Facebook remains a monstrous surveillance engine

Years ago software freedom fighters understood the harm Facebook poses and threatens. And they warned us all to avoid Facebook.

The Free Software Foundation got there earlier: the FSF published a warning on on Dec 20, 2010. FSF & GNU Project founder Richard Stallman has been rightly objecting to Facebook for years in his talks and on his personal website.

Long-time former FSF lawyer Eben Moglen rightly called Facebook a monstrous surveillance engine in talks and he pointed out the ugliness of Facebook’s endless surveillance (at length in part 3 but in other places in the same lecture series as well). See http://snowdenandthefuture.info/ for the entire series of talks. Moglen routinely points out that ‘Stallman was right’ in his talks and for good reason.

GNU General Public License 3’s termination term getting wider reception

Want to fix a licensing problem for a GPLv2 or LGPLv2.x program? Relicense under GPLv3 or later, or under AGPLv3 or later. Consider LGPLv3 or later carefully before use, erring on the side of picking the GNU GPL v3 or later. This will grant recipients of the program the more lenient terms which do a good job of covering accidental infringement while still being able to legally compel other infringers to stop their infringement until they come into compliance.

This zdnet.com article bears the bias of coming from corporate media; it implicitly highlights the difference between free software (a social movement based in how people ought to treat one another with regard to computer software) and open source (a means for businesses to see free software hackers as an exploitable source of gratis labor by divesting the ethical underpinning of free software, pitched primarily to businesses). But no clear distinction is drawn so it’s not easy to see past the business-first talk that is not in keeping with why the GPLs exist, who wrote the GPLs, and why the GPLs say what they do.

For example, consider this from the article

In 2007, Microsoft was very openly and publicly anti-GPLv3, claiming it was an attempt “to tear down the bridge between proprietary and open source technology that Microsoft has worked to build with the industry and customers.”

This short-sighted comment receives no examination in the article but certainly deserves some since the entire “cure” is to do what the GPLv3 has long done—make it easier for accidental or non-malicious infringement to be fixed, thus allowing distributors to come into compliance, and continue distribution under compliance.

Microsoft’s words ignore that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) wrote the GPLs. The FSF is focused on software freedom (specifically a user’s freedom to run, inspect, share, and modify published computer software). Richard Stallman is credited as the chief author of the GPLs v1-3. Stallman also started the free software movement. Open source advocates, in what Stallman once called a right-wing counter to free software, want to use GPLv2 and GPLv3 (and related licenses) without talking about the ethical basis for these licenses and their derivatives (AGPL and LGPL).

Microsoft’s language would have you believe this is all to do with business concerns because that’s the open source enthusiast’s primary audience. But how a copyright holder behaves in light of infringement concerns anyone who distributes copyrighted works including any copyrighted free, libre, and open source software under any FLOSS license.

Microsoft essentially wants what any other proprietor (Apple, Oracle, Intel, etc.) want: more hackers writing and distributing code under licenses that allow proprietors to make proprietary derivatives. The GNU General Public Licenses (GNU GPL or GPL) say no to that; the GNU GPLs versions 1-3 say we should be equals in this work and all users must be free to run, inspect, share, and modify the program. No privileged position (such as is the nature of proprietary software) allowed. The “Lesser GPL” (originally the Library GPL) puts in an exception that grants a bit more inequity for software where there are plenty of other implementations that would get used more and possibly do less to protect a user’s software freedom (such as C libraries). The Affero GPL protects a user’s software freedom for remotely run applications such as web-based programs.

Any evaluation of software that excludes the underlying ethical (and class-based!) examination free software provides is bound to favor proprietors. That’s why proprietors all like “open source” but don’t frame anything in terms of free software. Software freedom has at its heart the very thing that keeps would-be proprietors honest and keeps users informed about changes, and in power over their own computers. Proprietary software is a social ill, never to be trusted, and a degree of control even other proprietors merely tolerate because they can’t easily object (‘power for me but not for thee’ doesn’t fly amongst those jockeying for power over one’s users).

Mass surveillance is unneeded, unethical, and used to relieve you of your privacy

Consider that schools are said to be spending a lot on mass surveillance kit and what that means for parents, students, and everyone else in the neighborhood.

Mass surveillance is the principal abuse here and the likely reliance on non-free (user-subjugating, proprietary) software (which is often malware) compounds the problems. One could go further in exploring additional abuses by looking into what is done with the data:

  • Where is the data stored?
  • Who else has access to the data?
  • What do they do with the data?
  • Is any of this knowable?

but indiscriminately collecting information on people in the hope it will somehow prove useful is mass surveillance, spying on everyone as if everyone is guilty by default. This is also a way to convince fearful people of the notion that it’s right and proper to have no privacy.

