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First POST: Open Letters

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, December 9 2013

Open Letters

  • Eight tech giants, led by Google and Microsoft, have issued a call to limit online spying.

  • On, the companies lay out five key principles, including limits on governmental authority, opposition to bulk data collection, an adversarial court process to insure stronger oversight, and greater transparency about government demands for private data.

  • At the Guardian, commentator Jeff Jarvis applauds the new initiative, but points out:

    Please note who is missing from the list – the signators are Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, Aol, Apple, LinkedIn. I see no telecom company there — Verizon, AT&T, Level 3, the companies allegedly in a position to hand over our communications data and enable governments to tap straight into internet traffic. Where is Amazon, another leader in the cloud whose founder, Jeff Bezos, now owns the Washington Post? Where are Cisco and other companies whose equipment is used to connect the net and by some governments to disconnect it? Where are the finance companies — eBay, Visa, American Express — that also know much about what we do?

  • Meanwhile, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) revealed that his investigation into law enforcement's use of cellphone data found more than 9,000 requests for "tower dumps"--which can included hundreds of thousands of calls bounced off a cell phone tower--last year. Phone companies often provide police with phone location data, web site addresses and search terms entered into people's cell phones. “Tower dumps violate the privacy of hundreds or thousands of innocent people at a time, most of whom will never learn their location information was obtained by the government in order to find the proverbial needle in the haystack,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

  • Ryan LIzza has a long and excellent feature in The New Yorker centered on Senator Ron Wyden's decade-long effort to rein in the NSA.

  • The NSA and GCHQ have spied on users of XBox Live, reports The Guardian's James Ball. "Real-life agents have been deployed into virtual realms, from those Orc hordes in World of Warcraft to the human avatars of Second Life," he writes.

  • The FBI has the ability to insert malware onto suspect's computers that not only tracks the target's web usage, it "can covertly download files, photographs and stored e-mails, or even gather real-time images by activating cameras connected to computers," without the person's awareness, The Washington Post's Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima reported Friday. Commented Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union: “We have transitioned into a world where law enforcement is hacking into people’s computers, and we have never had public debate. Judges are having to make up these powers as they go along.”

  • The Freedom of Press Foundation has launched a crowdfunding campaign to support encryption tools for journalists.

  • The ACLU has posted a hair-raising series of visualizations that illustrate what how all the location data being collected by the NSA could be used to uncover the private lives of Americans.

  • Edward Snowden is scheduled to appear by pre-recorded video before the European Parliament's civil liberties committee, around December 18.

In other news around the web:

  • announced that they've hit the 50 million user mark, touting more than 6,000 campaign victories across dozens of issues and countries. Forty percent of petitions win with less than 200 signatures, the company notes, proof that the long-tail of e-petition-powered politics is real.

  • Are Upworthy-style headlines suddenly everywhere because of how the Twitter-Facebook war for attention led to Facebook's recent tweaks to its News Feed algorithm? That's the argument Robinson Meyer makes in The Atlantic, and it's well worth a read.

  • The error rate on signups with insurers--those pesky 843 forms-- has dropped from 25% in October to 10% now, reports Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

  • Sarah Kaufman of NYU Wagner suggests that in the same way "positive train control" robotic systems can improve commuter train safety, we should consider similar safety measures for cars. "Cars should be operated more like trains, and both should reduce their reliance on unreliable humans," she writes.

  • Meanwhile, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-Media) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are calling for video cameras on trains to monitor conditions and operators.

  • A comparison of public surveys, social network self-identification, and state-by-state search data suggests that roughly five percent of American men are gay, but in states that don't support gay marriage, far fewer of them are "out" on Facebook while search data from Google and "casual encounter" data from Craigslist suggests there are a lot of unhappy closeted men living in those states. That's the takeaway from this fascinating article from Sunday's New York Times by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

  • Crisis Text Line, the SMS-based counseling service offshoot of, is sharing some findings from quarter-million messages it has received from teens since launching earlier this year, Rebecca Greenfield of Fast Company reports.

  • This article on Britain's "Ministry of Nudges" really should have called it Britain's Ministry of Silly Nudges, but read it anyway to learn how insights from behavioral economics are being embraced across the pond.

  • On Quartz, Miles Kimball makes the argument that the Hunger Games is our world.

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.


wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.


The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.


tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.


Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.


monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.


friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO