Release Bassel Khartabil

The post is copied in its entirety from the Creative Commons weblog

What open means to you
Bassel / joi / CC BY

Earlier this year, Creative Commons issued a statement in support of Bassel Khartabil, a longtime CC volunteer who has been detained by Syrian authorities since March 15. Amnesty International recently released a document with information suggesting that Bassel has been ill-treated and even tortured. This morning, we sent a letter to President Bashar al-Assad, Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid al-Mu’allim, and Minister of Defense ‘Imad al-Fraij; urging that Bassel be released unless he is promptly charged with an internationally recognized criminal offense. We urge Syrian authorities to grant Bassel immediate access to his family, a lawyer of his choice, and all necessary medical treatment.

Bassel has played a crucial role in the open technology and culture communities, both in Syria and around the world. Through his service as Creative Commons’ project lead in Syria and his numerous contributions to the advancement of open source and related technologies, Bassel has spent his career working toward a more free Internet. Many of us at Creative Commons have become friends of Bassel’s over the years. All of us have benefited from his leadership and expertise.

Please stand with us in support of Bassel. Amnesty International has provided instructions for contacting Syrian authorities. For more information, visit freebassel.org.

Read Creative Commons’ call for the release of Bassel Khartabil (PDF).

Birth of a genre

A genre is a category or grouping of similar types of cultural phenomena. But at what point does something stop being a mutation of an existing group and evolve (or is it more of a revolution?) into a sub-genre or new-genre? According to Wikipedia the process is always ongoing – almost like glacier-like processes:

Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.

But yesterday I came across what was – for me – an explosive birth of a new genre in the form of  Dramatic readings from the iTunes EULA by Richard Dreyfuss on Cnet. Cnet explains why they created this exciting new artform

This Friday’s Reporters’ Roundtable is on a topic that vexes us all: why are end user license agreements and terms of service so long and convoluted? To get ourselves in the mood for this show, we asked CNET fan (and Academy Award winner) Richard Dreyfuss if he’d help us out by doing a dramatic read of the Apple EULA. He said yes.

Sure, it was meant as a joke. But listen to Dreyfuss readings and you realize that he fills a valuable need, fills a void in litterature and drama, and also a gap in the market.

As part of my research I have written about licensing and EULAs and very often felt my head becoming numb through attempting to battle through the awful prose that make up these “agreements”. Imagine the great service to the world if great readers followed the Drefuss example and provided this amazing service to lawyers, law students, activists and the general public.

Dreyfuss is a pioneer but I am waiting for a world where Stephen Fry reads the GPLv3, Patrick Stewart reads excerpts from the Creative Commons legal code and Seth MacFarlane (the voice behind Peter in Family Guy) reads the classic Microsoft Windows XP Professional End-User License Agreement.

Nadia Plesner’s day in court

Nadia Plesner, the Danish artist, who has been suedtwice by Louis Vuitton has had her day in court at The Hague.

Vuitton is suing her for copyright infringement for placing an image of one of their handbags on her painting Darfurnica. There is also a back story about her use of this handbag on a t-shirt. In both cases the case for parody and fair use may be argued. In both cases the purpose is to raise money and awareness for Darfur.

Vuitton seeks to penalize her 5,000 Euros for each day Darfurnica is on her website and wants to prevent Plesner from exhibiting the painting either on her website or at venues in the European Union. Yesterday, Plesner finally got to present her defense — before a full-sized reproduction of the painting. On Facebook she shares how it went:

They stated that they have no problem with Darfurnica, never had, and that they only object to me using “their product” in my Simple Living “logo” [pictured here]. We highly objected to it all, since Simple Living is an art work, just as Darfurnica and because LV has aggressively been going after the painting from day one.

We also presented the threats regarding the painting that LV’s attorney made to me by phone, which he of course denied completely.

I thought the most important part was when the judge asked LV’s attorney why Darfurnica was mentioned in the lawsuit – and forbidden by the court order – if they didn’t have a problem with it? To which their attorney responded “You shouldn’t read it like that.”

