The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 22 2015 10:41 AM

Netizen Report: Venezuelans Question Disappearing Internet Service

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, Hae-in Lim, Sonia Roubini and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in Venezuela, where Internet users in multiple provinces reported in high volume that they were unable to get online through CANTV, the nation’s leading Internet service provider, for approximately 12 hours between Jan. 16 and Jan. 17. Owned by the Venezuelan government, CANTV is the dominant ISP in Venezuela and captures roughly 86 percent of the local market.

Telecommunications officials tweeted that the service failure was caused by a technical problem with national domain name system servers, but this left local technical experts scratching their heads—the nation’s other ISPs registered no disruption in service. Given the country’s increasingly fraught environment for civic engagement and speech, whether online or off, many citizens are second-guessing CANTV’s explanation. Writing for the independent news site elespectaculo.com, Arnaldo Espinoza noted that the possible block coincided with the return of embattled president Nicolas Maduro from a tour during which he visited China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, chiefly to negotiate new trade terms for crude oil.

Post-Charlie censorship in Turkey
A Turkish court ordered telecommunication authorities to block several news sites showing the latest cover of French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The cover, which the magazine published just a week after experiencing a brutal terrorist attack on its offices, featured the image of the prophet Muhammad in tears and holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie.” Twitter users in Turkey were divided over the news, with some expressing support and others outrage over the blockings. The hashtag #ÜlkemdeCharlieHebdoDağitilamaz (“Charlie Hebdo cannot be distributed in my country”) reached the top of trending topics on Twitter on Wednesday.

China bans websites, WeChat pages for “impersonating” the government
In their latest effort to crack down on online speech, Chinese authorities shut down 24 websites, 17 public pages on social messaging app WeChat, and nine channels or columns on websites for offenses including “impersonation of the government or media,” publishing pornography, and “publishing political news without a permit,” according to the Cyberspace Administration of China.

Lashings for Saudi blogger are on hold, for now
The case of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to 10 years’ jail time and 1,000 lashes, has been referred to the Supreme Court by King Abdullah. The punishment caused a public outcry for what Amnesty International called its “outrageous inhumanity.” A second round of lashings, expected to be carried out this week, was postponed on his doctor’s recommendation.

Medium.com goes transparent
Publishing platform Medium released its first transparency report covering all requests made to the company in 2014. The site received no national security letters or demands from law enforcement for user information or content removal. Medium did receive several requests to remove content that allegedly violated copyright laws. In six of these cases, content was removed. In one, material was removed but later restored.

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Jan. 22 2015 10:21 AM

America’s 14th-Century Drone Policies

When the Atlantic published a long article over the summer examining Google’s autonomous drone development program in Australia, it noted that the country was chosen because “Australia’s ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ policies are more permissive than those in the United States.” More recently, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, wrote a letter to the FAA stating that “Without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad.” AndAs noted last month by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee, countries like France, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom have more permissive laws governing drones than the United States. However, although the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 calls for the FAA to publish regulations addressing drones this year, the Government Accountability Office recently announced that those regulations will not be forthcoming until 2017 … or later.

Jan. 21 2015 6:33 PM

Senate Votes 98-1 That Climate Change Is Real but Splits on That Pesky Cause

Confused by the “science” on climate change? Well, apparently so is the U.S. Senate.

In a series of nonbinding (but potentially embarrassing) votes on Wednesday, the Senate has decided overwhelmingly that global warming exists. Minutes later, in a second vote, senators failed to agree on a root cause.

According to the Hill, the Senate first voted 98-1 in favor of a nonbinding amendment that said “climate change is real and not a hoax.” Republicans read the text of that amendment in such a way as to absolve themselves of taking a stand on the human component of global warming. (Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, of Mississippi, was the lone holdout.) The second vote on an amendment by Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, of Hawaii, wasn’t so clear-cut. That amendment read, in part: “It is the sense of Congress that 1) climate change is real, and 2) human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” Though the vote on the second amendment was 50-49 in favor, it needed 60 votes to pass.