Consider this excerpt from the article:

“Schools are justified in thinking about safety, both in terms of gun violence and other possible hazards,” Rachel Levinson, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Gizmodo. “At the same time, these technologies do not exist in a vacuum; we know, for instance, that facial recognition is less accurate for women and people of color, and also that school discipline is imposed more harshly on children of color.”

Everything Levinson says here is vague and remarkably inarticulate, and I don’t blame Levinson. For all we know, Gizmodo simply didn’t ask further questions to clarify these claims in what should have been the basis of the entire article. Being concerned is insufficient. Precisely how is a bunch of data like this going to curb gun violence? What other hazards are you referring to, exactly? Why should we be concerned about the details of accuracy of the collected information while we’re questioning whether it was ethical and useful to collect this data in the first place? Which school situations where “discipline is imposed more harshly on children of color” will be resolved by watching surveillance footage or examining location data?

All the more reason why people should get their own computers, never use school-issued computers, and make sure that their own computers run only a free software OS, and install nothing but free software on top of that. Also everyone (not just parents and students) need to politically organize to let students use privacy respecting books and (only if strictly needed) computer education that can be used from any computer OS.

RT’s reporting on Tor problems underwhelms; no recognition of how software freedom works

Two stories badly covered by RT in the same way: no mention of how software freedom plays a huge role in interpreting the events presented in the story.

Tor is untrustworthy! Maybe…but we’re not saying why…

RT published a couple of versions of this story (earlier, later).

Tor, the onion router, is software intended to increase privacy online by passing data from one Tor user to a another Tor user thus obfuscating the source of the data to the ultimate recipient and even users on the Tor network. As a result of this arrangement, one can set up services that are only accessible from inside the Tor network (such as websites one can only visit while on Tor).

RT pointed out that Tor is funded by the FBI and this funding makes Tor suspicious (“Tor’s developers have been meeting with its agents, briefing them on how to use the technology, even organizing conferences for the Bureau.”) and then went on to make a dramatic claim that requires some unpacking:

“The FBI is always the first to know about vulnerabilities in tor’s code, and also gets a say in when the public finds out about the flaws.” and later “A privilege like this effectively gives the FBI all the time in the world to exploit the weak spot before it is fixed”

The entire RT report (and the reports RT based their report on) rely on guilt by association rather than telling the audience about specific vulnerabilities in Tor’s code and how these vulnerabilities are exploited. It’s important not to fall for fear by association where we should demand detailed examinations of vulnerabilities because we don’t need to settle for less than very specific evidence.

https://surveillancevalley.com/blog/fact-checking-the-tor-projects-government-ties (a blog entry pointed to in RT’s written report) includes:

I obtained the documents in 2015. By then I had already spent a couple of years doing extensive reporting on Tor’s deeply conflicted ties to the regime change wing of the U.S. government. By following the money, I discovered that Tor was not grassroots. I was able to show that despite its radical anti-government cred, Tor was almost 100% funded by three U.S. national security agencies: the Navy, the State Department and the BBG. Tor was military contractor with its own government contractor number — a privatized extension of the very same government that it claimed to be fighting.

This was a shocking revelation.

Let’s review some facts: Tor started at the US Navy as a research project and was later turned into a more user-friendly free software program anyone could use (RT points this out). This was always known and is not news, therefore it was not shocking. Later Tor was incorporated into a variant of the Firefox web browser called the “Tor Browser” allowing users to easily substitute this browser for their browser any time they want to browse using Tor.

Firefox and Tor are both free software. Free software means users have the freedom to run, inspect, share, and modify the program. This term is not a reference to price, even though both Firefox and Tor are available at no charge. The implications of this are important for this story: if Tor has a security flaw any user, not just Tor’s developers or sponsors, can inspect the code to find the flaw, modify the code to fix the flaw, run the improved code to run the improved code, and distribute the improved code to help their community. One has these permissions and there is no notification requirement—one can do all of these things without telling anyone except those with whom they share the code. This is the best means we have to make sure all computer users are treated ethically. Everyone deserves the freedom to determine what their computer does and this is the way we practically achieve that, and have done this for decades.

Therefore the FBI is not necessarily “always the first toe know about vulnerabilities in Tor’s code” as RT claimed. We don’t know who else has a copy of Tor’s source code. We don’t know who else (besides Tor’s developers) inspects Tor code, who improves Tor code, who publishes their modifications to Tor at all, or with whom code modifications are shared. The same is true of every free software program. These are all direct implications of software freedom.

But doesn’t this mean we should fear the heavy hand of the FBI?

In politics we have incomplete information so we have to settle for making educated guesses such as where a politician or reporter gets their funding because we’re not always privy to the deals politicians make. If a politician accepts money from weapons contractors, for instance, we expect that politician to promote war because that would be beneficial to their campaign funding. Therefore it’s no surprise if they vote pro-war or otherwise champion invasion and occupation. We connect the dots and say that the individuals in Congress are bought off by business lobbies.

