Google has captured your mind

Searches reveal who we are and how we think. True intellectual privacy requires safeguarding these records

Google has captured your mind
(Credit: Kuzma via iStock/Salon)

The Justice Department’s subpoena was straightforward enough. It directed Google to disclose to the U.S. government every search query that had been entered into its search engine for a two-month period, and to disclose every Internet address that could be accessed from the search engine. Google refused to comply. And so on Wednesday January 18, 2006, the Department of Justice filed a court motion in California, seeking an order that would force Google to comply with a similar request—a random sample of a million URLs from its search engine database, along with the text of every “search string entered onto Google’s search engine over a one-week period.” The Justice Department was interested in how many Internet users were looking for pornography, and it thought that analyzing the search queries of ordinary Internet users was the best way to figure this out. Google, which had a 45-percent market share at the time, was not the only search engine to receive the subpoena. The Justice Department also requested search records from AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Only Google declined the initial request and opposed it, which is the only reason we are aware that the secret request was ever made in the first place.

The government’s request for massive amounts of search history from ordinary users requires some explanation. It has to do with the federal government’s interest in online pornography, which has a long history, at least in Internet time. In 1995 Time Magazine ran its famous “Cyberporn” cover, depicting a shocked young boy staring into a computer monitor, his eyes wide, his mouth agape, and his skin illuminated by the eerie glow of the screen. The cover was part of a national panic about online pornography, to which Congress responded by passing the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) the following year. This infamous law prevented all websites from publishing “patently offensive” content without first verifying the age and identity of its readers, and the sending of indecent communications to anyone under eighteen. It tried to transform the Internet into a public space that was always fit for children by default.


The CDA prompted massive protests (and litigation) charging the government with censorship. The Supreme Court agreed in the landmark case of Reno v. ACLU (1997), which struck down the CDA’s decency provisions. In his opinion for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens explained that regulating the content of Internet expression is no different from regulating the content of newspapers.The case is arguably the most significant free speech decision over the past half century since it expanded the full protection of the First Amendment to Internet expression, rather than treating the Internet like television or radio, whose content may be regulated more extensively. In language that might sound dated, Justice Stevens announced a principle that has endured: “Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer.” The Internet, in other words, was now an essential forum for free speech.

In the aftermath of Reno, Congress gave up on policing Internet indecency, but continued to focus on child protection. In 1998 it passed the Children’s Online Protection Act, also known as COPA. COPA punished those who engaged in web communications made “for commercial purposes” that were accessible and “harmful to minors” with a $50,000 fine and prison terms of up to six months. After extensive litigation, the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. ACLU (2004) upheld a preliminary injunction preventing the government from enforcing the law. The Court reasoned that the government hadn’t proved that an outright ban of “harmful to minors” material was necessary. It suggested that Congress could have instead required the use of blocking or filtering software, which would have had less of an impact on free speech than a ban, and it remanded the case for further proceedings. Back in the lower court, the government wanted to create a study showing that filtering would be ineffective, which is why it wanted the search queries from Google and the other search engine companies in 2006.

Judge James Ware ruled on the subpoena on March 17, 2006, and denied most of the government’s demands. He granted the release of only 5 percent of the requested randomly selected anonymous search results and none of the actual search queries. Much of the reason for approving only a tiny sample of the de-identified search requests had to do with privacy. Google had not made a direct privacy argument, on the grounds that de-identified search queries were not “personal information,” but it argued that disclosure of the records would expose its trade secrets and harm its goodwill from users who believed that their searches were confidential. Judge Ware accepted this oddly phrased privacy claim, and added one of his own that Google had missed. The judge explained that Google users have a privacy interest in the confidentiality of their searches because a user’s identity could be reconstructed from their queries and because disclosure of such queries could lead to embarrassment (searches for, e.g., pornography or abortions) or criminal liability (searches for, e.g., “bomb placement white house”). He also placed the list of disclosed website addresses under a protective order to safeguard Google’s trade secrets.

Two facets of Judge Ware’s short opinion in the “Search Subpoena Case” are noteworthy. First, the judge was quite correct that even search requests that have had their user’s identities removed are not anonymous, as it is surprisingly easy to re-identify this kind of data. The queries we enter into search engines like Google often unwittingly reveal our identities. Most commonly, we search our own names, out of vanity, curiosity, or to discover if there are false or embarrassing facts or images of us online. But other parts of our searches can reveal our identities as well. A few months after the Search Subpoena Case, AOL made public twenty million search queries from 650,000 users of its search engine users. AOL was hoping this disclosure would help researchers and had replaced its users’ names with numerical IDs to protect their privacy. But two New York Times reporters showed just how easy it could be to re-identify them. They tracked down AOL user number 4417749 and identified her as Thelma Arnold, a sixty-two-year old widow in Lilburn, Georgia. Thelma had made hundreds of searches including “numb fingers,” “60 single men,” and “dog that urinates on everything.” The New York Times reporters used old-fashioned investigative techniques, but modern sophisticated computer science tools make re-identification of such information even easier. One such technique allowed computer scientists to re-identify users in the Netflix movie-watching database, which that company made public to researchers in 2006.

The second interesting facet of the Search Subpoena Case is its theory of privacy. Google won because the disclosure threatened its trade secrets (a commercial privacy, of sorts) and its business goodwill (which relied on its users believing that their searches were private). Judge Ware suggested that a more direct kind of user privacy was at stake, but was not specific beyond some generalized fear of embarrassment (echoing the old theory of tort privacy) or criminal prosecution (evoking the “reasonable expectation of privacy” theme from criminal law). Most people no doubt have an intuitive sense that their Internet searches are “private,” but neither our intuitions nor the Search Subpoena Case tell us why. This is a common problem in discussions of privacy. We often use the word “privacy” without being clear about what we mean or why it matters. We can do better.

Internet searches implicate our intellectual privacy. We use tools like Google Search to make sense of the world, and intellectual privacy is needed when we are making sense of the world. Our curiosity is essential, and it should be unfettered. As I’ll show in this chapter, search queries implicate a special kind of intellectual privacy, which is the freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought and belief is the core of our intellectual privacy. This freedom is the defining characteristic of a free society and our most cherished civil liberty. This right encompasses the range of thoughts and beliefs that a person might hold or develop, dealing with matters that are trivial and important, secular and profane. And it protects the individual’s thoughts from scrutiny or coercion by anyone, whether a government official or a private actor such as an employer, a friend, or a spouse. At the level of law, if there is any constitutional right that is absolute, it is this one, which is the precondition for other political and religious rights guaranteed by the Western tradition. Yet curiously, although freedom of thought is widely regarded as our most important civil liberty, it has not been protected in our law as much as other rights, in part because it has been very difficult for the state or others to monitor thoughts and beliefs even if they wanted to.

Freedom of Thought and Intellectual Privacy

In 1913 the eminent Anglo-Irish historian J. B. Bury published A History of Freedom of Thought, in which he surveyed the importance of freedom of thought in the Western tradition, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century. According to Bury, the conclusion that individuals should have an absolute right to their beliefs free of state or other forms of coercion “is the most important ever reached by men.” Bury was not the only scholar to have observed that freedom of thought (or belief, or conscience) is at the core of Western civil liberties. Recognitions of this sort are commonplace and have been made by many of our greatest minds. René Descartes’s maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” identifies the power of individual thought at the core of our existence. John Milton praised in Areopagitica “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all [other] liberties.”

In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill developed a broad notion of freedom of thought as an essential element of his theory of human liberty, which comprised “the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.” In Mill’s view, free thought was inextricably linked to and mutually dependent upon free speech, with the two concepts being a part of a broader idea of political liberty. Moreover, Mill recognized that private parties as well as the state could chill free expression and thought.

Law in Britain and America has embraced the central importance of free thought as the civil liberty on which all others depend. But it was not always so. People who cannot think for themselves, after all, are incapable of self-government. In the Middle Ages, the crime of “constructive treason” outlawed “imagining the death of the king” as a crime that was punishable by death. Thomas Jefferson later reflected that this crime “had drawn the Blood of the best and honestest Men in the Kingdom.” The impulse for political uniformity was related to the impulse for religious uniformity, whose story is one of martyrdom and burnings of the stake. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put it in 1963:

While kings were fearful of treason, theologians were bent on stamping out heresy. . . . The Reformation is associated with Martin Luther. But prior to him it broke out many times only to be crushed. When in time the Protestants gained control, they tried to crush the Catholics; and when the Catholics gained the upper hand, they ferreted out the Protestants. Many devices were used. Heretical books were destroyed and heretics were burned at the stake or banished. The rack, the thumbscrew, the wheel on which men were stretched, these were part of the paraphernalia.

Thankfully, the excesses of such a dangerous government power were recognized over the centuries, and thought crimes were abolished. Thus, William Blackstone’s influential Commentaries stressed the importance of the common law protection for the freedom of thought and inquiry, even under a system that allowed subsequent punishment for seditious and other kinds of dangerous speech. Blackstone explained that:

Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry: liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive of the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects. A man (says a fine writer on this subject) may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not publicly to vend them as cordials.

Even during a time when English law allowed civil and criminal punishment for many kinds of speech that would be protected today, including blasphemy, obscenity, seditious libel, and vocal criticism of the government, jurists recognized the importance of free thought and gave it special, separate protection in both the legal and cultural traditions.

The poisons metaphor Blackstone used, for example, was adapted from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, from a line that the King of Brobdingnag delivers to Gulliver. Blackstone’s treatment of freedom of thought was itself adopted by Joseph Story in his own Commentaries, the leading American treatise on constitutional law in the early Republic. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison also embraced freedom of thought. Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom enshrined religious liberty around the declaration that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and James Madison forcefully called for freedom of thought and conscience in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.