The first amendment was intended to take a swipe at Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, and the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He’s also a leading Senate climate denier who’s so sure climate change is a massive conspiracy by the world’s scientists, he wrote a book about it. In a surprise, he actually voted for Wednesday’s amendment, “but he made clear he doesn't believe humans are the primary driver of climate change” said the Hill. Instead, he used the Bible to support his vote:

“Climate is changing, and climate has always changed, and always will, there's archeological evidence of that, there's biblical evidence of that, there's historic evidence of that, it will always change,” Inhofe said on the Senate floor. “The hoax is that there are some people that are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change climate. Man can't change climate.”

The debate over S.1 is the first about energy on the Senate floor in eight years, according to the New York Times. Obama is expected to veto the bill, but that didn’t stop the Republican-controlled Congress from taking a stand. “Part of the Democrats’ strategy is to put Republicans on the record about an issue that’s controversial inside the GOP but is much less so with the public and Democratic Party,” says the Wall Street Journal.

Mashable’s Andrew Freedman notes that this isn’t the first time the Senate has attempted to legislate the existence of climate change. In 2005, the Senate approved a nonbinding amendment similar to the second amendment. That the Senate wasn’t able to do the same on Wednesday is telling of how increasingly political the question of human-caused climate change has become in the last decade.

Yet, since 2005, evidence has continued to mount that climate change is driven by human activity. As Obama noted during Tuesday’s State of the Union, 14 of the last 15 years have been the hottest on record globally. More greenhouse gases were emitted into the atmosphere in 2014 than in any other year in human history. In his speech, Obama said “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations.”

Because the votes are nonbinding, there are no real implications beyond the political. But with the 2016 presidential campaign just around the corner, Democrats figure this is a perfect time to put potential Republican contenders on the record. Among them, Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio stands out. Rubio, who isn’t quite sure how old the Earth is, was recently installed as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, where he directly oversees the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, America’s leading scientific agency on climate. Oh, he’s also polling among the top three Republican contenders for president in 2016.

Inhofe, Rubio, and Ted Cruz, of Texas—another Republican presidential contender—all voted against the second amendment on the cause of climate change. According to National Journal, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were the only Republicans to vote against party lines on the amendment endorsing humans as the primary cause of climate change.

The vote comes after Obama mocked Republicans during his State of the Union speech for using the "I’m not a scientist" defense to justify continued knuckle-dragging on climate change. “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it,” he said.

The Senate is expected to take up the issue again on Thursday, including votes on at least one more amendment regarding the cause of climate change:

Jan. 21 2015 4:13 PM

With Google Glass’ Future Uncertain, Microsoft Debuts Holographic Glasses

On Wednesday, Microsoft (Microsoft!) announced a product that we've all wanted since the 1980s, or even as far back as the 1940s. The company is calling it the HoloLens, and it's basically a pair of holographic glasses that provides the user with real-time, interactive-augmented reality. You put them on, and the real world becomes just one component of a digital landscape.

HoloLens is totally wireless and untethered. It has a CPU, GPU, and "Holographic Processor" built-in, and it doesn't need to sync to a smartphone or desktop. You control it using gestures or your voice, and it also follows your eye movements. It doesn't incorporate a heads-up display like Google Glass has. Instead it creates holographic screens and objects that look like they're in the envrionment around you. Microsoft also says that the headset provides surround sound.

Microsoft's central announcement Wednesday was its unifying device operating system, Windows 10. The company says that HoloLens will fit into the vision of a seamless OS across numerous devices. In a blog post Microsoft wrote:

Windows 10 is the world’s first holographic computing platform—complete with a set of APIs that enable developers to create holographic experiences in the real world. With Windows 10, holograms are Windows universal apps and Windows universal apps can work as holograms, making it possible to place three-dimensional holograms in the world around you to communicate, create and explore ...

Over the last couple of years Microsoft has been quiet about virtual reality or Google Glass competitors, and it seemed like the company was behind. But perhaps it was just biding its time before surging ahead with a stronger vision. Following a hands-on using HoloLens, Wired reporter Jessi Hempel wrote, "After exploring Mars [in a demo], I don’t want to remove the headset, which has provided a glimpse of a combination of computing tools that make the unimaginable feel real."

Microsoft says that it will release HoloLens around the same time as Windows 10 later this year, so the device seems to be more than a prototype pipe dream. It's also exciting to think that some of Microsoft's progress with holograms could potentially aid efforts to use the technology in fields like medicine.

Whether HoloLens will work and deliver seamless Windows 10 integration obviously remains to be seen. It's a pretty frickin' awesome announcement, though, and a bold move for what was starting to seem like a super lame company.

holo2
The holographic world you could live in.

Image from Microsoft

Jan. 21 2015 1:48 PM

Healthcare.gov Tells Third Parties Whether You Smoke

Healthcare.gov has suffered outages, bugs, hacks, and setbacks. And even now, with the situation immensely improved, there are still lingering questions. A new one is about the insurance site's relationships with third-party services.

The Associated Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are investigating personal user data, like age and income, that healthcare.gov gives to advertising and Web traffic analysis companies. These third parties could even find out whether you're pregnant or a smoker.

The AP is clear that the data doesn't seem to have been used improperly at this point. But the discovery is significant because even data that doesn't seem identifying can potentially be combined with other benign information to create user profiles and eventually determine someone's identity. Healthcare.gov's privacy policy states (with emphasis preserved):

HealthCare.gov uses a variety of Web measurement software tools. We use them to collect the information listed in the “Types of information collected” section above. The tools collect information automatically and continuously. No personally identifiable information is collected by these tools.

EFF notes that healthcare.gov does not recognize or comply with Do Not Track. Cloud service Akamai, Google, Twitter, Yahoo, and Web analytics service Mixpanel are just some of the companies that EFF confirmed receive data from healthcare.gov. Obama administration representative Aaron Albright, told the AP that third parties "are prohibited from using information from these tools on healthcare.gov for their companies' purposes."

Information about healthcare.gov's data habits emerged on Tuesday, soon before President Obama delivered his State of the Union address. In it he discussed improving cybersecurity in the United States and protecting citizen privacy. He said, "No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids." That should probably apply domestically, too.

Jan. 20 2015 11:21 PM

In State of the Union, Obama Promotes Cybersecurity Measures “Especially” to Protect Kids

In the State of the Union address tonight, President Obama spoke briefly about cybersecurity, giving a nod to the high-profile hacks that have increasingly plagued both private companies and the government. And twice Obama referenced keeping American children safe from cyberthreats.

“No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids,’ he said. “I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyberattacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children's information.”

It seems Obama was trying to do two things. First, by focusing on children, he brings attention and concern to cybersecurity, an issue that has flown under the radar for too long. But Obama’s emphasis on kids also reflects the complicated and diverse problems associated with protecting children online as their lives are increasingly digital. Not only are kids on social media, email, and the Web in general, but more and more of their educational and medical records are online as well.

Justine Drennan of Foreign Policy also noted that Obama may have been referencing threats made by hackers during the recent CENTCOM Twitter hack; the perpetrators wrote on Pastebin, “We won’t stop! We know everything about you, your wives and children.”

Obama has talked about children and cybersecurity before. In remarks at the Federal Trade Commission last week, Obama said:

Here at the FTC, you’ve pushed back on companies and apps that collect information on our kids without permission ... we need a structure that ensures that information is not being gathered without us as parents or the kids knowing it. We want our kids’ privacy protected—wherever they sign in or log on, including at school.

During his comments at the FTC, Obama also proposed the Student Digital Privacy Act, to protect students’ personal information and privacy online. State-sponsored hackers probably have more pressing targets than American fourth-graders, but that doesn’t mean that their information, like everyone’s, shouldn't be protected.

Obama’s speech was heavy on technology: In addition to cybersecurity he also championed Internet access, scientific research, and innovation. He even requested that astronaut Scott Kelly, who will spend a year in space, “Instagram it!” So far, Kelly’s not on Instagram—but he’ll probably be signed up soon.

