Those who create and author technical systems can and do impose their politics, beliefs, and inclinations onto how technology is perceived, used, and understood. On the Internet, this unfortunately means that the technically savvy often recommend choices to users who are less knowledgeable. A number of these recommendations are tainted by existing biases, legal (mis)understandings, or stakeholder gamesmanship. In the case of website development firms, such as Weebly, recommendations can lead users to violate terms of service and legal provisions to the detriment of those users. In essence, bad advice from firms like Weebly can lead to harms befalling their blissfully ignorant users.
In this short post, I talk about how Weebly blatantly encourages its customers to conduct surveillance on websites without telling them of their obligations to notify website visitors that surveillance is being conducted. I also note how the company deceives those visiting Weebly’s own properties by obfuscating whether information is collected and who is involved in the collection of visitors’ data. I conclude by briefly noting that Google ought to behave responsibly and publicly call out, and lean on, the company to ensure that Google’s Analytics product is used responsibly and in concordance with its terms of service.
For the past several years, public advocates, academics, the privacy commissioners of Canada, and members of the Canadian Parliament have all voiced concerns about proposed lawful access legislation. There are generally three types of ‘powers’ associated with such legislation: (1) enhanced search and seizure provisions; (2) increased interception of privacy communications powers; (3) production of subscriber data. During the last election cycle, Stephen Harper assured Canadians that within 100 sitting days lawful access provisions would be passed, along with other legislation, in an omnibus crime bill. Lawful access legislation has not been fully debated in the House or Senate, and has significant implications for the future of anonymity and privacy on the Internet, while simultaneously expanding police powers without a clearly demonstrated need to expand such powers.
Working from the most recent lawful access bills, which died when the last election was called, advocates and academics have come together to send a letter of concerns to Prime Minister Harper. Our concerns are as follows:
- The ease by which Canadians’ Internet service providers, social networks, and even their handsets and cars will be turned into tools to spy on their activities further to production and preservation orders in former Bill C‐51 – a form of spying that is bound to have serious chilling effects on online activity and communications, implicating fundamental rights and freedoms
- The minimal and inadequate amount of external oversight in place to ensure that the powers allotted in these bills are not abused
- Clause 16 of former Bill C‐52, which will allow law enforcement to force identification of anonymous online Internet users, even where there is no reason to suspect the information will be useful to any investigation and without adequate court oversight and
- The manner in which former Bill C‐52 paves the way to categorical secrecy orders that will further obscure how the sweeping powers granted in it are used and that are reminiscent of elements of the USA PATRIOT Act that were found unconstitutional.
On a final note, we object that Canadians will be asked to foot the bill for all this, in what essentially amounts to a hidden e‐surveillance tax, and are concerned that compliance will further impede the ability of smaller telecommunications service providers to compete in Canada by saddling them with disproportionate costs.
It is of critical import that the lawful access provisions of the omnibus crime bill are shaved off into their own batch of legislation and are afforded their own debates and hearings. Failing to do otherwise would underplay how much the bills’ massive expansions of surveillance capacities might impact the Internet in Canada, and digital communications in this country more generally. If you want to learn more about the concerns listed above, you can read the full letter that was sent to the PMO (.pdf), and you can take action by voicing your concerns at the Stop Online Spying website. Sign the petition located there and then contact your MP: it is only by demonstrating public interest and concern in these bills that they might be clarified, reformed, and potentially prevented from being brought forward in the first place.
There are ongoing concerns in Canada about the CRTC’s capacity to gauge and evaluate the quality of Internet service that Canadians receive. This was most recently brought to the fore when the CRTC announced that Canada ranked second to Japan in broadband access speeds. Such a stance is PR spin and, as noted by Peter Nowak, “[o]nly in the halcyon world of the CRTC, where the sky is purple and pigs can fly, could that claim possibly be true.” This head-in-the-sands approach to understanding the Canadian broadband environment, unfortunately, is similarly reflective in the lack of a federal digital strategy and absolutely inadequate funding for even the most basic governmental cyber-security.
To return the CRTC from the halcyon world it is presently stuck within, and establish firm empirical data to guide a digital economic strategy, the Government of Canada should establish a framework to audit ISPs’ infrastructure and network practices. Ideally this would result in an independent body that could examine the quality and speed of broadband throughout Canada. Their methodology and results would be publicly published and could assure all parties – businesses, citizens, and consumers – that they could trust or rely upon ISPs’ infrastructure. Importantly, having an independent body research and publish data concerning Canadian broadband would relieve companies and consumers from having to assume this role, freeing them to use the Internet for productive (rather than watchdog-related) purposes.
Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) is a challenging, if flawed, book. Vaidhyanathan’s central premise is that we should work to influence or regulate search systems like Google (and, presumably, Yahoo! and Bing) to take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge to us, the citizens of the world. In addition to pursuing this premise, the book tries to deflate the hyperbole around contemporary technical systems by arguing against notions of technological determinism/utopianism.
As I will discuss, the book largely succeeds in pointing to reasons why regulation is an important policy instrument to keep available. The book also attempts to situate itself within the science and technology studies field, and here it is less successful. Ultimately, while Vaidhyanathan offers insight into Google itself – its processes, products, and implications of using the company’s systems – he is less successful in digging into the nature of technology, Google, culture, and society at a theoretical level. This leaves the reader with an empirical understanding of the topic matter without significant analytic resources to unpack the theoretical significance of their newfound empirical understandings.