Google has apparently pulled the plug on its censored search engine for China

Google bowed to pressure by terminating its data analysis system that is vital to its planned re-entry into China with a censored search engine.

Dragonfly, the Google project to develop a search engine that would satisfy China’s censorship requirements relies on pre-empting the appearance of search results that the Chinese authorities may find offensive. To do so, Google has used 265.com, a Chinese internet portal based in Beijing it purchased in 2008, two years before it pulled out of China, to gather user behaviour data, mainly search habits. The Google team then compare what the users would see if the same search terms were used on the uncensored Google and eliminate those sites that are blocked by China’s Great Firewall. The data is then fed into the prototype Dragonfly search engine to produce results that would be acceptable to the Chinese censorship system.

According to a new report from the website The Intercept, Google has decided to shut down this data analysis system it has established with Baidu, which the search on 265.com is directed to, to harvest data. Instead the engineering team is using search queries by Chinese speaking users in other markets like the US or south-eastern Asian countries, which would be very different from what the users behind the Great Firewall would be generating and therefore defeating the very purpose of a censored search engine. Though this decision may not have explicitly spelt the death penalty for Dragonfly, it is a very close one.

A couple of factors must have played important parts in the decision-making process. Employee revolt is the first one. When Dragonfly was first exposed, an increasing number of employees have signed an internal petition to stop the project, reminiscing the company’s “Don’t Be Evil” manifesto. The very idea that Google would ponder creating a censored version for China may be a shock to most employees, but not unimaginable considering the different leaderships. Sergey Brin, who was at the helm of Google when the company shut down its China operation in 2010 as a protest, spent his childhood in the former Soviet Union, therefore had first-hand understanding of what censorship is about. Sundar Pichai, on the other hand, lacks similar sense and sensibility, having grown up in India, the largest democracy in the world.

Another source of internal pressure has come from the Privacy and Security teams. It has been reported by different media outlets that Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of China operation and the main architect behind Dragonfly, has deliberately kept the privacy and security teams in the dark as long as possible. For a company of Google’s nature, which lives on users’ trust in its willingness and capabilities to guard the security of their data, protests from these internal teams must have had the management ears. On the other hand, the fact that executives like Beaumont could carry on his secret project as long as it has must be a surprise to outside observers.

The strongest external pressure has come from the Congress. Pichai was grilled by the American law-makers last week when he was challenged by the Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I). “It’s hard to imagine you could operate in the Chinese market under the current government framework and maintain a commitment to universal values, such as freedom of expression and personal privacy.” Pichai conceded that there was “no plans to launch a search service in China,” though he had declined to provide a positive confirmation to the Congress’ demand that Google should not launch “a tool for surveillance and censorship in China”.

With the latest decision to terminate data harvesting from 265.com, it seems Dragonfly or similar projects are put into a long hibernation.

The Silicon Valley inquisition gathers pace

A number of independent online commentators have been blacklisted by technology giants for seemingly arbitrary reasons.

The past few weeks have seen another round of purging of content creators who rely on the internet for a living. The reasons for doing so are varied but usually default to some kind of transgression of their terms and conditions of use. However these Ts and Cs tend to be vaguely worded and appear to be selectively enforced, leading to fears that these decisions have been driven as much by subjective ideology as exceptional misbehaviour on the part of creators.

If there is an ideological bias it would appear to be against those commentators that are advocates of freedom of speech and unfettered dialogue. On the other side of the fence you have those who are concerned with concepts such as ‘hate speech’, which seek to ensure nothing that is deemed ‘offensive’ should be tolerated in the public domain.

Those latter terms are ill-defined and thus subject to a wide range of interpretation, which means rules that rely on them will, by definition, be subjectively enforced. In spite of that there is growing evidence that Silicon Valley companies are unanimous in their assessments of who should and shouldn’t be banned from all of their public platforms.

We have previously written about the coordinated banning of InfoWars from pretty much all internet publication channels and a subsequent purge of ‘inauthentic activity’ from social media. Now we can add commentator Gavin McInnes to the list of people apparently banned from all public internet platforms and, most worryingly of all, the removal of popular YouTuber Sargon of Akkad from micro-funding platform Patreon.

The internet, social media and especially YouTube have revolutionised the way in which regular punters get access to information, commentary and discussion. Free from the constraints imposed on broadcast TV, YouTubers have heralded a new era of on-demand, unfettered, user-generated content that has rapidly superseded TV as the viewing platform of choice.

Their primary source of income has traditionally been the core internet model: monetizing traffic via serving ads. But YouTube has been removing ads from any videos that have even the slightest chance of upsetting any of its advertisers for some time, forcing creators to call for direct funding from their audience to compensate.

The best-known micro-funding service is Patreon, which is where many YouTubers send their audience if they want to pay for their content. Any decision by Patreon to ban its users can therefore have massive implications for the career and income of the recipient of the ban. Sargon is thought to have had revenues from Patreon alone in excess of £100,000 per year, a revenue stream that has been unilaterally cut off without even a warning, it seems.

Every time an internet company moves against a popular internet figure there is inevitably outcry on both sides of the matter. Prominent advocates of free speech such as Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin have tweeted their support for Sargon, while many media are actively celebrating the punishing or outright removal from the internet of people they don’t like.

The age-old debate concerning the optimal balance between safety and freedom is being won by those biased in favour of the former on the internet. The leaders of those companies are in a difficult position regarding censorship of their platforms but they seem to be basing their decisions on fear of the internet mob rather than rational, objective enforcement of universal rules. This isn’t a new phenomenon but it seems to be rapidly getting worse.

To finish here’s YouTuber and independent journalist Tim Pool giving his perspective while he still can.

 

Googlers start hitting back at censored search engine

Google employees around the world are starting to remember what the ‘Don’t be Evil’ motto actually means, and the controversial Project Dragonfly is next on the radar.

During the summer, leaked plans suggested Google was developing a news-aggregation app for use in China which will comply to the governments strict censorship rules. The leak turned out to be true and Google became the latest internet giant to sacrifice principles in pursuit of the bonanza of cash hidden behind the Great Firewall of China.

However, a team of Googlers are not going to sit back and watch the admired brand be dragged down.

“We are Google employees and we join Amnesty International in calling on Google to cancel project Dragonfly, Google’s effort to create a censored search engine for the Chinese market that enables state surveillance,” a small group of Google employees wrote on Medium.

“We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months. International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project. So far, our leadership’s response has been unsatisfactory.”

The original letter was signed by 11 employees, though the list is being updated as and when more join via an internal petition. And just to be clear, this is not a direct criticism of China and its abuse of basic freedoms, but in Google aiding the state with its advanced technologies.

According to the letter, surveillance and the suppression of an individual’s right to freedom is increasingly being done through the implementation of next-generation technologies. We’ve heard numerous stories come out of China regarding facial recognition, and this is where the Googlers seemingly want to draw the line. This isn’t about directly stopping an oppressive country, but preventing one of the US’ most powerful companies, one which is supposed to have democratic values, aiding the government in its nefarious mission.

This is of course not the first time the Googlers have been active on humanitarian grounds. Two of the original 11 signatories were organizers of the recent walk out, and employee outrage eventually led to the end of the controversial Project Maven, an initiative which saw Google’s technology aid the US government to increase the accuracy of drone strikes. This project was one which certainly had repercussions, as it is rumoured CEO Sundar Pichai and former cloud boss Dianne Greene disagreed on whether to bow to employees. It supposedly created a rift between the two which was never fixed.

Just like Google employees do not want to oil the gears of war and death, they do not want to help create Big Brother states.

“The Chinese government certainly isn’t alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent,” the letter states. “Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.”

China is a conundrum for many of the internet giants. It presents a huge opportunity for growth, with an untapped, digitally-savvy population, though the table stakes are considerable. For any company to operate in the country, it would have to adhere to strict rules, some of which would make level-headed and reasonable people cringe. Google is not alone in bowing to the Chinese government, LinkedIn folded and Uber made concessions.

