly different approaches: it’s that the entertainment industry needs to let go of trying to squelch them both in the same breath. If they could start distinguishing the two, and make clear that they don’t want to catch up YouTube and Facebook in their net in the process, I think the technology industries will be more willing to develop and uphold gentle norms and procedures for the kinds of infringement that may happen on their networks.

[Cross posted on Culture Digitally]

SOPA and the strategy of forced invisibility

Since I supported the blacking out of the MSR Social Media Collective blog to which I sometimes contribute, and the blacking out of Culture Digitally, which I co-organize, in order to join the SOPA protest led by the “Stop American Censorship” effort, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reddit, and Wikipedia, I though I should weigh in with my own concerns about the proposed legislation. 

While it’s reasonable for Congress to look for progressive, legislative ways to enforce copyrights and discourage flagrant piracy, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act) now under consideration are a fundamentally dangerous way to go about it. Their many critics have raised many compelling reasons for why [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16]. But in my eyes, they are most dangerous because of their underlying logic: policing infringement by rendering sites invisible.

Under SOPA and PIPA, if a website is even accused of hosting or enabling infringing materials, the Attorney General can order search engines to delete that site from their listings, require ISPs to block users’  access to it, and demand payment services (like PayPal) and advertising networks to cancel their accounts with it. (This last step can even be taken by copyright holders themselves, with only a good faith assertion that the site in question is infringing.) What a tempting approach to policing the Internet: rather than pursuing and prosecuting this site and that site, in an endless game of whack-a-mole, just turn the large-scale intermediaries, and use their power to make websites available, in order to make them unavailable. It shows all too plainly that the Internet is not some wide open, decentralized, unregulatable space, as some have believed. But, it undercuts the longstanding American tradition of how to govern information, which has always erred on the side of letting information, even abhorrent or criminal information, be accessible to citizens, so we can judge for ourselves. Making it illegal to post something is one thing, but wiping the entire site clean off the board as if it never existed is another.

Expunging an infringing site from being found is problematic in itself, a clear form of “prior restraint.” But it is exacerbated by the fact that whole sites might be rendered invisible on the basis of just bits of infringing content they may host. This is a particular troubling to sites that host user-generated content, where one infringing thread, post, or community might co-exist amidst a trove of other legitimate content. Under SOPA and PIPA, a court order  could remove not just the offending thread, but the entire site from Google’s search engine, from ISPs, and from ad networks, all in a blink.

These are the same strategies, not only that China, Iran, and Vietnam currently use to restrict political speech (as prominent critics have charged), but that were recently used against Wikileaks right here at home. When Amazon kicked Wikileaks off its cloud computing servers, when Wikileaks was de-listed by one DNS operator, when Mastercard and Paypal refused to take donations for the organization, they were attempting to render Wikileaks invisible before a court ever determined, or even alleged, that Wikileaks had broken any laws. So it is not a hypothetical that this tactic of rendering invisible will not only be dangerous for commercial speech, or the expressive rights of individual users, but for vital, contested, political speech. SOPA and PIPA would simply organize these tactics into a concerted, legally-enforced effort to erase, to which all search engines and ISP would be obligated to impose.

A lighthearted aside: In the film Office Space, the soulless software company chose not to fire the hapless Milton. Instead, they took away his precious stapler, moved him to the basement, and simply stopped sending him paychecks. We laughed at the blank-faced cruelty, because we recognized how tempting this solution would be, a deft way to avoid having to someone to their face. Congress is considering the same “Bobs” strategy here. But while it may be fine for comedy, this is hardly the way to address complex legal challenges around the distribution of information that should be dealt with in the clear light of a court room. And it risks rendering invisible elements of the web that might deserve to remain.

We are at a point of temptation. The Internet is both so powerful and so unruly because anyone can add their site to it (be it noble or criminal, informative or infringing) and it will be found./ It depends on, and presumes, a principle of visibility. Post the content, and it is available. Request it, from anywhere in the world, and the DNS servers will find it. Search for it in Google, and it will appear. But, as those who find this network most threatening come calling, with legitimate (at least in the abstract) calls to protect children / revenue / secrets / civility, we will be sorely tempted to address these challenges simply by wiping them clean off the network.

