Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

April 20 2015 11:10 AM

Manifesto Calls for an End to “People Are Bad” Environmentalism

In the past few days, a new missive has injected a firecracker into the debate on humanity’s long-term relationship with nature.

The “Ecomodernist Manifesto,” a document championed by the pro-gas, pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute, imagines a different kind of environmentalism that embraces humanity’s growing demand for energy—a sharp deviation from the conventional wisdom of the eco-left. Essentially, the manifesto asks the question: What if the Anthropocene—the age of humans—is actually a good thing for the Earth, too?

Thanks to abundant energy, the ecomodernists argue, humanity has done wonderful things: Life expectancy is on the rise, infectious disease risk has plummeted, natural disasters kill fewer people, and abject poverty is on the decline. Of course, those gains have not come without sacrifice: We’re losing species at an incredible rate, and climate change could add ever more stress on human and natural systems.

The answer, according to the authors of the new document, is to “liberate the environment from the economy.” Ecomodernists argue that by focusing the human footprint into cities and prioritizing high-efficiency agriculture and energy production, we’ll be able to retreat from nature and let it recover. Now, that’s easier said than done, and likely to come with a whole set of unintended consequences, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for discussion purposes. They list “urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination” as technologies that can reduce the overall human footprint and leave “more room for non-human species.”

Whether humanity will decouple the economy from our environmental overreach in time to maintain a planet worth preserving is another question. Confronted with this reality, humans of the 21st century have a choice, according to ecomodernists: further intensify our low-carbon-energy use and hope for a technological breakthrough (like sucking carbon out of the air) or retreat from modernity and risk civilizational backsliding. Their choice is clear: “We embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future.”

These kinds of statements, as you might expect, are not without controversy and criticism from mainstream environmentalists:

(Kivalina, close followers of the climate apocalypse might recognize, is the name of a small native Alaskan village that is slowly sliding into the sea.)

A few of the manifesto authors are not without controversy themselves. David Keith, a Canadian environmental scientist, runs a free air carbon capture company and is an advocate of geoengineering. Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado, was recently the subject of a brief congressional inquiry into the funding sources of his research, though it ultimately went nowhere. Last year, Pielke wrote a controversial post on disasters and climate change at FiveThirtyEight, forcing site founder Nate Silver to publish a rebuttal. Pielke later left the site. But these examples shouldn’t distract from what they have to say here.

Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says the collection of ideas espoused in the new document couldn’t come at a better time. (He was not involved with writing the manifesto.)

Robbins believes the document is a reflection of a growing subset of environmentalists that the “people are bad” tradition of campaigning on behalf of nature is a tired and worn-out argument. Ideas like those in the manifesto are “taking up a lot of political space, because it’s persuasive and it’s a counterweight,” Robbins said.

A “manifesto” is a political document, after all. Robbins thinks it’s no accident that this one has emerged just as the 2016 presidential campaign gets underway. “They’re providing arguments for people in the middle to hold on to so they can have some kind of environmental vision,” said Robbins. The ecomodernists are aiming for a “third way” in contemporary environmentalism—they’re generally agnostic on both carbon taxes and regulation, for which they’ve drawn the ire of pretty much everyone. To further dialogue, the authors of the 32-page manifesto took the rare step of posting responses, including critiques, on their own website.

Robbins thinks the manifesto might be aimed at political centrists—like Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton—who have prioritized the environment but weakly defined their climate and energy policies and may be looking for a broader vision. “You’ve got to have some kind of position, and they’re offering them something to jump at,” Robbins said. “It’s not like they’re going to jump on Naomi Klein’s bandwagon.”

The manifesto looks a lot like Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy, with the notable addition of a healthy dose of nuclear power and an emphasis on a global vision of humanity’s increasing energy needs. The Ecomodernist Manifesto also adds a justice component: reducing energy poverty and liberating the Earth from an unnecessarily large human footprint will reduce global inequality and foster democratic society for places largely left out of development’s riches, or so the theory goes. The world’s poor consume only a small fraction of the electricity that we do in the United States. (The average American consumes 265 times as much electricity as the average Ethiopian, according to data analyzed by the New York Times.) The authors say that needs to change, and I agree.

The United States is now on a likely permanent downward trend of carbon emissions, much of which has been credited to the rise in cheap natural gas. It’ll be hard to keep that trend going without an increased emphasis on nuclear power.

