Crushing online censorship

It’s absolutely unacceptable that social media monopolies are allowed to engage in politically motivated censorship and deplatforming of Americans. Finally, action is being taken to address that:

Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship

Issued on: May 28, 2020

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Policy. Free speech is the bedrock of American democracy. Our Founding Fathers protected this sacred right with the First Amendment to the Constitution. The freedom to express and debate ideas is the foundation for all of our rights as a free people.

In a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression, we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand pick the speech that Americans may access and convey on the internet. This practice is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic. When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power. They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators.

The growth of online platforms in recent years raises important questions about applying the ideals of the First Amendment to modern communications technology. Today, many Americans follow the news, stay in touch with friends and family, and share their views on current events through social media and other online platforms. As a result, these platforms function in many ways as a 21st century equivalent of the public square.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see.

As President, I have made clear my commitment to free and open debate on the internet. Such debate is just as important online as it is in our universities, our town halls, and our homes. It is essential to sustaining our democracy.

Online platforms are engaging in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse. Tens of thousands of Americans have reported, among other troubling behaviors, online platforms “flagging” content as inappropriate, even though it does not violate any stated terms of service; making unannounced and unexplained changes to company policies that have the effect of disfavoring certain viewpoints; and deleting content and entire accounts with no warning, no rationale, and no recourse.

Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias. As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet. As recently as last week, Representative Adam Schiff was continuing to mislead his followers by peddling the long-disproved Russian Collusion Hoax, and Twitter did not flag those tweets. Unsurprisingly, its officer in charge of so-called ‘Site Integrity’ has flaunted his political bias in his own tweets.

At the same time online platforms are invoking inconsistent, irrational, and groundless justifications to censor or otherwise restrict Americans’ speech here at home, several online platforms are profiting from and promoting the aggression and disinformation spread by foreign governments like China. One United States company, for example, created a search engine for the Chinese Communist Party that would have blacklisted searches for “human rights,” hid data unfavorable to the Chinese Communist Party, and tracked users determined appropriate for surveillance. It also established research partnerships in China that provide direct benefits to the Chinese military. Other companies have accepted advertisements paid for by the Chinese government that spread false information about China’s mass imprisonment of religious minorities, thereby enabling these abuses of human rights. They have also amplified China’s propaganda abroad, including by allowing Chinese government officials to use their platforms to spread misinformation regarding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to undermine pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

As a Nation, we must foster and protect diverse viewpoints in today’s digital communications environment where all Americans can and should have a voice. We must seek transparency and accountability from online platforms, and encourage standards and tools to protect and preserve the integrity and openness of American discourse and freedom of expression.

YouTube deletes Wittkowski interview

On April 14, I posted a video interview with epidemiologist Knut Wittkowski, former head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design at Rockefeller University — you know, just your garden-variety internet conspiracy theorist. YouTube has now deleted that video for unclear reasons, perhaps because Wittkowski takes the unconventional view that coronavirus is basically a normal respiratory virus similar to the flu — an idea that obviously cannot be permitted on YouTube because it might lead people to question the wisdom of China-style lockdown policies in the West, and even to violate those policies through reckless and irresponsible acts of social de-distancing, and worst of all, to refuse to let Bill Gates, the avuncular and benevolent software vendor, stick a needle in their arm — and we can’t have that because then, well, MILLIONS OF PEOPLE WILL DIEEEE!!!!

So anyway, here’s the same video hosted on the website of the American Institute for Economic Research. Long may it live there, out of reach of Susan Wojcicki’s censorious hand.

And as a bonus, here’s a new interview with Wittkowski in Spiked, the British internet magazine. Some highlights below (emphasis added):

spiked: How far along is the epidemic?

Wittkowski: It is over in China. It is over in South Korea. It is substantially down in most of Europe and down a bit everywhere, even in the UK. The UK and Belarus are latecomers, so you do not see exactly what you are seeing in continental Europe. But everywhere in Europe, the number of cases is substantially declining.

spiked: Have our interventions made much of an impact?

Wittkowski: When the whole thing started, there was one reason given for the lockdown and that was to prevent hospitals from becoming overloaded. There is no indication that hospitals could ever have become overloaded, irrespective of what we did. So we could open up again, and forget the whole thing.

I hope the intervention did not have too much of an impact because it most likely made the situation worse. The intervention was to ‘flatten the curve’. That means that there would be the same number of cases but spread out over a longer period of time, because otherwise the hospitals would not have enough capacity. (…)

spiked: Were hospitals likely to be overrun?