This is why the response to SOPA and PIPA, most prominently in the January 18 blackouts by Reddit, Wikipedia, and countless blogs, are so important. Removing their content, even for a day, is meant to show how dangerous this forced invisibility could be. It should come as no surprise that, while many other Internet companies have voiced their concerns about SOPA, it is Wikipedia and Reddit that have gone the farthest in challenging the law. Not only do they host, i.e. make visible, an enormous amount of user-generated content. But they are themselves governed in important ways by their users. Their decisions to support a blackout were themselves networked affairs, that benefited from all of their users having an ability to participate — and recognized that commitment to openness as part of their fundamental mission.

Whether you care about the longstanding U.S. legal tradition of information freedoms, or the newly emergent structural logic of the Internet as a robust space of public expression, both require a new and firm commitment in our laws: to ensure that the Internet remains navigable, that sites remain visible, that pointers point and search engines list, regardless of the content. Sites hosting or benefitting from illegal or infringing content should be addressed directly by courts and law enforcement, armed with a legal scalpel that’s delicate enough to avoid carving off huge swaths of legitimate expression. We might be able to build a coalition of content providers and technology companies willing to partner on anti-piracy legislation, if copyright holders could admit that they need to go after the determined, underground piracy networks bent on evading regulation, and not in the same gesture put YouTube at risk for a video of a kid dancing to a Prince tune — there is a whole lot of middle ground there. But a policy premised on rendering parts of the web invisible is not going to accomplish that. And embracing this strategy of forced invisibility is too damaging to what the Internet is and could be as a public resource.

(Cross-posted at Culture Digitally.)

Are Internet companies using us to fight against SOPA?

Like many of my colleagues I oppose to SOPA and PIPA. I have been a proponent of Free Culture for many years (which I know is funny to say next to the Microsoft logo) and I have studied young people’s perceptions of intellectual property because I find the topic fascinating and extremely important. However, there is a lingering thought that grew out of conversations with my friend Benjamin Mako Hill back when net neutrality was the debate du jour. Basically I can’t stop wondering if companies are just using us to fight these debates.

It seems to me that lot of these tech debates are fights between companies with opposing business models: in the case of Net Neutrality it is Internet companies vs telcos, in the case of SOPA/PIPA it is media companies vs Internet companies. However, both of these debates are often framed as it they were “the people” vs the evil companies and their lawmakers. I suspect that at some point the interests of the same Internet companies we are indirectly helping today will no longer be in the best interest of the rest of us. What will we do then? What will happen when it is oil companies asking for support against weapons companies? Will we always need to find opposing companies that can help us fight back? 

What’s the difference between SOPA and PIPA?

I decided to put my slightly-dormant internet policy research skillz to work to figure this out. It was surprisingly difficult. Most stop PIPA/SOPA websites conflate them– but they are different. (Note: The best resource was an article I found at Area 51 Technologies.)

#1: SOPA’s a House bill, PIPA is a Senate bill.
SOPA = House of Representatives
PIPA = Senate

The Senate tends to be older and more conservative than the House, meaning that it’s more likely to be completely clueless about the internet. That’s not good.

#2: PIPA has a greater chance of passing.

SOPA has gotten so much guff that it’s temporarily off the table. PIPA, on the other hand, has been relatively ignored and so is much farther along in the process.

#3: They are essentially the same “anti-piracy” bill, but with a few different provisions.

Both PIPA and SOPA focus on “foreign rogue websites” (e.g. the Pirate Bay, Wikileaks) that facilitate piracy. And they both establish systems for removing websites that the Department of Justice decides are “dedicated to infringing activities.”

PIPA does NOT have a provision that requires search engines to remove these “foreign infringing site[s]” from their indexes. SOPA does. And it’s been highly criticized.

