Bradley Manning’s Day In Court

Posted December 16th, 2011 at 10:42 pm (UTC-4)

The Alleged Wikileaks Leaker Is Arraigned

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

For the last year and a half, U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning has sat alone in a prison cell. A variety of prison cells, to be exact.

Pvt. Bradley Manning, shortly before his arrest in Baghdad, 2010

In Spring 2010, the military identified Manning as the source of several high profile leaks on the Wikileaks website. Among the classified leaks Manning is said to have provided: the “Collateral Murder” video of a Army helicopter strike in Iraq in 2007, the “Iraq War Logs” and the massive release of State Department diplomatic cables. (Manning has never confessed to these charges, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has refused to identify his source for the documents.)

The shy, some say troubled, young Army private was first taken into military custody May 26 in Baghdad and held in an undisclosed location, widely reported to be Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. In July of that year, Manning was transferred to a maximum security military brig at the Marine Corps’ base in Quantico, Virginia, on charges of copying secure documents to his computer and transferring them to unauthorized sources.

For eight months, little happened while Manning sat in solitary confinement in his 6′ by 12′ cell, unable to see anyone including his defense team. Then in March 2011, he was charged with 22 specific crimes, including theft, fraud and “aiding the enemy.” One month later, the group Amnesty International and several legal scholars labeled Manning’s isolation “harsh, punitive,” and in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That same month, the military moved Manning to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he has remained until today when he was brought to Fort Meade, outside Washington DC, for formal arraignment.

It was his first day in public view for 18 months.


Manning, Wikileaks, And The Price of Secrecy

Friday’s hearing,technically an “Article 32 Inquest,” is the military’s equivalent of a preliminary hearing, where the military court determines if there is enough evidence to proceed with a full court martial proceeding. (VOA’s Bill Ide has our report on the proceedings here, and Nico Columbant has this report on Manning’s supporters.) It’s a long and sometimes grueling process, but it’s only the start of Manning’s legal woes. The Justice Department has also brought a case against him in civilian court, and several other governments are considering charging him with national security violations.

And he’s not the only one.

While Bradley Manning has never formally admitted guilt to passing documents to Wikileaks, a series of email chats in 2010 with hacker-journalist Adrian Lamo seem to be both confession and accusation:

12:15:11 PM Manning: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time … say, 8-9 months … and you saw incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC … what would you do? …
12:26:09 PM Manning: lets just say *someone* i know intimately well, has been penetrating US classified networks, mining data like the ones described … and been transferring that data from the classified networks over the “air gap” onto a commercial network computer … sorting the data, compressing it, encrypting it, and uploading it to a crazy white haired aussie who can’t seem to stay in one country very long =L …
12:31:43 PM Manning: crazy white haired dude = Julian Assange …

“Treat this as a confession or an interview,” Lamo wrote. Manning continued to text the next day:

02:22:47 PM, Manning: i mean what if i were someone more malicious
02:23:25 PM, Manning: i could’ve sold to russia or china, and made bank?
02:23:36 PM, Lamo: why didn’t you?
02:23:58 PM, Manning: because it’s public data …

Since he launched the Wikileaks website in 2006, Julian Assange – the “crazy white haired aussie” – has been giving governments around the world fits. Starting as an international whistle-blower site, Wikileaks published leaked documents on Icelandic banking, Kenyan corruption and celebrity misdeeds. But along the way it became largely focused on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; and by extension, the U.S. government.

The Obama administration has been trying to make the case that Assange and others actively assisted Manning in his leaking. The Justice Department has subpoened Twitter records from Wikileaks supporters – including Icelandic member of parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir – and Assange’s U.S. attorney, Mark Stephens, has alleged there is a secret grand jury seated to charge Assange with violating the Espionage Act. (U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder neither confirms or denies this, saying only that “significant actions” have been authorized.)

But as Raffi Khatchadourian documented in The New Yorker, such efforts have produced few results. Assange has steadfastly denied any conspiracy with Manning, and despite his own legal troubles with Swedish and British authorities, the U.S. has not been able to get any charges to stick to Assange.

Not that it hasn’t cost him, or Wikileaks. Under pressure from Washington, major credit card companies have suspended all supporter donations to the group. Although it continues to publish, just last week launching the so-called “Spy Files” project, Wikileaks’ leadership has begun to fray. As for Assange, he’s spent over one year largely confined to house arrest in Britain, and in his rare public appearances seems noticeably worn.

A Confined Future

Considering the unprecedented size of the secrecy breach, and the significant embarrassment caused to the U.S. government, it’s a sure bet that Bradley Manning will spend the rest of life behind bars. The larger issues remain untested: who is a journalist, what constitutes a secret, and how can they be stopped once they’re out there on the Internet?

The Pentagon and State Department have tightened access and constricted their use of the SIPRnet computer network Manning used to access military logs and diplomatic cables. And the Defense Department has launched several initiatives, one of them called “PRODIGAL,” to catch would-be snoops and leakers.

But leaks are unavoidable, as the Pentagon well knows. And in the Internet era, plugging the leak once it has begun can be next to impossible.

Bradley Manning’s military trial is expected to begin in earnest sometime in the Spring. Until then, he will make his home back in his prison cell at Fort Leavenworth.



Our complete Wikileaks coverage can be found here.

The Web and The Kremlin

Posted December 14th, 2011 at 5:18 pm (UTC-4)

The Internet and Social Media Snap at Putin

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

There are few things worse for a politician than losing an election. One of those is being mocked.

Just ask Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  In late November, two weeks before parliamentary elections, Putin decided to appear on live television to introduce a wrestling match. It was just the type of stage-managed, machismo-heavy photo opportunity that had been typical for Putin.  But there was an unexpected problem: the crowd.

As soon as Putin stepped into the ring, a chorus of boos rose from the crowd. Putin continued, but as video of the event shows, every time he tried to speak louder, the audience raised the volume of raucous hoots.

Embarrassing, but manageable. After all, the Kremlin has effectively been censoring stories on Russian radio and TV for years. But there was another unexpected problem; this time, it was the Internet.

The “Putin boo” clip went viral online, popping up and spreading via social networks faster than the Kremlin could swat it down. Satirists stepped forward and began to mock the Prime Minister as a frightened little boy, while critics seemed to lose fear of the heavy-handed Putin.

And things would only get worse for Mr. Putin from there, due in large measure to the Internet.


Putin’s “Power Vertical” Challenged

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev (AP)

When he first won office last decade, Putin spoke of creating a “power vertical” – meaning integrated and functional control of all of the tools of modern politics, including political parties, finances, the courts and the media. Coming on the heels of the chaotic Yeltsin years, it was neither surprising nor unwelcome.

In the years since, Putin and his associates have worked to consolidate power within the Kremlin by punishing opponents, muting dissent and tightly controlling the message. So complete was his power vertical that few analysts predicted his United Russia party would actually earn less than 50% of the vote on December 4. Fewer still predicted the swelling outrage over the questionable vote and the resulting mass protests across Russia, and nobody foresaw the entry of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as challenger to Putin in next March’s presidential election. Very suddenly, things appear to be unraveling.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving. Discontent has been growing in Russia for several years, sharpening its focus with President Dmitri Medvedev’s recent decision seemingly to hand power back to Putin. And it’s hard to imagine any way that Putin will not win election against the untested and unpopular Prokhorov. Still, there’s no doubting it’s a different world for Putin and United Russia, and that’s due in some measure to the web.


