Future Tense Event: The Spawn of Frankenstein
No work of literature has done more to shape the way people think about science and its moral consequences than Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. Today, almost two centuries after the novel’s publication, advances in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, robotics, and many other fields demonstrate the enduring salience of Frankenstein’s themes.
Why are we still talking about Frankenstein? And what do we still have to learn from Victor Frankenstein and his creature, at a time when our scientific and technological capabilities make the novel’s premise of creating life in the lab more plausible than ever?
Join Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—on Thursday, Feb. 2, in Washington, D.C., to discuss the legacy of Shelley’s Frankenstein and how the novel continues to influence the way that we confront emerging technologies, understand the complex relationships between creators and their creations, and weigh the benefits of innovation with its unforeseen pitfalls.
The event will be held at the New America office in Washington, D.C. It will be followed by a happy hour. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Beware the Man With the Flying Car
Pay no attention to the man with the flying car.
It has been 11 months since the aviation giant Airbus, through its Silicon Valley branch A^3, launched Project Vahana—an effort to build the world’s first certified, commercial passenger aircraft with no pilot. On Monday, Airbus CEO Tom Enders told a tech conference in Munich that a prototype would be ready by the end of 2017.
According to Reuters, Enders argued the vehicle, which would function as a taxi, will allow users to avoid gridlock on city roads. It could even save money on infrastructure, he said. “With flying, you don't need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads.” As he tells it, the switch to airborne vehicles would be as significant as the development of underground subway systems 150 years ago.
Twenty-four hours later, the story was the fifth-most popular on Reuters and had been picked up by dozens of giddy content creators elsewhere. Sample headline from Yahoo: “Flying cars are real and Airbus is making them this year.”
Future Tense Newsletter: Worrisome New Rules About Raw NSA Surveillance Data
Greetings, Future Tensers,
This week, the director of national intelligence and the attorney general issued new procedures making it much easier for government agencies to get raw National Security Agency surveillance data. Robyn Greene of New America’s Open Technology Institute warns that legal loopholes and lack of external oversight under the new procedure could lead to abuse of power.
In our Futurography series on the legacy of Frankenstein, Bina Venkataraman explains why we shouldn’t use the phrase “playing God” to describe the work of scientists. We also have a video looking at the weird science of 1816—the year Shelley conceived and wrote Frankenstein. Among other things, the 19th century saw major fears about the new science of vaccinations, as Charles Kenny discussed this week, and fierce debate surrounding animal experimentation, which Emily Anthes examined in the context of a new book about a famous vivisectionist.
Here are some of the other stories we read this week:
- Protecting student data: Chris Berdik writes about the importance of training teachers and school administrators to protect students’ personal data.
- Anniversary of an internet uprising: Five years ago today, some major websites went dark to protests the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act—two bills that would have led some websites to be censored due to copyright infringement. Kerry Maeve Sheehan says that internet users should prepare to wield their influence again.
- All eyes on Trump: Marcy Wheeler examines reports about a federal surveillance court’s purported rejection of a government application to spy on members of the Trump team as part of an investigation into ties with Russia.
- Know before you go: Google Maps is starting to include parking information about destinations—for some users, at least.
Will the Internet Always Be American? Next Tuesday, Jan. 24, Future Tense will host a live event in Washington, D.C., exploring the internet’s nationality, the extent to which it’s an expression of U.S. culture and values, and how that might change as we enter a period of resurgent nationalism. RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.
Not looking up vivisection,
For Future Tense
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.
Finally, Google Maps Now Includes Parking Information—for Some Users
According to a familiar cliché, it’s the journey that matters most. But let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just nice to know that there’s going to be a parking spot waiting for you when you arrive.
That may get just a little easier soon for users of Google Maps. According to reporting by Rita El Khoury of Android Police, a publicly available beta version of the app now provides limited information about parking conditions for users travelling to some “public destinations like malls and airports and various attractions.” What it won’t do—not now, at any rate—is show you where to find a spot, but it still seems likely to stave off a few headaches.
In its present incarnation, the feature is unobtrusive, but it’s also not yet hugely informative. As images on Android Police show, when you input a driving destination into the app, a small letter P will sometimes appear next to the total estimated time. A brief description accompanies this icon, indicating whether parking conditions are “Easy,” “Medium,” or “Limited.”
