In the wake of news reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly mining data from large internet service providers Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Larry Page both released statements about their respective company's position on the matter.
While both read like well-thought-out, carefully crafted (but very "corporate") responses, and appear to support the notion that neither company actually participates in a program like the alleged PRISM, both statements also read like thinly disguised paraphrases of the same script. You know, almost like they were being spoon fed.
We've Never Heard of PRISM
Both companies also appear to craft their statements using very carefully chosen language. From Zuckerbergs post on Facebook (Emphasis mine):
"Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday."
And now, From Larry Page's post, released shortly prior to Zuck's statement (again, emphasis mine):
"First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday . . . Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received"
Interesting that in both instances, each CEO is very specific in stating what their company is not doing. They have not granted the government direct access to their servers. They have never received a blanket request such as that reportedly received by Verizon. If you read the full content of each CEO's statement you will find that they are essentially paraphrasing each other, or some third source.
Apple spokesman Steve Dowling also responds with a similar statement:
"We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order."
When asked whether Apple had joined the joint NSA-FBI data collection program, Apple declined to comment, according to the Huffington Post.
Only with a Court Order?
All of the companies that have responded publicly make some form of statement indicating that they comply only with court orders, and under applicable law. Each gives some lip-service to resisting attempts by government to compromise the privacy of users. However, in an article from the Washington Post, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union states:
"I would just push back on the idea that the court has signed off on it, so why worry? This is a court that meets in secret, allows only the government to appear before it, and publishes almost none of its opinions. It has never been an effective check on government."
Bad things are happening on the web. Governments around the world seek to monitor and control this invaluable communications resource. Totalitarian governments like those of China and Iran have set the example for what we, in the US, do not want to see happen.
Except, well, it kind of is happening, and has been for several years now.
I understand that, to paraphrase US President Barack Obama, you can't have 100% security, and 100% freedom, and 100% privacy with zero inconvenience. But the lack of transparency and sheer underhandedness of the US government in this case appears to be not only appalling, but growing by the minute.
It's not the Crime that Kills You, It's the Cover-up
We don't know all the facts at this point, and we likely never will. But paying close attention to the manner in which the big internet providers respond is at the very least interesting, and quite possibly a sign that there is, indeed, more here than meets the eye.
I encourage the Googles and Facebooks and Apples of the Silicon Valley to remember the old political adage: It's not the crime that kills you, it's the cover-up. John on Google
We’re from the government. We’re here to help.
There is a war going on with respect to the internet, but it is not the war most people think it is. We hear concerns about digital piracy from the entertainment industry, the RIAA and MPAA in particular representing the most vocal representatives. We hear rumblings from the publishing industry, as the printed word begins to decline relative to digital content. And we see ever-increasing numbers of consumers spending more and more of their income through on-line purchases.
We hear concerns about security and privacy, and the need to essentially “protect” the user from predatory companies which seek to exploit the user data for commercial gain. The current explosion in “Social Networking” and “cloud computing” has set the stage for the next big struggle. Large software companies, hardware manufacturers, and web-based social networks, creating what they call “ecosystems” and what many others call “walled gardens” represent the next battleground in the war.
The RIAA and the MPAA, arriving late to the party, have finally figured out that the internet is the content delivery mechanism of the future. The entertainment industry is in the content delivery business, and for decades have controlled most aspects of how we access, choose, and pay for their goods. They are not going to sit idly by and watch the empire crumble. And because they missed the boat at the beginning, it is too late for them to grab the early foothold the needed in order to bring something fresh to the game. So they will fall back on what they know. Lawyers, lawsuits, and lobbying.
The MPAA, in the news of late due to its heavy lobbying investment (failing) to pass the SOPA and PIPA legislation, has in its CEO the perfect, iconic representation of the problem at hand. Former US Senator Chris Dodd, barely out of office, seems to land himself the cushy gig of CEO to the Motion Picture Association of America. Is this because of his imminent qualifications and experience in the motion picture industry? I think not. It is because of his political connections, and favors performed while in the senate. By now, most are familiar with Dodd’s poorly-conceived response following massive protest of the SOPA/PIPA legislation. But this is how they are trying to play it.
Remember the “Big Three?”
Now that the internet represents the obvious distribution mechanism for all levels of content, and provides smaller publishers an equal platform on which to compete, the media companies are running scared. The war is not truly about piracy. Piracy is a very real problem, for these and other industries. However, it is not going to go away, despite new legislation or enforcement efforts. The war is, at its core, for control of the internet. Media companies have controlled the radio, television, and cable airwaves for decades. The internet, representing the ultimate replacement of those delivery mechanisms, is now the primary target.
Mark my words. While piracy, copyright, and patent protections are the buzzwords of the moment in this war, it is only the beginning. Think about this. If the realm of the internet is made “safer” or “protected” for rights holders at the expense of the overall freedom, we have lost. In 10 years time, if we allow it to happen, the internet will look a whole lot more like the broadcast television spectrum of the ‘70’s and ‘80s, and the cable networks of the ‘90s. Big media will dominate, and control most of the space. There will likely be some “fringe” domains in which “public access” occurs, but the bulk of the web will be all about big media and advertising.
Your Papers, Please?
The large corporate interests will accomplish this through heavy lobbying, for progressively more restrictive legislation which “protects” the interest of rights holders at the expense of our (the public) freedoms. It won’t take long before the costs associated with domain applications, the inevitable licensing requirements, and compliance will be so great that the average user will find the barriers to entry too high.