The “Power Horizontal” Speaks Up

The day after last weekend’s massive street protests, President Medvedev posted this on his Facebook page:

“Under the Constitution, citizens of Russia have freedom of speech and freedom of Assembly. People have a right to express their position that they did yesterday. Well, that all took place within the framework of the law. I do not agree with any slogans or statements made at rallies. Nevertheless, I have been instructed to check all messages with polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections.”

A fairly bland comment, but one nonetheless that prompted an outpouring of bile and anger at the President. Over 16,000 comments have been left so far, very few of them positive. In fact, it appears Medvedev’s effort to reach out online has bitten him on the hand, re-energizing those who mistrust their government. As a social media tactic, it was flat footed…just like much of the Kremlin’s dealing with the web. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t consider it a serious threat.

Russian blogger Aleksei Navalny (Photo: Alexey Yushenkov/wikipedia)

Among the most influential protest leaders to emerge isn’t a politician, but jailed blogger Aleksei Navalny, whose LiveJournal blog attracts upward of a million hits a day. As VOA’s James Brooke notes in “Russia Watch Navalny has remained a powerful mouthpiece for the growing discontent, first describing United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves” in a phrase that has become a rallying cry (all this while he has been sitting in prison). Our colleague Brian Whitmore, of RFE/RL’s “The Power Vertical” blog writes:

“Putin famously created Russia’s power vertical, the rigid top-down power structure that brought a semblance of order at the expense of the democratic process. But he also, unwittingly perhaps, created a ‘power horizontal’ — a highly educated, prosperous, and wired middle class that is now clamoring for its rights. This Other Russia has shown its face to the world — and it isn’t going away any time soon.”

The BBC, among others, reports of a flood of fake Twitter traffic aimed at drowning out Russians tweeting with each other about past and future protests, traffic that seems to be coming from a Russian botnet. And on Wednesday this week, the head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said that the Internet must be subject to “reasonable regulation” – a clear signal that Moscow is tiring of criticism coming from the web and intends to crack down.


Free Speech of Slacktivism?

It’s unlikely a blogger can bring down a government, or that social networks like Facebook or VKontakte can uproot entrenched power structures by themselves. That didn’t happen in the so-called Arab Spring, and it won’t happen in Russia.

But what they did accomplish in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere was to help organize protest and dissent into a more coherent, focused effort. Egypt’s largest mass protests happened only after authorities shut down access to the Internet, but they wouldn’t have taken that step if the web didn’t present a clear challenge to their authority. “Slacktivism” – the casual use of the web to register displeasure but accomplish little else – may make a discontented voter feel better momentarily, but it won’t change the cause of the discontent.

Nobody – or nobody here at least – is predicting what may happen in Russia. But as we’ve noted before, the web takes as much as it gives, and autocrats can use it just as effectively as protesters.

Luke Allnutt, over at RFE/RL’s must-read “Tangled Web” blog, writes that the Kremlin is growing increasingly savvy about how to deal with the Internet, turning what appears to be free speech it to its own advantage:

“For a regime under pressure, addressing some of your key constituents (many of them middle-class and tech-savvy) on one of their key platforms, Facebook, and allowing them to vent seems to be a savvy way of tweaking the release valves. It presents the impression at least that the Russian authorities are listening to the people’s concerns. The Kremlin has always been as concerned with narrative-shaping as it has been with crude censorship.”

Vladimir Putin has learned the hard way that the Internet isn’t always your friend. He may also be learning how to make it an ally.

Who’s Buying All the Spy Gear?

Posted December 10th, 2011 at 1:06 pm (UTC-4)

The Full Truth Is Hard To Know

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Five times a year, in cities as diverse as Prague, Washington, Brasilia, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, thousands of buyers and sellers of electronic gear gather for a series of events that have come to be known as “The Wiretapper’s Ball.”  On display are some of the most sophisticated electronic products available that allow for practically any kind of electronic surveillance, from monitoring and intercepting mobile phone calls to recording user’s web traffic and physically locating individuals to within a meter. The manufacturers are ready to sell, and the thousands of governments and other organizations that attend are eager to buy.

While many of the products are not for public discussion, their existence is hardly a secret. Writing in the Washington Post recently, reporters Sari Horwitz, Shyamantha Asokan and Julie Tate found over 35 U.S. government agencies registered to attend the Washington surveillance conference. They were only outnumbered by those peddling their high-tech wares:

“One German company, DigiTask, offers a suitcase-size device capable of monitoring Web use on public WiFi networks, such as those at cafes, airports and hotels. A lawyer representing the company, Winfried Seibert, declined to elaborate on its products. ‘They won’t answer questions about what is offered,’ he said. ‘That’s a secret. That’s a secret between the company and the customer.'”

But just who are those customers, and what kind of technology is being made available to governments around the world? Wiretapper Ball coordinator Jerry Lucas says clearly repressive governments such as Syria, Iran and North Korea are not allowed at the events, but that’s no guarantee these advanced technologies don’t wind up in those places.

There are no solid estimates for the size of the international surveillance industry.  However it involves hundreds of firms – many based in the United States, Germany, Britain and Israel – and thousands of clients, including corporations, police forces and governments. Tracking where all that technology flows is tricky, and that’s raising alarms among human rights organizations. For example, following the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, rebels documented advanced surveillance equipment used by those governments to monitor and track rebels’ online activities.

More recently, Internet monitors have learned that surveillance equipment from two U.S. firms, NetApp and Blue Coat Systems, have been installed and are being used by Syrian officials to unknown ends; U.S. Senators Robert Casey and Mark Kirk have requested an investigation. And last month the Italian tech firm Area SpA announced it was halting development of a surveillance project in Syria that, if finished, would have given Damascus “…the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country.”

In a new document release this week, the group Wikileaks has compiled a public database it calls “The Spy Files.” Sorted by factors such as manufacturer, year of contract and products offered, the “Spy Files” document what Wikileaks founder Julian Assange calls the unregulated spread of the “mass surveillance industry”:

“International surveillance companies are based in the more technologically sophisticated countries, and they sell their technology on to every country of the world. This industry is, in practice, unregulated. Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities are able to silently, and on mass [sic] .. secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers. Users’ physical location can be tracked if they are carrying a mobile phone, even if it is only on standby.”

160 firms in all are listed in the “Spy Files,” along with brief specs of their products and details of some of their customers. There’s also a searchable map for further research.

And while it is illegal to sell high-tech equipment to those nations hit with sanctions, such as Iran or Burma, those sanctions are often a nation-by-nation patchwork, and no guarantee that some middleman won’t legally buy surveillance equipment from one firm, and then transfer it to a banned nation.

