My review of Dave Eggers’ “The Circle”

My review of Dave Eggers’ The Circle has just been posted up on the Arc blog:

In what has swiftly become a time-worn tradition, Dave Eggers’ techno-capitalist dystopia The Circle opens with a tour of the campus. And the campus of the Circle, Eggers’ post-Google/Facebook/Twitter hybrid, makes the last time we looked round the real-life Googleplex, watching Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in The Internship, feel like a tour of the offices of a public utility firm.

Which is, coincidentally, where Mae Holland, the novel’s protagonist, has just arrived from: she has been languishing amid burlap and her boss’s halitosis since graduating from $250,000-worth of liberal arts education…

Arc  is the magazine of science fiction and the felt future edited by Simon Ings and published quarterly by the New Scientist. Issue 2.1 “Exit Strategies”, which includes contributions from CERN physicist Michael Doser and M. John Harrison, and stories by Jeff Noon, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Tad Williams, is out now.

Governance By Algorithm: Big Data, The NSA and A Sinister Future

I was approached by The Quietus to write one of their Wreath Lectures this year. The result is this piece on our as yet fragmentary understanding of what the pervasive electronic surveillance activities of the US and UK as revealed by Edward Snowden means for all our futures.

For picture editors, it’s been a tough six months. The door to Room 641a is just a door, but it may be one of the most pictured doors in news history. It forms the front cover of Mark Klein’s autobiography Wiring Up The Big Brother Machine… And Fighting It. Wired magazine even have a slideshow of it, pictured from two angles. Similarly, after they got bored of running shots of the beautifully non-descript Snowden (no white-headed Julian Assange he), the picture desks at the newspapers brave enough to run his stories stuck with images of the doughnut-shaped GCHQ building in Gloucestershire, and the NSA’s mirrored box headquarters at Fort Meade.

This is important, because it indicates something deeper at play. Simply put, it means we – collectively, all of us, not just the Guardian‘s visual editors – cannot picture what the state of affairs as has now been revealed to us means. We don’t understand it. If this were a murder mystery, we’d be at the start, with nothing but the yellow-tape outline of a dead body to go by. We know where the crimes took place, but we don’t yet know why, or how to stop the killer from striking again.

Read the full post here. The post draws from a panel I took part in for the wonderful Cybersalon in November.

“Freedom cloud” republished by New World Academy

My 2011 article for openDemocracy.net The Freedom Cloud has been republished in a new reader produced by the New World Academy, an art/politics project founded by Dutch visual artist Jonas Staal and BAK (basis voor actuele kunst).

You can access the reader, which has contributions from Birgitta Jónsdóttir and Matt Mason, here (pdf).

Too much information: links for week ending 7 June


U.S.: NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily
The Guardian reports on a court order it has obtained which requires leading U.S. mobile operator Verizon to hand over call records and location data of millions of U.S. citizens to the U.S. National Security Agency: “The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.” According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose public suspicions about the conduct of routine dragnet communications surveillance are confirmed by this development, “There is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel. It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that, if you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records. And this has been going on for at least 7 years, and probably longer.”
Guardian | EFF

UN free speech expert calls for scrutiny of government wiretapping
In a separate but related development, the Washington Post details a new report produced by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Free Expression Frank La Rue, which calls for closer scrutiny of government wiretapping efforts around the world. The report makes several suggestions for how states can ensure use of communications surveillance was proportionate and respected due process.

Iran: Authorities accused of censorship and hacking to sway presidential poll
This report for the Guardian details the website– and SMS–blocking, denial–of–service and malware attacks that are skewing the information landscape in the run–up to Iran’s presidential elections, showing how the color of the censorship reflects the country’s internal divisions.

U.S.: Supreme Court rules against genetic privacy
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) report on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week to allow “warrantless DNA searches”—the collecting and logging of DNA samples of individuals arrested, but not yet convicted of crimes. In a statement, the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) said the decision “fails to protect the privacy of Americans’ DNA and is a serious blow to human rights in the United States.” Writing for Bloomberg, Noah Feldman argues the decision—on which the Supreme Court judges were split 5–4—brings the country one step closer to the stratified and authoritarian society portrayed in the sci–fi film Gattaca.
EPIC | CRG | Feldman

Taiwan: Authorities back away from web blocking plans following netizen protests
Focus Taiwan reports that “Taiwan’s authorities in charge of intellectual property protection have decided to give up a plan to block overseas internet services that violate copyright laws amid opposition to the plan from free–speech advocates.” Groups opposed to the plans included Wikimedia Taiwan, who planned to stage a web black–out day. Public comparisons of the proposed blocking to China’s Great Firewall were thought to have swayed the opinion of the authorities.

