Obama’s Change.gov promise to protect whistleblowers? Scrubbed from the Web

Well, this pissed me off. Long-time readers of this site may recall my interest in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which aims to preserve the historical web. I’ve previously written to criticize the Bush administration for its lengthy robots.txt exclusion file (thousands of lines long), which could be viewed as an attempt to prevent the Wayback Machine and others from archiving portions of his White House website. I also wrote to compliment the new Obama White House website for its much shorter, and much more archive-friendly robots file.

But now the Obama administration is scrubbing the web, too. John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation reports that materials from Obama’s old transition website at Change.gov have recently been deleted. Although the main page has referred users for a while to the Whitehouse.gov site, internal pages regarding his agenda were still online, and “until recently, you could still continue on to see the materials and agenda laid out by the administration.”

So why the change? Wonderlich speculates — and I think 100% correctly — that the internal Change.gov pages were removed due to broken and now inconvenient promises made in the transition team’s “Obama-Biden Plan” to protect whistleblowers. Considering the administration’s consistent actions in aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and others, the administration likely decided to scrub inconvenient promises it made during the transition period.

But in an era of permanent digital records (hello, NSA and its yottabytes of storage in Utah!), how can the Obama administration be so naïve as to think that somebody wouldn’t: 1) notice the missing pages; 2) find the old site; and 3) point it out? As a prosecutor might say, destroying evidence may be proof of a guilty conscience. The administration’s naïveté is positively striking, considering that Obama’s people are widely touted as being extremely tech-savvy.

See for yourself. In an Internet Archive capture of the Change.gov site from June 7, 2013 (barely a month ago), a page on ethics (!) in the Obama-Biden Plan promised to protect whistleblowers:

Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.

Here’s a screen cap. According to the Wayback Machine, this was still online as recently as June 7:

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Post-Snowden, this is what you see today:

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The difference? No doubt it’s the Snowden affair, which broke in early June. A Google search of Change.gov for “whistleblowers” conducted today (screen cap here) shows no hits, so the page apparently has not been moved to another URL on the site. It simply seems to be gone.

Even more disturbingly, this may reflect a broader trend of digital scrubbing. Wonderlich notes that this is not the first time that Obama administration documents have disappeared from the internet. An earlier posting of his includes a letter the Sunlight Foundation and others sent to the Department of Labor criticizing the administration for removing materials. As the letter states, “No major administration decision should be accompanied by related materials disappearance from public view.”

HT Animal. Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

Verizon and the NSA – a response to five non-arguments justifying surveillance

Today my tweeting was heavily focused on the revelation that Verizon gave up a significant amount of information to the NSA. Among the many interesting pieces I read was an attempt by Slate’s Will Saletan to justify the surveillance. In a nutshell, Saletan argues:

  1. It isn’t wiretapping.
  2. It’s judicially supervised.
  3. It’s congressionally supervised.
  4. It expires quickly unless it’s reauthorized.
  5. Wiretaps would require further court orders.

See his article for further details. But in brief, his arguments seem to rest on the bases that the surveillance could be worse (true but not a justification), and that there are lots of nifty procedures to provide oversight (doubtful that they work). Below are the responses that I posted on Slate to Mr. Saletan’s arguments (slightly edited), providing my own translations for what I think the arguments really amount to:

  1. “It isn’t wiretapping.” Translated: it could be worse, so suck it up. Not a real strong starting point.
  2. “It’s judicially supervised.” Translated: the FISA court “supervises” the surveillance, which means that it probably usually rubber-stamps what the executive branch wants. But since it’s a secret court, we have no idea what’s going on.
  3. “It’s congressionally supervised.” Translation: Congress also “supervises” the surveillance, which means it also likely rubber-stamps what the executive branch wants.
  4. “It expires quickly unless it’s reauthorized.” Translation: the surveillance is likely reauthorized continually, making the authorization process a joke. And since we don’t know what’s going on, we’re not in on the joke. We are the joke.
  5. “Wiretaps would require further court orders.” Translation: it’s “only” metadata, which ignores the fact that metadata—when aggregated with other user metadata and external sources of data—is extremely revealing of private information. The argument that “[w]iretaps would require further court orders” also goes full-circle back to point #1 that it could be worse, which again is not real persuasive.