But privacy advocates want more, including a comprehensive global agreement that would heavily regulate who can buy what sort of equipment. Until then, however, the global surveillance market will likely remain healthy, if shadowy.

You can read more on the Wikileaks “Spy Files” here at Technorati, and here at Forbes.  Also, the French media company OWNI has this deeper look at how Western-made surveillance equipment was used by the Gaddhafi government to spy on and track rebel activities.  It’s well worth the read.

Finally, although you can’t attend, you can view the “Wiretapper’s Ball” ISS Mideast conference agenda online here.



UPDATE: SMS vs. the King

Posted December 6th, 2011 at 7:30 pm (UTC-4)

Thailand’s Expanding Crackdown on Free Speech and Lese Majeste

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

UPDATE, December 7, 2011: A Thai court has sentenced American citizen Joe Gordon to 2 1/2 years in Thai prison for admitting to posting weblinks to a banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej which was found to violate lese majeste. The 55-year-old American of Thai descent originally pleaded not guilty, but following years of delay and time spent in a dank Thai prison, Gordon agreed to a guilty plea for a reduced sentence. He may leave earlier, if the King grants him a royal pardon.

The offending book? “The King Never Smiles,” by Paul Harvey, available here and booksellers worldwide.

Due to the sensitive nature of this story and current Thai law, readers in Thailand are advised to use anonymizing programs such as Tor before clicking on any links.

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, FILE)

Clicking “Like” on Facebook has never been so risky. At least, that’s what Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication would have you believe.

In an odd warning issued to Facebook users around the globe, Information Minister Anudith Nakornthap said last week that clicking “Share” or “Like” on any item deemed insulting to the Thai royal family would open up that user to criminal prosecution. And that means anyone using Facebook, wherever they may be in the world. Except, Anudith admitted to the Associated Press, those charged would have to voluntarily come to Thailand first:

“If a foreigner abroad clicks ‘share’ or clicks ‘like,’ then the Thai law has no jurisdiction over that. But if there is a lawsuit filed and that person then comes into Thailand, then that person will be prosecuted.”

It may seem like a joke to some, but this was just the latest salvo in a very serious and expanding battle between the Thai government and the Internet.

Last week, 61-year-old Thai truck driver Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four SMS text messages to the personal secretary of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. A Thai court ruled the messages were offensive to Thailand’s Queen Sirikit and Ampon was convicted, even though he denied knowing how to send an SMS. A week earlier, Thai Facebook user “Suraphak” was charged with making defamatory statements about King Bhumibol Adulyadej online, and is now being held in jail awaiting trial. Said the prosecutor of Suraphak in court:

“The defendant, apart from not recognizing His Majesty’s graciousness towards the inhabitants, has the audacity to express great malice with the intent of overthrowing the institution of the monarchy, which is worshiped by the Thai people.”

And this February, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of the news website Prachatai, will learn whether she will spend the next 15 years in prison when a Thai court rules on charges that she offended the “majesty” of the monarch. Her crime? Allowing readers to post their opinions online.

All of these cases, and many more, are raising growing alarm about free expression in Thailand. The European Union expressed “deep concern” about Apmon’s sentence, and the Asian Human Rights Commission issued a blistering condemnation of lese majeste, the crime of violating majesty. But for the moment, Thai authorities are continuing their aggressive pursuit of incorrect speech, armed with an unusual combination of a very old law and a very new one.

Lese Majeste Goes High Tech

“All Thais, I believe, love and respect the King,” says Bangkok Post political commentator and TV host Voranai Vanijaka. “But when people manipulate and abuse the law, and play with the emotions of the people, it can easily sway the sentiment of the people to one side or another.”

Voranai has written extensively about lese majeste, and most recently the case of Ampon and his 20-year sentence. In Thailand’s bitterly divided politics, lese majeste is what you might call a wedge issue – one that affects practically nobody yet stirs strong emotions in people. Accusing a political opponent of lese majeste, he says, is a surefire way to get attention:

“Pretty much all the key leaders of both sides of the political struggle have been accused by the other of lese majeste, so it’s something that’s used by both sides. Some sides may do it more effectively than others. It’s definitely being used as a tool, and for the normal average Thai person, they can be easily swayed by it because it is a deeply sensitive and emotional issue for us.”

Since the 2006 military coup, the organization ThaiPoliticalPrisoners estimates more than 300 cases of lese majeste have been brought in Thailand, and untold tens of thousands of websites shut down, using two laws. Critics say those laws are being abused by those in power to silence opponents and critics. “To make an example of people,” says Voranai.

Ampon Tangnoppakul, at his arrest for violating lese majeste with SMS messages

Officially the old law is “Article 112,” but it’s more widely known by its centuries-old name, lèse majesté, or, quite literally, “injured majesty.”  Lese majeste laws forbid criticism, insults or other derogatory statements about a monarch; in Thailand the law is strict and its interpretation is broad. Anyone convicted of making statements, illustrations, or even silent physical movements deemed lese majeste faces lengthy prison sentences in dingy Thai jails. And Article 112 applies to everyone in Thailand: citizens and foreigners alike have been prosecuted and jailed for “crimes” such as making comments that never even refer to the monarchy, or simply for not standing during the playing of the Royal Anthem in movie houses.

Then, in 2007, the government added a new weapon to its arsenal – the “Computer Crimes Act” (CCA) – and with it the ability to take prosecutions to online activities.

The CCA gives the government wide latitude in determining whether online content represents a threat to national stability or image. It also provides courts with potent tools to punish site owners and ISPs with harsh fines and jail time. Since its passage, Thailand has assertively pursued writers, website owners, filmmakers and even international firms like YouTube and Yahoo! for allowing material deemed lese majeste on their sites. It’s estimated that at least 50 people, and perhaps more, at present are serving prison time or under investigation for violating some combination of Article 112 and the CCA.

In another free speech twist, Thai law also forbids public criticism of any court ruling, making any discussion about lese majeste or its misuse challenging.  Still, discussion appears to be growing.  Television talk shows tolerate some debate, and a recent Bangkok Post editorial took Information Minister Anudith to task for his Facebook warning:

“The constant war on Internet sites is futile and actually self-defeating. The more attention Capt. Anudith puts on it, the more it encourages the ill-intentioned to try to defy him. The idea that discussion of the lese majeste law is somehow disloyal to the monarchy is emotionally loaded, but empty. The law cannot affect love of the monarch. It was His Majesty the King who declared six years ago in the most straightforward way that, ”The King can do wrong,” and ”Actually, I must also be criticised.”’

But talk is just that. Actions are an altogether different matter.

The Monarchy as Political Battleground

The divisions in Thai politics are as raw now as at the time of the 2006 military coup that pushed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. Since then, the pro-Thaksin, anti-military groups – roughly the “Red Shirts” – have been in a standoff with pro-military, Democrat party-led loyalists – roughly the “Yellow Shirts.” The Democrat party has recently accused Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s of going soft on disloyal comments, even urging that all social networking sites be blocked. Caught in the middle is the monarchy, and curiously those who seek political reform.

