Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection


Ethan Zuckerman -- founder of Geekcorps and Global Voices -- is an activist who puts his money where his mouth is. For decades, he's undertaken heroic efforts to foster a global dialog using the Internet, taking practical steps to network netheads from all over the world, giving them the power to work together. He is one of the best-informed commentators on the extent to which the Internet has changed the lives of people in every corner of the globe, and he's also a person with a mission to help people better their lives through technology.

His new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, is a wonderful, hopeful, and sobering look at the state of the global net. Zuckerman takes us on an evidence-heavy, cautiously optimistic tour of the way that activists have used -- or failed to use -- networks to advance the cause of freedom and economic development.

Read the rest

China says it will stop harvesting organs from prisoners

More than half of China's donated organs come from executed prisoners. The Chinese government now says it will begin phasing out that practice, starting in November. All new organ donors must volunteer. Of course, there's good reason to be skeptical of this announcement. As Smithsonian points out, the practice has already been illegal since 2006 with not much done to change it. Meanwhile, a harrowing 2011 investigative report by Ethan Gutmann in the Weekly Standard revealed a system that leaves plenty of room for "volunteer" loopholes.

Life in a toxic country

New York Times China correspondent Edward Wong describes his life in heavily polluted Beijing, where he no longer feels safe running outside and, in order to bike around town, dons a black air filter face mask that makes him "look like an Asian Darth Vader".

Food aid doesn't work because the primary goal isn't aid

At Nautilus, Jonathan Katz applies a systems-level perspective to the problem of food aid. Every year, the United States spends billions (although much less than it used to) sending shipments of food to countries where people are going hungry. The problem: That aid doesn't solve their hunger as a long-term thing, it just creates a stop-gap measure — and we do it in a way that costs more than it would likely cost to support programs that actually help those people change their lives. Why? Katz argues that it's because food aid evolved more for the benefit of American companies than the long-term benefit of feeding people.

Herring Wars: Attack of the Faroe Islands

Herring travel in schools billions of fish strong and, thanks the outsized role they've played in North American and European culture, they've been called the most influential fish in history. Now, threatened first by overfishing and then by the effects of climate change, international organizations have worked to set treaty limits on how many tons of the fish different countries can catch each year. The problem: The limits are more randomly applied, rather than being based on rigorous standards or rules. Now, some countries are voicing their displeasure by resisting the limits, altogether. Begun, these Herring Wars have.

Uncovering the cause of the largest mass poisoning in history

Twenty-one children died in India yesterday after eating school lunch food that had been contaminated with insecticide. Authorities are still investigating what happened there, but the Generation Anthropocene podcast has a related episode I wanted to point you towards in the meantime. It's about the struggle to understand the causes behind the largest mass poisoning in history, which began in Bangladesh in the 1980s and is still happening. The 25-minute podcast covers the work of the epidemiologists, doctors, and geologists who figured out that the skin lesions and organ damage affecting millions of Bangladeshis were caused by arsenic ... and then uncovered where all that arsenic was coming from.

NSA leaks: US bugged EU offices & networks in DC

An article in Der Speigel expands on the descriptions we've had of the Snowden/NSA leaks, and claims that the US planted bugs in the EU's Washington offices and took over their internal computer network, intercepting its traffic. Cory 38

New NSA leak: BOUNDLESSINFORMANT documents the extent of NSA spying around the world


In the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill leak a description of another NSA top-secret program, this one codenamed "BOUNDLESSINFORMANT." This is apparently a tool that helps spies keep track of which snooping tools they can deploy in which countries, and it produces pretty, color-coded maps showing where the NSA spying powers are strongest. The Guardian has excellent notes on how this fits in with the ongoing fight between the US Senate and the NSA on whether and how the NSA spies on Americans:

The Boundless Informant documents show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013. One document says it is designed to give NSA officials answers to questions like, "What type of coverage do we have on country X" in "near real-time by asking the SIGINT [signals intelligence] infrastructure."

An NSA factsheet about the program, acquired by the Guardian, says: "The tool allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collections against that country."

Under the heading "Sample use cases", the factsheet also states the tool shows information including: "How many records (and what type) are collected against a particular country."

A snapshot of the Boundless Informant data, contained in a top secret NSA "global heat map" seen by the Guardian, shows that in March 2013 the agency collected 97bn pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide.

They quote Judith Emmel, an NSA spokesperson who says, "The continued publication of these allegations about highly classified issues, and other information taken out of context, makes it impossible to conduct a reasonable discussion on the merits of these programs." However, the NSA would not admit the existence of these programs (not even to the senate), prior to this.

Boundless Informant: the NSA's secret tool to track global surveillance data

Obama's trade reps and the MPAA are killing a copyright treaty that gives rights to disabled people

Jim Fruchterman, founder of the NGO Benetech, writes in frustration from the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, where the US Trade Representative is scuttling a treaty that will help blind people and people with other disabilities access copyrighted works, largely by making the (actually rather good) US laws the standard around the world.