But with computer program source code we can see how a program will operate by reading its source code. We can determine what that program does, how that program works, identify its problems, propose and implement fixes. We can learn to become programmers (that’s how programmers figured out how to read source code). We can hire programmers to do work on our behalf, we can ask programmer friends to do favors for us, and we can easily share the result of a programmer’s work with others. So we don’t need to settle for proxies like Tor developers have undisclosed meetings with shadowy government groups where they discuss Tor.

Investigative journalism regarding free software vulnerabilities requires specific evidence, far more than a vague assertion connecting a free program to a party we might be wise not to trust. Our permission (freedom) to run, inspect, share, and modify the published software means we don’t need to settle for guilt by association and shouldn’t accept an absence of hard evidence.

RT quoted Roger Dingledine, a Tor project co-founder, writing the following to Kelly DeYoe, Broadcasting Board of Governors:

Keeping the FBI informed of (and using!) Tor contributes to project and network sustainability.

This quote is given in a suspicious context, but here’s another way to interpret the same words in an entirely different light: Tor purposefully routes data circuitously through multiple other Tor users’ computers before that data reaches the Internet (and similarly going in the other direction from the Internet to a Tor user). Therefore Tor as a project needs a lot of people to run Tor, participating as nodes in the Tor network to make the Tor network function. Thus it is in the Tor project’s interest to get more people to run Tor.

Without more detail on specifics, it’s hard to know which way we ought to interpret the quote—with suspicion, as an innocent call for greater participation, or something else?

So what are we to make of the RT claim that “A privilege like this effectively gives the FBI all the time in the world to exploit the weak spot before it is fixed”?

Absent a weakness in Tor’s software (which was not identified in RT’s report), the claim remains unproven. Tor is free software so the FBI has no special advantage over others examining Tor’s source code. If Tor were proprietary (non-free software) RT’s claim here could be true: what any proprietary program does is secret. That secrecy is what gives proprietors an edge over their users, and why users should run nothing but free software on their computers.

What about Tor nodes that spy on the users? Didn’t Tor’s blog warn about this?

In mid-2014 the Tor project blog warned of an attack against other Tor users. From https://blog.torproject.org/blog/tor-security-advisory-relay-early-traffic-confirmation-attack:

On July 4 2014 we found a group of relays that we assume were trying to deanonymize users. They appear to have been targeting people who operate or access Tor hidden services. The attack involved modifying Tor protocol headers to do traffic confirmation attacks.

The attacking relays joined the network on January 30 2014, and we removed them from the network on July 4. While we don’t know when they started doing the attack, users who operated or accessed hidden services from early February through July 4 should assume they were affected.

More details are in that blog post including details of what was known at the time (including pointers to Tor software updates that fix known problems). But the underlying problem remains the same: Tor’s problems are still better addressed with software freedom fully intact and recognized for the huge ethical and practical advantages it brings over non-free software.

Any organization (including the FBI) could work toward adding tracking software (Javascript-based, or Flash-based, for instance) to websites such that most visitors will end up picking up the tracker in normal website browsing. This wouldn’t indicate a hole in Tor per-se, as Tor is not intended to do anything to website malware. In fact, one might look at this exploitation in another way: this approach to undermining the privacy Tor grants may suggest Tor is doing its job of disguising the network locations of its users quite well, thus compelling spy agencies to look for other means to effectively spy on Tor users.

Isn’t it possible there is a genuine weakness in Tor despite being free software?

Sure; we already knew that Tor had genuine weaknesses which were fixed. And it’s possible the upcoming report referred to in RT’s report and Surveillance Valley will reveal more genuine weaknesses in Tor. But we ought not judge things by fear; we should demand evidence. The details backing up the claims in this report have yet to be published. This report contains no actionable clues to help us understand why we should fear Tor or look at Tor as broken beyond repair.

When weaknesses are found users are still better off with a free software program than with non-free software because users have options on how to get the software fixed. They can wait for an update from the Tor developers, they can get involved and learn the details and apply a fix themselves, they can hire someone they trust to do this work for them. Compare that to non-free software where the only options are to quit running the non-free software or to wait for the proprietor (the very party users can’t trust) to ‘fix’ the problem.

E-waste versus Microsoft

RT showed the story of a California-based Eric Lundgren who offered copies of Microsoft OS restore discs — a disc used to install a new copy of an operating system on a computer — thus allowing someone to keep using their old computer instead of buying a new computer.

Lundgren said that he did nothing wrong; systems running Microsoft Windows slow down over time, his service allowed users to experience a faster computer by reinstalling the operating system on the computer thus restoring its performance like when the computer was new. Microsoft said Lundgren committed copyright infringement.

Lundgren could have avoided this kerfuffle and helped his users escape from Microsoft’s spying grasp at the same time by helping his users install a free software operating system (such as any of the free OSes listed here) instead of perpetuating his user’s dependency on proprietary software. This would have completely avoided the complaint with Microsoft, helped users liberate themselves from user-subjugating software (which often contains malware) published by a known NSA partner and spy. We don’t know what most of Microsoft’s software does because it is proprietary, so we have to fall back on examining the programs by how they behave and what relationships Microsoft cultivates with other organizations.

