Surveillance and the Open Internet

From the program: Revelations about the extent of US government surveillance of digital communications have changed the debate about internet governance, online privacy, and the role of the internet as a public sphere. In a post-Snowden era, how do we protect revelations from human rights activists? Of journalistic sources? What does surveillance mean for vulnerable populations? Will surveillance change the web as we know it from a single, connected network to one where national sovereignty is increasingly important?


Emily Bell – Tow Center

Jillian York – Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

Nathan Freitas – The Guardian Project

Ethan Zuckerman, moderator


Liveblogging contributed by Catherine D’Ignazio, Ali Hashmi, Jude Mwenda and Willow Brugh


The purpose of this session is to discuss surveillance in the Open Internet context. The revelations on the US government surveillance of digital communications have triggered a debate on the issue of Internet governance. Internet as a public sphere has vital for global and local democratic institutions. In the post-Snowden era, which is marked by surveillance, how do we protect human right activists from coercive governments? How do we protect journalistic sources? What populations become vulnerable as a result of this surveillance? Will surveillance change the web as we know it from a single, connected network to one where national sovereignty is increasingly important? These are some of the questions that we will be discussing in this session.


Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, who is moderating this panel, introduces the panel to the audience. The panel of this session comprises Emily Bell, Tow Center, Jillian York, from Electronic Frontier Foundation and Nathan Freitas, from The Guardian Project. Emily is a media commentator and analyst, who writes about media and broadcasting; Jillian is an activist, journalist and a writer; Freitas describes his work as “make, hack, teach, share, secure and create at the Guardian Project” on his Twitter profile.

Ethan introduces Jillian York who has joined the panel at the last minute since another panelist could not attend.

“Jillian is one the world’s best prepared person for this program,” Ethan says.

Ethan introduces Nathan as the “benevolent dictator” of the Guardian project. He is deeply involved with the Tibet Action Institute as well. He has worked for many years on issues of free speech and the Internet.

Emily Bell was the head of Digital Content at TOW Center at Columbia University. Prior to joining the TOW center she worked with the Guardian. Ethan wanted to talk through some of the implications of surveillance for the journalism community with Emily.

Ethan wants to have a conversation about the world post-Snowden. what does this mean for activists? For people trying to protect their communication? For journalists? For people who are interested in using the digital public sphere as a space to organize and debate?


NSA saga had very specific security implications, Emily says. Pre-Snowden, the

newsroom security practices were very weak, particularly when talking about source-protection etc. There is also a broader application as well.


“We had inappropriately close relationship with technology,” Emily says.  There is great expediency for journalism in using freely available tools but there was no thought about what this meant. The great thing for Snowden’s light on this is that it demonstrated vividly how they needed to protect themselves but also how “systems of power” work now in the age of Big Data. Even if you are not working with highly sensitive data you have to understand these systems.


Journalist are there to uphold freedom of expression. there are two aspects to this, one is a broader question, and one is very specific one.


Ethan asks Nathan to talk about the tools in this space. He says Nathan has taken on an important and challenging problem: mobile phone security. Human rights activists understand mobile phones firstly as tracking devices.


Nathan says that the issue of trust is at the forefront. He began work with Tibetan activists and secure mobile phones were extremely expensive to come by. Now you can download mobile phones, install Tor, use encrypted chat and it’s free.


For the users the question comes down why should I trust you instead of trusting Google and other giants, he says.


One of the biggest issues is around apps and the app store. Because the gatekeepers are not the Open Web we are a little screwed in some cases. How do you get in front of people, route around censorship of apps? We need to ensure that people have access to these tools in an affordable way.




Ethan asks about the app store idea. We talk about users and usability. It would be nice to just download an app and have it be secure.


What’s the barrier that we are having in bringing Android and Apple apps to the market.


Nathan says that they can put their app in the Android store and it’s not a problem. But in places like China there is local censorship of apps. It doesn’t seem as “bad” to people from a censorship standpoint than censoring a website.

The users trust companies like Apple and Google. There is some value to the fact that these companies provide good service.