“Thailand is involved in a historic struggle,” says ‘PP,’ an activist with the group “Political Prisoners in Thailand.” We recently reached ‘PP,’ a pseudonyn, in a secured online connection to discuss that group’s goals and activities. Asked specifically about the organization, ‘PP’ declined to give specifics, citing security concerns, but did say the group has members in Thailand and elsewhere in southeast Asia, and seeks reform of lese majeste and expanded freedom of speech in Thailand.  A representative of the Thai government in Washington declined our requests for an interview.

As ‘PP’ sees it, Article 112 and the CCA are being abused by those in power – and those seeking it – to silence critics, while hiding behind the national appeal of the monarchy to do so:

“The use of LM [lese majeste] is a conservative reaction to this societal-level change. At present, the Yingluck government’s opponents appear to have decided that the monarchy is to be THE political battleground. Hence, they attack the government, implying a lack of loyalty. They appear to believe that pushing the Yingluck government will either reveal this disloyalty (and bring it down) or that the government will do its bidding in the repression of disloyal elements. They seem to believe that they have hit on a win-win strategy. It could all get much messier.”

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of Prachatai, at work

One for whom things have already become messy is Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the Prachatai editor now awaiting sentencing. Chiranuch, ‘Jiew’ to her friends, is actually facing two sets of charges; one for an article published on Prachatai, and another for comments left by an anonymous reader. The government says the comments violated lese majeste, and that under the CCA, Chiranuch had an obligation to remove them immediately. (The comments, as with any items accused of being insensitive to the royal family, have been removed and are not publicly visible. In fact, anyone citing any of those items – even a journalist – would be similarly guilty of violating the laws.)

“The Internet is a means of communication…Authorities are trying to silence [people],” says Chiranuch. Her verdict delayed by the Thai flooding, she waits for a court to decide her fate in February. In the meantime, she continues working at Prachatai:

“We decided to close down the web forum discussions, but we will continue our news and articles, and we’re still open for people to come and read and learn. Thai authorities believe they can control the electronic media. There was a law, the computer crimes act, only three or four years old. They’re trying to show the people they’re serious about these things.  [But] if people are suppressed, they’ll find another way around. And people who’ve never done that before will probably start to get angry, and do something to show they’re against efforts to control.”

In other words, shutting down the Internet – as Egyptian officials learned – doesn’t always give the government control.

“Pretty Hopeless”

Along with the EU and the Asian Human Rights Commission, the United States also expressed dismay at Ampon’s sentence of 20 years in prison. But will that make any difference?

Unlikely, says ‘PP’ with Political Prisoners in Thailand. “Human rights organizations and major Western governments have generally been pretty hopeless in dealing with lese majeste and with the human rights challenges [they] pose.” That said, the future for Ampon – and dozens others convicted of lese majeste – is dim. Thai prisons are notoriously brutal and squalid, and for those who never admitted guilt but, like Amphon and Chiranuch, pleaded not guilty, there is little to no chance of a royal pardon.

Yet things may be changing, if slowly and with some pain. A recent ad campaign has been launched to promote debate about Article 112 within Thailand. Consistently simply of a hand, a yellow ball, and some very artfully worded copy, the ad asks if, in fact, people aren’t genuinely interested in asking questions.

As a political statement, it’s pretty tame; in the U.S., where political ads are delivered by the rhetorical equivalent of dynamite, it would most likely just leave people confused. But the issue of lese majeste is one of the most explosive  in Thailand, and proponents of all sorts of positions are grabbing at it to build support for their cause – or intimidate their enemies. Says Voranai Vanijaka:

“There are improvements in terms of civic groups, more improvements to champion the cause of freedom of speech. Of course, at the same time, there is more censorship right now in Thailand than, say, in the past 20 years. That has to do with the political situation more than anything else…and censorship is an important tool one can use to silence your opponents. So the lese majeste and Computer Crime Act are being used to shut your opponents up and also make examples out of people.”

And more people are paying attention. Andrew Spooner, writing in Asian Corresondent, recently wrote of Ampon – or “Ar Kong,” meaning grandfather, as some call him:

“What is certain is that the savagery of Ampon’s sentence is pushing the situation to breaking point. As I sit and write a 61-year-old grandfather is rotting in a Thai prison – the message is stark; this could happen to anyone. We are all Ar Kong now.”

Whatever the outcome, Chiranuch Premchaiporn says the online site Prachatai will continue, as will the struggle for expanded freedom of expression.

Just something to consider before “Liking” this story.

*Correction: December 8, 2011. I mistakenly identified current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as being no relation to ousted P.M. Thaksin Shinawatra.  This is obviously incorrect; Yingluck is Thaksin’s sister.

Carrier IQ, Quietly Tracking Your Phone

Posted December 2nd, 2011 at 1:33 pm (UTC-4)

New Questions About Mobile Phone Privacy

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Trevor Eckhart, by his own account, is a 25-year-old “average Joe.” A digital developer based in Connecticut, Eckhart’s been quietly exploring the privacy and security aspects of the Android mobile operating system.

This week, the quiet ended.

Screen-grab from Eckhardt's video documenting IQAgent keystroke logging

First posted on his website “Android Security Test” a while back, Eckhart began exploring what applications developed by the firm Carrier IQ were doing while he was on his Android phone. Carrier IQ, based in Mountain View, California, markets a variety of mobile applications, or apps, that monitor and track mobile phone use, and then provide that information back to service providers and developers. Carrier IQ says this information is limited and protected, and is only used to improve mobile service and use. “We are counting and summarizing performance, not recording keystrokes or providing tracking tools,” reads in part a statement on the company website.

But Eckhart says his research suggests that’s not the case, and in documents on his site – and visually in a 17 minute video – he lays out the case that Carrier IQ products are doing much more than they say, all out of sight of the average user.

Using his own HTC Evo mobile phone, Eckhart demonstrates how apps such as “HTC IQAgent” run in near-hidden mode on his phone; even once he finds them, he’s unable to turn them off. He then runs his phone through its paces – turning it on and off, dialing numbers, sending SMS text messages and browsing websites. Alarmingly, it appears that the IQAgent app logs and transmits every keystroke he makes, all hidden from view. Eckhart dials a number, and IQAgent duly records and transmits every digit. He sends a text, and it notes who, how, when, and of course what the message actually said. There’s even a complete log of every website he visits and what he does there, even while using the security-enhanced “https” format. Remember – this is all in addition to the actual functions his phone is performing with the actual service provider.

Eckhart called IQAgent a “rootkit”, which in tech terms is a bit of software that is considered critical to function, loads and runs automatically, and is largely (or entirely) outside of the user’s control. That, apparently, was fighting words for the Carrier IQ. They responded swiftly, denying the claim, demanding he remove information about the company and threatening Eckhart with legal action. Late last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, stepped in to provide Eckhart assistance and legal help, and Carrier IQ pulled back.

The kerfuffle only drew more attention to Eckhart’s work, and to the largely un-noticed Carrier IQ firm.

Reporters started digging, and it quickly became clear how little was known about the company, its products and who uses them. How many apps are there, what are its clients, and just who are they transmitting all those keystrokes to?

Here’s what’s known. It’s estimated that Carrier IQ’s tracking apps run on 150 million hand-held devices, an astonishingly large number. This week AT&T, Apple, Sprint and T-Mobile all admitted to using Carrier IQ software on at least some of its devices. Sprint and AT&T also acknowledged they receive some transmitted data, but both firms insisted it was all anonymous, and for network diagnostics only.

For its part, Carrier IQ continues to state that its products don’t actually “record” all those keystrokes, meaning that its software may detect a large amount of keystrokes (or all of them) but that most of that information is not communicated back to the service providers. CNNMoney spoke with security analyst Dan Rosenberg, who said “People need to recognize that there’s a big difference between recording events like keystrokes … and actually collecting, storing, and transmitting this data to carriers, which doesn’t happen.”

But that’s cold comfort for digital privacy proponents, who note the firm originally denied even detecting all those keystrokes – a claim it has gingerly inched back  from since Eckhart posted his video. And the timing for Carrier IQ could hardly be worse, coming just a week after a flurry of reports – and Congressional denunciations – of mobile apps that track a shopper’s movements through stores and shopping centers. (The British firm, Path Intelligence, has backed off those plans, for now.)

For the moment, with a little help from the EFF, Trevor Eckhart says he’ll do what he can to continue his work. Only now, it’s likely he won’t be the only one.

Eckhart’s demonstration video:

Carrier IQ’s response:

Four Degrees of Facebook?

Posted November 23rd, 2011 at 5:22 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

And the Campaign Against “Breaking The Internet”

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Periodically we like to share a few of the stories and posts from across the web that caught our eye.  There are no editorial threads implied connecting these items together, other than being interesting.

#1: What’s With The “Weirdness” from China? There’s been a tremendous amount of web news coming from China lately. Perhaps the most eye-grabbing headlines have been regarding the online campaign to defend artist Ai Weiwei against possible charges of pornography. What to do when your favorite artist is investigated by the government for earlier nude photography he released? Release your own nude photography. Ai Weiwei’s supporters have flooded the web with unclothed pictures: some of them as infants, some with discreet obscuring images, and some just unclothed. So far, the artist has not been charged with any offense.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (AP)

However, submerged by the nude photos story are disturbing reports that some Chinese ISPs might be testing out new tools to shut off encrypted communications. Forbes’ Andy Greenberg has this item about curious data traffic coming from computers in China attempting to access encrypted “web tunnels” such as Tor, Freegate or UltraSurf; all commonly used by individuals to cloak their online activities:

“In recent months, administrators of services with encrypted connections designed to allow users secure remote access say they’ve seen strange activity coming from China: when a user from within the country attempts to reach a server abroad, a string of seemingly random data hits the destination computer before he or she can connect, sometimes followed by that user’s communication being mysteriously dropped.”

“We see weird things all the time,” Tor’s Andrew Lewman tells Greenberg. “But this is a semi-consistent weird thing, and it’s only coming from China.”  It is unclear if Chinese ISPs, or the government for that matter, are trying to probe encryption differences between traffic like that of financial transactions, and private networks like Tor.  What is certain is that developers at Tor and elsewhere are aware of this “weird thing” and are already responding. Full disclosure: VOA’s parent agency, the International Broadcasting Bureau, has working relationships with Tor and Freegate, among other encryption services.

#2: “Don’t Break the Internet” Members of the U.S. Congress are currently discussing several pieces of legislation that could significantly alter the web landscape in the United States, and potentially around the globe.

The two bills – the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (or SOPA) in the House, and the “Protect IP Act” in the Senate – both target copyright violators (i.e., “pirates”) in other nations by giving the U.S. government greater control over shutting down web access and traffic to specific cites, among other tools. Proponents such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America argue online pirates cost copyright holders billions of dollars each year, and that the bills’ provisions are balanced by protections for ISPs and website owners.

But that hasn’t stopped the swelling ranks of critics from arguing, with some effect, that media monopolies are trying to “break the Internet.” Groups advocating greater online freedoms, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, the Free Software Alliance and others were first in line calling for the bills’ defeat. Then came heavy-hitter Internet service companies like Google, Zynga, LinkedIn, Mozilla and more.  Now, this week, the influential Business Software Alliance, which represents giants such as Dell, Microsoft and Apple, has also weighed in opposing the measure.

As policy fights go, this one is a long way from over. Action on the bills isn’t expected until 2012, giving supporters and opponents plenty of time to build momentum and lobby members of Congress. We’ll detail the issues involved in the near future. In the meantime, Washington Post tech columnist Cecilia Kang offers “Five Things to Know About SOPA,” which provides a concise overview.

#3: Four Degrees of Facebook? In his 1929 fiction collection “Everything is Different,” Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy set two characters to wondering about our increasingly urbanized planet. The world was “shrinking” they said; people were getting closer not just physically but socially:

“One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.”

Thus was born “six degrees of separation” – the idea that any human is only six social connections away from any other human. For decades researchers like Stanley Milgram explored this idea and, despite its unlikeliness, found there’s actually considerable merit to Karthiny’s game. Despite obvious problems like isolated populations, it’s become something of a maxim among social scientists that as people’s social networks have grown, so have the connections between us. So, in fact, your humble author may in fact only be five or six hops from everyone reading this.

Or, would you believe, four? Researchers at the University of Milan, working with Facebook researchers, have been exploring the “six degrees” idea as well, and this week published new findings suggesting six may be too many:

“We found that six degrees actually overstates the number of links between typical pairs of users: While 99.6% of all pairs of users are connected by paths with 5 degrees (6 hops), 92% are connected by only four degrees (5 hops). And as Facebook has grown over the years, representing an ever larger fraction of the global population, it has become steadily more connected. The average distance in 2008 was 5.28 hops, while now it is 4.74.”

Shockingly, those numbers are even smaller for same-country pairs; for example, any two U.S. Facebook users are only about 3 or so degrees from each other. Meaning that every one of Facebook’s 700+ million users, with a very high statistical likelihood, is only a small number of social connections away from everyone else. Small world, indeed.


Postscript: “Everything is Different” is long out of print, and a web search suggests that English translations of this book are simply lost.

The Web Goes World Wide

Posted November 21st, 2011 at 6:47 pm (UTC-4)

Who’s Online Now, and Who’s Coming Next

With the creation in 1989 of the “HyperText Transfer Protocol” by researcher Tim Berners-Lee, the Internet has been synonymous with what’s called the “World Wide Web.” (That name, incidentally, was also Berners-Lee’s idea.) The phrase, like Berners-Lee’s new computer language, is elegant, compact and easily grasped. But for much of its life, it has also been a little deceptive.  The truth is that for years the Web has been World Wide much more in theory than practice.

But that’s changing, and those shifting patterns of online use are changing what the web is all about.

Official logo of the World Wide Web Consortium (Creative Commons)

From the outset, the United States was the earliest and largest adopter of the web. In 2000, just over 95 million Americans were browsing the Internet – more than twice the figure for any other nation at the time. Ten years later, Internet penetration in the U.S. remains very high (79 percent), exceeded only by South Korea (80 percent), Britain (82 percent) and Iceland (a whopping 93 percent).  Taking population into account, that puts more than 245 million Americans on the web; roughly 12 percent of the global total of Internet users.

