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Responding to govt requests is a challenge for online firms: Colin Maclay

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 15, 2013 05:07 AM
Colin M. Maclay, MD of Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, on challenges in cyberspace.
Responding to govt requests is a challenge for online firms: Colin Maclay

Maclay says people become vulnerable in many ways when they share information about ourselves online. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Colin M. Maclay, MD of Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard mentions about the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore in his interview done by LiveMint. The article was published in LiveMint on March 13, 2013.
Mumbai: Colin M. Maclay, managing director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, says that companies such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. are facing their greatest challenge in responding appropriately to governments that demand user information from them as part of regular practice or to abuse power. In an email interview to Mint on Wednesday, Maclay underscored the policy gaps on the Internet, differences in cyber laws across nations and the forces transforming education, media and technology companies online. He hopes to elaborate on some of these views in Mumbai on Thursday, the concluding day of Ficci Frames,a conclave on the media and entertainment industry that began on Tuesday. Edited excerpts:
How vulnerable are we because of the information shared on email platforms such as Gmail or Yahoomail or on social networks like Facebook?
We are vulnerable in many ways as we share information about ourselves and our friends, sometimes wisely and other times indiscriminately. But this information is later shared with many third-party tracking networks so that the highest bidder can advertise to us the product they think we want. That information is also sold to other interested parties, from businesses to governments. Other business offerings like facial recognition software only make the proposition spookier. Many of them want to responsibly monetize our data typically for advertising or improving their service offerings although we may not all agree on what that means in practice.
Are any laws being considered in the US to protect people’s privacy online?
Privacy around telephony, wiretaps for instance, is much better than Internet-related government requests. There are a host of laws and regulations around privacy in the US, but many of my colleagues would likely say that they are inadequate—not keeping up with the technology, actual use or business practice. They are also in conflict with European laws, which suggests the need to resolve these differences. In this gap, practices like the Google and Twitter Transparency Reports are significant steps forward in telling what governments are actually doing around the world with respect to online privacy and expression. India’s government has a noteworthy presence in these reports, as does the US.
Is it easier for the government to get personal information of suspects’ activity online from Google or Facebook than it would be through an offline search warrant?
There are questionable requests made to companies to provide user information, censor content or other such action by law enforcement agencies in various jurisdictions. Often it is legitimate, and companies should respond accordingly, while at other times, companies may overreach unintentionally, requesting much more information than they need or broader censorship due to their own lack of understanding. In other cases, as part of regular practice or in an informal abuse of power, governments will make requests that do not hold up scrutiny to the rule of law and due process. They may have political or economic motivations, for instance. It’s in discerning between these cases, and figuring out how to respond appropriately, that the companies face their greatest challenge.
Has the freedom of expression been limited by the governments?
The OpenNet initiative, a research collaboration between the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and the Berkman Center at Harvard, has documented the rise of state-sponsored Internet censorship from a handful of countries a decade ago to over 40 countries today. Beyond technical control, there is a massive increase in copyright-related takedowns that include legitimate takedowns, plus many attempts at economic and political control. There are informal legal and process controls on content. There is also a wide range of self-censorship that’s difficult to document.
How are these companies addressing the issue?
In recognition of the difficult situation, companies such as Google, Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc. (Facebook is an observer at present), non-government organizations like Human Rights Watch, Center for Democracy and Technology (CDSA) and the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore and investors like Calvert Investments Inc. and F&C Asset Management Plc, founded the Global Network Initiative (GNI) in October 2008 to protect and advance privacy and freedom of expression online.
Cybercrimes like credit card frauds surface time and again...why is the Internet still not secure enough?
It goes back to beginnings of the Internet, it was built to be open rather than secure. That said, there are a variety of different concerns, including organizations doing an inadequate job of securing the credit card data they hold. That’s their fault and it seems there should be policy solutions that require better security and exact penalties for lapses and bad practice to encourage better behaviour. Credit card fraud online and offline is a problem, and unfortunately it sometimes effectively punishes countries with risk by automatically denying cards—effectively leaving users in those countries without access to e-commerce.
On the good side, top universities around the world now offer online education, How is it transforming the education system?
Like many analog institutions that are adopting digital resources, it’s unclear what will happen. Hopefully it will lower prices, increase learning opportunities, and improve learning all in a sustainable way. We can’t deny, however, the role of in-person interaction whether it’s while seeing friends, dating or doing business and learning is no different.
Looking at trends, laptops began replacing desktops and now tablets are becoming a preferred personal computing device. What’s next?
A decade ago it was laptops or mobiles, and the price of laptops came down, but the mobile network proliferated even faster. Smartphones continued to drop in price and increase in potential, laptops are lighter than ever, tablets have come up, even operating systems are beginning to converge. Now, immersive experiences like Google Glass are coming. It’s hard to know what’s next, but I hope that device convergence will serve as an enabler rather than a limiter.
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