Ethan turns to Jill and tells a story. He was in Cairo 10 years ago meeting with the organization for Personal Rights (Gay Rights). He was there to see about them using Tor and PGP. They explained that they wouldn’t use that software because everyone knew that the traffic on the Internet was routed through 7 computers in the basement of the White House. Ethan thought that was crazy at the time until the Snowden revelations. But post-Snowden how is an organization like EFF dealing with security nihilism?

Jillian says when she talks to people that she gets two different perspective, one is from Silicon valley which say that we live in post-privacy world, on the other hand we have others who say that everything is tracked.



Related to journalists, they are willing to take personal risks but need to recognize that it’s about protecting their sources as well. The other side of the coin – the strong powerful white male voices from Silicon valley telling you that privacy is not important – this is much more difficult. Ease of use and usability make it a lot easier for people to use them. Protocols like Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) are hard, Jillian says, compared with less secure interactions.


Ethan asks how online culture, commercial culture, is tied into this. One of the responses has been “What’s the problem? You’ve been telling corporations everything all along”. Bruce Schnier says surveillance is the business model of the Internet. Is there a connection between giving up certain amounts of privacy and getting “free” services?

Jillian says that there is a difference between the things she says on social media and more secure communication platforms.There is a difference between Facebook and Twitter in terms of privacy interaction, she says.

Just like governments can change anything, so can companies.

Companies having that information should be a choice, not just a default.

Emily says that one of the principal cultural differences is centralized power vs free market economy. In America the corporate sphere rules all.  The public sphere is a private sphere which tolerates free speech. The “Right to be Forgotten” recently came down in the court recently in the EU. You can have your search results removed from Google’s cache. Regulation in the US is small. Regulation in other markets is front and center. One of the balances to the enormous corporate power.  Emily says that Internet is really a private sphere that tolerates free speech. She thinks we need an intelligent conversation with government. She pushes back and says that she is surprised that more people in the US are paying attention than she would have thought.


“American public media is Google, it is Facebook,” Emily says.  It is imposing privacy standards on rest of the world.

Snowden brought the debate on surveillance beyond the locus of DC and New York, but there is a danger that this debate will fizzle out.

Nathan talks about his experience with wechat an app used by Tibetan activists.

Every message you send goes through Beijing data centers and is subject to monitoring by people. He hates wechat. He was at a meeting where a researcher was looking at the guts of the code and it turns out they are using Guardian project software in their system. Why did they use it? Chinese companies employed encryption techniques to protect its users.

We are starting to see Google doing end-to-end encryption. We are doing that by creating apps that are privacy-centric.  Applications such as Obscure cam or Informa cam.They need journalists to adopt these tools.

Ethan says the concept of the library or toolkit that is reusable by other orgs is powerful. One of the reasons we’d like large corporations to do this is that the scaling problems around these things is hard, e.g. Tor making people a target of surveillance. He turns to Emily regarding the “privately held public sphere” and says that it is a sphere that also always works on US laws.

Ethan was in Myanmar for a conference on freedom of expression. He interacted with many activists, he found out that for them internet is Facebook. In addition, his friends in Myanmar wanted Facebook to be censoring posts, specifically hate speech posts.

This was incredibly uncomfortable for Ethan. If there is a public sphere, there needs to be protection for people, because this can really hurt people in real ways.

The big private companies regulate and deal with privacy issues more immediately than say governments,


Emily says she wouldn’t stand against the standard of free speech. But the US is a self-censoring society as well. Free speech can also mean people living in fear of hate speech and organized aggression. It’s difficult because we should be working towards openness.

We need a debate where major platform companies say “what they do is editorial.”

They say “We are just a tech company”. We can’t have the debate with them until the Mark Zuckerburgs and Brins really engage with this. They have enormous power over how people live their lives and they need to be brought into the discussion. Nobody can pretend that it is not an editorial act to tweak a news algorithm. It’s a journalist’s job to understand these systems as well as the companies do. They are new systems of power. The reason Snowden was valuable is that you had some acknowledgement from the tech leaders.


