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First POST: Self-censorship

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, December 16 2013


  • The NSA doesn't "spy" on Americans. It just collects and keeps the phone records of everyone, going back five years. But General Keith Alexander insisted to 60 Minutes that that was not spying.

  • Also, in a new claim for the NSA, Alexander told 60 Minutes that it had foiled a plot to take over computers in America, which could have "impact[ed] and destroy[ed] major portions of our financial system."

  • A top NSA official alsohas told 60 Minutes that he would consider recommending amnesty for Edward Snowden in exchange for documents that have not yet been given to journalists. Though Snowden has said he gave all the documents he downloaded to journalists, the NSA apparently believes he has access to more.

  • 60 Minutes got lots of flak on Twitter from the likes of Glenn Greenwald, Tim Karr of Free Press, Amy Davidson of the New Yorker, and Jay Rosen for its fairly uncritical story on the NSA.

  • “What’s clear is that tracking technologies have outpaced democratic controls,” Ben Wizner, the director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the A.C.L.U., told Nick Bilton of the New York Times. “What we’ve learned this year is that agencies are determined to conduct surveillance on us, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.” He added, on a more optimistic note:

    “This may be one of those once-in-a-generation moments when we recalibrate the powers of the citizens and the state. And that change can happen on the technological side, where the technologists that are disillusioned by the incessant tracking will use their skills to make surveillance more costly.”

  • With facial recognition software getting better and better, a movement has begun to counter its powers. One example, CV Dazzle, or anti-face fashion, was featured in Sunday's New York Times.

  • Facebook keeps track of the posts you don't publish, which it calls "self-censorship." That's according to a paper by two Facebook researchers uncovered by Jennifer Golbeck of Slate. Why do they care? Golbeck reports, the researchers

    "argue that self-censorship can be bad because it withholds valuable information. If someone chooses not to post, they claim, "[Facebook] loses value from the lack of content generation." After all, Facebook shows you ads based on what you post. Furthermore, they argue that it’s not fair if someone decides not to post because he doesn't want to spam his hundreds of friends—a few people could be interested in the message. "Consider, for example, the college student who wants to promote a social event for a special interest group, but does not for fear of spamming his other friends—some of who may, in fact, appreciate his efforts,” they write.

  • Joshua Kopstein takes a close look in The New Yorker at various efforts to revive the decentralized Internet, including ArkOS, Diaspora, Freedom Box, Mailpile, Bitcoin, Bitmessage, and Namecoin.

  • For on the decentralized Internet movement, check out

In other news around the web:

  • Kenneth Vogel reports for Politico on Ready for Hillary's quiet efforts to get a jump on the Big Data campaign for 2016, hiring NGP-VAN for a massive voter file project.

    We're looking forward to this bill getting read out on the House floor. The 416d65726963612043616e20436f646520 Act of 2013, also known as the America Can Code Act," introduced by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Cute), is aimed at pushing the teaching of computer science in schools as early as kindergarden. “416d65726963612043616e20436f646520” is the hexadecimal code translation of “America Can Code.”

  • Techies need to become better urbanists, writes Allison Arieff in the New York Times. Noting that when big tech companies like Google and Twitter settle in urban cores, they tend to both throw local rents out of joint (leading to more evictions) and keep their employees ensconced in their own private quarters, she writes, "they might as well have stayed in their suburban corporate settings for the interacting they do with the outside world." She points to some good examples too, like Zendesk and 5M.

  • Talk to your browser: That is, if you're using Chrome. The future envisioned in Star Trek, when you talk to your computer and it understand you? Maybe not that far off.

  • Alan Feuer explores "The Bitcoin ideology," finding a lot of libertarianism, some anarchism and some humanitarianism too.

  • NPR is announcing $17 million in new grants, almost $10 million of which will pay for building a "seamless local-national listening platform."

  • Tickets for Personal Democracy Forum 2014, taking place June 5-6 in New York City, are on sale now. Early-bird prices are the best time to buy and the supply is limited.

News Briefs

RSS Feed tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


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.