Wittkowski: Germany had 8,000 deaths in a population of 85million. They had 20,000 to 30,000 hospitalisations. In Germany, that is nothing. It does not even show up as a blip in the hospital statistics. In Britain, the highest hospital utilisation was about 60 per cent, if I am not mistaken.

In New York City, it was a bit higher. The Javits Congress Center was turned into a field hospital with 3,000 beds. It treated just 1,000 patients in all. The Navy ship sent to New York by President Trump had 179 patients but it was sent back because it was not needed. New York is the epicenter of the epidemic in the United States, and even here at the epicenter, hospital utilisation was only up a bit. Nothing dramatic. Nothing out of the ordinary. That is what happens during the flu season. People have the flu, and then there are more patients in the hospitals than there otherwise would be.

spiked: Are we on the way to reaching herd immunity?

Wittkowski: All the studies that have been done have shown that we already have at least 25 per cent of the population who are immune. That gives us a nice cushion. If 25 per cent of the population are already immune, we are very quickly getting to the 50 per cent that we need to have what is called herd immunity. We will actually get a bit higher than that. So we have flattened what otherwise would have been a peak, and if we now let it run, even if the number of cases would increase a bit, it would not get as high as it was, because we already have enough immune people in the population. So it is not going to spread as fast as it could have spread in the beginning. (…)

spiked: Should people practice social distancing?

Wittkowski: No.

spiked: Why not?

Wittkowski: Why? What is the justification for that? People need to ask the government for an explanation. The government is restricting freedom. You do not have to ask me for justification. There is no justification. It is the government that has to justify what it is doing. Sorry, but that is how it is. (…)

spiked: The UK government was also heavily influenced by the situation in Italy. Why did that go so wrong?

Wittkowski: What we saw in Italy was that the virus was hitting those who were both old and had comorbidities, so lots of people died. But the median age of those who died in Italy was around 81 years. It is not that children or working people were dying. It was the elderly in nursing homes – not even the elderly living by themselves mostly. We saw lots of deaths and that scared people. But then, Italy did an illogical thing. It closed schools so that the schoolchildren were isolated and did not get infected and did not become immune. Instead, the virus spread almost exclusively among the old, causing more deaths and a higher utilisation of hospitals. And that is mind-boggling. (…)

One third of all deaths in New York State were in nursing homes. One could have prevented 20,000 deaths in the United States by just isolating the nursing homes. After three or four weeks, they could have reopened and everybody would be happy.

That would have been a reasonable strategy. But shutting down schools, driving the economy against the wall – there was no reason for it. The only reason that this nonsense now goes on and on, and people are inventing things like this ‘second wave’, which is going to force us to change society and never live again, is that the politicians are afraid of admitting an error.

Censorship protection racket

People.cn

There’s a lot of money to be made by offering censorship services, at least if you’re China’s main state-owned newspaper:

While most global news companies are struggling to survive in the internet world, China’s official media is having a golden era.

One of the bright spots on the A-share market these days is People.cn, the online version of the People’s Daily, whose shares surged 243% in the past month to a four-year high.

In 12 of the last 15 trading sessions, the shares of the Communist Party mouthpiece surged to a daily limit of 10%. The Shanghai-listed company now has a market capitalization of 34.74 billion yuan (US$5.18 billion), or an incredible 380 times historic earnings. […]

People.cn is tasked with censoring the content of the online media from the major platforms operated by internet giants such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

This was virtually a licensed insurance business for online media in the age of increasingly tighter control from Beijing.

Apparently, People.cn charges service fees to the internet giants to help them scrub their platforms of content that might be offensive to the Party. Of course, this is a bit circular since People.cn is an organ of said Party. Nice website you got there… be a shame if anything happened to it.

Prevent

The home of the Magna Carta continues its transition into Airstrip One, as the University of Reading warns students reading a Marxist essay on political violence that the authorities might be watching:

Part of a larger anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent was designed to prevent radicalization and seeks to monitor supposedly vulnerable people for evidence of extremism in the materials they peruse and the ideology they express. The idea is that, once identified, these individuals can be steered by authorities away from negative outcomes. […]

Primarily targeted at potential recruits to Islamist terrorist groups, but also at Northern Ireland-style sectarian violence and extreme right-wing terrorism, Prevent suffered mission-creep pretty much right out of the gate. In 2015, a politics student at the University of East Anglia was interrogated by police after reading assigned material in an ISIS-related publication.

The kid clicked a problematic link, which was thereafter removed from the course materials.