Freedom of thought thus came to be protected directly as a prohibition on state coercion of truth or belief. It was one of a handful of rights protected by the original Constitution even before the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Article VI provides that “state and federal legislators, as well as officers of the United States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This provision, known as the “religious test clause,” ensured that religious orthodoxy could not be imposed as a requirement for governance, a further protection of the freedom of thought (or, in this case, its closely related cousin, the freedom of conscience). The Constitution also gives special protection against the crime of treason, by defining it to exclude thought crimes and providing special evidentiary protections:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

By eliminating religious tests and by defining the crime of treason as one of guilty actions rather than merely guilty minds, the Constitution was thus steadfastly part of the tradition giving exceptional protection to the freedom of thought.

Nevertheless, even when governments could not directly coerce the uniformity of beliefs, a person’s thoughts remained relevant to both law and social control. A person’s thoughts could reveal political or religious disloyalty, or they could be relevant to a defendant’s mental state in committing a crime or other legal wrong. And while thoughts could not be revealed directly, they could be discovered by indirect means. For example, thoughts could be inferred either from a person’s testimony or confessions, or by access to their papers and diaries. But both the English common law and the American Bill of Rights came to protect against these intrusions into the freedom of the mind as well.

The most direct way to obtain knowledge about a person’s thoughts would be to haul him before a magistrate as a witness and ask him under penalty of law. The English ecclesiastical courts used the “oath ex officio” for precisely this purpose. But as historian Leonard Levy has explained, this practice came under assault in Britain as invading the freedom of thought and belief. As the eminent jurist Lord Coke later declared, “no free man should be compelled to answer for his secret thoughts and opinions.” The practice of the oath was ultimately abolished in England in the cases of John Lilburne and John Entick, men who were political dissidents rather than religious heretics.

In the new United States, the Fifth Amendment guarantee that “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself ” can also be seen as a resounding rejection of this sort of practice in favor of the freedom of thought. Law of course evolves, and current Fifth Amendment doctrine focuses on the consequences of a confession rather than on mental privacy, but the origins of the Fifth Amendment are part of a broad commitment to freedom of thought that runs through our law. The late criminal law scholar William Stuntz has shown that this tradition was not merely a procedural protection for all, but a substantive limitation on the power of the state to force its enemies to reveal their unpopular or heretical thoughts. As he put the point colorfully, “[i]t is no coincidence that the privilege’s origins read like a catalogue of religious and political persecution.”

Another way to obtain a person’s thoughts would be by reading their diaries or other papers. Consider the Fourth Amendment, which protects a person from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Today we think about the Fourth Amendment as providing protection for the home and the person chiefly against unreasonable searches for contraband like guns or drugs. But the Fourth Amendment’s origins come not from drug cases but as a bulwark against intellectual surveillance by the state. In the eighteenth century, the English Crown had sought to quash political and religious dissent through the use of “general warrants,” legal documents that gave agents of the Crown the authority to search the homes of suspected dissidents for incriminating papers.

Perhaps the most infamous dissident of the time was John Wilkes. Wilkes was a progressive critic of Crown policy and a political rogue whose public tribulations, wit, and famed personal ugliness made him a celebrity throughout the English-speaking world. Wilkes was the editor of a progressive newspaper, the North Briton, a member of Parliament, and an outspoken critic of government policy. He was deeply critical of the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years War with France, a conflict known in North America as the French and Indian War. Wilkes’s damning articles angered King George, who ordered the arrest of Wilkes and his co-publishers of the North Briton, authorizing general warrants to search their papers for evidence of treason and sedition. The government ransacked numerous private homes and printers’ shops, scrutinizing personal papers for any signs of incriminating evidence. In all, forty-nine people were arrested, and Wilkes himself was charged with seditious libel, prompting a long and inconclusive legal battle of suits and countersuits.

By taking a stand against the king and intrusive searches, Wilkes became a cause célèbre among Britons at home and in the colonies. This was particularly true for many American colonists, whose own objections to British tax policy following the Treaty of Paris culminated in the American Revolution. The rebellious colonists drew from the Wilkes case the importance of political dissent as well as the need to protect dissenting citizens from unreasonable (and politically motivated) searches and seizures.

The Fourth Amendment was intended to address this problem by inscribing legal protection for “persons, houses, papers, and effects” into the Bill of Rights. A government that could not search the homes and read the papers of its citizens would be less able to engage in intellectual tyranny and enforce intellectual orthodoxy. In a pre-electronic world, the Fourth Amendment kept out the state, while trespass and other property laws kept private parties out of our homes, paper, and effects.

The Fourth and Fifth Amendments thus protect the freedom of thought at their core. As Stuntz explains, the early English cases estab- lishing these principles were “classic First Amendment cases in a system with no First Amendment.” Even in a legal regime without protection for dissidents who expressed unpopular political or religious opinions, the English system protected those dissidents in their private beliefs, as well as the papers and other documents that might reveal those beliefs.

In American law, an even stronger protection for freedom of thought can be found in the First Amendment. Although the First Amendment text speaks of free speech, press, and assembly, the freedom of thought is unquestionably at the core of these guarantees, and courts and scholars have consistently recognized this fact. In fact, the freedom of thought and belief is the closest thing to an absolute right guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court first recognized it in the 1878 Mormon polygamy case of Reynolds v. United States, which ruled that although law could regulate religiously inspired actions such as polygamy, it was powerless to control “mere religious belief and opinions.” Freedom of thought in secular matters was identified by Justices Holmes and Brandeis as part of their dissenting tradition in free speech cases in the 1910s and 1920s. Holmes declared crisply in United States v. Schwimmer that “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” And in his dissent in the Fourth Amendment wiretapping case of Olmstead v. United States, Brandeis argued that the framers of the Constitution “sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations.” Brandeis’s dissent in Olmstead adapted his theory of tort privacy into federal constitutional law around the principle of freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought became permanently enshrined in constitutional law during a series of mid-twentieth century cases that charted the contours of the modern First Amendment. In Palko v. Connecticut, Justice Cardozo characterized freedom of thought as “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” And in a series of cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Court developed a theory of the First Amendment under which the rights of free thought, speech, press, and exercise of religion were placed in a “preferred position.” Freedom of thought was central to this new theory of the First Amendment, exemplified by Justice Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which invalidated a state regulation requiring that public school children salute the flag each morning. Jackson declared that:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. . . .

[The flag-salute statute] transcends constitutional limitations on [legislative] power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.

Modern cases continue to reflect this legacy. The Court has repeatedly declared that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of thought is at the foundation of what it means to have a free society. In particular, freedom of thought has been invoked as a principal justification for preventing punishment based upon possessing or reading dangerous media. Thus, the government cannot punish a person for merely possessing unpopular or dangerous books or images based upon their content. As Alexander Meiklejohn put it succinctly, the First Amendment protects, first and foremost, “the thinking process of the community.”

Freedom of thought thus remains, as it has for centuries, the foundation of the Anglo-American tradition of civil liberties. It is also the core of intellectual privacy.

“The New Home of Mind”

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” So began “A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” a 1996 manifesto responding to the Communications Decency Act and other attempts by government to regulate the online world and stamp out indecency. The Declaration’s author was John Perry Barlow, a founder of the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Barlow argued that “[c]yberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” This definition of the Internet as a realm of pure thought was quickly followed by an affirmation of the importance of the freedom of thought. Barlow insisted that in Cyberspace “anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” The Declaration concluded on the same theme: “We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts. We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”

In his Declaration, Barlow joined a tradition of many (including many of the most important thinkers and creators of the digital world) who have expressed the idea that networked computing can be a place of “thought itself.” As early as 1960, the great computing visionary J. C. R. Licklider imagined that “in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought.” Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the World Wide Web, envisioned his creation as one that would bring “the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds.”

Barlow’s utopian demand that governments leave the electronic realm alone was only partially successful. The Communications Decency Act was, as we have seen, struck down by the Supreme Court, but today many laws regulate the Internet, such as the U.S. Digital Millenium Copyright Act6and the EU Data Retention Directive. The Internet has become more (and less) than Barlow’s utopian vision—a place of business as well as of thinking. But Barlow’s description of the Internet as a world of the mind remains resonant today.

It is undeniable that today millions of people use computers as aids to their thinking. In the digital age, computers are an essential and intertwined supplement to our thoughts and our memories. Discussing Licklider’s prophesy from half a century ago, legal scholar Tim Wu notes that virtually every computer “program we use is a type of thinking aid—whether the task is to remember things (an address book), to organize prose (a word processor), or to keep track of friends (social network software).” These technologies have become not just aids to thought but also part of the thinking process itself. In the past, we invented paper and books, and then sound and video recordings to preserve knowledge and make it easier for us as individuals and societies to remember information. Digital technologies have made remembering even easier, by providing cheap storage, inexpensive retrieval, and global reach. Consider the Kindle, a cheap electronic reader that can hold 1,100 books, or even cheaper external hard drives that can hold hundreds of hours of high-definition video in a box the size of a paperback novel.

Even the words we use to describe our digital products and experiences reflect our understanding that computers and cyberspace are devices and places of the mind. IBM has famously called its laptops “ThinkPads,” and many of us use “smartphones.” Other technologies have been named in ways that affirm their status as tools of the mind—notebooks, ultrabooks, tablets, and browsers. Apple Computer produces iPads and MacBooks and has long sold its products under the slogan, “Think Different.” Google historian John Battelle has famously termed Google’s search records to be a “database of intentions.” Google’s own slogan for its web browser Chrome is “browse the web as fast as you think,” revealing how web browsing itself is not just a form of reading, but a kind of thinking itself. My point here is not just that common usage or marketing slogans connect Internet use to thinking, but a more important one: Our use of these words reflects a reality. We are increasingly using digital technologies not just as aids to our memories but also as an essential part of the ways we think.