Google has always sold itself as a friendly, approachable brand, which has been built for the people. This purpose might have been forgotten as the ‘Don’t be Evil’ motto was dropped, but there are at least some Googlers who are holding the management team accountable.

Facebook and Twitter coordinate once more over censorship

Facebook recently removed hundreds of accounts for ‘inauthentic’ behaviour and many of those affected have also seen their Twitter accounts suspended.

In a press release entitled ‘Removing Additional Inauthentic Activity from Facebook’, Facebook explained that its doesn’t like inauthentic behaviour, by which it means accounts that seek to mislead people about their real identities and/or objectives. While there is some concern that this could be driven by the desire to influence politics, Facebook reckons it’s mostly ‘clickbait’, designed to drive and then monetise internet traffic.

“And like the politically motivated activity we’ve seen, the ‘news’ stories or opinions these accounts and pages share are often indistinguishable from legitimate political debate,” said the release. “This is why it’s so important we look at these actors’ behaviour – such as whether they’re using fake accounts or repeatedly posting spam – rather than their content when deciding which of these accounts, pages or groups to remove.”

So Facebook is not saying it’s the arbiter of ‘authentic’ speech, which is very wise as that would put it in a highly compromised position. Instead it’s taking action against people posting political content via supposedly fake accounts or who are seen to generate spam. It seems to be hoping this will allow it to remove certain accounts that focus on political content without being accused of political meddling or bias.

All this context and preamble was offered to set up the big reveal, which is that Facebook has removed 559 Pages and 251 accounts that have broken its rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behaviour. It looks like the timing of this renewed purge is influenced by the imminent US mid-term elections, with Facebook keen to avoid a repetition of claims made during the Cambridge Analytica scandal that it facilitated political meddling by allowing too much of this sort of thing to take place during the last US general election.

Of course Facebook is free to quality control its platform as much as it likes, but if it is seen to lack neutrality and objectivity in so doing, it runs the risk of alienating those of its users that feel discriminated against. In this case the loudest dissent seems to be coming from independent media, some of which feel they have been mistakenly identified as clickbaiters.

The Washington Post spoke to ‘Reasonable People Unite’, which was shut down by Facebook, but which claims to be legitimate (let alone authentic). Meanwhile Reason.com reckons libertarian publishers were targeted and spoke to the founder of The Free Thought Project, who also found himself banned in spite of claimed legitimacy.

Matt Agorist, who writes for The Free Thought Project, tweeted the following, and his subsequent piece indicated that his employer had also been removed from Twitter. This seems to be another manifestation (Alex Jones having been the most high-profile previous case) of coordinated activity between the two sites that, together with YouTube, dominate public debate in the US. A number of other publishers removed by Facebook seem now to have been suspended by Twitter.

Other independent journalists have joined the outcry, including Caitlin Johnstone and Tim Pool in the video below. The latter makes the point that many of those purged seem to be left-leaning, which at least balances the previous impression that right-leaning commentators were being disproportionately targeted, and that many of the accounts taken down may well have been guilty as charged. But the inherent subjectivity involved in determining the relative legitimacy of small publishers is a problem that is only amplified by this latest move.

It seems unlikely that the primary objective of these social media giants is to impose their world view via the censorship of content they disagree with, but this kind of coordinated banning does feel like unilateral speech policing and that should be of concern, regardless of your political position. Twitter doesn’t even seem to have made any public statements on the matter. Meanwhile the range of views considered ‘authentic’ by these private companies seems to be narrowing by the day.

 

Europe gets tech and ad giants to play ball on ‘online disinformation’

The European Commission’s drive to control what takes place online took one more step forward with the unveiling of a code of practice on online disinformation.

This code has apparently been signed up to by unnamed internet and advertising giants, but in its current form it appears to be nothing more than a set of vague aspirations designed to placate the EC for now. However it will probably be used as the thin end of the wedge to extract further concessions down the line.