While a little more information is available when you unfurl the full directions, the app still only appears to offer general information, and as Ars Technica’s Valentina Palladino notes, “the descriptions are not real-time indicators.” To the contrary, they mostly serve as a reminder that Google’s ostensibly precise estimates are almost always inexact in one way or another. But, hey, it’s a pretty cool reminder!
It’s not wholly clear at this point where Google is pulling its parking data from. (Google has not yet responded to a request for comment; we’ll update if they provide any additional information.) There is, however, a possible clue in the feature’s apparent limitation to “public destinations.” In late 2016, the company debuted a feature that showed both how busy your destination would likely be and how long people tend to stay there. The new parking information may well piggyback on the data collection and analysis systems powering that earlier features.
In fact, an app called Pocket Parker has used a similar system since 2014, gathering passively generated data from users’ phones to evaluate parking conditions. Pocket Parker appears to be largely defunct today, which is understandable, since this approach presumably requires masses of existing users to work optimally—making a single-purpose app a hard sell. But masses of users are exactly what Google has. It’s no secret, of course, that the company has a habit of shoehorning other companies' services into its suite of products—though it often does so by acquiring its smaller competitors outright, which doesn’t appear to be the case here. In all likelihood, this is simply a case of convergent appvolution.
In any case, we can hope that it’ll eventually pull other parking apps—such as those that enable you to more directly identify and target open spots—into its orbit, linking up with connected parking meters and sensor-enabled spots to provide even more precise information. Soon, we Odysseuses of the road may be able to cease our automotive twists and turns. This parking meter here? This is the Ithaca we’ve been longing for.
Five Years Ago, Internet Users Showed Their Political Might. And They Will Do It Again.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the internet uprising that put an end to politics as usual, at least where the World Wide Web is concerned. As we step into the new year, with threats against core internet protections on the horizon, it’s a good time to remember that internet users are keeping track of what their government is up to, and they stand ready to take action again, online and in real life.
Five years ago, on Jan. 18, 2012, the internet went dark. Google, Craigslist, Wikipedia, Reddit, and more than 100,000 other websites all participated in an internet blackout on an unprecedented scale to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Those bills, if enacted, would have led some websites to be censored based on accusations of copyright infringement.
But it wasn’t just an internet blackout. When lawmakers went to work that day, they were inundated with millions (literally millions) of calls and emails from people who cared deeply about the openness of the internet and who were willing to hold those lawmakers to account when they failed to protect it.
The bills were backed by Hollywood lobbyists that had long run the scene on Capitol Hill when it came to copyright. They were accustomed to shepherding legislation through Congress without having to worry about the kind of public attention that attaches to, say, gun control measures or reproductive rights. They expected to do so again with a bill that would create new copyright and trademark powers, but would also do real damage to the internet in the process.
They were wrong.
That day, internet users showed they could wield enough political power to defeat some of the most well-heeled lobbyists in Washington—the traditional content industry. Their calls and emails followed months of activism by a wide coalition of private and public organizations, internet companies big and small, leading internet engineers, prominent law professors, and many others, all fighting together, to convince Congress not to break the internet.
And those calls, emails, and petitions were dramatically effective: Almost overnight, many of the bills’ initial supporters withdrew their support, including several original co-sponsors of the legislation. Then, on Jan. 20, the New York Times reported that the bills were dead in the water. SOPA’s backers have since made repeat attempts to achieve the bill’s aims by other means, but after 2012’s massive mobilization, Congress has not been eager to take up similar legislation.
In the intervening years, internet users have returned to the political arena over and over to stand up against threats to freedom of expression, privacy, and internet openness. In 2012, after thousands of internet users protested across Europe, the European Parliament rejected the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. That agreement, like SOPA and PIPA, sought to create new draconian copyright enforcement powers.
Now, internet users are using their political clout to pursue positive policy agendas as well. In 2014, they mobilized to support effective net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission. Those are the rules that keep internet companies from treating the kinds of traffic they carry differently, prioritizing some while slowing, blocking or interfering with others. The FCC was poised to adopt inadequate and legally shaky rules. Thanks in large part to massive online protests and public advocacy—not to mention a timely assist from John Oliver—the FCC changed course and adopted new and effective rules. The following year, thanks in part to a petition signed by more than 570,000 internet users, saw passage of the USA Freedom Act, the first legislation in decades to begin to rein in the U.S. government’s surveillance powers.
Not every bad bill or good policy proposal will trigger this kind of response, nor should it. But our representatives are on notice: Internet users are a powerful constituency. We’re watching, and we will mobilize.