Search engines in particular bear a special connection to the processes of thought. How many of us have asked a factual question among friends, only for smartphones to appear as our friends race to see who can look up the answer the fastest? In private, we use search engines to learn about the world. If you have a moment, pull up your own search history on your phone, tablet, or computer, and recall your past queries. It usually makes for interesting reading—a history of your thoughts and wonderings.

But the ease with which we can pull up such a transcript reveals another fundamental feature of digital technologies—they are designed to create records of their use. Think again about the profile a search engine like Google has for you. A transcript of search queries and links followed is a close approximation to a transcript of the operation of your mind. In the logs of search engine companies are vast repositories of intellectual wonderings, questions asked, and mental whims followed. Similar logs exist for Internet service providers and other new technology companies. And the data contained in such logs is eagerly sought by government and private entities interested in monitoring intellectual activity, whether for behavioral advertising, crime and terrorism prevention, and possibly other, more sinister purposes.

Searching Is Thinking

With these two points in mind—the importance of freedom of thought and the idea of the Internet as a place where thought occurs—we can now return to the Google Search Subpoena with which this chapter opened. Judge Ware’s opinion revealed an intuitive understanding that the disclosure of search records was threatening to privacy, but was not clear about what kind of privacy was involved or why it matters.

Intellectual privacy, in particular the freedom of thought, supplies the answer to this problem. We use search engines to learn about and make sense of the world, to answer our questions, and as aids to our thinking. Searching, then, in a very real sense is a kind of thinking. And we have a long tradition of protecting the privacy and confidentiality of our thoughts from the scrutiny of others. It is precisely because of the importance of search records to human thought that the Justice Department wanted to access the records. But if our search records were more public, we wouldn’t merely be exposed to embarrassment like Thelma Arnold of Lilburn, Georgia. We would be less likely to search for unpopular or deviant or dangerous topics. Yet in a free society, we need to be able to think freely about any ideas, no matter how dangerous or unpopular. If we care about freedom of thought—and our political institutions are built on the assumption that we do—we should care about the privacy of electronic records that reveal our thoughts. Search records illustrate the point well, but this idea is not just limited to that one important technology. My argument about freedom of thought in the digital age is this: Any technology that we use in our thinking implicates our intellectual privacy, and if we want to preserve our ability to think fearlessly, free of monitoring, interference, or repercussion, we should embody these technologies with a meaningful measure of intellectual privacy.

Excerpted from “Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age” by Neil Richards. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Neil Richards. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Neil Richards is a Professor of Law at Washington University, where he teaches and writes about privacy, free speech, and the digital revolution.

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Global Decision: New Music Will Be

Released On Fridays, Starting This Summer

 

     After months of discussions and negotiation it appears every country will now adopt a standardized music launch day in an attempt to create “a sense of occasion around the release of new music.” That’s the word from IFPI, the worldwide body representing the recording industry, which this week said that sometime this summer  all new music will be released globally on Fridays.

“As well as helping music fans, the move will benefit artists who want to harness social media to promote their new music,” the IFPI said in a statement. “It also creates the opportunity to reignite excitement and a sense of occasion around the release of new music.” Currently, new music is released in the U.K. on Monday, with U.S. releases coming out on Tuesday. This new arrangement will see new albums and singles released at 00:01 am (local time) on Fridays. IFPI says the decision to standardize the release day came after thorough consultation with all parties who have an interest in recoded music.

“We’ve had a long consultation involving retailers, artists, and record labels, and we have looked at a large amount of insight and research,” IFPI CEO Frances Moore told Music Week. “The good news has been the widespread support we’ve seen around the world for global release day – no one has seriously questioned the concept. The only debate has been about the day. The artist organizations and many retailers and record companies internationally support Friday, and this is backed by consumer research in many countries.”

Still, many independent labels and artists appear to be dissatisfied with the idea of designating Friday – or any day – as “new music day.” And since there’s no law that forces companies to comply with this new agreement, look for some rogue players to defy the standard and release their singles and albums on any day they choose. 

Apple Reportedly Buys Camel Audio;

Plans For Tech Firm Remain Unclear

 

Apple      Apple Inc. reportedly has acquired U.K. music technology company Camel Audio – a company that, among other things, built the Alchemy software suite that allowed musicians to produce their own tracks digitally. While Apple has not officially acknowledged the acquisition, digital music blog MusicRadar says the deal closed in early January, around the time Apple attorney Heather Joy Morrison was named as the company’s sole director. Camel reportedly has shut down its operations, leaving behind a website containing only a user login page for contacting customer support, and miscellaneous legal information.

A notice on the website reads, in part: “We would like to thank you for the support we’ve received over the years in our efforts to create instruments, effects plug-ins, and sound libraries. Camel Audio’s plug-ins, Alchemy Mobile IAPs, and sound libraries are no longer available for purchase. We will continue to provide downloads of your previous purchases and email support until July 7, 2015. We recommend you download all of your purchases and back them up so that you can continue to use them.”

Thus far it’s unclear how the Camel Audio acquisition fits within Apple’s apparent plans to lead the digital music space. Apple already offers products for digital music production, including Garageband and Logic Pro X, and some sources believe Camel’s products will be folded into those existing products or perhaps into iTunes. The Silicon Valley giant has issued a vague statement noting that, “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” The statement is typically offered when an acquisition rumor is legitimate, suggesting Apple did in fact purchase Camel Audio last month. [Read more: Apple Insider

Google Play Music Increases Its Music

Storage Capacity To 50,000 Songs

 

     In an attempt to thwart any attempt by Apple to grow its dominance in the digital music space, Google Play Music this week announced it has upgraded the storage space for registered users from 20,000 songs to 50,000 songs. The extra space is a free upgrade for users, and the expanded capacity is applied automatically for those who already host their music collection in Google’s cloud. Google Play Music is a music streaming and storage service that lets users listen on the web, smartphones, or tablets.

While many consumers are shifting to streaming services and away from downloaded digital files, many users have invested in building – and listening to – massive music libraries. Google’s offer to host even bigger collections is an attempt to lure those customers who are unwilling to give up their previous musical life in favor of streaming platforms.

Because of this single change many analysts say Google Play Music significantly has strengthened its competitive position against Spotify; a lack of storage for music and other media is considered one of the core issues still plaguing smartphones and tablets. Example: Apple sells the iPhone 6 with 16GB of storage, not nearly enough room for all the functions a modern smartphone is expected to provide. Even the base Moto X, which some people consider the best Android smartphone available, has only 16GB of storage. Google’s expansion to 50,000 songs – approximately 200 GB of cloud space – goes will beyond this limit and provides the convenience of streaming their own library. [Read more: Forbes Tech Crunch  Engadget

Starbucks Will Stop Selling CDs

In Stores At The End Of March

 

     As CD sales continue to slip both in the U.S. and globally, Starbucks has decided to stop offering them at its 21,000 retail shops by the end of next month. Starbucks representative Maggie Jantzen told Billboard the company “continually seeks to redefine the experience in our retail stores to meet the evolving needs of our customers. Music will remain a key component of our coffeehouse and retail experience, [and] we will continue to evolve the format of our music offerings to ensure we’re offering relevant options for our customers. As a leader in music curation, we will continue to strive to select unique and compelling artists from a broad range of genres we think will resonate with our customers.”

Starbucks supposedly will continue to provide digital music to its customers, although Jantzen did not reveal what offerings will be available in the future. “Music has always been a key component at Starbucks,” she said. “We are looking for new ways to offer customers music options.”

Starbucks began investing in music in the late 1990s with its purchase of music retailer Hear Music, which created collections that would inspire people to discover new music. That effort resulted in significant in-store sales, and the company expanded its music push with a partnership with William Morris. A subsequent deal with Concord Music Group led to original music releases from such major artists as Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, and Alanis Morissette.

 

Grace Digital’s WiFi Devices Log

More Than 1 Billion Listener Hours

 

Music Business      Grace Digital, a manufacturer of Wi-Fi-based wireless music systems, announced this week its North American customer base has exceeded 1 billion total internet radio listening hours. According to the Edison Research report titled “The Infinite Dial,” internet radio has seen steady listening increases in the U.S. over the last six years, as 21% of Americans listened to it in 2008, while 47% do so today. Listening hours also have increased: the average listening time in one week in 2008 was 6 hours and 13 minutes, a figure that today has more than doubled to 13 hours 19 minutes.

“The growth we’ve seen year over year… mixed with the projections within the industry, show us clearly that wireless streaming of digital content will continue to grow and has become the standard,” Grace Digital Audio’s CEO Greg Fadul said in a statement. “We are committed to our customers and will continue to provide products that will aid in this digital revolution.”

While numerous devices can be used to listen to online radio from a fixed or mobile location, Grace Digital’s Wi-Fi music players serve more as a traditional stereo unit designed for in-home use. 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2015

The poor fetish: commodifying working class culture

By Joseph Todd On February 25, 2015

Post image for The poor fetish: commodifying working class cultureBullshit jobs and a pointless existence are increasingly driving London’s spiritually dead middle class towards a fetishization of working class culture.

Photo: Fruit stall in Shoreditch, London (Source: Flickr/Garry Knight).

Literally, he paints her portrait, then he can fuck off  —  he can leave. When Leonardo DiCaprio is freezing in water, she notices that he’s dead, and starts to shout, ‘I will never let you go,’ but while she is shouting this, she is pushing him away. It’s not even a love story. Again, Captains Courageous: upper classes lose their life, passion, vitality and act like a vampire to suck vitality from a lower-class guy. Once they replenish their energy, he can fuck off.

– Slavoj Zizek on Titanic

London’s middle class are in crisis — they feel empty and clamor for vitality. Their work is alienating and meaningless, many of them in “bullshit jobs” that are either socially useless, overly bureaucratic or divorced from any traditional notion of labor.

Financial services exist to grow the fortunes of capitalists, advertising to exploit our insecurities and public relations to manage the reputations of companies that do wrong. Society would not collapse without these industries. We could cope without the nexus of lobbyists, corporate lawyers and big firm accountants whose sole purpose is to protect the interests of capital. How empty if must feel to work a job that could be abolished tomorrow. One that at best makes no tangible difference to society and at worst encourages poverty, hunger and ecological collapse.

At the same time our doctors, teachers, university professors, architects, lawyers, solicitors and probation officers are rendered impotent. Desperate to just do their jobs yet besieged by bureaucracy and box-ticking. Their energies are focused not on helping the sick, teaching the young or building hospitals but on creating and maintaining the trail of paperwork that is a prerequisite of any meaningful action in late capitalist society. Talk to anybody in these professions, from the public or private sector, and the frustration that comes up again and again is that they spend the majority of their time writing reports, filling in forms and navigating bureaucratic labyrinths that serve only to justify themselves.

This inaction hurts the middle-class man. He feels impotent in the blue glare of his computer screen. Unable to do anything useful, alienated from physical labor and plagued by the knowledge that his father could use his hands, and the lower classes still do. Escape, however, is impossible. Ever since the advent of the smartphone the traditional working day has been abolished. Office workers are at the constant mercy of email, a culture of overwork and a digitalization of work. Your job can be done anytime, anywhere and this is exactly what capital demands. Refuge can only be found in sleep, another domain which capital isdetermined to control.

And when the middle classes are awake and working, they cannot even show contempt for their jobs. Affective (or emotional) labor has always been a part of nursing and prostitution, be it fluffing pillows or faking orgasms, but now it has infected both the shop floor of corporate consumer chains and the offices of middle-management above. Staff working at Pret-à-Manger are encouraged to touch each other, “have presence” and “be happy to be themselves.” In the same way the open plan, hyper-extroverted modern office environment enforces positivity. Offering a systemic critique of the very nature of your work does not make you a ‘team player.’ In such an environment, bringing up the pointlessness of your job is akin to taking a shit on the boss’s desk.

This culture is symptomatic of neoliberal contradiction, one which tells us to be true to ourselves and follow our passions in a system that makes it nearly impossible to do so. A system where we work longer hours, for less money and are taught to consume instead of create. Where fulfilling vocations such as teaching, caring or the arts are either vilified, badly paid or not paid at all. Where the only work that will enable you to have a comfortable life is meaningless, bureaucratic or evil. In such a system you are left with only one option: to embrace the myth that your job is your passion while on a deeper level recognizing that it is actually bullshit.

This is London’s middle class crisis.

But thankfully capital has an antidote. Just as in Titanic, when Kate Winslet saps the life from the visceral, working class Leonardo DiCaprio, middle-class Londoners flock to bars and clubs that sell a pre-packaged, commodified experience of working class and immigrant culture. Pitched as a way to re-connect with reality, experience life on the edge and escape the bureaucratic, meaningless, alienated dissonance that pervades their working lives.

The problem, however, is that the symbols, aesthetics and identities that populate these experiences have been ripped from their original contexts and re-positioned in a way that is acceptable to the middle class. In the process, they are stripped of their culture and assigned an economic value. In this way, they are emptied of all possible meaning.

Visit any bar in the hip districts of Brixton, Dalston or Peckham and you will invariably end up in a warehouse, on the top floor of a car park or under a railway arch. Signage will be minimal and white bobbing faces will be crammed close, a Stockholm syndrome recreation of the twice-daily commute, enjoying their two hours of planned hedonism before the work/sleep cycle grinds back into gear.

Expect gritty, urban aesthetics. Railway sleepers grouped around fire pits, scuffed tables and chairs reclaimed from the last generation’s secondary schools and hastily erected toilets with clattering wooden doors and graffitied mixed sex washrooms. Notice the lack of anything meaningful. Anything with politics or soul. Notice the ubiquity of Red Stripe, once an emblem of Jamaican culture, now sold to white ‘creatives’ at £4 a can.

The warehouse, once a site of industry, has trudged down this path of appropriation. At first it was squatters and free parties, the disadvantaged of a different kind, transforming a space of labor into one of hedonistic illegality and sound system counter-culture. Now the warehouse resides in the middle-class consciousness as the go-to space for every art exhibition or party. Any meaning it may once have had is dead. Its industrial identity has been destroyed and the transgressive thrill the warehouse once represented has been neutered by money, legality and middle-class civility.

Nonetheless many still function as clubs across Southeast London, pumping out reggae and soul music appropriated from the long-established Afro-Caribbean communities to white middle-class twenty-somethings who can afford the £15 entrance. Eventually the warehouse aesthetic will make its way to the top of the pay scale and, as the areas in which they reside reach an acceptable level of gentrification, they will become blocks of luxury flats. Because what else does London need but more kitsch, high ceiling hideaways to shield capital from tax?

The ‘street food revolution’ was not a revolution but a middle-class realization that they could abandon their faux bourgeois restaurants and reach down the socioeconomic ladder instead of up. Markets that once sold fruit and vegetables for a pound a bowl to working class and immigrant communities became venues that commodified and sold the culture of their former clientèle. Vendors with new cute names but the same gritty aesthetics serve over-priced ethnic food and craft beer to a bustling metropolitan crowd, paying not for the cuisine or the cold but for the opportunity to bathe in the edgy cool aesthetic of a former working class space.

This is the romantic illusion that these bars, clubs and street food markets construct; that their customers are the ones on the edge of life, running the gauntlet of Zola’s Les Halles, eating local on makeshift benches whilst drinking beer from the can. Yet this zest is vicarious. Only experienced secondhand through objects and spaces appropriated from below. Spaces which are dully sanitized of any edge and rendered un-intimidating enough for the middle classes to inhabit. Appealing enough for them to trek to parts of London in which they’d never dare live in search of something meaningful. In the hope that some semblance of reality will slip back into view.

The illusion is delicate and fleeting. In part it explains the roving zeitgeist of the metropolitan hipster whose anatomy Douglas Haddow so brilliantly managed to pin down. Because as soon as a place becomes inhabited with too many white, middle-class faces it becomes difficult to keep playing penniless. The braying accents crowd in and the illusion shatters. Those who aren’t committed to the working class aesthetic, yuppies dressed in loafers and shirts rather than scruffy plimsoles and vintage wool coats, begin to dominate and it all becomes just a bit too West London. And in no-time at all the zeitgeist rolls on to the next market, pool hall or dive bar ripe for discovery, colonization and commodification.

Not all businesses understand this delicacy. Champagne and Fromage waded into the hipster darling food market of Brixton Village, upsetting locals and regulars alike. This explicitly bourgeois restaurant, attracted by the hip kudos and ready spending of the area, inadvertently pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. That the commodified working class experience the other restaurants had been pedaling was nothing more than an illusion.

The same anxiety that fuels this cultural appropriation also drives first wave gentrifiers to ‘discover’ new areas that have been populated by working class or immigrant communities for decades. Cheap rents beckon but so does the chance of emancipation from the bourgeois culture of their previous North London existence. The chance to live in an area that is gritty, genuine and real. But this reality is always kept at arm’s length. Gentrifiers have the income to inoculate themselves from how locals live. They plump for spacious Georgian semi-detached houses on a quiet street away from the tower blocks. They socialize in gastro-pubs and artisan cafés. They can do without sure start centers, food banks and the local comprehensive.

Their experience will always be confined to dancing in a warehouse, drinking cocktails from jam jars or climbing the stairs of a multi-story car park in search of a new pop-up restaurant. Never will they face the grinding monotony of mindless work, the inability to pay bills or feed their children, nor the feeling of guilt and hopelessness that comes from being at the bottom of a system that blames the individual but offers no legitimate means by which they can escape.

This partial experience is deliberate. Because with intimate knowledge of how the other half live comes an ugly truth: that middle-class privilege is in many ways premised on working class exploitation. That the rising house prices and cheap mortgages from which they have benefited create a rental market shot with misery. That the money inherited from their parents goes largely untaxed while benefits for both the unemployed and working poor are slashed. That the unpaid internships they can afford to take sustains a culture that excludes the majority from comfortable, white collar jobs. That their accent, speech patterns and knowledge of institutions, by their very deployment in the job market, perpetuate norms that exclude those who were born outside of the cultural elite.

Effie Trinket of the Hunger Games is the ideal manifestation of this contradiction. She is Kaitness and Peeta’s flamboyant chaperone who goes from being a necessary annoyance in the first film towards nominal acceptance in the second. The relationship climaxes when, just as Kaitness and Peeta are about to re-enter the arena, Effie presents Hamich and Peeta with a gold band and necklace, a consumerist expression of their heightened intimacy. And in that very moment, her practiced façade of enthusiastic positivity finally breaks. Through her sobs she cries “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” and backs away, absent for the rest of the film.

For Effie, the contradiction surfaced and was too much to bear. She realized that the misery and oppression of those in the districts was in some way caused by her privilege. But her tears were shed for a more fundamental truth — that although she recognizes the horror of the world, she enjoys the material comfort exploitation brings. That if given the choice between the status quo and revolution, she wouldn’t change a thing.

Joseph Todd is a writer and activist who has been published in The Baffler, Salon and CounterFire, among others. For more writings, visit his website.

The 21st century belongs to China

Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America’s economic dominance

Beijing is building a trans-Siberian railway system that rivals the Marshall Plan in its ambition and global reach

The 21st century belongs to China: Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America's economic dominance
Performers show the dragon dance during a night parade to celebrate Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. (Credit: AP/Vincent Yu)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

BEIJING — Seen from the Chinese capital as the Year of the Sheep starts, the malaise affecting the West seems like a mirage in a galaxy far, far away. On the other hand, the China that surrounds you looks all too solid and nothing like the embattled nation you hear about in the Western media, with its falling industrial figures, its real estate bubble, and its looming environmental disasters. Prophecies of doom notwithstanding, as the dogs of austerity and war bark madly in the distance, the Chinese caravan passes by in what President Xi Jinping calls “new normal” mode.

“Slower” economic activity still means a staggeringly impressive annual growth rate of 7% in what is now the globe’s leading economy. Internally, an immensely complex economic restructuring is underway as consumption overtakes investment as the main driver of economic development. At 46.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the service economy has pulled ahead of manufacturing, which stands at 44%.

Geopolitically, Russia, India, and China have just sent a powerful message westward: they are busy fine-tuning a complex trilateral strategy for setting up a network of economic corridors the Chinese call “new silk roads” across Eurasia. Beijing is also organizing a maritime version of the same, modeled on the feats of Admiral Zheng He who, in the Ming dynasty, sailed the “western seas” seven times, commanding fleets of more than 200 vessels.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are at work planning a new high-speed rail remix of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad. And Beijing is committed to translating its growing strategic partnership with Russia into crucial financial and economic help, if a sanctions-besieged Moscow, facing a disastrous oil price war, asks for it.



To China’s south, Afghanistan, despite the 13-year American war still being fought there, is fast moving into its economic orbit, while a planned China-Myanmar oil pipeline is seen as a game-changing reconfiguration of the flow of Eurasian energy across what I’ve long called Pipelineistan.

And this is just part of the frenetic action shaping what the Beijing leadership defines as the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a vision of creating a potentially mind-boggling infrastructure, much of it from scratch, that will connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Such a development will include projects that range from upgrading the ancient silk road via Central Asia to developing a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor; a China-Pakistan corridor through Kashmir; and a new maritime silk road that will extend from southern China all the way, in reverse Marco Polo fashion, to Venice.

Don’t think of this as the twenty-first-century Chinese equivalent of America’s post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe, but as something far more ambitious and potentially with a far vaster reach.

China as a Mega-City

If you are following this frenzy of economic planning from Beijing, you end up with a perspective not available in Europe or the U.S. Here, red-and-gold billboards promote President Xi Jinping’s much ballyhooed new tagline for the country and the century, “the Chinese Dream” (which brings to mind “the American Dream” of another era). No subway station is without them. They are a reminder of why 40,000 miles of brand new high-speed rail is considered so essential to the country’s future. After all, no less than 300 million Chinese have, in the last three decades, made a paradigm-breaking migration from the countryside to exploding urban areas in search of that dream.

Another 350 million are expected to be on the way, according to a McKinsey Global Institute study. From 1980 to 2010, China’s urban population grew by 400 million, leaving the country with at least 700 million urban dwellers. This figure is expected to hit one billion by 2030, which means tremendous stress on cities, infrastructure, resources, and the economy as a whole, as well as near-apocalyptic air pollution levels in some major cities.

Already 160 Chinese cities boast populations of more than one million. (Europe has only 35.) No less than 250 Chinese cities have tripled their GDP per capita since 1990, while disposable income per capita is up by 300%.

These days, China should be thought of not in terms of individual cities but urban clusters — groupings of cities with more than 60 million people. The Beijing-Tianjin area, for example, is actually a cluster of 28 cities. Shenzhen, the ultimate migrant megacity in the southern province of Guangdong, is now a key hub in a cluster as well. China, in fact, has more than 20 such clusters, each the size of a European country. Pretty soon, the main clusters will account for 80% of China’s GDP and 60% of its population. So the country’s high-speed rail frenzy and its head-spinning infrastructure projects – part of a $1.1 trillion investment in 300 public works — are all about managing those clusters.

Not surprisingly, this process is intimately linked to what in the West is considered a notorious “housing bubble,” which in 1998 couldn’t have even existed. Until then all housing was still owned by the state. Once liberalized, that housing market sent a surging Chinese middle class into paroxysms of investment. Yet with rare exceptions, middle-class Chinese can still afford their mortgages because both rural and urban incomes have also surged.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is, in fact, paying careful attention to this process, allowing farmers to lease or mortgage their land, among other things, and so finance their urban migration and new housing. Since we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people, however, there are bound to be distortions in the housing market, even the creation of whole disastrous ghost towns with associated eerie, empty malls.

The Chinese infrastructure frenzy is being financed by a pool of investments from central and local government sources, state-owned enterprises, and the private sector. The construction business, one of the country’s biggest employers, involves more than 100 million people, directly or indirectly. Real estate accounts for as much as 22% of total national investment in fixed assets and all of this is tied to the sale of consumer appliances, furnishings, and an annual turnover of 25% of China’s steel production, 70% of its cement, 70% of its plate glass, and 25% of its plastics.

So no wonder, on my recent stay in Beijing, businessmen kept assuring me that the ever-impending “popping” of the “housing bubble” is, in fact, a myth in a country where, for the average citizen, the ultimate investment is property. In addition, the vast urbanization drive ensures, as Premier Li Keqiang stressed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, a “long-term demand for housing.”

Markets, Markets, Markets

China is also modifying its manufacturing base, which increased by a multiple of 18 in the last three decades. The country still produces 80% of the world’s air conditioners, 90% of its personal computers, 75% of its solar panels, 70% of its cell phones, and 63% of its shoes. Manufacturing accounts for 44% of Chinese GDP, directly employing more than 130 million people. In addition, the country already accounts for 12.8% of global research and development, well ahead of England and most of Western Europe.

Yet the emphasis is now switching to a fast-growing domestic market, which will mean yet more major infrastructural investment, the need for an influx of further engineering talent, and a fast-developing supplier base. Globally, as China starts to face new challenges — rising labor costs, an increasingly complicated global supply chain, and market volatility — it is also making an aggressive push to move low-tech assembly to high-tech manufacturing. Already, the majority of Chinese exports are smartphones, engine systems, and cars (with planes on their way). In the process, a geographic shift in manufacturing is underway from the southern seaboard to Central and Western China. The city of Chengdu in the southwestern province of Sichuan, for instance, is now becoming a high-tech urban cluster as it expands around firms like Intel and HP.

So China is boldly attempting to upgrade in manufacturing terms, both internally and globally at the same time. In the past, Chinese companies have excelled in delivering the basics of life at cheap prices and acceptable quality levels. Now, many companies are fast upgrading their technology and moving up into second- and first-tier cities, while foreign firms, trying to lessen costs, are moving down to second- and third-tier cities. Meanwhile, globally, Chinese CEOs want their companies to become true multinationals in the next decade. The country already has 73 companies in the Fortune Global 500, leaving it in the number two spot behind the U.S.

In terms of Chinese advantages, keep in mind that the future of the global economy clearly lies in Asia with its record rise in middle-class incomes. In 2009, the Asia-Pacific region had just 18% of the world’s middle class; by 2030, according to the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that figure will rise to an astounding 66%. North America and Europe had 54% of the global middle class in 2009; in 2030, it will only be 21%.

Follow the money, and the value you get for that money, too. For instance, no less than 200,000 Chinese workers were involved in the production of the first iPhone, overseen by 8,700 Chinese industrial engineers. They were recruited in only two weeks. In the U.S., that process might have taken more than nine months. The Chinese manufacturing ecosystem is indeed fast, flexible, and smart — and it’s backed by an ever more impressive education system. Since 1998, the percentage of GDP dedicated to education has almost tripled; the number of colleges has doubled; and in only a decade, China has built the largest higher education system in the world.

Strengths and Weaknesses

China holds more than $15 trillion in bank deposits, which are growing by a whopping $2 trillion a year. Foreign exchange reserves are nearing $4 trillion. A definitive study of how this torrent of funds circulates within China among projects, companies, financial institutions, and the state still does not exist. No one really knows, for instance, how many loans the Agricultural Bank of China actually makes. High finance, state capitalism, and one-party rule all mix and meld in the realm of Chinese financial services where realpolitik meets real big money.

The big four state-owned banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China — have all evolved from government organizations into semi-corporate state-owned entities. They benefit handsomely both from legacy assets and government connections, or guanxi, and operate with a mix of commercial and government objectives in mind. They are the drivers to watch when it comes to the formidable process of reshaping the Chinese economic model.

As for China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, it’s not yet a big deal. In a list of 17 countries, it lies well below those of Japan and the U.S., according to Standard Chartered Bank, and unlike in the West, consumer credit is only a small fraction of total debt. True, the West exhibits a particular fascination with China’s shadow banking industry: wealth management products, underground finance, off-the-balance-sheet lending. But such operations only add up to around 28% of GDP, whereas, according to the International Monetary Fund, it’s a much higher percentage in the U.S.

China’s problems may turn out to come from non-economic areas where the Beijing leadership has proven far more prone to false moves. It is, for instance, on the offensive on three fronts, each of which may prove to have its own form of blowback: tightening ideological control over the country under the rubric of sidelining “Western values”; tightening control overonline information and social media networks, including reinforcing “the Great Firewall of China” to police the Internet; and tightening further its control over restive ethnic minorities, especially over the Uighurs in the key western province of Xinjiang.

On two of these fronts — the “Western values” controversy and Internet control — the leadership in Beijing might reap far more benefits, especially among the vast numbers of younger, well educated, globally connected citizens, by promoting debate, but that’s not how the hyper-centralized Chinese Communist Party machinery works.

When it comes to those minorities in Xinjiang, the essential problem may not be with the new guiding principles of President Xi’s ethnic policy. According to Beijing-based analyst Gabriele Battaglia, Xi wants to manage ethnic conflict there by applying the “three Js”: jiaowang, jiaoliu, jiaorong (“inter-ethnic contact,” “exchange,” and “mixage”). Yet what adds up to a push from Beijing for Han/Uighur assimilation may mean little in practice when day-to-day policy in Xinjiang is conducted by unprepared Han cadres who tend to view most Uighurs as “terrorists.”