U.S.: Publishers propose public–private partnership to support “access” to research
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a “distributed”, “clearing house”–style public–private research access partnership that “seems like very much of a restatement of the status quo” and is being put forward by the American publishing industry in response to the recent Obama administration executive order that all publicly–funded research should be publicly available. As Open Access advocate Heather Joseph of SPARC states in the article, the initiative, which has yet to be outlined in detail: “doesn’t offer a solution for a stable, sustainable long–term archive, or do much of anything to facilitate reuse of the full corpus of publicly–funded research.”

Singapore: Popular websites forced to operate under license from government
The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that Singapore’s press oversight agency now require websites with more than 50,000 readers publishing news about Singapore to register for a license, paying a reported 40,000 USD registration fee.

WIPO urged to “Stand with the Blind”
Avaaz.org are hosting a petition urging delegates to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s diplomatic conference later this month to defy last–minute copyright industry lobbying and support a Treaty for the Visually Impaired that “make[s] it easy to share books in formats designed for blind and visually impaired readers with minimal barriers.” The U.S. petitions site We The People is hosting a similar petition asking the U.S. President “to compel U.S. negotiators to fight for a strong Treaty that gives blind people equal access to books and doesn’t burden those who want to provide them.”
Avaaz | We The People

Obama’s covert trade deal
In this Op–Ed for the New York Times Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach and Ben Beachy demand that the U.S. administration open up the Trans–Pacific Partnership (TPP) process, secretive trade negotiations they warn “would set new rules for everything from food safety and financial markets to medicine prices and internet freedom.” Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson asks what the TPP (and other “free trade” agreements such as TAFTA) do for ordinary American citizens, and argues against the extension of “fast track” provisions that would prevent U.S. legislators from scrutinizing such treaties on behalf of U.S. citizens’ interests. Aside from the U.S., the TPP’s negotiating parties include Chile and Mexico: Chile’s ONG Derechos Digitales have launched a new platform this week for tracking the progress and implications of the TPP from a Latin American perspective.
NYTimes | WaPo | TPP Abierto

WeChat: Learning from the Chinese internet
Ethan Zuckerman highlights a new paper examining clusters of audiences online that argues that culture is a more powerful force in internet balkanization than government regulation. He goes on to detail his encounter with a Chinese social networking platform outside of his “cultural cluster.”

Data protection in the EU: the certainty of uncertainty
Cory Doctorow calls on the best computer science research to debunk the idea that data can ever be truly “anonymized.” The article takes as its starting point the “feeding frenzy of lobbying” happening in the EU over new data protection legislation—the LobbyPlag tool tracks the influence this lobbying is having on the actions of individual European Parliament members in respect of the legislation.
Doctorow | LobbyPlag

Not impossible: The story of Daniel and his six completed Coursera courses
The father of a severely autistic child tells the story of the role massive open online courses (MOOCs) have played in educating his son in this post on the Coursera blog. Family friend Wendy M Grossman placed Daniel’s story in a wider context in one of her regular net.wars columns last year.
Coursera | Grossman

Data Expedition: Why garment retailers need to do more in Bangladesh
The Open Knowledge Foundation and School of Data staged their first “Data Expedition” at the end of last month, an online data wrangling weekend to explore issues in the garment industry. In this blog post Data Journalist Anders Pederson reports on the process, and reveals some of the findings: “The team used a crowdsourced database on garment factories to expose questionable standards and highlight the need for open supplier lists from all retailers.”

Interview: Alek Tarkowski
Richard Poynder talks to Alek Tarkowski, director of Centrum Cyfrowe Projekt: Polska and project lead of Creative Commons Poland about Poland’s Open Public Resources Act.

