technology policy

A Different Take on Sigma Alpha Epsilon: The Need for Privacy, Even for Racist Chants

A few years ago, in 2009, a photo of President Obama apparently checking out a girl’s booty at the G8 summit began circulating the web.  Headlines such as “The Second Stimulus Package” and “Baby Bot Barack” were everywhere.

We had to place context around this snapshot in order to understand it. Before that happened though, the media had jumped on the picture. Credit:

The photo was a misleading snippet of reality.  A video – what is nothing more than several millions of photos, or snippets, strung together – surfaced showing that Obama was gesturing to someone as they were preparing to take a group picture.  The extra snippets were needed to patch together a more complete version of what was going on.

In my opinion, we needed the extra minutes, hours, days, years surrounding the racist chant from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.  More importantly, we need to change our privacy laws in order to prevent these instances from triggering society’s borg mentality.

The fallout was inevitable, even preordained: the news shows clamoring for ratings, the talking heads using the occasion to burnish their progressive credentials with caustic condemnations, the coached apologies, and the inevitable punishments.

The punishments were swift.  The house has been shut down – and so the people who worked in that house have lost this source of income.  The fraternity has been suspended – punishing all of the present members of that fraternity, and others who may wish to have joined in the future.  Two members of the fraternity – the ringleaders – have been expelled from the university.  These two students are being treated like convicted criminals, with CNN putting profiles of the students online (very irresponsible I think).  They are young, and will likely recover, but this experience will always be a part of their lives.  What if it was their and their parent’s dream that they attend this specific university?  What about the friendships they had developed?  What about their educations?

The young men in that fraternity were doing something odious, to be sure.  But to me, it was a bunch of young men having fun on a bus.  The chant was not directed at anyone.  No one was physically or emotionally hurt. Until the sentiments expressed in these chants translate into actual racial bias or discrimination, or until those chants are directed at an actual person, in my opinion the incident should be passed off as frat boys acting stupidly.

But my concern is bigger than this.  Taking videos of people in spaces surreptitiously, where those recorded do not know or expect their actions to be recorded should be against the law.  It follows that placing such material on social media should also be a punishable offense.  The punishments here should not be levied against the fraternity, or the two ring leaders, but the person who took the video and placed it online.

We need to recalibrate our views on privacy in the Digital Age.  Currently, there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces.  This understanding is anachronistic – developed during a time when every action could not be recorded and transmitted everywhere.  This anachronistic understanding led to a judge in Oregon arguing that “upskirting”, or taking pictures of up a woman’s skirt, in Target, was not illegal.   I think women expect privacy there – even if they are in a store with a bullseye as a logo.  But our understanding of privacy was built in an era before smartphones and digital cameras were ubiquitous.

As a society, we are poisoned by this decontextualized data pulled from private moments and plastered onto public platforms like YouTube or Instagram.  There are few winners here.  The public, already strained by so many media choices, have one more fatuous distraction grasping for their attention (income inequality grows…oh wait, here is [place person here] caught on video calling someone a fag!).  The victims of these digital drive-bys have their lives ruined.  And most insidiously, the very important task of combating racial discrimination and racial inequality is reduced to rooting out individuals who make racist remarks off the cuff or in places they thought were private.

I have a prediction.  A sad one.

Incidents like these will continue, and our society will suffer for it, until a martyr comes along.  Someone who is well-known enough, or photogenic enough must fall victim.  The progression is all laid out.  A decontextualized piece of their private life is put into the public domain.  She then tries to defend herself, explain, and apologize.  But the public outcry becomes too great, and harsh sanctions are levied.  She may end her life over the scandal.  Or, someone feeding off the media frenzy may decide to take her life.  At which time public sentiment will change, and people will begin to have sympathy.  In the public conversation that follows, we will come to see the little snippet of deviance splattered on Instagram as not representative of the person as a whole.  This new conversation will recontextualize the snippet, and she will be seen as a complex individual just like me and you – a little naughty sometimes, but generally good, productive, God-fearing, and law abiding.  I can even see some congressman sponsoring a public-privacy law named after her.

Only then, after some unfortunate person pays the ultimate sacrifice, will society work to change privacy laws.

A Call for Nonprofit Social Media. Or, How to Maintain Free Speech in the Digital Environment

I am currently trying to  learn a little bit about hate speech laws and how they are applied in the digital environment.  My main reference here is a great introductory book on the laws that govern new media by Ashley Packard, entitled Digital Media Law.

Here is what I (think I) know so far:

  • The First Amendment protects speech, expression, and group assembly from government suppression.  You can say almost anything.  Of course some forms of speech can and will be suppressed by the government.  For example, speech can be restricted if it interferes with military plans, is obscene, or is meant to incite a violent overthrow of the government.  But by and large, restraints on speech are very narrow.  And, as Erik Bleich’s book about free speech The Freedom to be Racist  details, American courts have repeatedly reinforced freedom of speech over the course of the 20th century.  The situation is very much the opposite in Europe.  As an example, since the mid-90’s it is criminal to publish anything that incites racial hatred in the United Kingdom.  Meanwhile you can see a Klan member on Jerry Springer every third Thursday here in the states.
  • Packard writes that, when judging whether or not a government regulation constrains free speech on public property, the Supreme Court adopts a forum analysis.  There are three types of forums, each requiring more or less protection.  A traditional public forum is one that has historically been a venues for free speech.  Picture John Adams holding forth on street corner in Colonial times, sidestepping horse manure, holding forth on the essence of liberty.  These traditional public forums have been given the most free speech protection.  People standing on street corners, assembling in front of town halls, or handing out pamphlets to passersby are generally not bothered by government.   Some forums are not traditionally public, but are forums designated for public use.  These forums, like a school auditorium open for a debate, can be regulated by the government.  However, this regulation cannot be discriminatory – a city government cannot hold a public forum and only allow Republicans to speak.  A third type of public property, nonpublic forums are integral to the maintenance of society, and government has the right to restrict speech there.  These would be bridges, polling places, and subway stations.  Packard writes that although the Internet has been given full First Amendment Protection, the Supreme Court has not recognized it as a public forum.

There are a few things about these basic foundations for free speech that are troubling to me, and lead me to believe that we as a society should consider supporting nonprofit forms of social media.  Let me explain….


We have strong protections of free speech in the US.  This is a good thing...even for Klan members who go on Jerry Springer.

We have strong protections of free speech in the US. This is a good thing…even for Klan members who go on Jerry Springer.


Do You Use a Public Computer Center? Do You Know Where One Is?

I went into my neighborhood library a few days ago.  It was an interesting experience.  Everywhere was a sense of “new oldness” (alternatively “old newness”) that one comes to expect in a library: materials well organized, furniture polished, carpets clean – but everything a few years out of date.  That is what gives the library its charm.

I could immediately see the usefulness of the place.  It is a physical gathering point for books, ideas, and people.  Libraries can be where a parent can impart the importance of learning onto a child, a place of study or reflection for the individual, where groups of kids can chat or play games (albeit quietly), a place where a writer can discuss her new book, or a community can gather to discuss a given public policy.  I think libraries are great.

An offshoot of the library is the public computer center.  This is a place where people, ideas, and computers can gather.  As I’ll explain, this is a bad idea.  Unfortunately, the federal government has spent 4 billion dollars building them all over the country.

Remember the “Stimulus Package”?

It wasn’t that long ago that the American economy was in free fall.  In an effort to keep from falling off a cliff,  Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This is more commonly known as the “stimulus package”.  A small portion of this package, 7.2 billion, was geared towards improving our digital environment.  4.7 billion was earmarked for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).  The BTOP is devoted to “support[ing] the deployment of broadband infrastructure, enhance and expand public computer centers, encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service, and develop and maintain a nationwide public map of broadband service capability and availability.”

The idea – one universally seen as a good one – was to connect as many people as possible to the fastest networks.  My focus here will be on the public computer centers, or PCCs.  In 2010, the federal government awarded 233 contracts to build PCCs across the country.


Pornography, Google’s Monopoly, and the Need for Civic Digital Literacy

On Monday, May 30th, Google stopped running ads for pornography, a move reported by several news organizations including the Guardian, CNET, and Slate.  According to the article in Slate, the move was partly the result of Google bowing to pressure from family values groups.  The Slate article references comments made on the Morality in Media website stating that they had a “productive meeting” with Google in May. Morality in Media publishes an annual Dirty Dozen list of businesses that facilitate the “the spread of pornography and exploitation”.  Google has consistently made the list.

Because Google is by far the dominant search engine, commanding a whopping 68% of the market according to Search Engine Watch, they will always be the target of interest groups that are not happy with this or that website.  People know that as Google goes, the web goes.  If Google does not acknowledge you, you do not exist.  This is a problem.

University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan’s much discussed book  The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) explores this very issue.  In the beginning pages, Vaidhyanathan points to the problem clearly when he writes:

“We may see Google as a savior, but it rules like Caesar. The mythology of the Web leads us to assume that it is a wild, ungovernable, and thus ungoverned realm. This could not be further from the truth. There was a power vacuum in the Web not so long ago, but we have invited Google to fill it. Overwhelmingly, we now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.”

Vaidhyanathan’s book explains much better than I can why Google’s dominance is troubling.  But in short, Google is a profit seeking company that must conform to business logic.  Decisions about whether or not to show pornographic ads are not based on morality (reason for removing the ads) or constitutional principles of free speech (maybe a reason for not removing them), but instead a cold, hard, capitalistic logic.  Calculations are made based on what will cost the most – losing ads from pornographers or getting a public black eye from morality groups.  After the calculation, then the decision.

There is nothing wrong this.  Google is a business.  They made their name and fortune by connecting us to places in the digital environment.

The trouble is not Google’s policy, but our reaction to it.



Soccer Success and Web Success: Are They Related?

The World Wide Web Foundation is an organization dedicated to, in their words, “seek[ing] to establish the open Web as a global public good and a basic right, ensuring that everyone can access and use it freely”.  One of the projects of the World Wide Web Foundation is the “Web Index“, a measure of how well countries have developed the Internet and used it for  human empowerment.

The Web Index comes from a survey of 86 questions.  These questions are then condensed into a single score. I like to think of it as a measure of the health of a country’s digital environment.  I’m currently  playing with the data from the 2012 survey.

Over the past few weeks I found myself caught up in the World Cup, and the American soccer team.  I watched almost every minute of the match between US and Belgium, rooting for the team generally and admiring the play of Tim Howard specifically.

I thought to myself:  “What if I compare Web Index ranks for the 61 countries measured in 2012, with the rankings calculated by FIFA?”

Putting the Web Index rankings and FIFA rankings into a scatterplot produces:

Table of Web Index by FIFA Score

It’s a nice visual.  As Web Index goes up so does a country’s FIFA ranking.  Spain is the highest ranked country by FIFA, with a score of 1485.  They also score relatively high on the web index with a score of 42.  The US is not bad, with a FIFA score of 13th, and their web index ranking is around 58.

For those statistically inclined, there is a correlation between these two measures of about 0.44 – which is considered moderate.


Reset the Net

On Thursday, June 5th, several organizations and millions of people will take part in a day of action to shut off the Internet from the NSA and other mass surveillance agencies.  The campaign is called “Reset the Net”.

This campaign is a bit different than others, where you show your interest by signing a pledge or making a tweet (although you can definitely do that).    But you can also show your support by doing something to protect yourself from government surveillance.  The campaign has made available free software tools that anyone can use, regardless of platform or operating system.

After you have made use of one or more of the tools available, then you can participate in a mass action by tweeting about the campaign yourself or participating in a thunderclap on that day.

Get more info about Reset The Net  and see a campaign video here.




The Silencing of the Commons

Over the weekend, Los Angeles Clippers owner and real estate Tycoon Donald Sterling was allegedly recorded making disparaging comments about Magic Johnson and black players. His comments were made during, as TMZ says, a “heated argument” with his girlfriend V. Stiviano (who has black and Mexican ancestry). The comments were in response to Stiviano posting a picture of her with Magic Johnson on Instagram.  The audio can be heard on TMZ’s website.

Some of his comments were:

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”


“bring him [Magic Johnson] here, feed him, fuck him, I don’t care. You can do anything. But don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games. OK?”

It is unfortunate that he has these views, but not a surprise. Sterling has exhibited problematic behavior before.  He confidentially settled a lawsuit in 2005 charging him with discriminating against black and Hispanic tenants.  That same year, Sterling, agreed to pay an undisclosed amount in a lawsuit that alleged Sterling tried to force non-Koreans out of apartments in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.  Furthermore, Former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor filed an age and race discrimination lawsuit alleging that Sterling wanted a team of “poor black boys from the South … playing for a white coach.”

But this is not a post  about race and racism, but about digital technology and its social consequences. From that perspective,  it leads me to sympathize with Donald Sterling.