If Beijing botches the handling of its Far West, Xinjiang won’t, as expected, become the peaceful, stable, new hub of a crucial part of the silk-road strategy. Yet it is already considered an essential communication link in Xi’s vision of Eurasian integration, as well as a crucial conduit for the massive flow of energy supplies from Central Asia and Russia. The Central Asia-China pipeline, for instance, which brings natural gas from the Turkmen-Uzbek border through Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, is already adding a fourth line to Xinjiang. And one of the two newly agreed upon Russia-China pipelines will also arrive in Xinjiang.

The Book of Xi

The extent and complexity of China’s myriad transformations barely filter into the American media. Stories in the U.S. tend to emphasize the country’s “shrinking” economy and nervousness about its future global role, the way it has “duped” the U.S. about its designs, and its nature as a military “threat” to Washington and the world.

The U.S. media has a China fever, which results in typically feverish reports that don’t take the pulse of the country or its leader. In the process, so much is missed. One prescription might be for them to read The Governance of China, a compilation of President Xi’s major speeches, talks, interviews, and correspondence. It’s already a three-million-copy bestseller in its Mandarin edition and offers a remarkably digestible vision of what Xi’s highly proclaimed “China Dream” will mean in the new Chinese century.

Xi Dada (“Xi Big Bang” as he’s nicknamed here) is no post-Mao deity. He’s more like a pop phenomenon and that’s hardly surprising. In this “to get rich is glorious” remix, you couldn’t launch the superhuman task of reshaping the Chinese model by being a cold-as-a-cucumber bureaucrat. Xi has instead struck a collective nerve by stressing that the country’s governance must be based on competence, not insider trading and Party corruption, and he’s cleverly packaged the transformation he has in mind as an American-style “dream.”

Behind the pop star clearly lies a man of substance that the Western media should come to grips with. You don’t, after all, manage such an economic success story by accident. It may be particularly important to take his measure since he’s taken the measure of Washington and the West and decided that China’s fate and fortune lie elsewhere.

As a result, last November he made official an earthshaking geopolitical shift. From now on, Beijing would stop treating the U.S. or the European Union as its main strategic priority and refocus instead on China’s Asian neighbors and fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, with a special focus on Russia), also known here as the “major developing powers” (kuoda fazhanzhong de guojia). And just for the record, China does not consider itself a “developing country” anymore.

No wonder there’s been such a blitz of Chinese mega-deals and mega-dealings across Pipelineistan recently. Under Xi, Beijing is fast closing the gap on Washington in terms of intellectual and economic firepower and yet its global investment offensive has barely begun, new silk roads included.

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo sees the newly emerging world order as a solar system with two suns, the United States and China. The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy affirms that “the United States has been and will remain a Pacific power” and states that “while there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation” with Beijing. The “major developing powers,” intrigued as they are by China’s extraordinary infrastructural push, both internally and across those New Silk Roads, wonder whether a solar system with two suns might not be a non-starter. The question then is: Which “sun” will shine on Planet Earth?  Might this, in fact, be the century of the dragon?

Leaked cables show Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad

Gulf between Israeli secret service and PM revealed in documents shared with the Guardian along with other secrets including CIA bids to contact Hamas

Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad, leaked spy cables show

Binyamin Netanyahu’s dramatic declaration to world leaders in 2012 that Iranwas about a year away from making a nuclear bomb was contradicted by his own secret service, according to a top-secret Mossad document.

It is part of a cache of hundreds of dossiers, files and cables from the world’s major intelligence services – one of the biggest spy leaks in recent times.

Brandishing a cartoon of a bomb with a red line to illustrate his point, the Israeli prime minister warned the UN in New York that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons the following year and called for action to halt the process.

But in a secret report shared with South Africa a few weeks later, Israel’s intelligence agency concluded that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”. The report highlights the gulf between the public claims and rhetoric of top Israeli politicians and the assessments of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.

An extract from the document
An extract from the document Photograph: The Guardian

The disclosure comes as tensions between Israel and its staunchest ally, the US, have dramatically increased ahead of Netanyahu’s planned address to the US Congress on 3 March.

The White House fears the Israeli leader’s anticipated inflammatory rhetoric could damage sensitive negotiations between Tehran and the world’s six big powers over Iran’s nuclear programme. The deadline to agree on a framework is in late March, with the final settlement to come on 30 June. Netanyahu has vowed to block an agreement he claims would give Iran access to a nuclear weapons capability.

The US president, Barack Obama, will not meet Netanyahu during his visit, saying protocol precludes a meeting so close to next month’s general election in Israel.

The documents, almost all marked as confidential or top secret, span almost a decade of global intelligence traffic, from 2006 to December last year. It has been leaked to the al-Jazeera investigative unit and shared with the Guardian.

The papers include details of operations against al-Qaida, Islamic State and other terrorist organisations, but also the targeting of environmental activists.

The files reveal that:

The CIA attempted to establish contact with Hamas in spite of a US ban.

South Korean intelligence targeted the leader of Greenpeace.

Barack Obama “threatened” the Palestinian president to withdraw a bid for recognition of Palestine at the UN.

South African intelligence spied on Russia over a controversial $100m joint satellite deal.

The cache, which has been independently authenticated by the Guardian, mainly involves exchanges between South Africa’s intelligence agency and its counterparts around the world. It is not the entire volume of traffic but a selective leak.

One of the biggest hauls is from Mossad. But there are also documents from Russia’s FSB, which is responsible for counter-terrorism. Such leaks of Russian material are extremely rare.

Other spy agencies caught up in the trawl include those of the US, Britain, France, Jordan, the UAE, Oman and several African nations.

The scale of the leak, coming 20 months after US whistleblower Edward Snowden handed over tens of thousands of NSA and GCHQ documents to the Guardian, highlights the increasing inability of intelligence agencies to keep their secrets secure.

While the Snowden trove revealed the scale of technological surveillance, the latest spy cables deal with espionage at street level – known to the intelligence agencies as human intelligence, or “humint”. They include surveillance reports, inter-agency information trading, disinformation and backbiting, as well as evidence of infiltration, theft and blackmail.

The leaks show how Africa is becoming increasingly important for global espionage, with the US and other western states building up their presence on the continent and China expanding its economic influence. One serving intelligence officer told the Guardian: “South Africa is the El Dorado of espionage.”

Africa has also become caught up in the US, Israeli and British covert global campaigns to stem the spread of Iranian influence, tighten sanctions and block its nuclear programme.

The Mossad briefing about Iran’s nuclear programme in 2012 was in stark contrast to the alarmist tone set by Netanyahu, who has long presented the Iranian nuclear programme as an existential threat to Israel and a huge risk to world security. The Israeli prime minister told the UN: “By next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move[d] on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

He said his information was not based on secret information or military intelligence but International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports.

Behind the scenes, Mossad took a different view. In a report shared with South African spies on 22 October 2012 – but likely written earlier – it conceded that Iran was “working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate, such as enrichment reactors, which will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time the instruction is actually given”.

But the report also states that Iran “does not appear to be ready” to enrich uranium to the higher levels necessary for nuclear weapons. To build a bomb requires enrichment to 90%. Mossad estimated that Iran then had “about 100kg of material enriched to 20%” (which was later diluted or converted under the terms of the 2013 Geneva agreement). Iran has always said it is developing a nuclear programme for civilian energy purposes.

Last week, Netanyahu’s office repeated the claim that “Iran is closer than ever today to obtaining enriched material for a nuclear bomb” in a statement in response to an IAEA report.

A senior Israeli government official said there was no contradiction between Netanyahu’s statements on the Iranian nuclear threat and “the quotes in your story – allegedly from Israeli intelligence”. Both the prime minister and Mossad said Iran was enriching uranium in order to produce weapons, he added.

“Israel believes the proposed nuclear deal with Iran is a bad deal, for it enables the world’s foremost terror state to create capabilities to produce the elements necessary for a nuclear bomb,” he said.

However, Mossad had been at odds with Netanyahu on Iran before. The former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who left office in December 2010, let it be known that he had opposed an order from Netanyahu to prepare a military attack on Iran.

Other members of Israel’s security establishment were riled by Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear threat and his advocacy of military confrontation. In April 2012, a former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, accused Netanyahu of “messianic” political leadership for pressing for military action, saying he and the then defence minister, Ehud Barak, were misleading the public on the Iran issue. Benny Gantz, the Israeli military chief of staff, said decisions on tackling Iran “must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria”.

There were also suspicions in Washington that Netanyahu was seeking to bounce Obama into taking a more hawkish line on Iran.

A few days before Netanyahu’s speech to the UN, the then US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, accused the Israeli prime minister of trying to force the US into a corner. “The fact is … presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country … don’t have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions,” he said.

“What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed in order to deal with that situation. I mean, that’s the real world. Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.”

 

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/23/leaked-spy-cables-netanyahu-iran-bomb-mossad?CMP=share_btn_fb

Curing the fear of death

How “tripping out” could change everything

A chemical called “psilocybin” shows remarkable therapeutic promise. Only problem? It comes from magic mushrooms

 

 Curing the fear of death: How "tripping out" could change everything

(Credit: stilikone, Objowl via Shutterstock/Salon)

The second time I ate psychedelic mushrooms I was at a log cabin on a lake in northern Maine, and afterwards I sat in a grove of spruce trees for three and a half hours, saying over and over, “There’s so much to see!”

The mushrooms converted my worldview from an uninspired blur to childlike wonderment at everything I glimpsed. And now, according to recent news, certain cancer patients are having the same experience. The active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, psilocybin, is being administered on a trial basis to certain participating cancer patients to help them cope with their terminal diagnosis and enjoy the final months of their lives. The provisional results show remarkable success, with implications that may be much, much bigger.