Arguments about piracy, privacy, security, and the safety of the “social web” are all very real and very valid concerns. However, in the next few years, these terms will be bandied about by large corporate interests, inside and outside the hallowed halls of legislatures, boardrooms, and smoky back rooms with the general goal of re-purposing the web infrastructure. If we, the public, allow ourselves to buy into it, the internet as a free vehicle of personal access, enlightenment, and engagement will cease to exists.
In its place will be another version of “Over 500 channels of crap for just $79.99 per month – some restrictions apply”
John on Google
Revenge of the Nerds
In the last week, there has been a most entertaining (and semi-civil) exchange on Twitter between the public face of the Activist group Anonymous and Dana White, President of the UFC (Ultimate Championship Fighting). The discussion escalated to the point of tough-guy talk from Dana White (Like, uh, what else would you expect from the President of the UFC?) and some interesting game-playing on the part of Anonymous. The "Hactivists" posted a link on twitter to a page containing what appeared to be a swath of White's personal data, including Social Security number, address, and financial data. On Friday, Anonymous attempted to break into the UFC server, and initiated targeted redirects of the UFC.com domain.
"Dana White - what do you have against the Internet? We're just curious, as we were quite surprised at the harsh tone of your comments . . . do you support what we do, in terms of activism & raising public awareness of critical security/privacy issues?"
- @YourAnonNews to Dana White, via Twitter
Mr. White is a supporter of SOPA/PIPA, and feels that internet piracy is no different than stealing. He would know, apparently, because UFC "pay-per-view" fights are often pirated, depriving the UFC of revenue. The hackers of Anonymous contend that SOPA/PIPA amounts to censorship and a deprivation of our basic freedoms. On which point I heartily agree.
"The only thing that we're focused on is piracy. Piracy is stealing. You walk into a store and you steal a (freaking) gold watch, it's the same as stealing a pay-per-view."
- Dana White, Thursday January 26, 2012
Been Caught Stealin'
On the point of piracy I agree with Mr.. White. To a point.
Piracy IS a big issue. Mr. White, and all those whose livelihoods are impacted by piracy are understandably pissed. And, no, it really does not matter that some of them may be really, really rich already (Mr. White is pretty well off). Stealing is still stealing, and it is wrong and illegal.
According to White: "The only thing that we're focused on is piracy. Piracy is stealing. You walk into a store and you steal a (freaking) gold watch, it's the same as stealing a pay-per-view."
And that is true.
The problem with SOPA/PIPA, and the problem with Data White's analogy of stealing from a store, is that you still need to be proven guilty when you are arrested for stealing from a store.
"I love the Internet. It helped us grow our biz. Stealing is stealing! And hacking into people's (expletive) is terrorism . . . I'm a fight promoter. I put on fights. People are stealing my shit on the net and selling it or selling ads on it."
- Dana White to Anonymous, via Twitter
SOPA/PIPA, and any other legislation which allows the government to block or takedown entire IP addresses and remove domains from the DNS system is that, under SOPA and PIPA, due process has been circumvented. SOPA/PIPA would empower the government to block sites "suspected" or "reasonably believed to be" hosting pirated content with minimal due process, and largely at the urging of large media companies and content providers.
Mr. White, I feel your pain. Piracy sucks, and needs to be addressed. However, compromising the basic freedoms of the internet is not the way to do it. The unfortunate truth is that, like any other criminal enterprise, online piracy will continue in spite of any government intervention. Like any other criminal enterprise, we the people must fight within the confines of law and order, while the criminals are not so constrained.
UFC, Hollywood, and the US government already have tools to fight piracy. They are not as effective as some would like, but they exist. Hell, the best SOPA could have done would have been to block Americans from accessing pirated content hosted on foreign servers. It would have had no impact upon foreign access to pirated American content hosted on those same foreign servers.
Increased regulation, especially of the sort offered by SOPA/PIPA would most definitely impact the internet as a whole, however. Now that Mr. White and the rest of Hollywood have begun to realize the profit potential of the internet, they and their cohorts in the Congress are also suddenly interested in seizing as much control of the internet as possible.
As I related in an earlier post, there exists the very real possibility that by the end of the decade, the internet as we know it will no longer exist. After all, the same media companies which brought you the "Big Three" broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), and the same providers who have dominated the cable television industry have now seen the future of content delivery. And that future is the internet.
In the past decade, the internet has exploded with user-generated content. The medium is such that just about anyone has been able to create a blog, or publish a video, or create an online forum, etc. Hosting has been cheap or free, and there are few barriers to entry. We were all just fine without streaming UFC fights and Hollywood movies.
If the government and Hollywood become the heavy players in this space, you can kiss all that goodbye.
I say again - Mr. White, I feel your pain. It sucks to be stolen from, whether you are rich or poor. But let's not destroy the very thing that makes the internet great. If SOPA and PIPA had been passed into law, your pay-per-views would still be stolen. Pirates would still make new release movies available, both on the web, and on DVD. Thieves are very clever, and they don't play by the rules.
112 Channels of Crap for just $79.95 per Month . . . If you act NOW!!
I urge you all to adapt and innovate. As Apple, Netflix, and Amazon have aptly demonstrated, a user-friendly experience at the right price will win the day with handsome profits. And without forcing the customer to buy bloated programming "packages" which include two channels they don't want for every one they do. Or an entire album, at album prices, to get the two songs they want. Oh, and take some of the money you all have been shoveling into the hands of Congress through your lobbyist middle-men, and use it instead to spearhead investigations. Or to work with tech companies to find solutions which work for everyone, instead of just yourselves.
The key to maintaining your enterprise in the internet era is to jump on board, without destroying the very thing which makes the internet what it is. After all, it was a bunch of geeks and hackers who brought it this far. What right have you to claim it as yours, now?
References for this post include: