Technology is neither good or bad. It’s also not neutral. Network neutrality, a political rallying cry meant to motivate free-speech, free-culture, and innovation advocates, was reportedly betrayed by Google following the release of a Verizon-Google policy document on network management/neutrality. What the document reveals is that the two corporations, facing a (seemingly) impotent FCC, have gotten the ball rolling by suggesting a set of policies that the FCC could use in developing a network neutrality framework. Unfortunately, there has been little even-handed analysis of this document from the advocates of network neutrality; instead we have witnessed vitriol and over-the-top rhetoric. This is disappointing. While sensational headlines attract readers, they do little to actually inform the public about network neutrality in a detailed, granular, reasonable fashion. Verizon-Google have provided advocates with an opportunity to pointedly articulate their views while the public is watching, and this is not an opportunity that should be squandered with bitter and unproductive criticism.
I’m intending this to be the first of a few posts on network neutrality. In this post, I exclusively work through the principles suggested by Verizon-Google. In this first, and probationary, analysis I will draw on existing American regulatory language and lessons that might be drawn from the Canadian experience surrounding network management. My overall feel of the document published by Verizon-Google is that, in many ways, it’s very conservative insofar as it adheres to dominant North American regulatory approaches. My key suggestion is that instead of rejecting the principles laid out in their entirety we should carefully consider each in turn. During my examination, I hope to identify what principles and/or their elements could be usefully taken up into a government-backed regulatory framework that recognizes the technical, social, and economic potentials of America’s broadband networks.
Google Street View has come under fire again, this time for collecting wireless router information and some packets of data whilst wandering the globe and collecting pictures of our streets. It looks like the German authorities, in particular, may come down hard of Google though I’m at odds about the ‘calibre’ of the privacy violation – router information is fair game as far as I’m concerned, though data packets are a little dicier. But before I dig into that, let me outline what’s actually gone on.
Last Friday, Google announced that they had been inadvertently collecting some data packets sent via unencrypted wireless access points for the past three years. This admission came after the Street View program (again) came under criticism from German data protection authorities following Google’s (original, and earlier) admission that they had only been collecting information about wireless routers as they drove their cars around towns. Specifically, the original admission saw Google reveal they had collected the SSID and MAC addresses of routers. In layman’s terms, the SSID is the name of the wireless network that is usually given to the device during configuration processes following the installation of the device (e.g. Apartment 312, Pablo14, or any of the other names that are shown when you scan for wireless networks from your computer). The MAC address a unique number that is associated with each piece of Internet networking equipment; your wireless card in your computer, your LAN card, your router, and your iPhone all have unique numbers. After collecting both the SSID and MAC address of a wireless router the company identified the physical location of the device using a GPS system.
Google collects information about wireless networks and (almost more importantly) their physical location to provide a wifi-based geolocation system. Once they know where wireless routers are, and plot them on a map, you don’t need GPS to plan and trace a route through a city because a wireless card and low-powered computer will suffice. There are claims that this constitutes a privacy infringement, insofar as the correlation of SSID, MAC address, and physical location of the router constitute personal information. I’m not sure that I agree with this, as the Google service stands now.
I like to pretend that I’m somewhat web savvy, and that I can generally guess where links on large websites will take me. This apparently isn’t the case with Blogger – I have a Blogger account to occasionally comment on blogs in the Google blogsphere, but despise the service enough that I don’t use the service. I do, however, have an interest in Google’s newly released Dashboard that is intended to show users what Google knows about them, and how their privacy settings are configured.
Given that I don’t use Blogger much, I was amazed and pleased to see that there was a link to the Dashboard in the upper-right hand corner of a Blogger page that I was reading when I logged in. Was this really the moment where Google made it easy for end-users to identify their privacy settings?