As Michael Pollan notes in a recent New Yorker piece, this research is still in its early stages. Psychedelic mushrooms are presently classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning, from the perspective of our federal government, they have no medical use and are prohibited. But the scientific community is taking some steps that – over time, and after much deliberation – could eventually change that.

Here’s how it works: In a controlled setting, cancer patients receive psilocybin plus coaching to help them make the most of the experience. Then they trip, an experience that puts ordinary life, including their cancer, in a new perspective. And that changed outlook stays with them over time. This last part might seem surprising, but at my desk I keep a picture of the spot where I had my own transcendental experience several years ago; it reminds me that my daily tribulations are not all there is to existence, nor are they what actually matter.

The preliminary research findings are convincing. You could even call them awe-inspiring. In one experiment, an astounding two-thirds of participants said the trip was “among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.” Pollan describes one cancer patient in detail, a man whose psilocybin session was followed by months that were “the happiest in his life” — even though they were also his last. Said the man’s wife: “[After his trip] it was about being with people, enjoying his sandwich and the walk on the promenade. It was as if we lived a lifetime in a year.”



Which made me do a fist pump for science: Great work, folks. Keep this up! Researchers point out that these studies are small and there’s plenty they don’t know. They also stress the difference between taking psilocybin in a clinical setting — one that’s structured and facilitated by experts — and taking the drug recreationally. (By a lake in Maine, say.) Pollan suggests that the only commonality between the two is the molecules being ingested. My (admittedly anecdotal) experience suggests matters aren’t quite that clear-cut. But even that distinction misses a larger point, which is the potential for this research to help a great many people, with cancer or without, to access a deeper sense of joy in their lives. The awe I felt by that lake in Maine — and the satisfaction and peacefulness that Pollan’s cancer patient felt while eating his sandwich and walking on the promenade — is typically absent from regular life. But that doesn’t mean it has to be.

The growing popularity of mindfulness and meditation suggests that many of us would like to inject a bit more wonder into our lives. As well we should. Not to be a damp towel or anything, but we’re all going to die. “We’re all terminal,” as one researcher said to Pollan. While it’s possible that you’ll live to be 100, and hit every item on your bucket list, life is and always will be uncertain. On any given day, disaster could strike. You could go out for some vigorous exercise and suffer a fatal heart attack, like my dad did. There’s just no way to know.

In the meantime, most of us are caught in the drudgery of to-do lists and unread emails. Responsibility makes us focus on the practical side of things — the rent isn’t going to pay itself, after all — while the force of routine makes it seem like there isn’t anything dazzling to experience anyhow. Even if we’d like to call carpe diem our motto, what we actually do is more along the lines of the quotidian: Work, commute, eat, and nod off to sleep.

With that for a backdrop, it’s not surprising that many of us experience angst about our life’s purpose, not to mention a deep-seated dread over the unavoidable fact of our mortality. It can be a wrenching experience, one that sometimes results in panic attacks or depression. We seek out remedies to ease the discomfort: Some people meditate, others drink. If you seek formal treatment, though, you’ll find that the medical establishment doesn’t necessarily consider existential dread to be a disorder. That’s because it’s normal for us to question our existence and fear our demise. In the case of debilitating angst, though, a doctor is likely to recommend the regimen for generalized anxiety — some combo of therapy and meds.

Both of these can be essential in certain cases, of course; meds tend to facilitate acceptance of the way things are, while therapy can help us, over a long stretch of time, change the things that we can to some degree control. But psychedelics are different from either of these. They seem to open a door to a different way of experiencing life. Pollan quotes one source, a longtime advocate for the therapeutic use of psilocybin, who identifies the drug’s potential for “the betterment of well people.” Psychedelics may help ordinary people, who are wrestling with ordinary angst about death and the meaning of life, to really key into, and treasure, the various experiences of their finite existence.

In other words, psychedelics could possibly help us to be more like kids.

Small children often view the world around them with mystic wonder — pushing aside blades of grass to inspect a tiny bug that’s hidden underneath, or perhaps looking wide-eyed at a bright yellow flower poking through a crack in the sidewalk. (Nothing but a common dandelion, says the adult.) Maybe the best description of psilocybin’s effect is a reversion to that childlike awe at the complexity of the world around us, to the point that we can actually relish our lives.

What’s just as remarkable is that we’re not talking about a drug that needs to be administered on a daily or weekly or even monthly basis in order to be effective. These studies gave psilocybin to cancer patients a single time. Then, for months afterward, or longer, the patients reaped enormous benefit.

(The fact that psychedelics only need to be administered once could actually make it less likely that the research will receive ample funding, because pharmaceutical companies don’t see dollar signs in a drug that’s dispensed so sparingly. But that’s another matter )

Of course, some skepticism may be warranted. Recreational use of psychedelics has been associated with psychotic episodes. That’s a good reason for caution. And a potential criticism here is that psilocybin is doing nothing more than playing a hoax on the brain — a hoax that conjures up a mystical experience and converts us into spellbound kids. You might reasonably ask, “do I even want to wander around awe-struck at a dandelion the same way a 3-year-old might?”

So caution is reasonably advised. But what the research demonstrates is nonetheless remarkable: the way the experience seems to shake something loose in participants’ consciousness, something that lets them see beyond the dull gray of routine, or the grimness of cancer, to the joy in being with loved ones, the sensory pleasure of a good meal, or the astounding pink visuals of the sunset.

 

‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social media

By Binnaz Saktanber On February 20, 2015

Post image for ‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social mediaTurkey has a track record of ruthlessly cracking down on social media users, and both Twitter and Facebook appear happy to play ball with the censors.

Photo by Murad Sezer

On February 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey sent his first tweet ever: “Today is World No Tobacco Day” he wrote in Turkish — bluntly ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even World No Tobacco Day — “Use your willpower against this poison and #DontGiveInToCigarettes.” Erdoğan even signed the tweet with his initials RTE in the style of Barack Obama, who signs his personal tweets -bo.

The content of the tweet was no surprise, given that the war against tobacco is one of the personal crusades of the Islamist ruler, and that everybody and their mum is tweeting today, including politicians and world leaders who often want to engage with their public personally. What was surprising was that Erdoğan, who once famously declared social media to be “the worst menace to society” and who blocked Twitter altogether on March 2014, was tweeting at all.

So what has changed? Did Erdoğan suddenly decide to embrace Twitter and stop censoring social media? Not quite. The Turkish government is no longer blocking the likes of Twitter thus keeping a façade of freedom, but it blazes the trail in a new type of censorship regime. I call it “cease and censor.”

The worst part is that Twitter seems to be helping it by implementing its “country-withheld content” policy. First employed in 2012 to block neo-Nazi accounts in Germany, the policy complies with the concerned country’s local laws and blocks a tweet or an account only in that country when faced with a legal order. This is understandable in cases of hate speech or criminal offenses, but the policy becomes awfully problematic when it interferes with freedom of expression and is applied according to local laws that are designed to censor freedom of expression at all costs, such as Turkey’s internet law.

Facebook also complies with the Turkish government’s requests to block and censor political content. @Madigudisi in Twitter and Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post) on Facebook are two victims of this new censorship regime. I talked to them to learn their stories and to better understand how this new regime of censorship works.

Tech-savvy netizens versus archaic politics

But first, let’s refresh our memories. Last March, the Turkish government blocked Twitter amid alleged leaked recordings implicating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and other government officials on a corruption scandal. Another recording had senior army officials discussing intervention in Syria. The recordings were posted mainly on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter.

“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic,” said a furious Erdoğan before blocking Twitter. A YouTube ban followed. The blatant censorship created an outcry at home and abroad. Hashtags #twitterbannedinturkey and #youtubebannedinturkey became worldwide trending topics within minutes, garnering millions of furious tweets criticizing Turkish government’s censorious antics. Every news outlet in the world reported the issue, while rights groups and the international community condemned the bans.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the Twitter ban on April 2 and the YouTube ban on June 4, stating they violated laws on freedom of expression. The court’s decision was widely applauded. Yet it did not affect that much in terms of Turkish netizen’s social media activity, as tech-savvy citizens never actually stopped tweeting, and mocked the blocks by circumventing it almost immediately thanks to VPN services and changing their DNS numbers.

At the time, I argued that ancient censorship mechanisms and archaic politics do not work in the face of technological dissent and the voice of the streets anymore. The Turkish government must have felt the same, since it soon began to employ a different tactic to keep social media giants like Twitter and Facebook on a short leash without actually having to block them: threatening them with banning their service altogether and imposing heavy fines, bombarding them with court orders, and making them block specific content and accounts.

Accomplice to censorship

When the transportat minister Lütfi Elvan tweeted “If your phones do not work after an earthquake, call the ministry” on May 28, 2014, he received a witty reply from Twitter user @Madigudisi. “This is not Zaytung [a local mock news portal similar to The Onion]. Goodbye to the brain…”

On July 13, Madigudisi received an email from Twitter’s legal team asking him if he would voluntarily delete the tweet. The message referenced a court ruling about the tweet, claiming it to violate Turkish law. In short, it was a polite recommendation of self-censorship from a social media giant that once famously praised itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and which promised to “stand with our users in Turkey who rely on Twitter as a vital communications platform” in the midst of the blocking of its service.

Twitter waited for three days for a voluntary deletion, and then censored the tweet. Instead of the original tweet, visitors now see a notice informing them this tweet has been withheld in their country. Madigudisi did not reply to Twitter or contest the ruling. Doing so would reveal his identity and bring more lawsuits.

His fear was not paranoid. Twenty-nine people were put on trial for tweets posted during the Gezi protests in a court case in which the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan is himself listed as a victim. All of the tweeters were accused of “inciting the public to break the law.” Three of them were also accused of “insulting the Prime Minister.”