Rather than promoting the US approach -- which allows for the creation of works in accessible formats without permission -- the US Trade Rep and his friends from the MPAA are advocating for a treaty that is far more restrictive than US law, ensuring that the US itself could never sign it.

In the process, they're killing a badly needed project to help people with disabilities around the world help each other to access creative works in formats that are adapted for their use.

To give you an idea of the poison pills being advocated for by the MPAA, publishers, and now the U.S. trade delegation, I've outlined the most notable ones below:

1. Commercial Availability Requirements. This poison pill says that if a book is commercially available in an accessible format, it can't be provided by a library to a person with a disability. This is equivalent to walking into a public library and finding padlocks on all the books with a note that says: "If you want to read it, buy it." With a commercial availability requirement, libraries like Bookshare, with hundreds of thousands of accessible books available to people with print disabilities, would have to go through such complex bureaucracy that we couldn't afford to serve people outside the U.S. under a Treaty. The World Blind Union's lead negotiator pointed out how these provisions would, in practice, stop Bookshare from serving blind people in India.

2. The "Three-Step Test" Chokehold. The three-step test is part of international copyright law meant to allow countries to reflect their own values in their copyright exceptions. The United States' copyright exception for the blind is a shining example of something that complies with the three-step test. So what are the negotiators trying to do? They are working to alter the very meaning of the three-step test, changing the language of the test to the point of which it will put a chokehold on a country's ability to make broader exceptions to copyrights. Which leads to #3.

3. Conflicts with American Law. Simply put--the US won't sign it. Our trade delegation is now advocating for a Treaty that would require, if ratified, the U.S. Congress to gut our model copyright exception. Essentially, the Treaty would be too poisonous for the U.S. to swallow. It's clear to everyone that if we couldn't even get the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which was pretty much identical to our own Americans with Disabilities Act, ratified by the Senate, a poisoned Treaty for the Blind has no chance of ratification.

Poisoning the Treaty for the Blind

Internet penetration is never correlated with increasing power to dictators, and is often correlated with increased freedom


Philip N Howard wonders if there are any countries that have, on balanced, suffered as a result of the coming of the Internet -- say, because improved networks created so many opportunities for dictators to spy on dissidents that it swamped any free speech/free association benefits that the Internet delivered. So he scatter-plotted PolityIV’s democratization scores from 2002/2011, and cross-referenced them with World Bank/ITU data on internet users. The conclusion: by this method, no country experienced a decline in its overall levels of a democracy as it attained widespread Internet penetration, and almost all many countries experienced a rise in democracy levels that correlated to a rise in Internet penetration.

Are there any countries with high internet diffusion rates, where the regime got more authoritarian? The countries that would satisfy this condition should appear in the top left of the graph. Alas, the only candidates that might satisfy these two conditions are Iran, Fiji, and Venezuela. Over the last decade, the regimes governing these countries have become dramatically more authoritarian. Unfortunately for this claim, their technology diffusion rates are not particularly high.

This was a quick sketch, and much more could be done with this data. Some researchers don’t like the PolityIV scores, and there are plenty of reasons to dislike the internet user numbers. Missing data could be imputed, and there may be more meaningful ways to compare over time. Some countries may have moved in one direction and then changed course, all within the last decade. Some only moved one or two points, and really just became slightly more or less democratic. But I’ve done that work too, without finding the cases Morozov wishes he had.

There are concerning stories of censorship and surveillance coming from many countries. Have the stories added up to dramatic authoritarian tendencies, or do they cancel out the benefits of having more and more civic engagement over digital media? Fancier graphic design might help bring home the punchline. There are still no good examples of countries with rapidly growing internet populations and increasingly authoritarian governments.

Are There Countries Whose Situations Worsened with the Arrival of the Internet?

Guatemala: Rios Montt genocide trial, day 18. "If I can't control the Army, then what am I doing here?"

Rios Montt listens to a prosecution witness, during the tribunal.

I am blogging from inside the Supreme Court in Guatemala City, where the trial of former Guatemalan Army General and US-backed dictator Guatemalan José Efrain Rios Montt and his then chief of intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez has reconvened for the 18th day. Here's a good recap of Monday's proceedings, and here's another.

For the past two weeks, I have been here in Guatemala with Miles O'Brien, observing the trial in court and interviewing people involved in the story for a forthcoming report on PBS NewsHour. We have interviewed Rios Montt's daughter, Zury Rios, who is her father's most diligent defender. We have interviewed scientists whose work is entered as evidence in the trial. We traveled to the Ixil area where the conflict at the center of this trial took place, and we interviewed Ixil Maya survivors about their experiences in the US-backed counterinsurgency attacks. We interviewed government officials who worked closely with Ríos Montt, who believe that what happened was not genocide, but the unfortunate collateral damage of a just war against "International Communism."

