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Last February, the White House held a three-day summit on the topic of “Countering Violent Extremism.” At the summit, government officials announced the launch of pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minnesota to explore “the preventative aspects of counterterrorism as well as interventions to undermine the attraction of extremist movements.”
One year later, it’s still unclear what that entails, exactly. The government has provided few details on how it actually intends to “counter extremism” in the U.S., despite calling CVE an “administration priority” in the 2017 fiscal budget and allocating tens of millions of dollars in spending. In an indication of how these efforts are ramping up, this week a Senate subcommittee on Homeland Security approved a bill to create of an “Office for Partnerships Against Violent Extremism,” which will soon head to the full Senate for approval. A 2017 budget submission for the Office of Justice Programs also mentions “$69 million for CVE programs” proposed for the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice.
Hoping to shed light on the situation, the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act against the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Education, and other federal agencies demanding the release of information about their CVE initiatives.
“Countering violent extremism programs have been identified by the government as top national security priority, but the public knows appallingly little about them,” says Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “We’re suing because government agencies have repeatedly failed to provide us information that we’ve requested about the nature of their CVE initiatives.”
In a briefing paper released with their lawsuit, the ACLU said that CVE programs often target “people for monitoring based on their beliefs or ideologies,” thus potentially criminalizing speech protected under the First Amendment. It also highlighted past abuses of CVE programs, including instances in which young people who refused to take part were characterized as radicals and where community leaders were told they would have to identity and discuss cases of specific youths with law enforcement.
The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation. The Department of Justice did not respond to request for comment.
Government-led CVE efforts in the United States are inspired in large part by programs rolled out in past years in the United Kingdom. Broadly speaking, CVE programs seek to expand counterterrorism efforts beyond law enforcement to involve other government workers, like teachers and social workers, as well as community leaders outside of government, like clergy. They can involve propaganda and other communication strategies as well as monitoring and questioning.
Those programs have been deeply controversial in the UK, where civil society activists have blamed them for exacerbating ethnic tensions within British society while failing to meaningfully fight extremism. In recent months, the UK government has also rolled out anti-radicalization programs in schools, which have led to instances in which Muslim schoolchildren have been stigmatized by teachers as potential terrorists.
In the U.S., some of the most controversial CVE initiatives are those that focus on children. Leaked documents from the National Counterterrorism Center, published by The Intercept last year, showed that the government had developed a questionnaire to evaluate young people for their risk of future extremism, evidently for use by social workers, healthcare practitioners and teachers, among others. A controversial online counter-extremism game called “Don’t Be a Puppet” was also launched by the FBI this week, ostensibly targeted at the same young demographic.
“The apparent focus on young people as a target of government counter-extremism initiatives should be troubling to everyone,” says Shamsi. “It would be very unfortunate to see teachers or social workers potentially reporting kids to law enforcement as possible extremists, particularly when many of the designated ‘warning signs’ for extremism correspond with ordinary behaviors often exhibited by adolescents and teenagers.”
Critics have also questioned whether there is any credible empirical or scientific basis behind CVE initiatives.
The ACLU, alongside many Muslim-American civil society groups, fear that U.S. government CVE efforts will similarly undermine the position of Muslims living here. “Our country’s history shows that policies and programs that stigmatize one group always inevitably spread to other groups,” Shamsi says. “The government’s focus should be on policing crimes, not thoughts and beliefs.”
Photo: Screengrab from FBI Countering-Violent Extremism game, “Don’t Be a Puppet”
The post Lawsuit Demands Information on Shadowy “Countering Violent Extremism” Programs in U.S. appeared first on The Intercept.
During a House Transportation Committee hearing on a proposal to ban vaping on airplanes, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) took a hit from his vaporizer and exhaled a cloud of mist, saying, There is nothing noxious about this whatsoever." The congresswoman sitting next to him waved the cloud away.
Rep. Duncan Hunter argued the amendment would make it tough for people with asthma inhalers or people inhaling "medicine of the future" through vaporizers to take their hits on a plane.
"For freedom's sake," said Hunter.
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Clinton Fein is South African born artist, writer, activist & social media strategist, best known for his Torture exhibition—photographic reenactments based on the notorious images from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq—and his First Amendment victories. Fein resides in San Francisco and Palm Springs. This article is a first person account and does not necessarily represent the views of EFF.
Back in the heady early days of the Internet, the lack of any sort of legal precedent made it feel like the Wild West. On the Internet, it seemed, there were no rules and anything was okay. Innovation soared, and expression and creativity flourished. Against this backdrop, Congress decided to stick its nose into things. Republicans and Democrats alike were anxious to uphold moral codes of yore. It didn’t matter that they didn’t understand the potential of the new technology or how any of it worked. And so emerged Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, or as it was insidiously known—the Communications Decency Act (CDA). A clumsy, stupid, ill-crafted attempt by congress to update forty year old telecommunications law and apply it to a revolutionary medium. In February 1996, President Bill Clinton signed it.
Back in 1995, I was running a digital content management company ApolloMedia, which had become embroiled in a dispute with the United States Navy over an old 1976 recruiting poster depicting a black Naval Officer for the first time; the office was later discharged for being gay. Journalist Randy Shilts had written a comprehensive history of gays in the military to which we had acquired the electronic rights, and the Navy unsuccessfully attempted to prevent us publishing the poster, claiming the Navy seal was copyrighted.
Many media and technology companies, including Wired Magazine, independent journalists, and organizations like EFF and ACLU, joined forces to fight the constitutionality of the CDA. ApolloMedia, did too, filing an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU. The case galvanized the first huge political moment in the Internet’s nascent history reflecting that there was so much at stake. Massive media coverage ensued.
But amidst the intense focus on Reno v. ACLU, a less noticed provision of the CDA criminalized any “indecent” computer communication intended to “annoy” another person. It wasn’t surprising that it attracted little attention. The clause was hidden among a string of words—“lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and obscene” communications intended to “threaten, abuse, annoy or harass” another person.
Before there was Facebook, the notion of prohibiting speech was abhorrent to most Internet users. And while no one wanted to legalize—let alone encourage—the ability to threaten, harass or abuse anyone, the idea that annoying someone with an indecent communication would result in a felony—punishable by two years in prison and a hundred thousand dollar fine—was as frightening as it was unconstitutionally vague.
At the time, ApolloMedia had been developing a politically focused content destination to counter the pretensions of politicians and the media. The “annoy” provision of the CDA represented a significant threat. Seasoned First Amendment professionals, Michael Traynor at Cooley Godward and William Bennett Turner of Rogers, Joseph, O'Donnell & Quinn counseled me, and helped me arrive at the only decision that made sense to me: Fight it.
The coalescence of circumstance resulted in the birth of a legal challenge that would take years and ultimately be determined by the United States Supreme Court. On January 31, 1997, with the depiction of a harmless but unmistakable gesture, Annoy.com launched and ApolloMedia filed ApolloMedia v. Reno, a lawsuit challenging the “annoy” provision of the CDA.
Almost everything on Annoy.com was designed to challenge preconceived notions of decency and annoyance--not for the sake of being obnoxious, but to demonstrate the insanity of the law itself. From the ability to send anonymous communications through postcards and mad-libs, to the unmediated and unfiltered message board/discussion system, the technology itself provided identity management mechanisms that allowed for expression to take place without any fear of repercussions for opinions, or fear of having one's true identity revealed.
Annoy.com was at the forefront of exploring issues pertaining to privacy, libel and defamation, and the extent to which they could be addressed to shape legislation in a manner that was meaningful and useful. At the same time, every communication facilitated on Annoy.com was potentially felonious with the huge risks associated with them.
Although the government’s position opposing the lawsuit evolved over time, it ultimately settled on the argument that the legislation was intended to apply to obscene communications only. In essence, that the words “lewd,” “lascivious,” “filthy,” “indecent,” and “obscene” all only meant “obscene.”
Our case was heard by a special three-judge panel which, on September 25, 1998, after deliberating for almost a year, issued a tortured and divided ruling that upheld that government position.
The panel’s ruling prohibiting “obscene” communications—but not simply “indecent” ones—was a relief to a certain extent. “Obscene” here means only prurient and patently offensive communications that lack any literary, political, or other social value. Given that Annoy.com was itself (to a degree) a political act, almost none of the unmediated and unfiltered threaded discussions ranging from gun control to abortion and the military could be construed as obscene.
But at the same time, it was a divided ruling, and applied to the Ninth Circuit. Once again, attempts to use old interpretations to govern a global medium were revealing their inadequacies.
Moreover, enforcement of the statute could have required widespread eavesdropping or other participation by government agents and vigilante groups in the online conversations of ordinary citizens. That is, unlike complaint-activated monitoring of public broadcasts by the FCC, enforcement of the CDA necessarily would involve reading, snooping on and recording the electronic communications of unsuspecting and wholly innocent citizens.
So, I worried, what would happen when a vigilante group tips law enforcement that a certain web site or newsgroup involved the “patently offensive” discussion of abortion, safe sex, or erotic literature?
Big Brother government would log on and listen to the conversation, recording at will. When a prosecutor thinks he or she can get a conviction in a particular community intolerant of such discussion, the conversation can be downloaded—with a mouse click—to that venue. Hundreds of persons' thoughts and ideas will become “evidence” in a criminal prosecution.
I sought review of that decision in the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court summarily affirmed the district court without ever hearing argument or full briefing in the case.All this was before September 11, and the insidious Patriot Act that followed. This was before Edward Snowden would reveal that all of the spying I feared was happening anyway. Back then it was normal to think of such things as inconceivable.
Also lost in the legal argument was the intent of a ban on annoying pre-Internet communications. Restrictions on annoying, harassing, and abusive telecommunications were intended to prevent things like making phone calls that could intrude on a person’s space, such as the incessant ringing of a phone in the middle of the night. They were never intended to govern the content of those communications.
As the Internet became more and more mainstream, Americans become far less active in fighting to protect its freewheeling nature. Shopping and commerce became more important than free expression and convenience, national security illusions and narcissistic selfies became far more important than privacy.
Public squares have become electronic walled gardens where pseudo-morality governs the dialog and things like images of breasts—whether for sex education or supporting mothers feeding children—are deleted and publishing privileges suspended by VC-appointed arbiters who have no idea about what free expression is or looks like.
Annoying communications, meanwhile, flourish on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube comments and beyond (to the extent I sometimes regret having fought to make them constitutional) thwarting communications and feeding trolls. Election years exacerbate the problem even further.
And far from being struck down, important principles, such as publications being protected against liability for third party content on their platforms, are very much governed by portions of the CDA that are alive and well.
All said, it was a fight worth fighting for an exceptionally important First Amendment right—no matter how annoying it may seem now.
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Oculus, HTC, and Sony are expected to launch virtual reality headsets this year, but Google beat all of those companies to the punch when it introduced a piece of folded cardboard with a few lenses that lets you use your phone for virtual reality and 360-degree video experiences. Now the company is reportedly getting ready […]
Results from What-Dog.net have become awful exciting, in my family. Submit photos via the website or app for instant results of widely varying accuracy.
My dogs both got great matches the first time, but my sister has had some fun results. Evidently my father is a Pekinese.