Alas, no. If I were a regular Blogger user I probably would have known better. What I was sent to when I clicked ‘Dashboard’ was my user dashboard for the blogger service itself. This seems to be a branding issue; I had (foolishly!) assumed that various Google environments that serve very different purposes would be labeled differently. In naming multiple things ‘dashboard’ it obfuscates access to a genuinely helpful service that Google is now providing. (I’ll note that a search for ‘Google Dashboard’ also calls up the App Status Dashboard, and that Google Apps also has a ‘Dashboard’ tab!)
The above image was taken by a Google Streetcar. As is evident, all of the faces in the picture have been blurred in accordance with Google’s anonymization policy. I think that the image nicely works as a lightning rod to capture some of the criticisms and questions that have been arisen around Streetview:
- Does the Streetview image-taking process itself, generally, constitute a privacy violation of some sort?
- Are individuals’ privacy secured by just blurring faces?
- Is this woman’s privacy being violated/infringed upon in so way as a result of having her photo taken?
Google’s response is, no doubt, that individuals who feel that an image is inappropriate can contact the company and they will take the image offline. The problem is that this puts the onus on individuals, though we might be willing to affirm that Google recognizes photographic privacy as a social value, insofar as any member of society who sees this as a privacy infringement/violation can also ask Google to remove the image. Still, even in the latter case this ‘outsources’ privacy to the community and is a reactive, rather than a proactive, way to limit privacy invasions (if, in fact, the image above constitutes an ‘invasion’). Regardless of whether we want to see privacy as an individual or social value (or, better, as valuable both for individuals and society) we can perhaps more simply ponder whether blurring the face alone is enough to secure individuals’ privacy. Is anonymization the same as securing privacy?
I think about peer to peer (P2P) filesharing on a reasonably regular basis, for a variety of reasons (digital surveillance, copyright analysis and infringement, legal cases, value in efficiently mobilizing data, etc.). Something that always nags at me is the defense that P2P websites offer when they are sued by groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The defense goes something like this:
“We, the torrent website, are just an search engine. We don’t actually host the infringing files, we are just responsible for directing people to them. We’re no more guilty of copyright infringement than Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft are.”
Let’s set aside the fact that Google has been sued for infringing on copyright on the basis that it scrapes information from other websites, and instead turn our attention to the difference between what are termed ‘public’ and ‘private’ trackers. ‘Public’ trackers are available to anyone with a web connection and a torrent program. These sites do not require users to upload a certain amount of data to access the website – they are public, insofar as there are few/no requirements placed on users to access the torrent search engine and associated index. Registration is rarely required. Good examples at thepiratebay.org, and mininova.org. ‘Private’ trackers require users to sign up and log into the website before they can access the search engine and associated index of .torrent files. Moreover, private trackers usually require users to maintain a particular sharing ration – they must upload a certain amount of data that equals or exceeds the amount of data that they download. Failure to maintain the correct share ratio results in users being kicked off the site – they can no longer log into it and access the engine and index.
Don Reisinger’s posting on Pro-privacy initiatives are getting out of hand is a good read, even if I don’t think that he ‘gets’ the reason why privacy advocates are (should be?) concerned about Google Streetview. If you’ve been under a rock, Google is in the process of sending out cars (like the one at the top of this post) to photograph neighborhoods and cities. The aim? To let people actually see where they are going – get directions, and you can see the streets and the buildings that you’ll be passing by. It also lets you evaluate how ‘safe’ a neighborhood is (ignoring the social biases that will be involved in any such estimation) and has been talked about as a privacy violation because some people have been caught on camera doing things that they didn’t want to be caught doing.
Don: Privacy Wimps Stand Up, Sit Down, and Shut Up
Don’s general position is this: American law doesn’t protect your privacy in such a way that no one can get one or take a photo of your property. What’s more, even if you were doing something that you didn’t want to be seen in you home, and if that action was captured by a Google car, don’t worry – no one really cares about you. In the new digital era, privacy by obscurity relies on poor search, poor image recognition, and even less interest in what you’re doing. Effectively, Streetview will be used to watching streets, and little else.