Jan. 20 2015 9:52 PM

Obama Calls Out Republicans for Their “I’m Not a Scientist” Line

At some point in the past few years, it dawned on leading Republicans that dismissing the science behind climate change was not doing them any favors with the public. Recent polls show that a clear majority of Americans believe the climate is in fact changing, and nearly half view that as a major threat to the country’s future.

But to embrace the science, for a GOP leader, would be to alienate a powerful conservative base that continues to plug its ears and shout “Climategate” when confronted with the evidence. And so, one by one, top Republicans—including presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio—have fallen back on what is becoming the new party line: “I’m not a scientist.”

It is not a particularly compelling line, as many analysts have pointed out. “It’s got to be the dumbest answer I’ve ever heard,” one Republican energy lobbyist told the New York Times. “Using that logic would disqualify politicians from voting on anything.”

To some extent, GOP leaders are banking on polls that show Americans don’t consider climate change a top national priority. More than that, they’re banking on Democrats being too timid to push back very hard on environmental issues, for fear of being painted as liberal tree-huggers.  

Obama used to be timid on the environment. He isn’t anymore.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, the president had this to say about the “I’m not a scientist” cop-out:

No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does — 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

He’s taken on that line before on smaller stages, including in a June speech in drought-choked California. By hammering on it again Tuesday, he signaled that he now views climate as a winning issue for Democrats on the national level. If he’s right, that could spell trouble for Bush and other Republican contenders.

If other Democrats follow Obama’s lead in turning “I’m not a scientist” into a laugh line, Bush and other Republican leaders are eventually going to have to run to higher ground.

Previously in Slate:

Jan. 20 2015 7:20 PM

From the International Space Station, Seoul and Pyongyang Look Pretty Different

This is Seoul, South Korea. At night. From space. Cool, right?

This is Pyongyang, North Korea. At night. From space. Yup.

NASA astronaut Terry Virts (who posts a lot of awesome images) took these photos from the International Space Station on Monday. And though it’s not the first time Slate has compared photos of the two places taken from space, these shots are especially captivating. They provide a useful reminder of just how remote North Korea is in so many ways.

It’s a useful perspective (literally) to get with news about the Sony hack and North Korea’s involvement still coming out all the time. The United States has 1.591 billion IP addresses. North Korea has 1,024 IP addresses total. Total. And it doesn’t look like it has a lot of lightbulbs, either.

Jan. 20 2015 5:12 PM

Google and Fidelity Invest $1 Billion in SpaceX to Jumpstart Satellite Development

Google and Fidelity are investing $1 billion in SpaceX. But according to The Information and the Wall Street Journal, the money won’t be for rockets. Instead it will be aimed at supporting development of satellites that could provide Internet to remote parts of the world.

SpaceX said in its statement that, “This funding will be used to support continued innovation in the areas of space transport, reusability, and satellite manufacturing.”

There are numerous projects at Google targeted at bringing Internet to unconnected populations. It’s a noble effort, but it also makes business sense for Google, of course. All those new Web users could be Google users, too. For example, Google has already been working on Google Loon for a year and a half to try to use modified weather balloons to blanket the Earth in Internet. Project Loon director Mike Cassidy told Slate in December, “You know, nothing in life is 100 percent certain. But it’s looking pretty good.”

Last week SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced a plan that would use satellites to provide high-speed Internet on Earth. He told Bloomberg Businessweek, “Our focus is on creating a global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date.” Sources confirmed to the Journal that SpaceX has been considering an expansion into satellites for months now. A $1 billion investment from Google would bring SpaceX’s valuation to more than $10 billion. Musk estimates that the satellite Internet network that he—and apparently Google—is envisioning would cost about $10 billion over time to build.

Though Google and SpaceX are influential tech companies, it’s not a given that the project will work. Engineering the right transmitters and receivers and installing antennas on the ground will all take time and money. But when (and if) it launches, Musk thinks the network would be a big revenue generator “for SpaceX to be able to fund a city on Mars.” Basically, this whole plan is borderline absurd and that’s the point.