Younger students are being scooped up for alleged radicalization, too. In 2016-17, 272 children under 15 years of age and 328 youngsters between ages 15 and 20 were flagged under the Prevent program “over suspected right-wing terrorist beliefs.” The proportion of individuals referred to government officials “as a result of far-right concerns has risen from a quarter in 2015 to 2016 to over a third in 2016 to 2017,” according to Britain’s Home Office, so that likely represents only a fraction of young people questioned and “mentored” for their suspected ideological deviance.

Under 15 years of age? Guess you have to nip these things in the bud.

Where do these referrals come from? Well, anybody can contact the authorities, but the situation is complicated by the duty the law imposes on both public and private institutions to report people seen as being at risk of radicalization, with very little guidance as to what that means beyond cover-your-ass. The imposition of the duty resulted in a surge in referrals by schools to the authorities.

Informing on your fellow citizens for potential thoughtcrimes is just part and parcel of living in a country full of extremists. Comrade Pavlik would have approved.

“Laws such as this restrict the core democratic right to freedom of expression,” a legal analysis published last year in the Utrecht Journal of International and European Law charges. It “indicates a concerning trend of liberal States embracing opportunities to impose severe restrictions on ‘extreme’ speech.” […]

Parliament is currently considering a Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill that would go beyond monitoring people for extremist ideology and hauling them in for questioning. The proposed legislation would criminalize voicing support for banned organizations, and even make it illegal to view or otherwise access information “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing acts of terrorism.”

I would say this defies belief, but sadly, it all fits a familiar pattern. Outlawing speech in defense of an organization is the sort of thing one would normally associate with, say, Cuba or North Korea, but it seems the British have met Big Brother and he is them. Seriously, what is happening in Britain is almost as bad as the garden-variety repression seen in certain dictatorships. Not quite as bad, but moving in that direction fast.

If hauling students in for questioning because they clicked a link to “extremist” material sounds like something out of Orwell, Facebook’s AI monitoring system could have been ripped out of a Philip K Dick story:

A year ago, Facebook started using artificial intelligence to scan people’s accounts for danger signs of imminent self-harm.

Facebook Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis is pleased with the results so far.

“In the very first month when we started it, we had about 100 imminent-response cases,” which resulted in Facebook contacting local emergency responders to check on someone. But that rate quickly increased.

“To just give you a sense of how well the technology is working and rapidly improving … in the last year we’ve had 3,500 reports,” she says. That means AI monitoring is causing Facebook to contact emergency responders an average of about 10 times a day to check on someone — and that doesn’t include Europe, where the system hasn’t been deployed. (That number also doesn’t include wellness checks that originate from people who report suspected suicidal behavior online.) […]

In the U.S., Facebook’s call usually goes to a local 911 center, as illustrated in its promotional video.

I don’t see how the quantity of emergency calls proves that the system is working well. It could just as easily indicate rampant false positives.

More importantly, is this a technology that we really want to work “well”? As the article points out, “There may soon be a temptation to use this kind of AI to analyze social media chatter for signs of imminent crimes — especially retaliatory violence.”

There is a well-known story and movie that explores the concept of pre-crime. Do we really want to go there? And just as AIs patrol Facebook for signs of suicidal tendencies and Community Standards-violating speech, will AIs also be used to augment the growing efforts by governments in Britain and elsewhere to flag, investigate and prosecute people who read the wrong materials and think the wrong thoughts?

Facebook Zuckerberg VR dystopia

Google fails to not be evil

Google devil

“Google” by William Blake

Now we know why Google has scrubbed almost all mention of “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct:

Google bosses have forced employees to delete a confidential memo circulating inside the company that revealed explosive details about a plan to launch a censored search engine in China, The Intercept has learned.

The memo, authored by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the project, disclosed that the search system, codenamed Dragonfly, would require users to log in to perform searches, track their location — and share the resulting history with a Chinese partner who would have “unilateral access” to the data. […]

The memo identifies at least 215 employees who appear to have been tasked with working full-time on Dragonfly, a number it says is “larger than many Google projects.” It says that source code associated with the project dates back to May 2017, and “many infrastructure parts predate” that. Moreover, screenshots of the app “show a project in a pretty advanced state,” the memo declares.

Most of the details about the project “have been secret from the start,” the memo says, adding that “after the existence of Dragonfly leaked, engineers working on the project were also quick to hide all of their code.”

It’s pretty simple, if you want to operate in China you have to play by the CPC’s rules. There is no way for Google to do that while successfully upholding the values it pretends to care about. Hence the secrecy.