Audio: Ron Deibert on “Black Code”
Nora Young talks to Ron Deibert about his new book “Black Code”, which draws on his experience as director of Canada’s Citizen Lab, to explore issues in the control and exploitation of cyberspace, including industrial espionage and politically–deployed malware

Too much information: links for week ending 31 May

Google investing in connectivity in emerging markets
The Wall Street Journal quotes unnamed sources who reveal Google’s long–term strategy to invest in wireless networks in emerging markets in sub–Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia: “The drive to be a vertical player starts at the top of Google. Chief Executive Larry Page for years has spearheaded secret research on alternative methods to provide more people with internet access, and has become more active in thinking about providing wireless internet access to consumers, said people familiar with the matter.”

UK: Politicians rush to capitalize on atrocity to revive surveillance bill
The LINX Public Affairs blog names and shames the UK politicians who took to the media to call for the revival of a proposed law to monitor the communications of British citizens just hours after the violent murder of a British soldier by two Muslim men took place in London last week. As the Independent reports, the UK intelligence agency MI5 has intimated that the powers granted by the Communications Data Bill, which was shelved just a few weeks ago due to human rights concerns, would not have helped them prevent the attack.
LINX | Independent

South Africa: Forensic DNA database receives criticism
The Forensic Genetics Policy Initiative has submitted comments to the South African Parliament criticizing a proposed law that would sanction the creation of a forensic DNA database in the country: “Considering the immense weight of information that DNA carries, allowing law enforcement to seize demonstrably innocent persons DNA, DNA from individuals who have yet [to be] proven guilty of any crime, and DNA from persons convicted of… minor crimes for which DNA evidence is not even relevant is to give law enforcement uncontrolled and unprecedented access to the private lives of the citizens of South Africa.”

Europe: Parliament calls for removal of conditions from Treaty for the Visually Impaired
IP Watch reports that the European Parliament has voted to urge the European Commission to cease negotiating for concessions for rights–holder groups in the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Treaty for the Visually Impaired: “MEPs also pushed for access to the negotiating mandate, which has been made a classified document. They have asked for access to the document for over a month now.”

Facebook joins Global Network Initiative
TechPresident reports on Facebook’s announcement that it will become a full member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI)—a self–regulatory group set up “to address the challenges technology companies face when dealing with governments about issues like freedom of expression and data privacy”, whose corporate members include Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!.

US: Silicon Valley uses growing clout to kill a digital privacy bill
The Los Angeles Times reports on how lobbying by California’s tech firms, including Facebook, has led to the shelving of a proposed law that would have given citizens access to the data being collected on them online.

Nobody puts data in the corner
Alix Dunn puts out a request on the Engine Room for solutions to a perpetual problem: how to make sure resources that are vital to a large group of advocates but produced by small and often precarious organizations do not one day disappear from public view because a web hosting invoice goes unpaid.

Interview: Sunil Abraham
Sunil Abraham of India’s Centre for Internet and Society talks to TechPresident about successful—and not so successful—attempts to tackle corruption in India using technological tools.

Anatomy of a hack
This widely–circulated article from Ars Technica on the relative weakness of passwords contains a lot of technical details, but remains an enlightening, if frightening, read.

Book Review: “The New Digital Age”
Evgeny Morozov writes a damning review of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s book “The New Digital Age” for The New Republic: “If you ever wondered what the gospel of modernization theory sounds like translated into Siliconese, this book is for you.”

Audio: Regulating Code
Along with technology pundit Bill Thompson, I interview Christopher T Marsden and Ian Brown about their new book “Regulating Code” for the podcast Little Atoms. The book presents an alternative, European–inspired vision for the role of the state in regulating technology.

Video: The Pirate Bay–Away From Keyboard (TPB–AFK)
This documentary by director Simon Klose charts the lives of peer–to–peer filesharing site the Pirate Bay’s founders during their trial in Sweden, and was released earlier this year. The film has recently been the subject of seemingly spurious copyright takedown requests sent to Google by the major Hollywood film studios, a development Torrent Freak speculates might be related to the its anti–Hollywood content. The film, an original production that was part–funded by a Kickstarter campaign and is available for free under a Creative Commons license, portrays the site’s founders as much gentler characters than they appeared to be in press reports at the time of the trial.
Film | Torrent Freak report

Y2K: Much Ado about nothing?
The New York Times uses archive footage to reconstruct the hype around the so–called Millennium bug of the late nineties, and concludes that the panic may not all have been for nought, as the more robust computer systems that emerged were able to recover quickly from disasters such as 9/11.