Jan. 20 2015 3:20 PM

Facebook Is Cracking Down on Viral Hoaxes. Really.

Facebook has long been a hotbed of hoaxes. As more people have turned to the site for news and information, its news feed has become a Petri dish for viral misinformation about everything from cancer to celebrity deaths to the Sept. 11 attacks.

That may finally be changing.

In December, I wrote a column proposing an easy way to inhibit the spread of false information on Facebook: Tweak the news feed software to take into account some obvious signs from users that a given story might be false. The idea came to me from Slate’s science editor, Laura Helmuth, who was tired of having to debunk viral anti-science stories that were circulating on the social network.

For instance, we suggested that appearances of the words hoax and debunked in the comments below a story might be good tipoffs that a story is bogus. Links to Snopes.com stories in the comments might also suggest that the original post contained falsehoods. Facebook wouldn’t have to censor such stories entirely, I wrote. Its news feed algorithms could simply treat them with a little more caution, the same way they’ve recently been reprogrammed to mitigate the flood of clickbait, like-bait, and other “low-quality” content on the site.

At the time, Facebook said it had no plans to downgrade likely hoaxes in its news feed. “We haven’t tried to do anything around objective truth,” news feed product manager Greg Marra told me in November. “It’s a complicated topic, and probably not the first thing we would bite off.”

On Tuesday, however, Facebook announced that it will indeed update its news feed software to flag stories that might be false—and to limit their spread. It won’t do it in exactly the way we proposed, but the approach is similar. Instead of looking at the comments on a given post, it has added an option for Facebook users to explicitly flag it as “a false news story” when they run across it in their feeds. Here’s what that looks like:

Facebook: "Help us understand what's happening"

Screenshot courtesy of Facebook

As another signal that a given story might be false, Facebook will also look at how often it has been deleted by the people who posted it. The theory is that a widely deleted post may be one that many users regretted posting because they realized it was bogus.

As we proposed, Facebook won’t remove such stories from its feed altogether. Instead, the company said it will reduce their distribution and add an annotation warning news feed readers that they may contain false information. So a post that has been either widely deleted or flagged as false news by a large number of users will now come with a note like this when it appears in your feed:

"Many people on Facebook have reported that this story contains false information."

Screenshot courtesy of Facebook / Illustration by Slate

To be clear, Facebook’s software will not be analyzing the actual content or substance of stories to suss out the fake ones. That would be extremely difficult and fraught with the potential for mistakes. Its approach—relying on explicit feedback from human users—is far simpler and makes more sense. Humans, for all our flaws, are still collectively better than bots at recognizing bogus stories when we see them.

Facebook told me these changes should not affect satirical articles from sites like The Onion. The company found in its testing that these sorts of posts are not often flagged as false by users—or, at least, not as often as actual hoaxes are. Re/code’s Peter Kafka evinced some skepticism about that, which I can understand. But I can also see how Facebook might be right. Plenty of people might mistake an Onion story for a hoax at first blush. But intentional hoaxes seem more likely to provoke annoyed users to take the extra step of reporting them to Facebook as “false news.” Admittedly, the line becomes blurrier when it comes to fake-news sites such as the Daily Currant, which claim to be satire but profit from duping the gullible. Presumably Facebook's hoax-flagging algorithms will have a relatively light touch. After all, its “war on clickbait” hasn't exactly crushed the likes of Upworthy so far.

So, did Facebook get Slate’s memo in deciding to implement these changes, or was the timing a coincidence? The company wouldn’t tell me directly, saying only that it “started working on this update in November.” I first ran the idea by Marra on Nov. 4, which is when he told me it was “probably not the first thing we would bite off.” My story ran Dec. 3. So, who knows? Maybe I should have headlined this post, “Facebook Caves to Slate’s Call for Better Hoax Detection”—and then waited to see if Facebook flagged it as false.

Previously in Slate:

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