It is an important step in tackling a problem which has become increasingly pervasive and threatens Europeans’ trust in democratic processes and institutions,” said Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel. “This is the first time that the industry has agreed on a set of self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation worldwide, on a voluntary basis.

“The industry is committing to a wide range of actions, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and demonetisation of purveyors of disinformation, and we welcome this. These actions should contribute to a fast and measurable reduction of online disinformation. To this end, the Commission will pay particular attention to its effective implementation.”

Voluntary. That’s a good one. You can find out more about this voluntary code on this European Commission site. Disinformation is defined as ‘verifiably false or misleading information’. One good example of this could be describing something as ‘voluntary’ when in fact it was subject to duress. The EC and signatories will presumably argue the toss over what qualifies as ‘misleading’ for a while before everyone moves on.

Twitter wants your help with censorship

Social network Twitter continues to agonise over how it should censor its users and thinks getting them involved in the process might help.

While all social media companies, and indeed any involved in the publication of user-generated content, are under great pressure to eradicate horridness from their platforms, Twitter probably has the greatest volume and proportion of it. Content and exchanges can get pretty heated on Facebook and YouTube, public conversation giant Twitter is where it seems to really kick off.

This puts Twitter in a tricky position: it wants people to use it as much as possible, but would ideally like them to only say nice, inoffensive things. Even the most rose-tinted view of human nature and interaction reveals this to be impossible, so Twitter must therefore decide where on the nice/horrid continuum to draw the line and start censoring.

To date this responsibility has been handled internally, with a degree of rubber-stamping from the Trust and Safety Council – a bunch of individuals and groups that claim to be expert on the matter of online horridness and what to do about it. But this hasn’t been enough to calm suspicions that Twitter, along with the other tech giants, allows its own socio-political views to influence the selective enforcement of its own rules.

So now Twitter has decided to invite everyone to offer feedback every time it decides to implement a new layer of censorship. Do date the term ‘hate’ has been a key factor in determining whether or not to censor and possibly ban a user. Twitter has attempted to define the term as any speech that attacks people according to race, gender, etc, but it has been widely accused of selectively enforcing that policy along exactly the same lines it claims to oppose, with members of some groups more likely to be punished than others.

Now Twitter wants to add the term ‘dehumanizing’ to its list of types of speech that aren’t allowed. “With this change, we want to expand our hateful conduct policy to include content that dehumanizes others based on their membership in an identifiable group, even when the material does not include a direct target,” explained Twitter in a blog post, adding that such language might make violence seem more acceptable.

Even leaving aside Twitter’s surrender to the Slippery Slope Fallacy, which is one of the main drivers behind the insidious spread of censorship into previously blameless areas of speech, this is arguably even more vague than ‘hate’. For example does it include nicknames? Or as the BBC asks, is dehumanizing language targeted at middle-aged white men just as hateful as that aimed at other identity groups?

Perhaps because it’s incapable of answering these crucial questions Twitter wants everyone to tell it what they think of its definitions. A from on that blog post will be open for a couple of weeks and Twitter promises to bear this public feedback in mind when it next updates its rules. What isn’t clear is how transparent Twitter will be about the feedback or how much weight it will carry. What seems more likely is that this is an attempt to abdicate responsibility for its own decisions and deflect criticism of subsequent waves of censorship.

 

Russian telcos push for OTT tax on new data storage laws

Russian telcos are lobbying the government to grant new powers which would allow them to tax non-domestic internet companies to ease the burden of new data storage laws.

According to Reuters, the telcos are proposing new legislation to ease the financial burden of the new laws designed to give the state more oversight on communications within the country. As part of the new rules, telcos would be forced to store customer data in the country (calls, texts, internet search history etc.) for six months. The data storage rules come into force in October.