PIPA does seem to require more court intervention to take down a site– that’s good, right?– but it DOESN’T have any provision that penalizes a copyright holder for making a false claim of infringement. In other words, a Big IP company can claim that a site is infringing, drag it through hella expensive litigation, be proven wrong, and the site can do nothing about its costs incurred in the process. SOPA DOES include a provision that penalizes copyright holders who do this “knowingly,” including making them liable for damages and legal costs.

#4: They both require DNS blocking.

Because this has been protested not only by civil rights groups and internet enthusiasts, but engineers and computer scientists who say that DNS blocking will damage internet infrastructure (like, say, the Domain Name System itself), the sponsors of SOPA and PIPA have agreed to strip this from both bills. They claim that this will eliminate much of the current opposition. (See related technical whitepaper. [PDF link])

The bills share many other odious traits, which are summarized by Katy Tasker from Public Knowledge in this handy chart:

Chart of the differences between PIPA and SOPA. The two bills are essentially the same.

Ultimately, PIPA and SOPA are not particularly different. They are slightly textually different versions of the same legislation– supported by the entertainment industry and, for the most part, heavily opposed by the technology industry (including us at SMC). If at this point you still haven’t called your senators or representatives, you can easily do so at americancensorship.org.

Internet Blackout: SOPA, Reddit, and Networked (Political) Publics

This post has been cross-posted from Henry Jenkins’ blog.

If you don’t have time to read this article in full, the easiest way to skim information about this topic is to visit http://americancensorship.org/.

In the past year, we’ve dealt with various novel political moments around the world that have been enabled or augmented with networked technology, from Anonymous’ global “hacktivist” incidents to the numerous protests in the Middle East, topped off of course with the vibrant grassroots protests of the Occupy movement. Over the last few months, we’ve also seen another interesting case study taking place in American politics: rampant opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, dubbed as “the most important bill in Congress you may have never heard of” by Chris Hayes of MSNBC.com.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640

Watch Chris Hayes’ interview for a good introduction to the debate around SOPA.

SOPA, a bill currently making its way through the House of Representatives (along with its sibling PIPA, the Protect IP Act, currently in the Senate) has faced weeks of protest from Internet companies and users alike. Why? Well, on Google Plus, Sergey Brin — cofounder of Google — likened the potential effects of SOPA to the Internet censorship practiced in China, Iran, Libya, and Tunisia. Basically, to protect against international copyright infringement, SOPA allows the US to combat websites (such as file lockers or foreign link aggregators) that illegally distribute or even link to American-made media by blocking access to them. Theoretically, the bill has dangerous implications for websites that rely on user-generated content, from YouTube to 4chan. Many have already written about the worries that SOPA and PIPA cause, such as Alex Howard’s excellent, in-depth piece over at O’Reilly Radar. For more information on the bills, visit OpenCongress’s webpages, where you can see summaries of the legislation, which companies support and oppose them, and round-ups of by mainstream and blogged news: SOPA + PIPA. The bills are one more step in a long line of anti-piracy legislation, such as 2010’s Combatting online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA).

Within the first few weeks since SOPA was introduced, http://fightforthefuture.org/ introduced the hyperbolic http://freebieber.org/ to illustrate the fears ordinary Internet users should have in relation to the legislation. In essence, SOPA would radically undermine many of the fan practices that Henry and others have analyzed on this blog. Fight for the Future also released the following video (which was my first media exposure to SOPA):

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

However, for the most part, criticism — or even basic coverage — of SOPA remained an online phenomenon. While there have been a few online articles written on CNN and a couple other networks, the mainstream news coverage of the bills remain fairly nonexistent, reports MediaMatters, likely due to the fact that the television networks largely support the bill. The Colbert Report featured a pair of short segments on SOPA in early December.

The Internet, though, largely worked around that problem.

In his book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, UCLA anthropologist Chris Kelty describes free software programmer-activists as a recursive public. Drawing from Michael Warner’s concept of “publics and counterpublics” from Habermas’s “public sphere,” Kelty illustrates these programmers as a group that is addressed by copyright and code, and who work to make, maintain, and modify their technological networks and code as well as the discourse with which they engage as a public. This “circularity is essential to the phenomenon.”

Especially over the past two months, we’ve seen an exceptional effort on the part of online companies to engage users with the political process to oppose SOPA. For instance, on 16 November 2011, Tumblr blacked out every image, video, and word on each user’s dashboard, linking at the top of the page to http://www.tumblr.com/protect-the-net, where users could call their local representative.

The effort set of thousands of shared posts and hundreds of hours of calls.

While other companies attempted similar experiments (like Scribd on 21 December), Internet leaders joined together to spread word and inform Congress (such as with this letter from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on 15 November, and later this letter by many others on 14 December) and even political opponents of SOPA reached out on social media, like when Senator Ron Wyden asked people to sign their names at so he could read the list at a filibuster. Other experts eventually spoke up too.

But perhaps the most intriguing political effort occurred within one specific online community: Reddit.com.

Reddit, founded in 2005, is a social news and discussion website where users submit and vote on content. According to Alexa.com, Reddit is currently the 53rd most-visited site in the United States. Due to its increasing popularity, Reddit’s slogan is “the front page of the internet” — pertinent, because when a link hits the front page of Reddit, it can lend hundreds of thousands of page views. Though members at times highlight the site’s immaturity and incivility, its vibrant community — combined with the hypervisibility of the front page, has particularly thrived over the past couple of years, especially in terms of political participation and charity. Co-founded Alexis Ohanian gave a TEDtalk about Reddit’s dedication to strange things online and when that translates into a sort of political participation:

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Humorously, every activist-related post on the official Reddit blog is tagged with “do it for splashy.

In terms of more prominent political activism, Reddit’s community — particularly it’s subreddit, /r/politics, and the emergent subreddit /r/SOPA — has unified around opposing SOPA, in line with the free-speech, utopian personality that pervades the site. For instance, a couple posts on /r/politics and r/technology that reached the front page [1, 2] helped bring rapid visibility to Senator Wyden’s filibuster initiative.

A more effective protest occurred in the form of a website boycott. GoDaddy, the domain register, was discovered to be a supporter of SOPA. After some discussion on Reddit, one r/politics thread reached the front page: GoDaddy supports SOPA, I’m transferring 51 domains & suggesting a move your domain day. Visibility of SOPA-related content was aided by a new subreddit, r/sopa, to which a global sidebar linked from the Reddit homepage. Less than 24 hours after the boycott started (even though, by numbers, it was deemed hardly successful), and with two more /r/politics threads that reached the front page [1, 2], GoDaddy reversed their stance and dropped support for SOPA.

SOPA debate continued to be fueled by various posts, including one by cofounder Alexis Ohanian: If SOPA existed, Steve & I never could’ve started reddit. Please help us win.. At the end of December, r/politics joined together to place pressure on SOPA-supporting Representative Paul Ryan; eventually, he reversed his position and denounced the bill.

Most notably, Alexis Ohanian recently announced on the Reddit blog that the entire site would voluntarily shut down on Wednesday 18 January 2012 for twelve hours, from 8am-8pm EST. Replacing the front page will be “a simple message about how the PIPA/SOPA legislation would shut down sites like reddit, link to resources to learn more, and suggest ways to take action.” This blacking out of Reddit coincides with a series of cybersecurity experts’ testimonies in Congress, at which Ohanian will be representing and speaking.

In reaction to SOPA (and PIPA, to which the opposition is now growing, since the SOPA vote has now been shelved), a vigorous public emerged across the web and united around discourse about the bills, particularly on Reddit.com. But to return to Kelty: is this a recursive public? Do the political users of Reddit have enough power and agency to maintain and modify their public?

I believe this question gets at a deeper question of ontology: what does political participation mean in a 1) networked, and 2) editable age? For instance, some users are able to promote their skills for discourse — eg., My friend and I wrote an application to boycott SOPA. Scan product barcodes and see if they’re made by a SOPA supporter. Enjoy. — but in certain cases, participation in technological systems becomes participation in a recursive public because that participation helps modify the system. In the case of Reddit, participation can become political when content reaches extreme visibility. And this is particularly important when we reconsider that the mass media has barely covered SOPA as a topic: due to this conflict, participation on a network platform like Reddit becomes an inherently political action.

And out of these seemingly-innocuous actions emerge more political moves. In reaction to the black out, other websites have agreed to join the effort, such as BoingBoing.net. Perhaps the decision with the most impact came on Monday, when Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia — which receives up to 25 million visitors per day at the English-language portal — would also shut down, but this time for a full 24 hours, after a lengthy discussion on Wales’ personal Wikipedia page. Wales responded to the announcement on Twitter by saying, “I hope Wikipedia will melt phone systems in Washington on Wednesday.”

In a recent New York Times article, Reddit’s political actions were noted. “‘It’s encouraging that we got this far against the odds, but it’s far from over,’ said Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit.com, a social news site that has generated some of the loudest criticism of the bills. ‘We’re all still pretty scared that this might pass in one form or another. It’s not a battle between Hollywood and tech, its people who get the Internet and those who don’t.” Of course, Reddit isn’t the only platform that is part of this important recursive public, just as Twitter wasn’t the saving grace of the Arab Spring or the Iranian Revolution. The efforts of hundreds of activists around the country have contributed immensely to the anti-SOPA effort. But keep in mind that Reddit has reached a pinnacle of political participation in the last few months, and I have a feeling that — like YouTube in the 2008 presidential elections — Reddit may be the site to watch in 2012.

Alex Leavitt is a PhD student at USC Annenberg, where he studies digital culture and networked technology. Recently, his work has focused on creative participation in immense online networks, examining global participatory phenomenon like Hatsune Miku and Minecraft. You can reach him on Twitter @alexleavitt or via email at aleavitt@usc.edu; to read more about his research, visit alexleavitt.com.

We need to talk about piracy (but we must stop SOPA first)

Much to my happiness, the internets are in a frenzy about the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (aka SOPA). Congress is currently in recess, but the House announced a hearing on the potential impact to the Domain Name Service on January 18 and everyone expects the Senate to begin discussing a similar bill “PROTECT IP Act” when they return to DC on January 24. There’s a lot to these bills – and the surrounding furor – and I’m not going to go into it, but I recommend reading the actual bill and Open Congress info, the Wikipedia article, EFF’s blog, and the various links at Stop American Censorship. Tomorrow – January 18th – a bunch of geeks are planning a SOPA Blackout Day to voice their discontent.

I abhor SOPA for the same reasons as other geeks. I’m horrified that Congress has crafted a law that will screw with the architecture of the internet in ways that will undermine free speech. I love Josh Kopstein’s post “Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works.” And I’m glad that geeks are getting vocal, even if – as Clay Johnson has pointed out – geeks don’t quite get how Congress works. I’m stoked that the White House has asked for a civil conversation around piracy (while also opposing SOPA’s key pieces). And I find it utterly hysterical that Rupert Murdoch has come to geeks’ turf (Twitter) to convey his pro-SOPA opinions, even as Obama steps in to state that he opposes SOPA.

In talking with non-geeks, I can’t help but be fascinated that the debate has somehow been framed in the public eye as “pro-piracy” vs. “anti-piracy.” Needless to say, that’s the frame that Murdoch is advocating, even as geeks are pushing for the “pro-internet” vs. “pro-censorship” frame. What’s especially intriguing to me is that the piracy conversation is getting convoluted even among politicos, revealing the ways in which piracy gets flattened to one concept. Teasing this issue out is especially important when we’re talking about regulations that are meant to help with piracy. There are many different aspects of piracy, but for simplicity sake, I want to focus on two aspects that feed into bills like SOPA and PROTECT IP: piracy as a competitive issue vs. piracy as a cultural issue. This can often be split as software piracy vs. media piracy, but not always.

