Technology

Google’s casualties: Is there a corporate-state conspiracy to censor progressive websites?

Originally posted on August 14, 2017 on occupy.com

Back around December 2016, Google caught some flak because its search box Autocomplete function brought up disturbing terms like “Holocaust denial,” connected with untrustworthy websites, to the top query results list. In response, late in April 2017, Google announced it was changing its search algorithms to combat the dissemination of fake news and conspiracy theories.

“The most high profile of these [Internet issues] is the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’” Google claimed in a blog post, “where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information…We’re taking the next step toward continuing to surface more high-quality content from the web. This includes improvements in Search ranking, easier ways for people to provide direct feedback, and greater transparency about how Search works.”

But as it turns out, there may be other casualties in these seemingly noble, well-intentioned goals.

According to some reports, the upgrade to Google’s search algorithm has resulted in a significant reduction in traffic to various socialist, progressive and anti-war web sites. Democracy Now!, Common Dreams, Wikileaks, Truth-Out, Alternet, Counterpunch and The Intercept, among others, have registered a substantial decline in readership and traffic since the new Google search algorithm was established in the spring.

“The World Socialist Web Site has obtained statistical data from SEMrush estimating the decline of traffic generated by Google searches for 13 sites with substantial readerships,” reports wsws.org. The site goes on to claim these specific drops in readership since April:

In a separate post, the website claims that The Real News saw its search traffic drop by 37 percent, while the website of prominent digital rights leader Richard Stallman has seen a 24 percent decline.

But before we explore the censorship casualties from this new-found policy, we should first briefly look at how the algorithm actually works.

First and foremost, according to Google’s own blog, Google hires “raters” and “evaluators” as part of its screening process to determine what site links are valid enough to rise to the top of the results page. The company’s updated Search Quality Rater Guidelines detail how Google raters flag websites according to different criteria. The guidelines are surprisingly succinct: the document coaches raters on how to find main content, supplementary content, advertisements, website designers, contact information and sources. It also offers criteria of what it considers to be “highest quality” pages to “lowest quality” pages, with gradients of “high,” “medium” and “low” in between.

The guidelines encourage raters to search for examples of primarily two things: the established reputation of a site, and examples of what Google calls “EAT,” or Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. Websites are then ranked on the prevalence of these criteria.

At issue is the fact that many of the left-leaning websites may not meet the above criteria, and are therefore flagged as “low quality” or “lowest quality,” dooming them to a demotion on Google’s query results pages. Terms like “misleading” and “not authoritative” are often listed as the reasons for designating certain websites with a low quality score. Many of the aforementioned progressive websites have won few if any awards, rely on advertisement for support, and may or may not quote so-called “experts” in all of their articles – leading to their “low quality” descriptions by Google.

Additionally, the Google search box now allows users to report inaccurate and potentially offensive Autocomplete lines or snippets. While the idea might sound great – everyday people can report terms, ideas and phrases deemed offensive in today’s cultural zeitgeist – there is no limit to how much one individual can report. Consequently, people driven by political or other motives can, and often do, flag certain websites or ideas as “offensive,” further driving down their credibility. For example, I can type in “socialism,” “new world order,” or “care bears,” and flag all those terms as offensive, therefore skewing the algorithmic data.

Surely the vast majority of us agree that Holocaust denial is a repugnant theory whose time has come to be extinguished. But is it a technology company’s responsibility to expunge that idea from our supposed free marketplace of ideas? More importantly, if a behemoth like Google can determine that Holocaust denial should be flushed from the first page of query results, can they also condemn other, less threatening ideas to the same fate?

The recent report by World Socialist Web Site raises a critical question that has yet to be answered: Are these socialist, progressive and anti-war websites being demoted simply because they are operating as low-budget enterprises, or is this trend part of a greater corporate-state conspiracy to attack freedom of expression and ideas? More discussion and investigation is needed on this matter, but the bottom line is this: I’d rather not leave it to Google to filter out my research on the topic based on what its algorithm deems “accredited,” “trustworthy,” or “authoritative.”

We as a society have firmly determined that Holocaust denial is an error of opinion based on its irrational, unsubstantiated and, quite frankly, offensive position. Citizens should bear the responsibility, and the power, to weed out these and other harmful ideas from our search engine lexicon. It shouldn’t be up to one of the planet’s most powerful corporations to determine what is safe for us to read and be exposed to. We do not need “raters” working for Google sifting through websites that could potentially mislead us – just as we did not need Google algorithms or raters to tell us that Holocaust denial is a bunk theory.

As John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes all insinuated in their allusion to the “marketplace of ideas”: error of opinion can be tolerated if reason is left to combat it.

In Fight for Internet Freedom, Community Broadband is Comcast’s Achilles’ Heel

Originally published on January 16, 2018 on occupy.com

Last month, Federal Communications Commission Chair and ex-Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai callously repealed the tenets of net neutrality. Despite the high volume of calls into Congress, widespread protests at Verizon locations and a months-long mobilization by the online coalition known as Team Internet, the FCC went ahead and jeopardized the internet as we know it.

Scores of groups and organizations are already working hard to convince Congress to reverse the FCC’s decision. But an altogether different approach is also underway: Pushing local communities to form their own municipal broadband utility in order to get around the Big Telecom stranglehold.

In communities with a municipal broadband utility, the local government provides, or partially provides, broadband internet access to all citizens. In these towns and cities, internet is treated as a public utility – one that is city-owned and city-operated, much like electricity, water and garbage pick-up.

Cities have been working toward the community broadband goal for some time. According to Community Networks, a project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, more than 95 U.S. communities already have a publicly-owned Fiber to the Home (FTTH) network reaching most of the community. Some 110 communities in 24 states have a publicly-owned network offering at least 1 Gigabit of services, and 77 communities have a publicly-owned cable network that reaches most of the community.

Still, as the shift to community-owned broadband internet gathers steam, a few disadvantages remain – like its prohibitive cost. The city of Fort Collins, Colo., had to come up with $150 million in bond money to amend the city charter and allocate funds for its broadband construction project. The price of broadband implementation in Seattle, Wa., is somewhere between $480 to $665 million, according to a city-commissioned study.

However, municipalities have gotten creative in their quest to fund these projects. The majority of cities use revenue bonds, but other cities have also turned to bank financing, interdepartmental loans, grants, an increase in taxes, and capital reserve savings.

Big Telecom and other private companies often claim that municipal broadband will lead to government surveillance of website usage through regulatory policy. In response to such concerns, Seattle launched a “digital privacy initiative” that defines exactly what information is shared with government, and how. Furthermore, while private ISPs love to chastise the government for overreach of power, they forget to mention that they openly share customer information with advertisers, governments and law enforcement without warrants or permission from users.

On the other hand, when a community provides broadband internet access, elected officials can be held accountable for misuse, unlike corporate behemoths like Comcast and Verizon.

Now, more and more individuals and communities are starting to ask the question: Is municipal broadband internet better than our current options? Looking again at Seattle as an example, there are currently three ISPs operating in that city. Comcast offers 150 Mbps (Megabits per second) download service, Centurylink started rolling out FTTP gigabit services in two neighborhoods serving 22,000 customers at a cost of $150 a month, and Wave is piloting FTTP service to 600 customers.

Meanwhile, a feasibility study recently concluded that a city-owned public internet service could provide 1 Gbps (Gigabit per second) to every neighborhood in Seattle for a monthly charge of $45 per household. One might consider the economic argument, not to mention the privacy one, settled.

Already there are several problems with the private industry approach. First, individuals are paying a substantially higher amount for vastly degraded service (150 Mbps compared to 1 Gbps). Second, there is not uniform access based on equity; the current ISPs are offering fast service to only a select group of customers. Lastly, if a resident is lucky enough to be offered fast service, s/he must pay the hefty price tag of around $150 a month, triple the broadband cost.

Private ISP companies understand the repercussions of community-owned internet for their businesses. As such, they have gone to great lengths to combat these progressive initiatives. For example, as Fort Collins prepared to vote on its ballot measure to allocate money for community-owned broadband service, the telecom industry spent over $900,000 in a failing effort to defeat the measure.

However, citizens face an additional hurdle for creating widespread city-owned or community-owned internet service: It remains against the law in many states. Currently, 21 states have laws making it difficult or illegal to create community broadband networks. Therefore, repealing this anti-broadband legislation is a giant first step that residents in those states could take.

Citizens will also need to take action in the courts. “Nearly 20 state attorneys generals [sic] have announced they will sue the FCC over their decisions to repeal Title II net neutrality rules and to prevent state’s from taking action to protect net neutrality. Free Press and other nonprofit organizations will also sue,” warned the website Popular Resistance.

Community-owned broadband is a great alternative to the impositions of private companies and their mono- or duopolistic price gouging. In addition to providing a service outside of the hands of profiteering private industry, communities that welcome broadband are taking steps to become more autonomous and self-reliant. It’s little surprise that more residents are now acting to move their cities’ internet service in this direction – creating a web that is more dependable, affordable and equitable.