However for sheer numbers online, China dominates. The International Telecommunications Union, working with agencies like the United Nations, estimates 485 million Chinese are active web users. That’s 23 percent of the global usage total, but given China’s out-sized population, its Internet penetration rate lags far behind at roughly 36 percent.

These numbers tell one sort of story – of Internet haves and have-nots – but other data are pointing to a new narrative. Take India, for example. The world’s second most populous nation, India has traditionally ranked at the bottom in terms of Internet penetration, still only around nine percent.  But that still translates into 112 million Indians online, as estimated by the Internet and Mobile Association of India. Moreover, at its current growth rate, India could likely overtake the U.S. in raw numbers of people on the web in just two years, with plenty of room to grow beyond that.

Or consider Russia. The web-rating company ComScore just released new data showing the Russian Federation has overtaken traditional top-dog Germany in terms of overall Internet users. Again, key to understanding what this means is the Internet penetration rates. At over 78%, there just aren’t that many more new Germans who will be coming online, but Russia’s rate of 43 percent suggests many more Russians will be hopping online.

Which is exactly what’s happening in India, Russia, Indonesia and other populous nations. People in these late-adopter nations are hooking up to the Internet at much faster rates than Western Europe or North America, precisely because there’s so much growth potential and so many more people. Some of this is also being sped by ICANN’s decision last year to allow non-Latin characters such as Arabic, Cyrillic, and Hindi in web addresses.

Internet usage by country - darker shades represent higher penetration (Creative Commons)

All this points in one direction: while the web is expected to continue growing everywhere, its spread will be fastest and most noticeable in Asia. With an overall penetration rate of just 24 percent but over half the globe’s population and wealth, Asia is the place putting the “worldwide” into the web. And those large numbers of new users will bring with them their own cultures, traditions, questions and web styles.

Postscript: There’s one noticeable outlier in the data. While Africa trails the rest of the world in web use, Nigeria – that continent’s most populous nation – also has the largest number of online citizens at 44 million, or roughly 28 percent of the nation. It’s very likely that Nigeria will soon overtake France and Britain in overall numbers.



Are Teens Meaner Online?

Posted November 10th, 2011 at 8:47 pm (UTC-4)

A New Look at Teens and Online Behavior

If it seems like just about every teenager living in the United States is on the Internet, that’s because nearly every one of them is. An astounding 95% of teens aged 12-17 are now online, and over 80% of those teens are using social networking sites like Facebook, Tumblr or MySpace.

These figures, while not all that surprising, are just the start of a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, examining young people’s behavior online. Titled “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites” the report’s authors explore not just where teens are spending their time on the web, but how they’re interacting with each other. The short answer: probably in much the same ways they interact in real life.

“Teens will always be teens, life will always be full of conflict,” says Pew senior researcher Mary Madden, a report co-author. “As in the case in offline life, those that behave badly in social media tend to draw attention to themselves. We weren’t sure how pervasive this negative behavior might be.”

The report finds that 69% of teens see their peers online as mostly kind; a clear majority, but lower than adults (85%.) Why the difference? It may have something to do with the sorts of behavior people are seeing online.

Tag cloud of teen's descriptions of bad behaviors they've seen online.

In a near reversal of those numbers, 88% of teens using social networks have seen someone being mean or cruel to someone else online – what’s sometimes called “cyber-bullying.” That compares with only 69% of adults who have witnesses the same thing. Further, 15% of teens say they have been victims of bullying online, while 21% admit to joining the mean behavior. In a real world comparison, about 19% say they’ve been bullied off-line. Report author Mary Madden:

“We found that instances of bullying are more commonly reported off line, and this is consistent with a lot of other research in this field. It’s important to note that not all kids report the harassment they’re experiencing as bullying, but when we ask about bullying specifically, only about 8% have experienced this somewhere online.”

Researchers were also interested in how teens respond to bad online behavior. Of those teens who had seen online bullying, nearly all (95%) saw that others just ignored it. But 84% of those teens also report seeing someone defend the victim, or tell the harasser to stop.

In focus groups conducted for the report, teens talked openly about some of those behaviors:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: That’s what a lot of people do. Like, they won’t say it to your face, but they will write it online…
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY: I know people who, in person, like refuse to swear. And online, it’s every other word.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: I think people get – like when they get on Facebook, they get ruthless, stuff like that. …They act different in school and stuff like that, but when they get online, they like a totally different person. You get a lot of confidence.
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY: [There’s] this real quiet girl who go to my school, right, but when she’s on Facebook she talks like some wild – like, be rapping and talking about who she knew and some more stuff and you would, like, never think that’s her. You would think that’s somebody else …

Madden also found that when teens saw bad behavior online, a clear majority first turned to their parents for general guidance, and their peers for specific suggestions. “Parents matter, but peers are an important second,” says Madden. “But we also hear that teens, 8 in 10, say they’re standing up for their peers, and still find these places where they can get support from their friends.”

As with any study, there are areas of uncertainty. Teens may be less willing to admit to bad behavior they’ve actually seen or participated in online. Some of the abuse may take place in private, as in messaging, and remain hidden outside the normal public view. And teens – or adults for that matter – may have different definitions of what constitutes cyber-bullying, says Madden:

“Do they know what it looks like?  Not necessarily, and there are other labels that can be assigned that may be more productive for teens to talk about these issues.  Drama, for example, was a word that teens used repeatedly when describing their peers behavior online.”

In general, researcher Mary Madden emphasizes that the web is still seen as a generally positive and supportive area by clear majorities of teens and adults. But, as in real life, teens’ digital lives will occasionally be rocky.

The full report is available online, for those wanting to dive down deeper into the data. One question unanswered by the researchers: are those teens that misbehave in the real world the same who engage in cyber-bullying, and are those who stand up for others online those that do so in the real world?

But that’s for another study.


Has Facebook Faded? Part Two

Posted November 8th, 2011 at 7:40 pm (UTC-4)

Has Facebook Become Everyone’s Creepy Friend?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

We’re taking a two-part look at the dual challenges facing social networking giant Facebook: increased complexity and decreased privacy. In part one, we explored whether the constant addition of new features is complicating the user experience, making it less fun and more work. Today, we look at criticisms that the network’s unprecedented accumulation of users’ private detail is, in the words of some, “creepy.”

There’s an old rule in public relations: don’t use words you don’t want associated with your product. It’s a lesson someone should have mentioned to Sean Parker.

Parker was speaking at the recent Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, plugging his new firm Spotify. But as a former president of Facebook, there were lots of questions about the social networking giant. “What’s wrong with it?” asked the moderator. “Facebook has taken the mantle, which seems to be passed every few years, of being the company that some people are scared of, or feel is a little creepy. Is this a concern that people should not have?”

Parker shifted in his chair, muttering.  The moderator tried again. “So I’m sensing you might have something you’re holding back on, and say ‘Yes, John, in fact it is a little creepy.'” Parker’s leg jiggled nervously. “Look, I mean there’s good creepy and bad creepy,” Parker finally replied to knowing laughs. “And today’s creepy is tomorrows…necessity?” he wondered before quickly dropping it altogether.