Ahead of the October launch date, the telcos have warned the imposition would result in larger costs. To protect the pockets of shareholders and executives alike, the telcos have suggested these incurred costs for data storage would be passed onto the consumer with tariffs potentially rising as much as 10%. Should the government look favourably on the proposed bill, telcos could seek compensation for the costs from non-domestic internet companies such as Facebook and Google.

Of course it seems perfectly reasonable for telcos to want to spread the burden of the digital economy throughout the ecosystem, it has largely bore the brunt of the financial expense while others profits at the top of the value chain for years, but this is a different matter. Facilitating government ambitions to more surgically monitor citizens and potentially eradicate the concept of privacy might not sit easily with the internet giants.

That said, bowing to government ambitions despite a conflict with apparent principles of the organization is a story which has been hitting the headlines recently. In an effort to penetrate the Great Firewall of China, Google has been creating a censorship-friendly version of its news app which could filter out stories which do not please the government. Google is not alone here as LinkedIn accepted these censorship rules years ago.

Other technology companies might not be as flexible as Google or LinkedIn. Those who maintain principles and refuse to fund the governments ambitions to rid Russia of independent thought will potentially face regulator Roskomnadzor reducing the speed of access to their websites for Russian users.

This is nothing but a proposal for the moment, though should it progress, the internet companies will face another principles versus profits dilemma.

UK opposition leader want to tax US tech giants and ISPs to pay for better journalism

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK Labour party, has proposed a special tax on US tech giants and UK ISPs in order to fund public interest journalism.

The context in which he made the announcement at the Edinburgh TV Festival was a juxtaposition in the decline of the journalism industry with the rise of social media. Traditional media has lost a lot of revenue to Google and Facebook especially and there is growing suspicion of so much media power being held by so few companies.

Social media is coming under increased pressure to censor the material published on its platforms, but there is growing concern that such censorship may result in certain viewpoints effectively being outlawed on the sphere of public debate over the internet. Corbyn has previously indicated he would like to have more control over the media but struck a more conciliatory tone towards journalism in this speech, having apparently concluded big tech is the real bad guy..

“One solution to funding public interest media could be by tapping up the digital monopolies that profit from every search, share and like we make,” he said in a speech entitled ‘We can fix our failing media by setting journalists and citizens free to hold power to account’. “Google and news publishers in France and Belgium were able to agree a settlement. If we can’t do something similar here, but on a more ambitious scale, we’ll need to look at the option of a windfall tax on the digital monopolies to create a public interest media fund.”

It’s easy to view a lot of this, coming from a card-carrying socialist, as a thinly disguised tax grab, but there does seem to be evidence of deeper thought too. It comes as a pleasant surprise to see Corbyn call for less government influence over the media, especially since his party has consistently called for just the opposite.

“Currently, ministers can veto FOI releases,” said Corbyn. “On two occasions, this veto has been used to block information about the UK’s decision to pursue military action against Iraq. That can’t be right. We will look at ending the ministerial veto to prevent the Information Commissioner being overruled.

“The best journalism takes on the powerful, in the corporate world as well as government, and helps create an informed public. This work costs money. We value it but somehow that doesn’t translate into proper funding and legal support. So, we should look at granting charitable status for some local, investigative and public interest journalism.

“If we want an independent BBC, we should consider setting it free by placing it on a permanent statutory footing, with a new independent body setting the licence fee. The licence fee itself is another potential area for modernisation. In the digital age, we should consider whether a digital licence fee could be a fairer and more effective way to fund the BBC.

“A digital licence fee, supplementing the existing licence fee, collected from tech giants and Internet Service Providers, who extract huge wealth from our shared digital space, could allow a democratized and more plural BBC to compete far more effectively with the private multinational digital giants like Netflix, Amazon, Google and Facebook.”

On reflection this speech seems to be both a cynical tax grab and a thoughtful look at the rapidly evolving public information environment at the same time. Something is definitely broken in the media industry, thanks mainly to the apparent market expectation that quality journalism should be free. Whether or not scapegoating and taxing a few big tech companies is any kind of solution to this problem, however, remains highly debatable.