CISPA 2.0: Say Goodbye to our Constitutional Rights

Originally published on February, 28 2013 on occupy.com

Reprinted on Truthout

The unrelenting attack on our civil liberties and our privacy continues. Last year we managed to survive an onslaught of legislation that would have destroyed entrepreneurship and free enterprise on the Internet, and our ability to define how we share music, art and information in general.

First there was the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, or SOPA and PIPA, respectively: two pieces of legislation geared at protecting the copyrights of monopolistic media companies and taking drastic measures to enforce them, like shutting down websites that allow the sharing of this copyrighted material for free. The New Zealand police raid of the house of Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload, and the site’s subsequent shutdown by the FBI provided a glimpse of what lies ahead if laws like these are passed.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, took measures a step further by allowing governments to monitor the Internet to enforce copyright law and supposed intellectual property rights. Tens of thousands of Europeans mobilized in response, telling businesses and politicians that companies could not intrude on fundamental human rights, or morph and twist the law to enforce their hand-picked business model.

But despite resounding political opposition in the U.S. and worldwide to Internet censorship and infringements on freedom of speech and privacy, our callous and out-of-touch politicians managed to craft an even scarier piece of legislation: CISPA.

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act passed in April of 2012 in the House by a vote of 248 to 168, but stalled in the Senate because of a disagreement over privacy concerns. At the time, the White House threatened to veto the law because Obama’s advisers raised additional privacy concerns, chief among them Howard Schmidt, who resigned suddenly last May after the bill’s introduction. Schmidt also helped author statements against SOPA and PIPA.

But lo and behold, the two principal authors of the CISPA bill, Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Mich.) and Sen. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Calif.), re-introduced the same exact bill several weeks ago on February 12 – presumably in response to recent so-called cyber-attacks from China and security breaches by the hacktivist group Anonymous, whose non-violent actions are a direct response to government’s malfeasance and abuse of online authority.

The provisions stipulated in the CISPA legislation are intimidating and far-reaching. Although CISPA does not require private companies to share information with the government, it opens the floodgates for an unprecedented and endless funneling of private communication information to federal military intelligence agencies such as the NSA and the FBI. The only justification for a company to share information with the government is broadly and vaguely defined by a single term: “cybersecurity.”

Additionally, CISPA would override current privacy law such as the Wiretap Act and the Stored Communications Act; in fact, it grants companies complete immunity from judicial oversight and prosecution for the violation of privacy. Under CISPA, information provided to the government would be exempt from FOIA requests.

Furthermore, CISPA does not require companies to notify the individuals from whom they’re collecting data or information – which makes its section about the ability to form a lawsuit against the government little more than a formality.

“If [this bill is] passed,” claims Namecheap, a domain service opposing CISPA, “the U.S. government gains the power to ask your ISP about any/all of your online activities and personal information. Advocated under the premise of anti-terrorism legislation, this legislation is so broad that it threatens to endanger the privacy of every individual and ordinary and law abiding citizens.

“This act makes your private online activity now public, giving ISPs the right to share your personal information completely without your knowledge, due process, or authorization.”

The same day that CISPA was reintroduced, President Obama signed an executive order that deals specifically with information sharing by the owners and operators of CI, or critical infrastructure, such as the banking, communication, transportation and utility industries.

It would not require the passing along of our private information to the government. Additionally, the executive order focuses on the government’s sharing of information that it can already legally collect with the CI companies – instead of its rights to gather new information from private ISPs, as stipulated in CISPA.

Part of the reason SOPA and PIPA were booted from Congress was the overwhelming citizen mobilization against it, but also because companies like Google, Firefox, Tumblr, Twitter, Wikipedia and other giant Internet businesses realized the legislation would devastate their enterprises.

Unfortunately, this time around, we won’t have these companies fighting on our side because CISPA grants them immunity from lawsuits and has provided them with enough assurance that it will not affect their business in any significant way.

The drafting and introduction of SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and CISPA are all examples of our elected leaders’ growing disregard for citizens’ fundamental privacy rights, Constitutional rights and free speech rights as manifested in the digital world. Essentially, this legislation provides the formality our government needs to legitimize and legalize what it is either currently doing or what it wants to do. Just look at the NSA, which is already performing extensive and unprecedented data-mining on U.S. citizens in flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment – but using only vague legislation to justify it.

Passing CISPA will be a significant step in America’s already far-progressed trudge towards a police state — and will, more specifically, encourage already-compliant businesses to provide our personal information to our government as if those two enshrined words did not exist: Constitutional rights.