Too late.

“Parker Defends ‘Creepy’ Facebook,” blared the headline in the Huffington Post. “Facebook must pass the ‘creepy’ test,” wrote Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. “Facebook makes us embrace creepy,” began Reuters commentator Kevin Kelleher. (Facebook declined to respond to VOA’s numerous requests for comment for this story.) Parker’s sin was that he had come as close as anyone in his position to addressing what many others are already saying: somewhere along the way, Facebook has become everyone’s creepy friend.

If that sounds extreme, consider the sudden popularity of the site “Take This Lollipop.” Go there, and with a few clicks, you’re suddenly featured in your own personal horror movie. Featuring the always unnerving Bill Oberst as a sweaty stalker, the movie incorporates public images, data and personal references pulled from your Facebook account to create a cautionary tale – starring you – about the dangers of online privacy erosion. (I, for one, found the exercise too creepy, but Liz Klimas didn’t, even going as far as posting her movie on YouTube for all to see.)

If that’s too much, there’s this series of videos posted online titled “If it wasn’t for Facebook, this would be creepy.” Wall posts, pokes, birthday bombs and other aspects of life on Facebook are taken apart with humor, but also an eye to the more unsettling elements of sharing and friending. “When a technology company is considered ‘creepy’ it usually means it is at scale and pushing big boundaries,” writes the Telegraph‘s digital media editor Emma Barnett. “The challenge for Facebook will be whether it can properly shed the creepy label and remain at the cutting edge of the web.”

It’s difficult to determine objectively what people’s subjective reactions are to any technology – including Facebook. But a growing number are responding to something they say they find disturbing about the social networking site. In Europe, where privacy concerns tend to rank slightly higher than in the United States, a group of Austrian students are filing legal complaints against the company, alleging that, among other things, Facebook is creating ‘shadow’ profiles of users who have deleted their accounts. This message board contains hints and suggests for anyone wanting to petition Facebook to turn over the total personal information it has on you. And practically every day, despite continued warnings about its dangers, people break up, get fired or otherwise have their life turned upside down by something posted on Facebook.

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, FILE)

“From the very beginning I was suspicious,” says Chris Matyszczyk, corporate creative director and author of the Technically Incorrect blog on CNET. Matyszczyk is also a longtime skeptic of social networks, calling them “a perilous and invasive concept,” and peppers his comments with pungent remarks about Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, most recently calling him a “cudgel-wielder.” Says Matyszczyk:

“What’s happening is that technology is developing far quicker than laws, or even the human brain it seems. Human beings are beginning to act in ways that imperfectly designed technology wants them to act.  So, technology demands of us we do this or do that, and we just happily go along and do it, again without considering the consequences, because it suits our short term. In the end the consequences of that might not just be creepy, but seriously creepy creepy.”

So just how creepy can Facebook, or any online service for that matter, become before a majority of people permanently ‘de-friend’ it? Is there really good-creepy? Google CEO Eric Schmidt alluded to this late in 2010, when he told an audience in Washington, D.C.: “Google’s policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” Not exactly reassuring. And despite some data that point to falling Facebook user numbers in early adopter nations, there’s little conclusive evidence that users are yet sufficiently troubled to stop using it altogether. They may, however, be using it less, or more cautiously.

Consider the “Timeline,” a new feature Facebook unveiled this year. Timeline assembles all of a users’ private data and composes a personal history, from birth to school to jobs, listing major moments and close friends along the way. Facebook calls it “the story of your life.” Liz Ganne, a writer with Wall Street Journal‘s All Things D blog, says “…the whole idea of a life on display in pixels like some never-ending comic book — with photos and text and video and smiley faces (and frowns, too!) — is, well, more than a little creepy.” Timeline basically bombed.

Then there was the “Facial Recognition” fiasco earlier this year. The actual technology – that makes tagging others in your uploaded pictures easier by scanning other photos and suggesting tags – wasn’t new; Facebook had used it since 2010. However when the company made automatic facial recognition the default, users responded loudly, and Facebook pulled back. Taking a somewhat cooler look, Tech Crunch’s Jason Kincaid suggests it may have been more the idea of “facial recognition” than its actual use that caused the widespread Facebook freak out.  But for every dispassioned analysis, there’s something like this study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, that suggests facial recognition algorithms can sometimes predict a person’s private Social Security number based on just one photo. And with that number comes just about everything else about that person. So, pretty much, creepy. Chris Matyszczyk:

“Of course it’s creepy!  It’s creepy because no one can forsee the ultimate consequences. It really is no coincidence that Forbes just decided that Zuckerberg is the ninth most powerful person in the world. That means only 8 people can stop him now! That’s why it feels creepy, because Facebook is able to change privacy terms.”

Criticisms taken, it’s hard to argue with Facebook’s success. Further, it would be difficult to say that 800 million registered users could be wrong. Although Facebook declined VOA’s requests to report their side of the issue, the company asserts on its site that 400 million people are “active” users, and that number continues growing worldwide. Perhaps, as Mark Zuckerberg himself said in 2010, people’s expectations of what ‘privacy’ means in an online world are changing:

“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time…But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”

In the end, the difference between “beginner’s mind” and “creepy” remains in the mind of the user. How close the two come together may determine the fate of Facebook. Until then, it might be best to take the advice of blogger Mishi: “Don’t be creepy Facebook guy. Seriously.”



Has Facebook Faded? Part One

Posted November 4th, 2011 at 11:06 am (UTC-4)

Part One: Is Facebook’s Size Its Strength, or Vulnerability?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

We’re taking a two-part look at the dual challenges facing social networking giant Facebook: increased complexity and decreased privacy.  First, we explore whether the constant addition of new features is complicating the user experience, making it less fun and more work. In our second report, we’ll look at criticisms that the network’s unprecedented accumulation of users’ private detail is, in the words of some, “creepy.”

For just about as long as there’s been a Facebook, there have been those predicting its demise. Like newspapers, the California-based firm, in the eyes of its critics at least, has been hovering on the edge of failure for years. And yet somehow, it keeps going.  And going…and going.

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, FILE)

Just consider for a moment: U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the top commander of the NATO forces that pursued Muamar Gadhafi, first confirmed the mission’s end not via the Associated Press or Al Jazeera, but on his Facebook account.  Facebook reports “more than 800 million active users,” meaning users that have visited the site in the last 30 days, with fully three-quarters of those living somewhere other than the United States. It’s almost become cliche now to note that if Facebook were a continent, it would have a larger population than all of Europe.

Yet many aren’t satisfied.

“I can’t find anything on Facebook anymore,” writes Michael Hartt, one of my many Facebook “friends” who responded to my questions about how they now use the social network.   “While I’ve noticed a decrease in activity overall,” notes Ed Davis, “I’ve noticed an increase in annoying activity, like sharing other peoples’ ‘inspirational’ photos in a ‘status shuffle’ kind of way.”  Adds Peter Hassett: “I haven’t checked my Facebook in weeks,” which is curious for someone responding to my recent Facebook question just hours after I posted it.