Interview with Ian Brown and Chris Marsden for Little Atoms

Many thanks to the wonderful Bill Thompson, for helping me interrogate Ian Brown and Chris Marsden about their new book Regulating Code on a sunny day in Cambridge a few weeks ago. The resulting podcast for Little Atoms is available here.


Come for the surprising ideas about the positive role European regulators might play in our digital future. Stay for the geek jokes.

Too much information: Links for week ending 24 May

Each week, at the behest of the Open Society Foundations Information Program, I prepare a digest of links to the week’s most interesting stories and analysis online. Here’s the latest edition, which was prepared by Wendy M. Grossman, who has been minding my patch in the months I’ve been away. Thanks, Wendy!

The New Yorker releases Strongbox platform for safer news leaking
The New Yorker has announced Strongbox, a tool for anonymous communication between journalists and sources via Tor. Written by the late Aaron Swartz and hacker–turned security journalist Kevin Poulsen, the underlying code, DeadDrop, will be open source. The Source collects first reactions and responses, which are cautiously welcoming.
New Yorker | Source Pt 1 | Source Pt 2

Peru: Trans–Pacific Partnership negotiations
EFF reports that early arrival in Lima has enabled it to get ahead of the 17th round of negotiations of the Trans–Pacific Partnership treaty and discusses the backroom manoeuvrings to increase the term of copyright still further and regulate temporary reproductions of copyrighted files such as computer caches. EFF also reports on protests surrounding the meetings.

US: CALEA II
CDT reports that a group of leading security experts including Matt Blaze (University of Pennsylvania), Susan Landau, Roger Dingledine (TOR Project3), Ed Felten (Princeton), Bruce Schneier, and Philip Zimmermann (developer of PGP) have written a report explaining the fundamental security flaws in the FBI’s proposed CALEA II, which would require ISPs to modify their services to make them wiretap–friendly.

US: EPIC asks FTC to investigate SnapChat
EPIC has filed a complaint with the FTC regarding SnapChat, a mobile app publisher that encourages users to share intimate photos and videos on the basis that they can then be deleted permanently. According to the complaint, such material can be accessed by other users after it is supposed to have been deleted.

Pew report on “Teens, Social Media and Privacy”
The Pew Internet and American Life Project, together with the Berkman Center, issues a new report on how teenagers share information about themselves on social media sites.  Danah Boyd reflects on two conclusions, that “race is a factor in explaining differences in teen social media use” and “teens are sharing a lot of content, but they’re also quite savvy”.
Pew report | Danah Boyd commentary

Is ‘cyber war’ just a scare tactic?
“Officials warn of looming cyber–Armageddon. Critics say that’s a subterfuge to erode online privacy and accountability”. An interview with EFF’s Lee Tien.

Data Dealer
This sarcastic game about privacy (published under a Creative Commons license), created by a four–person team of Austrian game designers and activists, is based on research into the data broker market. Players start as small backroom data dealers and play to become data moguls running giant empires. Learn how to trick your users and make cash with their personal data! In the video clip, from TEDxVienna, team leader Wolfie Christl explains the background.
Game | Video

UK: Shakespeare review on open data
In this blog posting, the Open Knowledge Foundation analyses the newly published Shakespeare Review of public sector information. Among the highlights: the review recommends the speedy release of more data, the removal of restrictive licensing, open access to publicly funded research, and the establishment of the economics value of open data through research and auditing.

World Health Assembly preview
In this blog posting, Intellectual Property Watch lays out its hopes for the UN World Health Assembly, taking place in Geneva May 20–28. IPW hopes to reopen the R&D Resolution in order to address the failures of the current system of incentives to generate the research and development needed to meet urgent healthcare needs in developing countries. Knowledge Ecology International’s Jamie Love has published his presentation on R&D and access to medicines in Europe, presented to the EU Parliament on May 16.
IPWatch | KEI

Civil society calls for openness in global telecoms policymaking
In this closing statement delivered to the World Telecommunications/ICT Policy Forum, a group of civil society organizations including CDT, Consumers International, and APC calls on the ITU to ensure openness, transparency, and inclusivity in policy processes.

Audio: The Digital Rights Movement
In this podcast, author and Temple University professor Hector Postigo discusses his new book, The Digital Rights Movement.