Today there are real threats to basic internet freedoms—like efforts to unravel the net neutrality rules, threats to expand surveillance and target specific communities, and private agreements between powerful companies to quietly regulate online speech. Internet users won’t be ignoring those threats. We’re paying attention, and we will hold both Washington and Silicon Valley accountable.
Now It’s Much Easier for Government Agencies to Get NSA Surveillance Data
Just days before Donald Trump takes office, the director of national intelligence and attorney general have issued new procedures that undermine Americans’ right to privacy and Fourth Amendment constitutional protections. These procedures will allow the NSA to share with other intelligence agencies “raw intelligence” that it collects while conducting mass surveillance under Executive Order 12333, which has been in effect since 1981. Raw intelligence just what it sounds like—emails and phone calls and anything else that the NSA collects during its daily surveillance. These records aren’t minimized or redacted to mask identifying information.
The previous procedures allowed for the NSA to share this information with other intelligence agencies, but only after it had been minimized to protect individuals’ privacy, and only if it was pertinent to their mission.
These new, more lax procedures are extremely troubling because thanks to legal loopholes, EO 12333 is used to scoop up billions of communications around the world every day, including those of Americans, without a warrant or any judicial—or even congressional—oversight. The idea behind EO 12333 was that it govern NSA collection of purely foreign communications. That collection didn’t need judicial or congressional oversight because if all the people in those communications were abroad, they weren’t entitled to the protections of our laws.
That all made sense when President Reagan signed the order, but today, the NSA uses EO 12333 to tap the cables that connect the internet across the world. An email I send from my office to a colleague just one floor down could travel between servers in Japan and Brazil before getting to its destination, and could get picked up by the NSA along the way as a “foreign communication.” Accordingly, the NSA has a virtually unchecked authority to warrantlessly collect Americans communications.
All of this is troubling in and of itself, but it becomes even more concerning in light of the new procedures that allow the NSA to share the information it collects with other intelligence agencies, without first trying to screen out Americans’ communications or identifying information. The procedures say that a high-level official at an agency like the FBI could make an application to the NSA for the communications that state the specific “authorized foreign intelligence or counterintelligence missions that are the basis for the request.”
This may seem reasonable, until you realize that “foreign intelligence” is really a catch all that can include most anything happening abroad. EO 12333 defines it as “information relating to the capabilities, intentions and activities of foreign powers, organizations or persons.” Don’t let the “organizations or persons” part of that definition hide behind the more important-seeming term “foreign powers.”
That definition means that “foreign intelligence” includes communications about political and human rights activities, like if you send an email as part of an Amnesty International campaign to free a political prisoner. It can include anything impacting the economy—even a mom-and-pop coffee shop’s email about a business trip to Europe to procure the finest French chocolate for their cookies. It can even be stretched to include social plans you make for your vacation abroad.
Now, is the FBI likely to ask to see the chocolate emails when it requests raw foreign intelligence information under these procedures? No. But despite some process-oriented protections built into the procedures, with no external oversight or transparency, it would be hard to know if abuse did happen.
Even without abuse, these procedures can serve as yet another work-around for the warrant requirement of our Constitution. If the communications the agency accesses only involve Americans, the procedures require that they be destroyed unless they have foreign intelligence or counterintelligence value. But they can be kept and disseminated if the agency thinks they include evidence of a crime. In that case, the communications could be shared, for example, with the Department of Justice or the FBI and used in a criminal investigation that would have otherwise required a warrant from a judge to obtain the same information.
While it’s a big step forward in transparency that these procedures were made public in the first place, we still won’t know enough information about how much information will get shared, how often, and when it will be used for non-foreign intelligence investigations or prosecutions. We may simply never know the full impact these new procedures will have on our privacy.
Netizen Report: Dire Straits for Political Prisoners in Iran
The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Mahsa Alimardani, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Mohamed ElGohary, Leila Nachawati, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
Millions of Iranians turned out in Tehran on Jan. 10 for the funeral of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The funeral for the moderate former president, who supported the now jailed leaders of the Green Movement, became an opportunity to voice dissent regarding the jailing of political prisoners, Iran’s relationship with Russia, and frustration at the notoriously biased state broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
IRIB, which holds a monopoly over television broadcasts, appeared to be avoiding coverage of the funeral, perhaps in an effort to avoid documenting public dissent. Some Iranians said they experienced jamming and slowing of the internet within the crowds and throughout Tehran. It is unclear whether this was tied to government efforts to quench dissent, or due to increased internet traffic.