Annoying, complicated, intrusive; complaints like this are nothing new.  The web, and Facebook itself, is full of places where users grouse about this change or that tweak. But the criticisms are starting to pile up – and so are the critics.  Even former Facebook president Sean Parker told a tech conference recently: “Maybe the strategic threat to Facebook is that power users have gone to Twitter or power users have gone to Google+.”

The question now: is something new happening?  Could Facebook’s phenomenal growth be slowing, or even fading?

“There’s a growing ‘ick’ factor with Facebook,” says Judy Shapiro.  “I think it’s getting worse…I think it’s gone over the complexity edge.”

Shapiro is founder and CEO of Engage Simply, a marketing commerce firm, and has heard all the criticisms before. She’s one of the critics, but not before she was a fan.  In mid-2009, Shapiro wrote admiringly that Facebook’s core value was the trust people felt in assembling their social networks:

“Facebook started as a way for college kids to connect with their trusted peers (trusted only in the sense that they went to the same university, but hey — trust is fluid depending on the context). These students already shared a bond, they were already part of an existing community and Facebook provided the platform that let people bolster these sticky connections. Further, as Facebook grew it was able to attract a mass audience because it expanded by staying true to its very DNA — its ability to let people make trusted connections. It was a killer strategy and a risky move, but it is now paying off.”

Shapiro says Facebook worked because people trusted it, and it was, in her words, “flat” – meaning that everyone in your network was treated equally. But little more than a year later, the admiration had worn off. At just the time Facebook was exploding globally, Shapiro in 2010 wrote that rapidly expanding features, increased complexity, and the ‘creepy’ nature of highly targeted advertisements based on private information could spell its doom. “In chasing scale, they used “feature sprawl” to attract users and in doing so made the Facebook experience more and more complex, imposing a tax that ultimately would not be borne by users,” she wrote.

At the time, it was not a popular opinion; especially among her marketing colleagues who had built strategies around Facebook. “I couldn’t get a single marketing executive to talk to me,” she says. After all, how could Facebook be in trouble? It was still growing by leaps and bounds, wasn’t it?

Yes, and no. Some analyses have suggested while overall numbers for social networks like Facebook and Twitter are still growing globally, the rate of growth is slowing significantly. Twitter executives liked to boast of having 200 million users, but this September they admitted only about half are “active” users. Further, this study, released in June, charts first-ever user declines on Facebook in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Norway and Russia – the first four early adopter nations, and the last where the social network VKontakte is starting to compete with Facebook. That suggests not just users who have grown bored with the service, but people actively deleting their accounts.

Facebook did not respond to VOA’s numerous requests for comment.  However earlier this year, they did challenge the validity of those studies.  “We are very pleased with our growth and with the way people are engaged with Facebook,” a spokesperson told TechRadar. “More than 50 per cent of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day.”

Whether deleting their profiles or just opting not to come back, there’s no denying that every day people stop using Facebook, and those numbers are growing in Britain, the United States and other early adopter nations. It’s a process Welsh journalist Aled Blake calls “falling out of love with Facebook.” Among the prime reasons cited by those leaving is Facebook’s increasing complexity.

“From a complexity point of view, it’s getting very difficult,” says Judy Shapiro.  “You go on there now and there’s five different things you have to bat away before you get what you want.”

Just this year, Facebook released a wide array of new features that, so far at least, appear to have fallen flat. The “News Feed” – all those updates on your friends’ activities – now employs complex algorithms that adjust what shows up based on your recent activity. New “Timeline” and “Ticker” tools are designed to help users customize their profile and interactions, but have not found favor. Increased tracking of your interactions means that Facebook simply stops showing you some of your friends unless you actively seek them out. And its “Facial Recognition” feature? The one that automatically searched its vast photo archives to find and tag unlabeled pictures of you? “Creepy,” summed up PC World‘s Sarah Jacobsson Purewal. Facebook pulled back.

“Subscribe” vs. “Friend.” Personal vs. Fan pages. Facebook Ads vs. “Sponsored Stories.” What began with just Wall Posts and “pokes” has evolved into what can be a bewildering experience that feels more like work than play. “New Facebook is just too much work,” sighs British commentator David John Mead, echoing the thoughts of many. “Every time I go on there it seems I have to do something to accommodate their new feature. Facebook never seems to be doing anything for me.”

It’s exactly that sentiment that executives at hope to tap. Publicly launched this week, UnThink aggressively bills itself as “the anti-Facebook.” Among the differences, UnThink subscribers will be able to choose the ads they want to appear on their pages, or eliminate them altogether. (That option costs $2 dollars each year, so it is basically free.) And with over 100,000 new registrations in just the first few days, UnThink might be getting some traction. But the road ahead is very long; even behemoth Google is having troubles toppling Facebook from its social network dominance.

How has Facebook remained “King of the Hill” while others have faded? One big reason is probably the same thing that irritates some users: Facebook is a closed system. Legally, Facebook – and not the user – owns all the private information, contacts, photos and other material you add to its site; that’s guaranteed by all the legal text you probably skipped over by clicking on ‘Agree to Terms’ when you joined.) “You can’t take it with you, it’s trapped in their environment,” notes Shapiro. So while joining Facebook is free and simple, leaving it is not. And the longer you’ve been on Facebook, renewing friendships, sharing memories and uploading videos of special moments, the harder it may be to leave. Which is exactly the idea; as Facebook has grown into a targeted marketing giant, all that personal information becomes their most valuable asset. Says Shapiro: “In Facebook, you and I are the product.”

But giants have been dethroned before. Just look at AOL, or Netscape or, more recently, MySpace. Launched in mid-2003, MySpace shot to the top of the most visited websites, adding over 100 million users in a matter of years. As late as 2007, it was the most visited social networking site on the planet, but not for long. Users drifted away, traffic plummeted, and although MySpace is still in operation, nobody would say MySpace is a serious challenger in social networking these days.

So is Facebook’s size its chief asset, or vulnerability? Surprisingly, Judy Shapiro argues the latter.

“Size is useful when appropriately applied in a communications context.  Size is not necessarily a wonderful thing to sell stuff. There are many, many studies that speak to the challenge of using Facebook productively and profitably. At some point, marketers are going to say ‘Screw this. OK fine, you’re the biggest thing, but I don’t know what to do with you.’ And because it’s so big, it’s impossible to sell anything…it’s the wrong model.”

Facebook executives, and many other marketers, would strenuously disagree. After all, it was just this month that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was rated by Forbes Magazine as the 9th most powerful person in the world, one spot ahead of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has an actual army at his disposal. But members and boosters of Zuckerberg’s virtual army go online millions of times every day; updating, sharing, friending and doing all the other things “Friends” do. And even if only half of those registered with Facebook continue to use it, that still makes Facebook perhaps the single largest holder of private information, ever.

No wonder some people find it all “just a little creepy.”  Next, we’ll explore Facebook’s other prime challenge: what’s now being called “The Creepy Factor.”

What’s Digital Frontiers?

What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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May 2021
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