Still, after decades of hearing environmentalists rally against things (no Keystone!), the change in tone coming from ecomodernists is palpable and welcome. It’s inclusive, it’s exciting, and it gives environmentalists something to fight for for a change. Plus, the ecomodernist focus on people and planet gives the broad middle of the American public a way to embrace ethical economic growth, without having to chain themselves to a pipeline.

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April 17 2015 6:13 PM

Pirate Bay Co-Founder Cruelly Held in Swedish Prison Without Classic Nintendo

Pirate Bay co-founder Fredrik Neij just wants to play some classic 8-bit Nintendo while he serves time in Swedish prison for involvement with the file-sharing site. But the Swedish Prison and Probation Service isn't allowing it. Harsh.

The service told Expressen, as translated by TorrentFreak, “The console is sealed in such a way that it cannot be opened without the machine being destroyed.” Basically if anything were hidden in the case, the guards wouldn't be able to find it without defeating the purpose of bringing the device into the slammer in the first place.

Neij responded, “That the institution lacks a screwdriver which costs 100 kroner ($11.59) cannot be considered reasonable.” Pull it together, Swedish prison guards.

Skänninge Prison, where Neij is being kept, is in central Sweden and is known for experimenting with alternative incarceration and rehabilitation tactics. As Ars Technica notes, recent profiles of Skänninge indicate that it is humane and even comfortable. The institution is the largest prison in Sweden, housing 234 prisoners. The guards there are unarmed. No word on whether they are any good at Duck Hunt.

April 17 2015 2:55 PM

Yahoo Has Big Plans for Search, Starting With a Renegotiated Bing Deal

In November, Yahoo became the default search engine on Firefox. As my colleague Will Oremus pointed out at the time, it seemed like a minor change, but it was actually an important moment. It showed that Yahoo had both a desire and a plan to spread the reach of its search engine.

It might not seem like much to rival Google, but Yahoo Search has been growing, if slowly. According to comScore, it had 12.7 percent of search market share in March. Bing still has a solid lead at 20.1 percent—not to mention Google at 64.4 percent—but it’s getting to the point where Yahoo could be in striking distance for second. (Other stats show slightly different numbers, but all place Google in a dominant lead, following by Bing and then Yahoo.)

As much as Yahoo wants to promote its in-house search, though, there’s one problem: Most Yahoo searches are actually Bing searches. Yahoo and Microsoft forged a search deal in 2009 that allowed Yahoo to bolster its services with Bing. But some rumors suggested that Yahoo might walk away from the partnership because it isn’t performing to expectations. The company announced yesterday that it’s not going that far, but it has renegotiated its deal with Microsoft so it can start developing Yahoo search in new areas that the Bing partnership doesn’t cover.

The new deal isn’t exclusive, so Yahoo has some leeway to alter Bing search results that show up through its own services. Yahoo will also use its Gemini ad platform to serve more ads on desktop search results (which wasn’t really possible under the old Yahoo-Bing agreement), in addition to on mobile where Yahoo was building Gemini out up until now.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in a statement that Microsoft and Yahoo have worked to “establish a revised search agreement that allows us to enhance our user experience and innovate more in our search business. This renewed agreement opens up significant opportunities in our partnership that I’m very excited to explore.”

The whole thing might just sound like the boring details of an involved deal between two tech giants. But the hint at Yahoo’s goals for search is what’s important. The EU is pursuing antitrust charges against Google search, and think pieces come out all the time about the power and public responsibility that comes with dominating search the way Google currently does. If Yahoo wants to position itself to launch a serious campaign against Google search, now is the time. Even if it doesn’t work it could lead to something interesting, and these small steps indicate that Yahoo is excited about the challenge.

April 16 2015 4:19 PM

Why Astronomers Hate iRobot’s New Robotic Lawnmower

This post originally appeared on Wired. 

Who can hate a Roomba? Astronomers, that’s who.

The robotic vacuums we all know and love ensure we don’t have to clean our own homes ourselves to get them spotless. (God forbid.) Now, the Roomba’s maker, iRobot, wants to do for lawn care what it did for vacuuming. According to filings with the FCC spotted by IEEE Spectrum, iRobot is designing a robotic mower—news that should elate lazy people the world over.

But one group is really, really unhappy about this boon to the slothful: Astronomers. Some of them are so upset, in fact, that their objections might put the kibosh on the whole thing. How could this be? In a scenario that sounds straight out of the Golden Age of sci-fi, it all comes down to robots versus telescopes, and how they all communicate.

The saga started in February, when iRobot filed a waiver request with the FCC seeking approval to use a portion of the radio spectrum to help guide its robomower. The problem with grass-cutting bots, according to iRobot’s filing, is that the only way to get them to work is to dig a trench along the perimeter of a lawn and install a wire that creates the electronic fence needed to ensure the automatons don’t wander beyond the property lines.

As a less arduous solution, iRobot proposes using stakes, driven into the ground, to act as beacons. The beacons will talk to the lawnbots, helping it map the areas and stay within the designated boundaries. A typical user with a typical lawn (a quarter to a third of an acre) might need between four and nine beacons.

But the system requires special permission from the FCC due to its restrictions on fixed outdoor infrastructure. In a nutshell, the FCC doesn’t want people creating ad hoc networks of transmitters, which could interfere with existing authorized services like cellular and GPS systems. In its filings, iRobot says it should be exempt because it doesn’t set out to establish a broad communications network—its lawnbot networks would be tightly contained.

Astronomers say that’s not good enough. The frequency band proposed for the lawnbot (6240–6740 MHz) is the very same one several enormous radio telescopes operate on. Astronomers want the FCC to protect their share of the radio spectrum so their telescopes continue observing methanol, which abounds in regions where celestial bodies are forming.

“The Observatory’s telescopes … do a kind of celestial cartography that measures distances to star-forming regions with high precision, charting the course of galactic evolution,” representatives of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory wrote in public comments to the FCC objecting to iRobot’s application to the agency.

The solution iRobot proposes is to add a note in its user manual: “Consumer use only; use must be limited to residential areas.” This, the company argues, should ensure the lawnbots won’t be doing their thing near observatories. But Harvey Liszt, spectrum manager with the NRAO, says a written warning likely won’t work. “What’s to stop the guy who spends thousands of dollars on this product from using it in residential areas near our telescopes?” he asks.

Liszt says lawyers representing iRobot got in touch with the NRAO in January to explain the tech specs before requesting the FCC waiver. Liszt responded to the message saying that the distances within which the ’bots would operate would be quite large, and he was not confident that iRobot could police each of its users. “We didn’t talk anymore, then I saw the filing,” Liszt says. “I replied, and I was fairly surprised by how hard they pushed back.”

The communication breaks down between the NRAO and iRobot when the two entities do their calculations for the range the lawnbot beacons affect. Liszt and the NRAO claim a 55-mile exclusion zone is necessary to protect radio telescopes from harmful interference, while iRobot says 12 miles is sufficient. In a later response, iRobot added that NRAO observatories usually are surrounded by desert or forests, not environments where residential lawn equipment is used—a claim the NRAO called “silly.” In its latest filing with the FCC, Liszt included pictures of some sites with telescopes he believes could be exposed to lawnbot beacon interference.

“NRAO is not trying to stop this, NRAO just wants people to respect where its telescopes are,” says Liszt.

The folks at iRobot declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the company’s policy is not to discuss specifics around unannounced products or technologies.

“It’s a very strange process,” says Liszt of the back and forth playing out via the FCC’s public comments. “But the topic really grabs the public’s interest—it’s telescopes against robots. I think there may well be larger issues here that the FCC will base their decision on.”

Also in Wired:

April 16 2015 3:31 PM

L.A. School District Terminates iPad Program and Seeks Refund From Apple

It's been an interesting ride, but the Los Angeles school iPad program is done. Between the rampant student hacking and the FBI probe, you can see how the focus kind of wandered away from education. But there are millions of dollars tied up in the project, so it's not just lunch money.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Unified School District Board of Education told its attorneys that they should consider litigation against Apple and Pearson. (Pearson developed the iPad curriculum as an Apple contractor.) District counsel David Holmquist said that Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines “made the decision that he wanted to put them on notice, Pearson in particular, that he’s dissatisfied with their product.” In a letter to Apple, the school district wrote that it won't continue to pay for the Pearson curriculum or services. And board members are calling for a refund.

The original goal of the $1.3 billion project was to democratize access to high-quality devices and give every student exposure to these modern tools. Controversy about the usefulness of this type of technology for education began before the Los Angeles experiment, though, and continues to this day. Some schools have been able to successfully integrate iPads into their classrooms. But it's not a matter of just giving students the gadgets. "Are American public schools ready to recognize that it’s the adults and students around the iPads, not just the iPads themselves, that require some real attention?" Lisa Guernsey wrote in Slate in 2013.

The L.A. school board maintains that technology has an important role to play in education, both for instruction and state testing. But for now, some things are still old school. The Times notes that this week the board ordered new math textbooks.  

April 16 2015 12:25 PM

Apple Wants Its New Watch to Replace Your Family Dog

Anyone who’s lived with a dog knows that each has its own peculiar way of waking you up in the morning. Some will leap on to your chest and stare into your eyes while others will bark anxiously from the living room. Pulling on your clothes, fumbling for the keys and the leash, you curse the names you gave them. But you love them all the same.

By contrast, alarm clocks are oppressive and unlovable, in part because they’re so impersonal. The promotional materials for the new Apple Watch propose that the gadget might change that. Built with something that the company calls a “Taptic Engine,” the watch “taps you on the wrist whenever you receive an alert or notification.” This copy implicitly proposes that in contrast to the alarming klaxons of old, the Apple Watch will rouse us with something more like a gentle caress.

Here, taptic puns on haptic, a word that refers to the sense of touch. It’s most often used in the context of haptic feedback, in which devices physically acknowledge user interaction. Technologists have incorporated these systems into their designs for generations, from the vibrations of videogame controllers to the slight tremors that some phones’ virtual keyboards produce as you type. In this sense, the Apple Watch isn’t proffering anything truly revolutionary.

Apple does, however, offer something new when it promises that its watch’s haptic technology will “present time in a more personal way.” At the most obvious level, the company means that users will be able to personalize the watch, but it also slyly suggests that it will have a personality of its own. The description of the Taptic Engine’s friendly taps comes just a few short paragraphs after Apple explains how the user interacts with the watch by tapping. In other words, the watch manipulates us in the same way we manipulate it, much as dogs become masters when they wake us for their walks.

Apple has always worked to imbue its devices with the illusion of personality, most often through syntactical sleight of hand. When Steve Jobs would introduce new gadgets during his ballyhooed keynotes, he would almost always present them without the definite article—that is, he would describe them without using the word the. “This is [all in] one device,” he announced as he paced the stage in 2007, enumerating a range of features, “and we are calling it iPhone.” He had done much the same when he showed the iPod to the public six years before, telling the audience that his company had a revolutionary new product, “and that product is called iPod.”

Even in Jobs’ absence, the pattern holds: In 2014, as a visibly uncomfortable Tim Cook began to narrate what he called “the next chapter in Apple’s story” he explained, “Apple Watch is the most personal device we’ve ever created.” It is “personal,” perhaps, because it is simply “Apple Watch” and not “the Apple Watch.” In the absence of the definite article, the names Apple gives its products feel as if they apply to individuals rather than widely available consumer commodities.

If I introduce you to the terrific cat I live with, I’ll tell you, “This is Behemoth,” rather than “This is the Behemoth.” Likewise, in 2007 when Jobs declared, “you’ll agree we have reinvented the phone,” he was clearly talking about a class of things—phones. But when, moments later, he turned to “an Internet communications device that’s part of iPhone,” he was describing a facet of a character, like someone telling you why their dog is the best. Jobs—and Apple in his stead—exploited this quirk of language to make the company’s devices seem more like new friends than consumer goods.

Notably, as time passed—and as each of the devices became common—Jobs would grow more casual in his language. Preparing to demonstrate the iPhone in 2007, he gestured offhandedly to “the iPod” and “the amazing new iPod shuffle. Similarly, in 2010, he would speak of “the iPhone” and “the great iPhone 3GS.” Having made their way into consumers’ hands—and woven themselves into the texture of those consumers’ worlds—Jobs’ devices were already familiar. Consequently, he no longer had to make the case that they were special and individual. But at first he had to convince his audience to make room in their lives, and he did so by implying that the devices might become part of their families.

