Two Tales of Transparency!

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Apr 11, 2012 11:55 AM |
In a single week, two global Internet giants announce transparency efforts that have direct implications for privacy and free speech.

One, Google replaces 60 odd privacy policies with a single one across its products apparently to provide a unified experience for consumers, advertisers and law enforcement agencies. Google says that it is trying to make its privacy policy more accessible and transparent to its users and that nothing has changed. This is indeed true, as the respective privacy policies were modified when Google acquired these products. Google spent USD 1.9 billion acquiring 79 companies in 2011. This year's company filings state "we expect our current pace of acquisitions to continue.” Their multi-year acquisition spree has spawned 60 odd products that collect personal information. And beyond Google core offerings like Search, News, YouTube and Orkut – their advertising networks Adsense and Double Click keep tabs on you as you visit millions of other websites. This advertiser cum share-holder sweet spot has been created by centrally storing 9 months of comprehensive logs tied to IP address and other device details for all accounts. A blanket surveillance dream-come-true for rogue state actors. Even in most democratic regimes this far exceeds legally mandated data retention requirements. Fans will point out that Google's transparency record on user information requests, data retention and data portability is unmatched across the industry. But that is just saying that you are less evil than Microsoft and Facebook. In June 2007, Google reduced data retention from 24 to 18 months and in a letter to the European Commission privacy regulators it said “we ... firmly reject any suggestions that we could meet our legitimate interests in security, innovation and anti-fraud efforts with any retention period shorter than 18 months.” But come August 2008, Google reduces data retention from 18 months to 9 months in what it called an attempt to address regulatory concerns. Like Europeans, Indian citizens could also benefit if our law makers were to enact horizontal privacy statute and establish the office of the privacy commissioner. In an ideal world, a pro-consumer or pro-citizen Indian privacy  commissioner would create evidence based policy and reduce data retention to say 6 weeks. If unfortunately, we go by the precedent set by multi-tiered blanket surveillance provisions in the IT Act, it looks like policy-makers have bought the flawed “more is better” argument emerging from business press cheerleaders of the global surveillance industry. 

Two, Twitter announces technical capabilities to censor tweets using geo-location to be in compliance with legal orders from different jurisdictions. Again very little has changed. Twitter has in the past complied with legal orders. In terms of transparency – Twitter has adopted pretty high standards. It will notify the author about the removal and other users from that country with message stating that the tweet has been withheld. Which some predict will precipitate a Streisand effect. In addition, Twitter has expanded its partnership with ChillingEffects.org to publicly archive these legal orders. Some activists wonder if Twitter's role in the Arab Spring would have been undermined if it implemented legal orders from the Mubarak regime. Unfortunately for Twitter, initial praise for this comes from China's state-run newspaper and from the Thai government. But to be fair, unlike Google above, Twitter is sticking to absolute legal minimum. The use of the US jurisdiction in the past, as a free speech haven did benefit activists in authoritarian regimes but  perhaps SOPA and PIPA signals the end of that. In India, given the draconian IT Act this could result in blocking of heavy metal tweets on account of them being “blasphemous” or Twitpics of Cartoons against Corruption for being an “annoyance”. Both offenses which are significant dilutions from the previous standards of “incitement of hatred” or “defamation”. There are two part to the solution here, one, Twitter giving the best fight it can to protect free speech and two, Indian citizens petitioning their MPs for the amendment of the IT Act.

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