Saying that something could be worse is hardly an argument. We don’t justify burglary by saying that arson is worse. And “oversight” is meaningless when it is a rubber-stamp that is unseen by the public. Indeed, meaningless procedures provide nothing more a veil of lawfulness to otherwise outrageous conduct. As Congressperson John Dingell once famously said about procedure, “I’ll let you write the substance … you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.”

Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

Julian Assange: “The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’”

As I sit here working on a forthcoming article—Super-Intermediaries, Code, Human Rights—about powerful internet intermediaries and human rights, I was intrigued to come across Julian Assange’s op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times entitled The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’.

Assange, the reclusive founder of WikiLeaks, has harsh words for Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, authors of the new book The New Digital Age. Schmidt, of course, is executive chairperson of Google, and Cohen is an author, a former advisor to Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton, and currently Director of Google Ideas.

Assange, pointing to this writing partnership as further evidence of the increased intertwining of governments and powerful internet companies, states in his characteristic polemic:

“THE New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century. This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley, as personified by Mr. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Mr. Cohen, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton who is now director of Google Ideas.

Assange continues, attacking Google’s view of its own role in society:

“The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?” It is not surprising that a respectable cast of the world’s most famous warmongers has been trotted out to give its stamp of approval to this enticement to Western soft power. The acknowledgments give pride of place to Henry Kissinger, who along with Tony Blair and the former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden provided advance praise for the book.

Although Assange’s rhetoric is perhaps overheated, the concerns he raises are without a doubt real. Similar concerns are echoed by authors such as Rebecca MacKinnon in her excellent and accessible book Consent of the Networked. I agree with MacKinnon that one of the most important issues we face today is the emergence of extremely powerful corporate intermediaries and their ever-increasing power. As MacKinnon notes in her book (page xxiii), in the first half of the 20th century, corporations were confronted with employee safety and health concerns, and in the second, with the environmental movement. But today, “most Internet and telecommunications companies have failed to accept responsibility—beyond cyberutopian platitudes—for the rights of their customers and users.”

Similarly, my forthcoming article Super-Intermediaries, Code, Human Rights addresses the nature of “Super-Intermediaries” such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and assesses the role that international human rights law might provide in guiding powerful non-State internet actors. My core thesis is that powerful internet intermediaries have exceptional power, and as such, bear especial responsibilities to the public. (Or as Peter Parker’s uncle famously said, “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!”)

But responsibility to do what? Do good? Not do evil? These ideas of power, responsibility, and evil bring me back full-circle to Assange and his op-ed. His article’s title, The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’, mocks Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t Be Evil.” But ironically, as I point out in my draft article (not yet online), Google honcho Eric Schmidt, when asked what “Don’t Be Evil” meant, once replied: “Evil . . . is what [Google co-founder Sergey Brin] says is evil.”

Wow! This is a circular and empty definition: evil is what Google says it is. Such a definition is at the least extremely unsatisfying and at the worst baldly Orwellian.

But I honestly think that Google does not view itself as Orwellian. And in fairness, I know that many people in the company sincerely want to do good for the world. But accountability, transparency, and multi-stakeholder participation are crucial. Organizations like the Global Network Initiative (an organization that looks to some, but not all human-rights principles and includes some, but not all of today’s Super-Intermediaries) provide a good start. Also important are transparency reports such as those now provided by Google, Twitter, and Microsoft. So there are some promising developments. But more needs to be done to ensure that powerful Super-Intermediaries do good and are held accountable.

More thoughts to follow in the weeks ahead as I wrap up the article, which is forthcoming in the Intercultural Human Rights Law Review. I suspect that this article will be only the first of a number of papers on such matters.

Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

Social networking word-of-the-day: “thinvisibility”

A new word for Facebookers and social networkers who cavalierly post embarrassing information about themselves to the web: thinvisibility:  Here’s a starting definition:

Thinvisibility: n.

  1. Being neither completely visible nor completely invisible.
  2. Being a tiny, shiny needle in a haystack of information overload.
  3. Being invisible to everyone except data aggregators and digital preservationists such as Google, the Wayback Machine, the NSA, and others.
  4. Being invisible to employers, colleges, police, neighbors, friends, exes, stalkers, acquaintances, and others, who are not interested in you, until they are.
  5. Being visible.