Today, this strange implication of congenial personhood underwrites Apple’s declaration that “alerts” from its watch “aren’t just immediate. They’re intimate.” This is not the first time Apple has spoken of intimacy. When Jobs premiered the iPad in 2010—one of the few exceptions to the no-definite-articles-on-initial-presentation rule—he claimed that using it was “so much more intimate than [using] a laptop.” In promoting its watch, Apple has doubled down on this vocabulary: It doesn’t just offer an intimate experience, as the iPad supposedly would. Instead, it suggests, we’ll get intimate with it, presumably coming to know and love it in the process.

But that intimacy may not always be welcome. As Cook laid out the device’s features last September, photos of people wearing it appeared on the screen behind him. Except for the watches that adorn their subjects’ wrists, these images resembled stock photos, which is say they were supposed to be innocuous. Nevertheless, one of them—a couple going in for a kiss—left me surprisingly uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I felt I was intruding on the moment—I’ve shrugged off plenty of images like this one before—but that the gadget itself seemed to be. And that’s why it unnerved me. The watch wasn’t just mediating the couple’s intimacy, it was part of it.

For me, at least, Apple had too successfully brought its new device to life. Everyone loves their pets, and though we may begrudgingly adore them when they wake us in their various ways, there are times when they just don’t belong in the room. 

April 15 2015 7:20 PM

Spain Is Banning Protesters in Front of Parliament, So Activists Sent Holograms Instead

If holograms are good enough for Tupac and the Turkish prime minister, they should be good enough for everyone. And activists in Spain are looking to use projection tech in a whole new way, creating an army of protesters who aren’t, well, real.

No Somos Delito (“We Are Not a Crime”) has been working to oppose a group of Spanish “citizen security” laws passed in March and going into effect July 1. The new regulations place restrictions on protests and speech. For example, picketing outside of Parliament and distributing certain types of photos of police would be punishable with fines exceeding $30,000. For now, projections like those used for holograms are not prohibited by the laws.

The hologram protesters have caused a big stir within Spain and internationally, though. Carlos Escaño, the spokesperson for No Somos Delito, told Slate that it was the group’s intention to start an international conversation through the holograms. “It’s about art, about going to a place beyond discourse. It’s about touching emotion,” he said. The group feels that the new laws are “a resounding blow to democracy.”

The group, which is made up of about 100 different organizations and social movements, worked on the hologram project for a few months before debuting it last week. The system uses two types of holograms: the protesters, and the No Somos Delito representatives who answer questions. Javier Urbaneja, the executive creative director of New York–based advertising firm DDB, told El Mundo that the holograms are projected on a 7-foot-tall, semitransparent fabric. Urbaneja worked with No Somos Delito to combine studio images with images and voices recorded by volunteers from 50 different countries. The team filmed several layers of volunteers in a green screen studio that can mimic different terrain based on where a protest will be located to enhance the illusion of depth.

The approach is a big step both for techology use in activism and hologram visibility. No Somos Delito, which is working to create multiple mediums for protest so its activism can’t be silenced, the real test will be whether their campaign helps to defeat the citizen security laws. Escaño says, “The law is surreal—so surreal that it drove us to do something equally surreal.”

April 15 2015 5:20 PM

Coffee in Space: A Bold Cup of Innovation

“We are at a point in history where a proper attention to space,” wrote legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead, “may be absolutely crucial in bringing the world together.”

Mead also opined about the need to rid space travel of sexism in her little-known column in Redbook during the 1960s and 1970s, but this line of hers is often quoted by professional and amateur space geeks alike to describe the sense of technological possibility and international fellowship space travel has symbolized.

Today that spirit of cooperation and innovation has a new symbol: a cup of coffee. Or, to be more exact, a cup of really good espresso—the only part of home that Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano said in 2013 that he really missed during his stay on the International Space Station. Luckily for Luca and his successors on the ISS—including fellow Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who is currently in space—engineers at aerospace firm Argotec and prominent coffee company Lavazza back in Torino were already on the case.

In partnership with ASI, the Italian space agency, Argotec and Lavazza have produced ISSpresso (get it?), a capsule-based machine that promises to deliver “a perfect espresso” in the weightless environment of space. Microgravity complicates literally every action astronauts perform in space, and liquids are particularly tricky to deal with up there. With this new appliance, however, they can insert a pouch of water, add a capsule of espresso, press “brew,” and voila! Caffeinated bliss.