Two current high-profile cases of political prisoners include those of Atena Daemi and Arash Sadeghi. Sadeghi went on hunger strike in November to protest the arrest of his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. Iraee was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting the sacred” and “propaganda against the state” for her writing, including several Facebook posts and a story she wrote in a notebook that was confiscated when authorities raided her home.
Iraee was granted a furlough from prison after Sadeghi began his hunger strike, and the judiciary later revisited the case and agreed that her sentence was wrongfully issued. Earlier this week, however, the prosecutor gave notice that her furlough was overturned, and she was ordered to return to jail. She has so far refused. Shortly thereafter, Sadeghi was taken from Evin prison to the hospital, where he was treated for intestinal bleeding and organ failure after going for 71 days without food. He has since been returned to prison.
Jailed civil rights defender Atena Daemi is facing new charges, including resisting arrest and assaulting an arresting agent, after filing a complaint against the Revolutionary Guards for using excessive force. She was first arrested in 2014 for allegedly meeting the families of political prisoners and criticizing the Islamic Republic on Facebook. She and her father both filed claims against authorities for breaking and entering their home without showing a summons. Her mother says there is video evidence from the day of her arrest proving that the charges are unwarranted.
Apple boots New York Times from Chinese app store
Apple agreed to remove both the English and Chinese versions of the New York Times app from its App Store in China after receiving a request from government officials. Apple faces sharp criticism for its compliance with the demand, and particularly for doing so without offering any public explanation or showing any evidence of a court order. The New York Times website has been blocked in China since 2012, after it published an expose about the wealth of politicians’ families.
Lebanese switch to airplane mode to protest soaring mobile costs
On Jan. 8, users of Lebanon’s only two mobile operators, Alfa and touch, which are both state-owned, switched their mobile phones to flight mode to protest high costs of international and domestic calls. Mobile subscribers in Lebanon pay the highest fees for prepaid services among 16 Arab countries surveyed, including wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to research by the Jordan-based Arab Advisors Group.
Iran installs state bots on popular Telegram channels
Iran has intensified enforcement of its policy requiring permits for Telegram messaging app administrators operating channels with more than 5,000 followers. Officials say they can target popular channels using algorithms to identify and prosecute those administrators. Seven hundred channels have registered so far. Channel owners must register and add a bot called “iransamandehibot” as a temporary co-administrator on their account until the ministry verifies them. These bots can enable surveillance abilities by searching the channels for specific users and monitoring their online activity.
Russia’s New Year’s resolutions include “Google tax”
Several new laws came into effect in Russia on Jan. 1 that will impact netizens’ rights in the country. Among them is a “Google tax” issued on some foreign internet retail companies, plus rules that will require news aggregators whose daily traffic exceeds one million views to be regulated as media outlets. See Global Voices’ roundup of these and other laws for more.
Bangladesh blocks some porn
Bangladeshi authorities blocked 560 pornography websites, most of which are locally hosted. It was part of the first foray against objectionable content, which falls under a 2012 anti-pornography law that provides prison sentences and hefty fines for “carrying, exchanging, using, selling, marketing, distributing, preserving, [and] filming” pornography in the country.
Kazakhstan jails Facebooker for insulting Putin
Kazakh Facebook user and businessman Sanat Dosov was sentenced to jail for insulting Russian President Vladimir Putin on Facebook. The sentence could be an attempt to bring online political discourse in line with the government’s thinking. The government has also recently arrested social media users for posting about ethnic Kazakh concerns.
Kuwaiti man sentenced to 42 years in prison over tweets
A former Kuwaiti lawmaker is facing more than 42 years in prison for tweets deemed insulting to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Abdulhameed Dashti—a critic of Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen and military intervention in Bahrain—has been convicted in absentia of insulting Saudi Arabia. He is currently in the U.K. for medical reasons.
Digital activists go missing in Pakistan
Reports are emerging from families and civil rights organizations that as many as nine Pakistani activists and bloggers went missing within the first week of 2017. Four of them are known for their secular and left-leaning views. The most publicly vocal of the group is social media activist and poet Salman Haider, a lecturer at Fatima Jinnah University and editor of independent magazine Tanqeed who is known for his critiques of the military and writings about enforced disappearances in Balochistan province, which has suffered from decades of armed conflict between Baloch nationalist militants and the Pakistani military. Haider's profile rose in 2014, when his poem “Main bhi Kafir” (“I Am an Infidel”) went viral. The poem reflected on the multiple attacks on Shia-Hazaras of Balochistan.