Nathan talks about the issue of ethnic violence. If you share the act of self-immolation then that is not allowed. You have the terrorism vs freedom-fighter debate.

Ethan asks him about weibo.

Nathan says that the issue then becomes a debate between local and global normative values. In other words, local companies are important. Maybe put aside nationalism and developers can do end to end encryption and help the Internet work better.

Ethan asks Jillian: how are you talking with entities that deal with freedom of expression and Internet privacy.

Jillian gives an example. Twitter took down some content at the request of the Pakistani government. The Pakistani order was questionable. Twitter did the right thing by putting it back up. This is the thing that concerns me. They are handing data to governments where they have no offices.

Twitter and Facebook gives user data to countries and governments without any democratic transparency.

The companies are making these decisions without any local expertise.


Most of the companies do not have diversity teams. The companies need to be consulting with local experts and organizations. She doesn’t trust the companies to get this right.


Ethan opens the floor to questions.

Rebekah Monson: I was intrigued by Nathan’s comments on weibo and tencent. Do you see evidence that Chinese companies are pushing back on state bureaus?

Nathan answers is negative. But they might not be as horrible as they are sometimes made out to be, he says. However, there are reports of Tibetans being arrested after posting something on the Weibo.

Caitlin Thompson from WNYC: The migration of journalists to tech companies. What do you all think of the responsibility is of the journalists in this case?

Emily: The responsibility for educating people as to what journalism actually is. Journalism isn’t going to make these companies money. It’s going to make it hard to make money. There are advantages to having platforms like Twitter. It’s just important to be aware of how these systems work. Advocating for what is intrinsically journalistic vs what is intrinsically commercial is part of that role.

Audience: There’s a challenge now in getting a source. How do you get a government source? Who will talk to you if they know cell phones are tapped? Is there a new way to get them?

Emily: There was a report about this.The problems is not security but rather that no one wants to talk.

Nathan: Barton (?) has the best security in the business. Platforms like global leaks and secure drop. They raise the bar for the way they accept content. They protect sources by default. There are free apps.

Jillian: She puts a call to take these encryption technologies and make them global, not just US-focused.

Audience: In my discussions with newsroom people, they do not recommend officially for security practices, I want to ask whether you came across newsrooms where these practices were in place.

Emily: When I was at the Guardian there were practices from individual reporters. Getting it institutionally supported was harder. The tools have gotten better but we need more progress on that. Also on threat modeling. Sometimes it’s not possible to guarantee safety. What are low tech solutions as well? Journalism schools have got to really up their game and close that skills gap.

Jillian: Encryption works but “encryption tools are like condoms,” which are not 100 percent safe.

Nathan: I’m inspired by the Tibetan activists who still maintain hope in the face of challenges. Take small steps, that’s what we should be doing.

Audience: I use TOR but it has its issues. Nearly 80 percent of users use it for illegal activities, and it is not usable. It is slow. Many people use it for illegal things.

Nathan: I am a developer so biased. You may not need ultimate security of Tails. You have to find what works for you. I would say Tor is not slow.

Jillian: In terms of legal aspects, lets take the analogy of cars, they cause pollution and result in accidental deaths but they have their utility.

Micah Sifry: Emily – my surveys of journalists in the US is that 1-5% of journalists use secure communications – why? Jillian – same question but related to activists. Nathan – who pays for these tools? I believe the adage is that if we are not paying then we are the product. So why aren’t we paying for Tor?

Emily Bell: 1-5 percent is where it should be because they don’t have time to go through with this. Snowden-saga shows that it is needed not only for journalists but for eveyone.


Jillian: Developers need to listen to users and take their feedback seriously. Make the tools multilingual. Until these tools are as easy to use as a toaster people won’t use them. Make them seamless.


Nathan: We are lucky to benefit from various sources. Your taxes are paying us if you are American. Knight News Foundation. Eric Schmidt. That can go on for awhile. But not forever. I need to talk to Mozilla and Apache. I’m inspired by them. I’m interested to see what Silent Circle is doing. But you then end up privileging corporations. I’m looking for a longer term plan and help with that.