There are actually reasons to not be in favor of all forms of piracy, even if you’re an unrepentant media pirate. Imagine that you are an appliance manufacturer in the United States. You make things like toasters. You are required to abide by American laws. You must pay your employees at least a minimum wage; you must follow American safety regulations. All of this raises the overhead of your production process. In addition, you must also do things like purchase your software legally. Your designers use some CAD software, which they pay for. Your accountants use accounting software, which they pay for. Sure, you’ve cut some costs by using “free” software but, by and large, you pay a decent amount of money to software companies to use the systems that they built.

You really want to get your toasters into Wal-Mart, but time and time again, you find yourself undercut by competitors in foreign countries where the safety laws are more lax, the minimum wage laws are nonexistent, and where companies aren’t punished for stealing software. Are you grouchy? Of course you are. Needless to say, you see this as an unfair competition issue. There aren’t legal ways of bending the market to create fair competition. You can’t innovate your way out of this dilemma and so you want Congress to step in and make sure that you can compete fairly.

Combating software piracy in the supply chain is a reasonable request and part of what makes bills like PROTECT IP messy is that there’s a kernel of this issue in these bills. Bills like this are also meant to go after counterfeit products. Most folks really want to know what’s in baby formula or what’s in the medicines they purchase. Unfortunately, though, these aspects of piracy quickly gets muddled with cultural facets of piracy, particularly once the media industries have gotten involved.

Since the rise of Napster, the media industry has been in a furor over media piracy. Not only do they get pissed when people rip and distribute media content on the internet, they throw a fit whenever teenagers make their own music videos based on their favorite song. Even though every child in America is asked to engage in remix in schools for educational purposes (“Write a 5-paragraph essay as though you were dropped into Lord of the Flies”), doing so for fun and sharing your output on the internet has been deemed criminal. Media piracy is messy, because access to content is access to social status and power in a networked era. Some people are simply “stealing” but others are actually just trying to participate in culture. It’s complicated. (See: “Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property” and “Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates” to go deeper.)

Most in the media industry refuse to talk about media piracy beyond the economic components. But the weird thing about media piracy is that Apple highlighted that the media industry could actually innovate their way around this problem. Sure, it doesn’t force everyone to pay for consuming content, but when was that ever the case? When I was in high school, I went over to friends’ houses and watched their TV and movies without paying for them. Even though the media industry is making buckets of money – and even though people have been shown to be willing to pay for content online when it’s easy – the media industry is more interested in creating burdensome regulations than in developing innovative ways for consumers to get access to content. (Yo HBO! Why the hell can’t I access your content legally online if I don’t subscribe to cable!?!?) I guess I shouldn’t be surprised… It’s cheaper to lawyer up than hire geeks these days.

Of course, it’s not like there aren’t a bazillion laws on the books to curb media piracy. What frustrates the media industry is that they don’t have jurisdiction over foreign countries and foreign web servers. Bills like SOPA aren’t really meant to curb piracy; they’re meant to limit Americans’ access to information flows in foreign countries by censoring what kinds of information can flow across American companies’ servers. Eeek. I can’t help but think back to a point that Larry Lessig makes in “Republic, Lost” where he points out that there are more laws to curb media piracy on the books than there are to curb pollution. Le sigh.

Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely piracy practices out there that I’d like to see regulators help curb. For example, I’m actually quite in favor of making sure that companies can’t engage in unfair competition. I agree with the White House that certain kinds of piracy practices undermine American jobs. But I’m not in favor of using strong arm tactics to go after individuals’ cultural practices. Nor am I interested in seeing “solutions” that focus on turning America into more of a bubble. Shame on media companies for trying to silence and censor information flows in their efforts to strong arm consumers. This isn’t good for consumers and it’s certainly not good for citizens.