How many ways can one be silenced online?

Reading the many ways tech discussion site Hacker News silences posts its moderators don’t like reminds one that contributing to someone else’s forum, mailing list, or any other centrally-hosted discussion is one way to be censored. User moderation is no better than administrator moderation; it’s very easy to learn the themes that pass for acceptable on some tech sites such as Hacker News or Slashdot: celebrating proprietary software is fine, software freedom (the freedom to run, inspect, share, and modify published computer software) is eschewed even though software freedom addresses most of the stories on these corporate media repeater sites and addresses public interest.

What sites don’t often let on is that their lists of censor tricks can be quite subtle: “shadow banning” can come in the form of not telling a user that nobody can see their posts but them, or nobody can see a user’s posts unless the reader looks for them. That’s what Twitter has been reported doing for posts that challenge the current narrative known as “Russiagate” where Russians spending thousands of dollars on ads before and after the 2016 US election somehow put Pres. Trump in the White House and prevented Hillary Clinton from winning. There’s no evidence to back this up, but it doesn’t stop the mainstream corporate media from posting story after story about (usually unnamed) Russians doing dastardly things that are indistinguishable from exercising free speech.

Sadly, Internet access is not seen as a human right, something civilized countries supply to all and never take away. So long as Internet access is privatized we’ll always publish on sufferance—say something someone powerful doesn’t like and you could be prevented from speaking in a way others can see, read, or hear online again.

What would an ethical discussion service look like?

Such a service would use a protocol to convey posts to clients which is fully documented and available for anyone to implement, convey data only via encrypted connections, and mask which posts were being read as much as possible. The goal has to be designing the service around preserving user’s privacy and freedom to express themselves.

I think ethical services would do more operations client-side to give the user powerful means of selecting what to read, see, or hear. The client would track what’s been read, sort and filter posts according to a particular user’s desires (the user defines what is unsolicited, objectionable, or somehow not worth reading) but all posts would be available to all by default. The client would cache data to enable offline reading and posting by batch upload. Doing any of this server-side is just another way to enable censorship.

An ethical service offers multiple entry points like netnews among a lot of cooperating and publicly-available news servers. If one server becomes unavailable one can easily move to another server and continue the discussion. All current web-based services rely on being single points of failure (from the user’s perspective). It doesn’t matter that Twitter, Facebook, and other currently popular sites have many servers when they all obey the same rules of exclusion and all draw posts from the same database. We rightly consider all Twitter servers as part of the same oppressive system. Users aren’t kicked off or silenced when posting to one Twitter server, their account is (shadow) banned from all Twitter servers. The same is true of any centralized system, that’s why these services implement their services from a central setup. Therefore freedom of speech requires massive decentralization.

It’s a class issue: Power over the users is unjust power

A flight simulator company FlightSimLabs was caught embedding malware in their proprietary software which copies a user’s website credentials. FlightSimLabs claims they only had plans to use this against users who “pirated” the software but nobody can be sure because this malware was in every copy of the FlightSimLabs software; the credentials copying was indiscriminate. We won’t really know when this issue will go away or if it does go away because we can’t tell where the unethically copied data will travel. But there are aspects of this case which bring to mind the underlying class basis of users vs. proprietors, how things were different in the recent past with home computing, and what the changes of always-on networked computing (in which we store sensitive information) means for the public.

The chief underlying problem here is proprietary (non-free, user-subjugating) software. Software you’re not allowed to run, inspect, modify, or share (also known as ‘software freedom’). Proprietary software is licensed and distributed to keep you from running the program despite doing normal maintenance, software meant to keep you from treating your friends as friends by sharing a copy, inspecting the program to see what it does, and distributed to prevent you from modifying your copy the program should you wish to for any reason.

I experienced something quite similar with the Commodore 64: A video game called Elite on the C-64 had an anti-copying scheme so clumsy and prone to problems it drove me to understand what was really going on. Today we’d properly call this DRM—digital restrictions management (expanded that way because I take the side of the user class, not the publisher class) which was only visited upon those who obtained their copy of the program in a way the publisher found acceptable. Typically this meant buying a copy, but I later came to understand some copies were distributed gratis. The packaged game came with media, a manual, and a flat plastic device with a see-through window. The device could be bent so it resembled a table like an inverted letter “U”. On starting the game, the user was shown some blocky image that looked incomprehensible. When the plastic device was folded, placed on the monitor at the proper distance (via the “legs” of the device), and peered through one could see the blocky image turn into something readable. If I recall correctly, the readable image was a page number reference in the manual one was expected to look up and type in the proper word to get past this stage of the loading program.