ISSpresso has been in the works for several years, and on Tuesday, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule successfully launched carrying the machine, which is about the size of a microwave and built to withstand vibration and very high pressure. It’s scheduled to be delivered Friday to Cristoforetti and her compatriots aboard the ISS. Cristoforetti tweeted the launch (with the hashtag #HomeDeliveryFromPlanetEarth), “We watched live! Amazing to thing that in 3 days #Dragon will be knocking on our door.”

This development is certainly a groundbreaking, though upon first glance, ISSpresso might also bring to mind the (in)famous episode of how Americans and Russians supposedly addressed the need for writing implements in space. (This apocryphal tale, already legendary but further popularized by an episode of The West Wing, goes something like: We spent millions developing a pen that would work in microgravity; they used a pencil.) But ISSpresso is different, because enjoying a good cup of coffee is a ritual that can easily be an individual and collective reminder of the comforts of home. As a social binding agent, the warm caffeinated stuff also helps us spin odd friendships from the disparate threads of random conversation around the coffeepot—not to mention keeps us buzzing and alert to new ideas. Analogically speaking, the elements that symbolize the best of space travel—cross-cutting partnership and collaboration, problem-solving, relationship-building, and the energy and enthusiasm to push ourselves further (whether that means finishing inventory or probing the frontiers of human knowledge and experience)—match up with the energy and social exchange generated by enjoying coffees together.  

Such an analogy between space travel and the perfect cup of coffee as vehicles for technological innovation and friendship may seem like a stretch to some, but perhaps not to Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez, founders of Compass Coffee, a roastery and shop in Washington, D.C. Haft and Suarez became friends during college and training at Camp Lejeune before both deployed to Afghanistan. As Marines, they drank military coffee that was “disgusting, but it has the caffeine and it keeps you awake,” as Haft told the Washington Post in September 2014. When they were back stateside, they started learning as much as they possibly could about coffee-roasting technology and decided to write an e-book (the first step on the path to opening their now-thriving business) unsurprisingly titled Perfect Coffee at Home.

Like the Compass founders, Lavazza agrees that coffee can make improbable things possible. “Italian coffee is a beverage without borders,” says vice president Giuseppe Lavazza in a press release. The company’s website says that it expressly intends its innovative gadget to brew up social exchange along with espresso:

The “corner café” on the ISS will be the hub for socialising on board the Station, a sort of social network in space, a venue for getting together, chatting and relaxing: an aspect that should not be ignored in missions that keep the astronauts away from home for many months in a very challenging environment.

David Avino, Argotec’s managing director, agrees. “Everybody can join,” he told NPR’s food blog the Salt. “And this will be a great occasion, you know, to all meet together and have a coffee all together on the station.”

The collaborative work necessary on the ground to put ISSpresso in orbit is exciting in and of itself—imagine if Starbucks and Boeing had done such a thing in tandem with NASA. Putting espresso in space will add some extra kick to the idea that astronauts boldly go where few (at this point) have gone before. In the meantime, bringing astronauts from different countries to a well-heeled coffee klatch may not have been what Margaret Mead had in mind, but it is indeed a way of bringing the world together, one cup (or more likely, two or three) at a time.

April 15 2015 4:06 PM

Netizen Report: Will Tech Companies Cave to the Kremlin’s Data Demands?

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. Mahsa Alimardani, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Sergey Kozlovsky, Hae-in Lim, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

GVA logo

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 Russia, where state media outlet RBC reported last week that U.S. companies including eBay and Google had begun storing Russian user data on servers located in Russian territory.

Google called the reports “inaccurate” but has said nothing more about the claims. Meanwhile, eBay Russia representative Vladimir Dolgov confirmed the reports and explained that the company has been meeting with Russian regulatory authorities in an effort to come into full compliance with data localization legislation passed last July. The law requires Internet companies to store Russian users’ data in Russia, presumably with the goal of sustaining stronger state control over Internet users and their data. It goes into effect on Sept. 1, 2015.

The policy would mark a big shift for users, creating new vulnerabilities when it comes to personal data sent to and stored using services based outside of the country. For example, right now if Russian authorities wish to access Google user data, they must present a court order to the United States Department of Justice, which will determine its legitimacy. Google’s Law Enforcement guidelines explain that if the order satisfies U.S. law and Google’s policies, it will be fulfilled—but if not, the user's data will remain undisclosed. The same would be true for a host of other U.S. companies that do business in Russia. But if outside companies should comply with the new policy, there would be a much lower threshold for Russian authorities to obtain user data.