As we go deeper into an information age, I think that we need to have serious conversations about what is colloquially termed piracy. We need to distinguish media piracy from software piracy because they’re not the same thing. We need to seriously interrogate fairness and equality, creative production and cultural engagement. And we need to seriously take into consideration why people do what they do. I strongly believe that when people work en masse to route around a system, the system is most likely the thing that needs the fixing, not the people.

These issues are challenging and they require people to untangle a wide variety of different conflicting and interwoven practices. Unfortunately, challenging cultural conversations are really hard to have when the government chooses to fast track faulty legislation on the behalf of one industry and to the detriment of another. SOPA has turned into a gnarly battle between old and new media, but the implications of this battle extend far beyond the corporate actors. My hope is that SOPA goes away immediately. But I also hope that we can begin the harder work of actually interrogating how different aspects of piracy are affecting society, business, and cultural practices.

In the meantime, I ask you to stand with me to oppose SOPA. Learn what’s happening and voice your opinion. Legislative issues like this affect all of us.

Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, Mary L. Gray to Join Microsoft Research

::bounce:: I am *ecstatic* to announce that Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, and Mary L. Gray are all joining Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, MA. See Jennifer Chayes’ announcement. ::bounce::

Three years ago (this week), I joined Microsoft Research to help integrate social scientists and computer scientists. I have known about and admired MSR since my undergraduate days when I was studying computer science. From the perspective of a researcher, it seemed like heaven-on-earth. As I slowly shifted disciplines, I was saddened to think that I had moved myself away from MSR so I was utterly delighted when, in 2008, I learned that Jennifer Chayes wanted to start a lab that brought computer scientists and social scientists together in new ways. I was even more ecstatic when she invited me to help with this endeavor. Over the last three years, I’ve invited numerous scholars to come to MSR as visitors, postdocs, and interns. In particular, I’ve focused on bringing in social scientists from fields that haven’t commonly been in conversation with industrial researchers. This loose network of folks have come to be known as the “Social Media Collective.” Much to my absolute pleasure, Nancy, Kate, and Mary are going to come to MSR to join the Collective.

The Social Media Collective focuses on research related to socio-technical issues, primarily from a social scientific perspective. Most of us use qualitative research methods, but there are also quantitative, computational, and experimental folks among us. We primarily look at topics related to the rise of social media, but we do so from a variety of different disciplinary lenses. Our work tends to have implications for a wide array of audiences: scholarly, technical, policy, business, and public. Nancy, Kate, and Mary are three of the leading scholars in this arena and I’m ecstatic that they’ll be coming to MSR to advance this line of inquiry.

  • Nancy Baym is a communication scholar, currently at University of Kansas. She helped define the field of internet studies with her work on personal connections, fandom, and online communities.
  • Kate Crawford is a media studies scholar, currently at the University of New South Wales. She weaves together a diverse set of interests to examine mobile media, intimacy, and listening, with an eye towards public policy implications.
  • Mary L. Gray is an anthropologist, currently at Indiana University. Her work on rural queer youth has helped complicate our understandings of marginalized populations’ use of technology.

Each of these phenomenal scholars has a long history of helping us understand the relationship between technology and society and I’m sooo soooo soooo excited that they’re coming to MSR. As all of you who know me know, I love MSR. I also love Nancy, Kate, and Mary. So the combination makes me feel like a kid in a candy store.

MSR is a truly special place: an interdisciplinary home base for folks who are interested in studying issues related to technology. I still remember the day that Nancy, Kate, and Mary came back from talking to a group of computer scientists and mathematicians about the very meaning of “communication.” Needless to say, social scientists don’t use that term in the same way as mathematicians. But instead of being horrified, these three were glowing because they ended up diving deep into the kind of intense conversations that only scholars relish. That’s when I knew that MSR was the place for them.

Microsoft Research is so lucky that Nancy, Kate, and Mary are coming to MSR. And I’m super lucky that I’m going to have three more awesome colleagues. ::bounce::