As covered in previous Boing Boing posts, the past few weeks of the trial have included personal testimonies from dozens of Ixil Maya survivors of mass killings, rapes, torture, forced adoption, and displacement. More than two dozen forensic anthropologists from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) have testified about human remains exhumed and analyzed from mass graves. Many other expert witnesses, or "peritos," have testified: among them, Patrick Ball of hrdag.org, who analyzed data of deaths during the armed conflict, to help judges make their decision about whether the mass killings constituted a focused attack by the Guatemalan Army, led by Ríos Montt, against the Ixil Maya ethnic group.

In other words: Was this genocide?

Not according to "The Foundation Against Terrorism," which published a 20-page paid newspaper supplement over the weekend here in Guatemala. "The Farce of Genocide in Guatemala: a conspiracy perpetrated by the Marxists with the Catholic Church." It's an interesting read.

The 18th day of the tribunal began this morning with defense witnesses for Ríos Montt and Sanchez.

Read the rest

Oceans could yield new sources of rare earth elements

Rare earth elements aren't actually rare, but right now the vast majority of them (97%) come from a single place — China. Given how important these elements are to the making of everything from computers to cars, that gives China quite the monopoly. With that context, here's the news: Japan just found a big supply of rare earth elements in mud at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Of course, what may be good news for manufacturing is not necessarily good news for the health of oceans.

Supreme Court to Wiley publishers: your insane theory of copyright is wrong

The US Supreme Court has handed down a verdict in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, one of the most important copyright cases of the century. In it, the publisher John Wiley & Sons sought to block the import of legally purchased cheap overseas editions of its books by arguing that "first sale" (the right to resell copyrighted works) only applies to goods made in the USA. However you feel about cheap overseas editions and their importation into the USA, this was a disastrous legal theory. Practically everything owned by Americans is made outside of the USA and almost all of it embodies some kind of copyright. Under Wiley's theory, you would have no first-sale rights to any of that stuff -- you couldn't sell it, you couldn't even give it away. What's more, the other "exceptions and limitations" to copyright would also not apply, meaning that it would be illegal to photograph anything made outside of the USA (no di minimum exemption) or to transform it in any way (no fair use, either). Thanks goodness the Supremes got this one right!

Here's some choice bits of the decision (PDF)

These intolerable consequences (along with the absurd result that the copyright owner can exercise downstream control even when it authorized the import or first sale) have understandably led the Ninth Circuit, the Solicitor General as amicus, and the dissent to adopt textual readings of the statute that attempt to mitigate these harms. Brief for United States 27–28; post, at 24–28. But those readings are not defensible, for they require too many unprecedented jumps over linguis tic and other hurdles that in our view are insurmountable. See, e.g., post, at 26 (acknowledging that its reading of §106(3) “significantly curtails the independent effect of §109(a)”).

...In reaching this conclusion we endorsed Bobbs-Merrill and its statement that the copyright laws were not “in tended to create a right which would permit the holder of the copyright to fasten, by notice in a book . . . a restriction upon the subsequent alienation of the subject-matter of copyright after the owner had parted with the title to one who had acquired full dominion over it.” 210 U. S., at 349–350.

And here's a serious smackdown of the "if I can make money doing it, copyright should protect it" theory of law:

Third, Wiley and the dissent claim that a nongeographical interpretation will make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for publishers (and other copyright holders) to divide foreign and domestic markets. We concede that is so. A publisher may find it more difficult to charge different prices for the same book in different geographic markets. But we do not see how these facts help Wiley, for we can find no basic principle of copyright law that suggests that publishers are especially entitled to such rights.

Supreme Court Upholds First Sale Doctrine


Update: a great comment from Shrikant, below:

It would appear that the Supreme Court has essentially just paraphrased Robert Heinlein from Life-Line:

"There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back."

This is why your office feels too cold

There is no single definition of comfort. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explores the different cultural definitions of pleasant living, how those traditions affect energy use in different countries, and how globalization changes both the culture and the fossil fuel consumption. Fun fact: Engineers have a unit of measurement that helps them account for clothing when they're trying to figure out what temperature an office building should be. It's called the Clo, and 1 Clo is equivalent to one full business suit. As I discovered, that fact has a big impact on women, business people in the tropics, and basically anybody who doesn't wear a suit to work.

World SF Travel Fund fund-raiser

Lavie Tidhar writes, "We are now running the second World SF Travel Fund fund-raiser. The Fund was established in 2011 to help bring one or two international persons involved in science fiction, fantasy or horror to travel to a major genre event. The first recipient was Charles Tan from the Philippines, who travelled to the US for World Fantasy Con, and in 2012 we helped Swedish authors Nene Ormes and Karin Tidbeck travel to Toronto for the same convention. This year, we hope to help bring over to World Fantasy Con in Brighton two more guests, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, a writer from the Philippines now resident in the Netherlands, and Csilla Kleinheincz, a Hungarian-Vietnamese writer, editor and translator. We are looking to raise $3000 to help cover this and possibly next year." Cory