The tweets they were trialled for were nothing but information on the location of police forces during the protests, passwords for wireless networks in the protest locations where 3G service was not usually available, and messages of support for the nationwide protests. In short, not that different than what millions of other people were tweeting during the summer of 2013.

In the last hearing on September 22, 2014, 27 of the accused were acquitted of all crimes. Yet one defendant was fined 8.000Turkish liras (roughly US$3.200) for “insulting the Prime Minister” and another’s file has been set apart for a future date. Amnesty International, which has been following the trial, declared that “no evidence presented in court points to criminal conduct that is not protected under international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression,” and pointed out that the prosecution suggested authorities aim to discourage others from using social media in a country where Twitter was blocked before.

Withholding content, blocking accounts

Madigudisi is not the only casualty of Turkey’s “country-withheld content” policy. According to Twitter’s latest transparency report, Turkey had the highest number of removal requests (477) for 2.642 different accounts between July and December, filing five times the amount of requests of the next country on the list. Compared to the first half of the year, Turkey’s requests increased 156 percent and the number of accounts specified grew over 765 percent. As a result, 62 accounts and 1820 tweets were withheld.

Twitter received 328 court orders and 149 requests from Turkish government agencies to remove content ranging from violations of personal rights to defamation of private citizens and/or government officials, just like Madigudisi’s tweet.

In the report, Twitter has defended the policy, releasing the following statement:

We filed legal objections with Turkish courts in response to more than 70% of Turkish orders received. Objections were filed where we believed the order interfered with freedom of expression laws or had other deficiencies. Our objections to Turkish courts prevailed only ~5% of the time. We un-withheld three accounts and 196 tweets following the acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.

In the last year, in addition to Madigudisi, three anonymous accounts used to reveal alleged phone conversations implicating Erdoğan in the corruption scandal were also blocked, as well as the account of the activist hacking group TheRedHack. RedHack’s last act was to hack the records of the biggest internet service provider of the country and dedicate it to Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was killed during the Gezi protests.

Another casualty is Fuatavni, the whistleblower account claiming to write from inside the government with close to a million followers. Fuatavni’s account was blocked shortly after he tweeted details about a wave of arrests of police officers related to the December 17 corruption scandal. Having warned his followers that his account might be blocked, he now writes under the pseudonym FuatAvniFuat, but it is not clear how long this account will last.

Intimidation and despair

Madigudisi is neither a journalist, nor does he trust mainstream media. He says he opened a Twitter account the same day the Gezi protests started, with the sole purpose of tweeting about the protests and obtaining uncensored news about the events. He tweeted 24/7 (“in tears” he says) and tried to provide logistical support to protesters. For him Twitter is pivotal: “Without this platform it is impossible for us to know what is really going on in the country because the press is not free. That’s why I was so disappointed with this censorship.”

On January 15, the Turkish government warned it will shut down Twitter and Facebook if they do not block accounts mentioning documents revealing a weapon delivery to Syria. On January 2, 2014 two trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped for a search by a state prosecutor, finding weaponry inside. The trucks were going to Syria and the incident sparked controversy that the contents were meant for jihadists in the neighboring country.

At the time, a court issued a ban on the publication of news related to the incident. Following tweets that publish documents related to the incident, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issued a warning that the March 2014 government decree banning coverage  is still valid. The New York Times reported that “networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order on Wednesday, removing content from accounts to avert a shutdown.”

No need for big threats for Facebook, as the company already frequently allows the Turkish government to censor content. According to the company’s latest and second ever transparency report, Turkey is the second most frequent censor of the social network, after India. Turkey restricted 1.813 pieces of content between January and June 2014, primarily because it defamed or criticized Ataturk or the Turkish state. Many Kurdish pages including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — the largest pro-Kurdish party in the country — are closed down, sparking an online petition from academics around the world and the suspicion that the blocks are political in nature.

“The sole purpose of this censorship is to intimidate us.” Madigudisi reflects. “I am not afraid. I will continue to voice my opinion no matter what. But I cannot help but feel despair. I am also very angry, why should I restrict my freedom of speech? There was nothing defamatory or insulting in my tweet, I just made a humorous observation.”

Politically motivated page removals

Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post), a small citizen journalism outlet mainly reporting on the Kurdish issue, has had their Facebook page blocked repeatedly after they became one of the most popular alternative news sources due to its coverage of the Gezi protests. The page has been blocked ten times since July 2013, each time having been forced to open a new one.

As Fırat Yumuşak, an editor for the outlet, says: “This censorship is a direct result of the government’s efforts to suppress the internet during and after the Gezi protests. Facebook is cooperating with the Turkish government. Even government officials admitted this. This is the reason why Facebook was not blocked when other social media sites were.”

Yumusak said they have tried to contact Facebook to reverse the decisions, to no avail. After their page had been censored “because their logo of a pomegranate is found erotic” or a news item about a child sexual abuse case has been found pornographic, they have written to Facebook Europe Director Richard Alan.

When Alan gave an interview to the Turkish newspaper Radikal, he said: “Someone filed a complaint about the page and checked the box of pornographic content as a reason. We have examined the page and found no such content. Yet, we have concluded that the page had violated our terms of conditions by posting content that praises the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They were posting content that had the flag and symbols of PKK. Posting this flag is a concrete violation of our rules even when it is done without being aware of it. For example, if someone posts a photo and there is someone in that photo carrying a PKK flag in the background, this is against our rules.”

Soon after the interview, The Other’s Post received an email from Facebook’s User Operations. The email was only signed with the first name Deniz, without a surname, and apologized for providing them with an incorrect explanation about why their page had been removed. “Yet,” the email read, “you have violated our standards many times so your page will not be republished.”

According to Yumusak, the problem lies in the fact that Facebook’s said rules and community standards are not up to date and inclusive enough for specific countries: “Because the standards are designed for a global audience, they do not reflect the realities of Turkey. While mainstream media outlets can publish a picture of Öcalan (the jailed leader of PKK), when we publish it we are accused of promoting terrorist activities and get censored,” he says.

Yumusak also argues that Facebook is not transparent enough: “For example, we received messages like ‘your page has been removed because we have received a sufficient amount of complaints.’ What is that amount? We asked several times and got no answer. This lack of transparency allows Facebook to easily cooperate with the authorities. Their page removals are more political than a simple technical act. At this point my thought is that Facebook will censor a page if they want to censor a page. They will create whatever reason necessary to do so. And they cooperate with the government doing so, because they don’t want to give up their market share or ads revenues.”

A façade of freedom

Like Madigudisi, Yumuşak believes in the power of social media in voicing and organizing dissident and that’s why the cut hurts deep. “Gezi showed us that social media provides an alternative platform for popular movements to speak for themselves and to break up the information barrier owned by the dominant classes. The psychological barrier also broke. People went from thinking ‘I am the only one who thinks this’ to ‘I am not alone’. It also helps organizing and mobilizing collective action: you get to learn where the police are, who needs help and where,” he said.

Intimidating the likes of Madigudisi and The Other’s Post is easy for Turkish officials to do thanks to the new internet censorship law providing them ample power in the name of protecting “the common good” and “privacy” while infringing on freedom of expression and online dissent against the government altogether.

The new internet bill, which is cited in the court ruling Madigudisi received, gives enormous power to Turkey’s telecommunications authority. Any URL can be blocked within four hours without a court decision, hence without your knowledge. Internet providers are now obliged to store all data on user activities for two years and to provide the data upon request. The intimidation policy also works outside the courthouse, when families become scared for their loved ones who voice dissent in social media. Madigudisi said he has closed his Facebook account because his family was concerned “something would happen to him or he would get jailed.”

But more importantly, this type of “cease and censor” regime helps the government keep a façade of freedom and avoids Turkey being boiled in the same pot as internet enemies like Iran and China while censoring political content all the same. Actually, it looks like the government prefers people to tweet their dissent so that they can spot the “suspects” more easily. Less international criticism, less local protest, easy targets, and all the censorship one’s heart desires. It looks like Turkey hit the jackpot of despotism.

“Facebook and Twitter are ending lives”

We might argue that this is not that big of a deal compared to last March, when Twitter and YouTube were blocked entirely. People are so tech-savvy they can bypass the censorship easily. Encryption software, VPNs, changing the DNS settings, changing your country settings in Twitter: all easy enough remedies that people are well versed in.

We might say that Twitter’s “country-withheld policy” has good intentions. At least one can see a censored tweet in another country, or by changing the country settings. Yet, the danger in that mentality is that Twitter is actually making it less evident that censorship has occurred, thus becoming an accomplice in censoring governments whether they want it or not.

Until Twitter and Facebook become censorship-free, users are forced to cope with the situation. Madigudisi uses VPN and changes passwords every week. Yumusak says they sneak around the censorship by writing the “forbidden” words in reverse or even just posting the news with the headline “Facebook censored this content.”

Yet the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression should not rest on the shoulders of ordinary people and should not be reduced to technical gimmicks. There is no guarantee that the Turkish government will not find a way to block these technologies or pass further bills restricting internet freedom.

Erdoğan made his first speech as president-elect to the provincial heads of his party. He said: “I don’t speak via social media. I don’t like to tweet, schmeet, because you know what they cause in society. Facebook and Twitter are ending lives.” Now even he is tweeting! Maybe it’s time Twitter and Facebook start being more courageous in terms of human rights and basic principles of free speech, instead of succumbing to the censorious antics of authoritarian governments. This is what we expect of them — if they want to keep their seats at the free speech party, that is. Otherwise they should stand up and leave.

Binnaz Saktanber is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York. Her research revolves around the interaction between social media, politics and social movements. Saktanber is also a blogger and writer who is published in numerous Turkish and international publications. She is based in İstanbul and New York.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/02/turkey-social-media-twitter-facebook/