Online speech under fire in Malaysia
Malaysia’s Parliament passed new amendments to the country’s Sedition Act of 1948, which has been used to jail critics, journalists, academics, and opposition politicians over the past year. The amendments allow the Sessions Court to issue an order to remove seditious publications made by electronic means and increases jail terms for acts of sedition. The amendments mark a shift away from the government’s promise during 2012 elections that it would repeal the Sedition Act, which specifically targets discourse seen as subversive to the state.

Iran is censoring Global Voices (sort of)
Last time we checked, GlobalVoicesOnline.org was not blocked inside Iran. We checked again last week, and the redirect page came up. But there is an easy fix for this—by simply replacing the regular “http” with “https,” users in Iran can get around the block. So now we know: Iran is conducting HTTP host-based blocking of the Global Voices website, likely along with many others. But unlike major sites like Facebook, which Iran blocks using more advanced methods, a simple “s” can solve the problem.

Kiwi media companies say virtual private networks violate copyright
Internet service providers in New Zealand are facing legal challenges from local media companies, including SKY, Lightbox, MediaWorks, and TVNZ, that claim that the ISPs are violating copyright by offering global virtual private network services. VPNs enable New Zealanders to circumvent geoblocks of various kinds, including those placed on entertainment content under copyright. TechDirt blogger Mike Masnick says the claims in the suit are a far cry from standard interpretations of copyright and argues that ISPs are simply offering access to the entire global Internet.

Twitter conducts massive sweep on accounts associated with ISIS
Twitter’s violations department suspended approximately 10,000 ISIS-linked accounts for “tweeting violent threats,” according to a Twitter representative, marking what may be the single biggest suspension of accounts linked to the violent extremist group. These numbers cannot be independently verified because this form of account data is not accessible to the public.

Users challenge Facebook on privacy violations, facial recognition sneakiness
Facebook is facing a class-action lawsuit filed by 25,000 Austrian users for breaching EU privacy law and for the company’s involvement with the U.S. National Security Agency. An additional 55,000 users have registered to join the procedures at a later stage, according to the Guardian.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Facebook has been accused of violating user privacy because of its use of facial recognition technology that scans photos and suggests Facebook friends its users may want to tag. The suit alleges that the acquisition of this data violates the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, which makes it unlawful to collect biometric data without providing written notice to the subject and obtaining his or her written release.

New Research

  • Their Eyes on Me: Stories of Surveillance in Morocco”—Privacy International

April 15 2015 1:44 PM

EU Brings Antitrust Charges Against Google Related to Android and Search

The European Parliament has been vocally pushing for an investigation into Google’s alleged anticompetitive strategies since November. And on Wednesday, Margrethe Vestager, the European Union competition commissioner, announced in Brussels that such an inquiry is moving forward and that Google is being formally accused (through what’s called a “statement of objections”) of abusing its power in its ubiquitous services like Internet search and Android.

The charges are centered mainly on digital shopping for now, but they could evolve to include other types of Web services as the investigation progresses. As the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times report, the concern is that because of its control over information services like search, Google is able to subtly but forcefully direct users to its own offerings ahead of others, even when the competitors provide better-quality services that users end up choosing more often. Multiple sites, including Yelp, have complained about this.

“I’m concerned that Google has artificially boosted its presence in the comparison shopping market with the result that consumers do not see what’s relevant for them,” Vestager said.

The investigation could lead to fines or other legal action against Google. But the company has been able to dodge similar consequences before. The Federal Trade Commission conducted an antitrust investigation of Google that concluded in 2013 without any legal ramifications. In March the Wall Street Journal published an internal FTC report, which supported the idea that Google was in violation and needed to be penalized.

As Ars Technica points out, Vestager’s goal seems to be setting an example of legality, not interfering in commerce. She said, “We’re not here to create a market, to pick winners, we’re here to enforce EU competition law.” The results of this probe could shape the standards other Internet companies are held to in the future.

Google will have 10 weeks to respond and defend itself in a hearing. In some initial statements on the Google Europe blog, senior vice president of search Amit Singhal wrote, continuing, “While Google may be the most used search engine, people can now find and access information in numerous different ways—and allegations of harm, for consumers and competitors, have proved to be wide [off] the mark.”

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