After I did this a couple of times it dawned on me that those who engage in filesharing and treating friends like friends (sometimes propagandistically called “pirates“) never have to put up with this. Only the people who used the publisher-distributed copy did. And most of those users had paid for this treatment.

Those who shared copies were doing us all a favor: they let us try programs before buying a copy, they let us run copies that didn’t have what we now call DRM; the anti-copying code had been stripped away. They let us have copies that one could copy in an ordinary fashion, no need for special copiers (such as “nibblers”, or any copier that knew how to get past the errors which were deliberately added to the disk to defeat the standard file and disk copiers). There was no need to work around the issue by using audio tapes instead of disks (since audio tapes didn’t have copy-prevention added to the media). These so-called “pirates” were doing us a service, a service I might have paid for if offered the opportunity to pay a publisher for a headache-free copy of the program.

Later I obtained a memory snapshotting cartridge called “Isepic” which let me make my own copy of the RAM-resident portion of the game. Isepic produced a copy which loaded faster, never prompted me for the manual lookup, and played identically to the other copy loaded from the distributor’s media (no surprise there, it was the same code being loaded into memory). I never loaded the distributor’s media again. But this got me to thinking about all the other programs (not just games) that treated the users this way across all the computers I had used. And I began to realize that this was a scam perpetrated on the people who treated the publishers the best. We were literally exchanging our money for being treated badly. And this harm pushed on the users was indiscriminate, just like the flight simulator company did here.

There was one more issue to wrestle with: proprietary software. This was an issue even the filesharers couldn’t really contend with. Almost all of the software I saw anyone use on the C-64 was proprietary: users weren’t allowed to do things we wanted to do: understand how the program worked, share copies, modify the program, or (in some cases) even run the program whenever we wanted. At best, the filesharers could grapple with runtime limits: Want to play ‘Elite’ from the publisher’s media without the plastic device? Too bad; that plastic device and loading routine is DRM to stop one from running the program (meaning that even if you copy the media you’ll probably make a copy you can’t really use). It’s not likely one will be able to look at the screen and manually decode the image, by design. Tough on the paying users, easy on the users who know how to share with each other. But this won’t help you with the other freedoms of free software.

As a practical matter we didn’t face some very serious problems with always-networked computers: We didn’t have our C-64s constantly on, we didn’t store sensitive credentials on the C-64, and we didn’t connect them to networks most of the time. So we didn’t have the privacy-busting ramifications proprietary software poses for ordinary computer users today (copying people’s credentials to websites ought to be criminal; this is very likely to include copying credentials to medical, banking, and work-related websites). What if that flight simulator company doesn’t keep the lid on whatever they illicitly copied from the users? Remember they did this indiscriminately: They did this to all of their users; there’s no reason to believe they won’t mistreat a paying user. They’ve already lied to all their users by misrepresenting what the flight simulator does—I’ll bet that people who got a copy thought they were getting a flight simulator, not a credentials copier.

In the end I came to recognize that the heart of this issue where the computer owner has less power over their computer than an organization that convinces the user to run their software is the main issue of software freedom. Software proprietors have unjust power over the users. The only way to break that power and keep people opting for freedom is to teach people to value software freedom for its own sake, and then choose free software consistently: play free software games, run free software apps for other jobs, and install and use free software operating systems. You’ll have to have the spine to say ‘no’ to a lot of what is advertised, but you’ll retain control of your data and your computer and it’s a lot less likely you’ll ever bump into DRM. Free software DRM is ineffective—edit out the DRM code and run that version instead. You also get to treat your friends like friends doing something natural to do with digital computers—sharing copies of published software.

Open source advocate pushes for software non-freedom

Sometimes people don’t want to see how the older free software movement (a social movement which advocates for the freedom to run, inspect, share, and modify published computer software) and the younger open source development methodology are philosophically different (1, 2) and that philosophical difference leads to radical differences on the ground. Open source enthusiasts don’t like because their philosophy was founded to reject software freedom. Users need to know what they are being denied when their software freedom isn’t respected. Time after time we see this difference in action and this article promoting Skype is no different than any of the other ham-fisted attempts by open source advocates dropping their development methodology to push for software non-freedom.

Here a proprietary (non-free, user subjugating) program—Skype—is being advertised for use on what might be a free software system (unfairly referred to as a “Linux” system). No reminder of anything to do with software freedom except in a place where the proprietor thinks they can benefit from the conflation the open source philosophy was designed to achieve: “While Microsoft has long been viewed as an enemy of the Linux community — and it still is by some — the company has actually transformed into an open source champion.” tries to get you to think of “open source” but not to the extent that one would wonder if even that group’s weaker philosophy is going to be available to Skype’s users by running Skype. No mention of GNU as in a GNU/Linux operating system; any mention of GNU is far too strong a reminder of the software freedom you’re not getting with Skype. Better to stick to distracting technocratic details that are irrelevant compared with the profound problems of running Skype, details like the software’s packaging. And to reinforce the notion that open source advocates will often abandon their own developmental philosophy if it gets in the way of a powerful proprietor, we get a quote from Canonical, an open source supporting company, further encouraging users to install the non-free communications software.

Nowhere in that article will you find a reminder that not only is Skype non-free software (and that this alone carries horrible implications) but Microsoft is an NSA partner, and Microsoft changed Skype specifically for spying. Apparently the “seamless user experience” Canonical championed and the “high quality experience” Microsoft talked about doesn’t include respecting a user’s software freedom, their privacy, or the security of their computer.

Is Democracy Now rendering itself obsolete?

DN’s short headline about Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ law is a particularly shameful headline from Democracy Now (DN), a so-called “alternative” news outlet that used to chastise the US for mistreating and killing news reporters. During G.W. Bush’s Iraq invasion and occupation, and when journalist Tareq Ayyoub was likely killed by the US war forces, DN rightly pointed out how sharply their coverage was not like the corporate media drumbeat for war. DN didn’t simply repeat the pro-war narrative (built on lies) and have a bunch of other pro-war people on to reaffirm the deception. DN used to make a big deal out of 1st Amendment threats to journalism and DN featured reports from “unembedded” reporters showcasing the difference between their reportage and that of the corporate media. But after the 2016 US election, DN has radically changed into something it used to criticize and this change risks rendering DN dismissable right alongside the corporate media it now sides with.

Why is DN’s headline shameful?

  • This headline doesn’t point out the difference between the two laws: The Russian law exists and poses a real threat to freedom of speech in Russia as its American counterpart does in America, but unlike the American law the Russian foreign agent registration hasn’t yet been forced on foreign news agencies with outlets in Russia. RT America has been under the restrictions of FARA for over a week now.
  • This headline is all Amy Goodman offers on this story after months of the American law being discussed on RT. DN chose silence (just like her corporate media ideological partners). Prior to the November 16, 2017 headline one sentence of coverage, DN’s last RT story was from October 18, 2016 (repeat the search and see what has changed).
  • This headline comes with inadequate context setting. What little context is present minimizes who started this and why. The headline tries to draw focus to the Russians doing something bad, and not squarely place the blame where the issue began—the US doing something bad to foreign media and Americans’ freedom of speech—as part of a larger Russophobic campaign by Hillary Clinton supporters to discredit Pres. Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 (among other reasons). The headline doesn’t at all describe the ugly consequences for Americans who want to be properly and fairly informed by their news media. This headline is quite a sharp departure from how Goodman handled the US narrative on the 2013 Iraq invasion and occupation where she would give the mainstream pro-war narrative and then immediately point out the problems with the case for believing that narrative including that Hans Blix’s group did the legwork to back their claim that claims of Iraq’s possession of WMDs were false.
  • The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel called this press restriction part of a new cold war with Russia (the transcript should show up eventually). I don’t agree with some of what vanden Heuvel says here (for example: she leaves room to believe that the Russians played a role in interfering in the 2016 US election despite any evidence to back that argument, or that she says RT gets “a negligible audience” because Nielsen doesn’t track their viewership), but the comments about why the US government is angry with RT, what the foreseeable consequences of this anger are, and comments about the structural nature of the critique are all valuable commentary. RT gave a platform to those who criticize American power on a structural level; this goes well beyond getting into petty distractions about Donald Trump personally. RT’s audience on television doesn’t really matter because more people are ‘cord cutting’ or abandoning cable TV for routing their audio & video communications over the Internet. Hence, RT via video sharing sites (such as YouTube) matter considerably and that popularity is the reason why Google and Twitter offered RT premium ad packages prior to being chastised by US Senators who seek to delegitimize what RT says. vanden Heuvel is right that what we colloquially refer to as “Russiagate” could foreseeably become the opening of a new war with Russia. Why would DN (the self-styled “war and peace report” which, given their previous reportage, used to mean ‘anti-war’) want to join forces with the historically pro-war media?
  • One sentence (“The vote comes shortly after the United States forced the international Russian broadcaster RT to register as foreign agents.”) about something that ought to concern any media outlet that views itself as being not on the side of power, an organization that informs their audience even if that means going against the prevailing corporate narrative. I can only guess that means Goodman has switched sides and her pro-DNC take on other stories (from silence about the DNC lawsuit where the DNC’s lawyer told us the Democrats don’t owe us fair primaries, to uncritically buying into the various arms of the Russiagate narrative) means we are being given permission to view her show as a far less watched MSNBC-alike as Max Blumenthal said in a recent interview with Aaron Maté on The Real News Network. Maté also pointed out this “lone mention” by his former employer.

Implications for local media?

DN got to where it is largely by local community media outlets. Does your local in-town media still play DN? At what point do local media managers decide that DN is taking the same view as the corporate media and therefore it’s time to find a DN replacement that can offer local media audiences something they can’t easily find elsewhere (thus justifying the existence of local media)?

In case you’re just catching up to “Russiagate”

Comic and corporate media sycophant Jena Friedman concisely repeats the current corporate narrative in her foolish and ahistorical take which fails to recognize how culpable the US is and how there’s no evidence of suspicious Russian involvement in the 2016 US election.

RT is a Russian propaganda tool. Any Americans who work for the network should at least own up to that. Dear friends who work at @RedactedTonight, don’t be useful idiots to a country that censors speech and kills journalists. You are smart and talented and can get work elsewhere.

What’s come out so far is nothing more than can be explained by media outlets advertising for themselves and free speech. Friedman is also tacitly supporting blacklisting along these lines.

A much more reasonable perspective can be found

But they require some looking around; most mainstream media outlets and freedom of speech groups apparently choose to remain silent about this threat to freedom of speech.

There are many other RT reports covering what came to be known as Russiagate. You’ll find them on RT and RT America‘s YouTube channels. I don’t recommend using YouTube as-is; I recommend that you use a free software browser, leave JavaScript off (via NoScript add-on, or a free software work-alike), get youtube-dl, and use youtube-dl to download YouTube videos.

Proprietary software is always untrustworthy: Beware “smart” devices

Recently “smart” TVs (TVs with microphones and/or cameras running proprietary software) came back into the news:

and one dismissive article from Snopes.com which referred to the article’s republication as “shrill” and concluding “No updates or additional information occurred between the original controversy and renewed interest in it in 2016.”.

The article was originally from 2015 and republished again in 2016 but that’s hardly the most important part of the news. Whether the collected data is distributed commercially or given away gratis is also not the most important point. The important part is to alert computer users to how easy it is for devices to spy on them, record anything in mic/camera range, distribute those recordings to others, and index that information for later use.

People have come to expect that certain areas of their lives are private, and they are free to behave naturally. One should have private places, one needs privacy to live a full and dignified human life. But if a device with monitoring equipment in it is operated by proprietary software (user-subjugating software; software the user is not free to run, inspect, share, or modify at any time for any reason) the user can’t trust the software does what the user wants. Thus one’s cell/mobile phone may be listening in on the mic and storing and/or sending a copy of what’s in mic range without the user’s knowledge or consent. The same may be true of the camera, GPS unit, or cell/mobile radio (which is also used for geolocation). Hence cell/mobile phones are more honestly called “trackers” as that is their primary function and the function they do most frequently.

These devices can be made more trustworthy if they run on exclusively free software. But most of the devices in the so-called “Internet of things” (devices that connect to the Internet, often needlessly, including some refrigerators, light sockets, and electronic picture frames) run on proprietary software. In fact, Brad Kuhn points out “the dystopia of Minority Report needs proprietary software”.

People typically have TV sets in their bedrooms pointed at their bed so they can watch TV from bed. People are often naked in bed and sometimes having sex. Putting this together means if their TV is a “smart” TV, or if they have a tracker next to them on the nightstand while they’re naked possibly having sex, they become inadvertent porn stars for those who gain access to the data captured by their “smart” devices. If a representative from, say, Nuance Communications, Inc. (the party that handles audio data from Samsung “smart” TVs) asked to watch while they disrobed and had sex it’s a safe bet most people would refuse. But if they can get access to the data from a sufficiently empowered device running untrustworthy software, they can get much the same information by way of a copy of a recording.

  • Who else gets copies of these recordings? There’s no clear way to tell.
  • What might one do with these recordings? It’s impossible to know, just as one can’t be sure what one would do with old newspaper articles. Refer to them later, to be sure, but in what context? Trying to embarrass someone perhaps to extort something from them? Hold something over them as a means of letting them know their secrets are out? Something else? We can’t say for sure, but we can say that it should be up to the user whether such recordings should have been made in the first place.
  • What can one do to avoid this risk? Avoid devices that run on proprietary software. Beware any device that attempts to let you control it by voice or gesture without a button to initiate voice/gesture control. The only way to implement the kind of voice control seen in ‘Star Trek’ where one merely talks to the computer is to have the computer monitor everything. When proprietary software is in control of the monitoring one can’t be sure what happens to the monitored data.

Why it’s important to keep up the principled fight

When you’re promoting something you believe to be strongly advantageous for the public (fighting for environmental improvement, writing and publishing free software, speaking against the loss of civil liberties, etc.) it’s critical to do your research so you know what you’re talking about, formulate specific plans of action, and continue working on those interests even when the prevailing forces wax and wane in support of the same ideas and goals. This entry mainly concerns the last point: without consistent pressure one can easily be dismissed for playing favorites (being a “fair weather friend”).

For example:

  • The documentary “Cowspiracy” argues an interesting point often ignored in mainstream discussions about environmentalism—no consumer action aimed at conserving resources (e.g., shower less frequently, fix leaky pipes, bike more, recycle more, and drive less) can compete with ending animal agriculture. According to the movie, environmental groups don’t fight to end animal agriculture even though water use problems, problems caused by the end of species, problems with cutting down forests, and greenhouse gas production are chiefly caused by animal agriculture. So pushing others on consumer issues is simultaneously ineffective, a distraction away from a real issue, and likely to annoy others for no real gain. All to keep the business of donating to environmental groups going, avoid challenging well-organized money behind big agriculture, and give people the false idea that they can individually spur environmental improvement with personal choices.
  • The open source developmental methodology advocates for increased access to source code but doesn’t present any real objection to software proprietors. That’s because open source wasn’t designed to present any such objection. Open source, a right-wing reaction to free software, formed over a decade after the free software movement began and was designed to give software businesses (chiefly proprietary software developers) a public relations-friendly means of talking to developers by dropping the freedom talk found at the center of the free software movement. Thus even if a software proprietor granted users none of the freedoms of free software a proprietor could claim some affiliation with something that sounded like was in the user’s interest even though proprietary software is never in the user’s interest. In the environmental movement a similar form of covering the truth is called “greenwashing” and Brad Kuhn pointed out in his 2016 talk on copyleft that he calls this same disingenuousness “openwashing”. Virtually every story carried by the (overwhelmingly corporate) tech press and tech repeater sites (Hacker News, Slashdot, etc.) comes down to the same issue—a lack of software freedom is dangerous. But these sites are run by open source enthusiasts. Therefore they encourage readers to think about maximizing profit, arcane details about features, and branding—issues which never bring software freedom to mind.
  • The American left usually let Democrats pick horrible choices without complaint, even if those same choices raise suspicion or protest when backed by Republicans. During President Obama’s two terms he killed lots of people by drone attack. Most of the victims were innocent people who happened to be in the area of the bombing. There weren’t any sustained marches about this and many Americans seem unaware this happened at all, not extrajudicially chosen for death by Obama himself. In 2017 Donald Trump was sworn in as president. In his first month he killed an 8-year-old child, the sister of 16-year-old Abdulrahman whom Obama killed in a prior attack. Obama killed Abdulrahman two weeks after killing his father, Anwar al-Awlaki. In the most recent attack, President Trump’s Navy’s SEAL Team 6 used drones for cover and executed a raid which killed 30 people, including 10 women and children and among them was Anwar al-Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter who was shot in the neck and killed. In a statement, Trump mentioned no civilian deaths. CNN, obedient stenographers that they are, also made no report of civilian deaths. American protesters on the left built a history in Obama’s terms of not organizing around extrajudicial assassination. This history makes it difficult to distinguish between caring about such attacks for their own sake (a principled objection) and being upset that their preferred candidate didn’t win the electoral votes needed to become US President (a partisan objection we can legitimately dismiss out of hand).

On the latter point, consider what Jeremy Scahill said in 2013 (remote: 1, 2) about the attacks against journalism that would later become another major part of the Bush/Obama legacy: (emphasis mine)

The message that the state is sending is that journalists are only allowed to print official statements, whether they are from public officials saying them publicly, or it’s being stated in off-the-record briefings, or in strategic leaks. They are trying to criminalize real journalism. They are trying to criminalize whistleblowing. And this has sent a chill through the community of reporters who cover national security issues, and it has sent a chill through the community of people who work within government that were considering speaking up. If journalism is criminalized, and if whistleblowing is criminalized, then how can we say that we have a free press in this society? It means we don’t actually have a free press. It means that something that is enshrined in the Constitution, the right to a free press, actually doesn’t matter. And I think we’re at a moment right now because of who the President is; where we risk this becoming a permanent reality in this country.

We all know that under Bush and Cheney they were engaged in warrantless wiretapping, their foreign policy looked like Murder Incorporated, there was certainly a war against journalists and a war against dissent. But it’s easy to be against those policies when cartoonish villains like Bush and Cheney are in office. When your actual principle is tested, meaning what you actually believe, is when someone like President Obama is in office. When it’s the liberals that are sending you the hate mail. When you have the tenacity to continue on and say “You know what? This is a principle, not a partisan game. This isn’t a game at all. This has everything to do not only with the future of this country, but with the stability and independence of nations around the world. I believe journalists have an obligation to stand up and defend one another when any of them are under attack. And what has happened to Glenn [Greenwald] and other journalists who dared to report outside of the consensus of the Washington clique is reprehensible, and journalists should be ashamed of themselves.”.

The recent history of inaction from the American left helps us separate the wheat from the chaff, those who objected when an ostensibly more agreeable (though really only differently scary) president was in office from those who raise objections under President Trump. It’s a shame, really, because some critics raise valid issues (see any of the episodes of “News from Neptune” or “AWARE on the Air”) but have to hope for coverage while less articulate liberals get coverage complaining that their pro-war, bank-fueled, 1% representative didn’t run a competent enough presidential campaign to take office.