UAE man has spent more than a year in pre-trial detention over Facebook posts
More than a year after he was arrested in the UAE, Jordanian journalist Tayseer Najjar remains in detention without trial or access to a lawyer. According to rights groups, Najjar was detained in relation to Facebook posts he published before moving to the UAE in April 2015 to work as a culture reporter for a local newspaper. Published in 2014 and 2012, the posts were reportedly critical of Gulf countries, Egyptian President Abdelfattah Sisi, and Israel’s war on Gaza.
“Shrinking Spaces: Online Freedom of Assembly and of Association in Pakistan”—Association for Progressive Communications
“Online Privacy Through a Gendered Lens in Bangladesh”—Farhana Akter for GenderIT
Did a Federal Surveillance Court Really “Reject” an FBI Application to Spy On Trump Associates?
In the flood of sensational news about an unverified intelligence dossier implicating President-elect Donald Trump with ties to Russia, it was easy to focus on the more scintillating (or perhaps nauseating) details.
But one piece of information from the Guardian deserved a closer look: The FBI allegedly tried to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order to surveil four of Trump’s associates during the summer. “The FISA court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus,” the Guardian reported.
The paper also noted that Louise Mensch—a right-wing British politician who, leaked emails show, offered to help Clinton’s campaign as early as February—claimed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had granted a more narrowly targeted FISC order in October.
Future Tense Newsletter: Why BuzzFeed Published Those Explosive, Unverified Trump Memos
Greetings, Future Tensers—
Though we’re more than a week into 2017, the 2016 election circus continues to cast a long shadow. This week, Slate’s Will Oremus has been diving into its continuing fallout—particularly for what it can tell us about the future of the media that covered it.
First, Will tackles the question of why BuzzFeed published those explosive, unverified, memos that allege (alongside more salacious things) that President-elect Donald Trump and his advisers secretly colluded with Russian agents. Other news outlets that saw the dossier first had declined to disclose its uncorroborated details. But, Oremus writes, the social news site’s decision followed a tradition of internet platforms that have treated “the notion of media as privileged gatekeeper of information ... with disdain.” Instead, it asked readers to make up their own minds about accusations.
Will also covered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s Senate testimony that Russia used fake news to influence U.S. elections, Facebook’s recent decision to hire Campbell Brown as head of news partnerships (and what it says about the site’s response to the fake news that filled its feeds in 2016), and why Mark Zuckerberg is suddenly acting like a politician.
Speaking of monsters that cast long shadows, our latest installment in our January Futurography on Frankenstein has Katy Waldman chronicling how the Franken- prefix lurched into our lexicons and took on a life of its own. From frankenfoods to Frankenweenie, frankenstorm to frankenberry, it seems we still want Mary Shelley’s 199-year-old creation to help explain our frankenworld.
- TOMORROW: Join Federal Trade Commissioner Terrell McSweeny on Thursday, Jan. 12, for the latest installment of our “My Favorite Movie” series. She’ll be hosting a screening of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension at Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema. You can still RSVP here.
- Will the internet always be American? On Tuesday, Jan. 24, Future Tense will host a live event in Washington, D.C., exploring the internet’s nationality, the extent to which it’s an expression of U.S. culture and values, and whether America’s worldwide (web) dominance may be receding. You can RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.
Saying goodbye to Diamond Joe,
for Future Tense
What Facebook’s Decision to Hire Campbell Brown Says About Its Future
Facebook has hired former TV anchor turned education-reform advocate Campbell Brown as its head of news partnerships. The social network announced the move Friday via a New York Times article, and Brown shared the news on her Facebook page.
Brown is an interesting choice, for a couple of reasons. But it’s worth clarifying first what exactly the position seems to entail, and what it doesn’t.
Facebook created the position and began advertising for it in December, at the height of a controversy over its role in spreading fake news and partisan propaganda during the U.S. election. The timing led many commentators to view the position as a response to that uproar. “Facebook advertises for a head of news after US election concerns,” was the Guardian’s headline. And the Times’ Rutenberg on Friday placed the news in the context of the flak Facebook has taken over fake news, “censorship” of provocative news images, and allegations of bias in its selection of “trending” news stories.