Then the judge asked how else he could read it, since the painting is the first thing mentioned in the list of works they want to forbid, but their attorney insisted that the court order should be read as if the paragraph regarding Darfurnica was not there. He aggressively went on and on for an hour about how I abused them, for example by using their Audra bag as an eyecatcher on the invitation for my exhibition. Yes, I used my own Simple Living drawing (not their Audra Bag) on the invitation to my art exhibition about Darfur. What a crazy thing to do.

We had a 1:1 print of Darfurnica in the court room and I presented it to the judge and explained why I painted it and what the different symbols represented. I have had the chance to present Darfurnica to a lot of different people by now both in my studio, in the Odd Fellow Palace and at the HEART museum, but it felt so surreal to do it in a court room, especially in front of various LV representatives.

I explained the urgency for raising awareness about the situation in Darfur, and how I had painted various Hollywood gossip stories that got an insane amount of media attention.

The judge listened, and I believe he understood the meaning of the painting.

There were about 65 people present during the hearing, many artists and fellow students came to support me, and they had made these great little supportive badges with different texts like: “Louis, art is cool”, etc. It made a great difference to me that I was not there alone, and I am grateful to the people who showed up.

There were also different reporters present, and even though LV’s attorney consistently claimed that I had manipulated the media to be on my side, the articles today are not different from the previous ones, even after the reporters had heard both sides of the story and were presented with the evidence from both sides.

The final result was that we asked the judge to have the court order from January 27th annulled, and LV objected to this. The judge said he would try to give his ruling before May 4, 2011.

Catholic Destruction of Art

Like it or not, Andres Serrano image of a plastic crucifix in urine Piss Christ (1987) is a powerful anti-religion statement, not so much the belief system but the abuse by the organization.

Naturally powerful art makes enemies. From the Guardian (18 April)

On Saturday, around 1,000 Christian protesters marched through Avignon to the gallery… But on Palm Sunday morning, four people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25 entered the exhibition just after it opened at 11am. One took a hammer out of his sock and threatened the guards with it. A guard grabbed another man around the waist but within seconds the group managed to take a hammer to the plexiglass screen and slash the photograph with another sharp object, thought to be a screwdriver or ice-pick. They also smashed another work, which showed the hands of a meditating nun.

After all the complaints and attitudes that it is only repressive regimes or Islamic movements who repress and censor it would be nice if all those who pointed fingers at those people now stood up and claimed about Catholics attempting to suppress free speech, art and culture. But somehow I doubt that this will happen.

Andres Serrano Piss Christ (1987)

If the Catholic church wants to stand up as a agent of good – then a quick and clear condemnation of the destruction in Avignon should be presented from the highest authority. But somehow I doubt that this will happen.

Its not that easy supporting free speech when you disagree with the content. But it is weak when you condemn the suppression of speech by others just because you don’t disagree with the content.

Great Net Delusion Animation

Over on the IT Law in Ireland blog TJ McIntyre has posted about a great new RSA Animate called The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens? This one is based on Evgeny Morozov‘s great book The Net Delusion were he argues that the Internet and Web2.0 do not make democracy inevitable.

When writing his review in The Guardian Cory Doctorow was critical of The Net Delusion for his pessimism in the power of the Internet for promoting democracy. But I don’t think its so easy to ignore Morozov’s critique of the cyberutopian vision. I highly recommend The Net Delusion.

Limiting the Open Society: notes from a lecture

Today I was presenting on the FSCONS track of the GoOpen conference in Oslo and the topic for my talk was Limiting the Open Society: Regulation by proxy

To set the stage for my talk I began by asking the question why free speech was important. This was closely followed by a secondary question asking whether or not anyone was listening.

The point for beginning with this question was to re-kindle the listeners interest in free speech and also to wake the idea that the concept of free speech maybe is something which belongs in the past a remnant of a lost analog age which should be seen as a quaint time – but not relevant today.

Naturally it was not possible to present a full set of articles on the reasons for why free speech is important during a 20 minute presentation but I could not help picking up three arguments (with a side comment asking whether anyone could imagine a politician saying free speech was unimportant).

The main arguments were
John Stuart Mill’s truth argument presented in On Liberty (1869) from which this quote is central:

“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”

Basically Mill’s argument can be broken down into four parts:

  1. The oppressed may represent the truth
  2. Without criticism we are left with dead dogma
  3. Opinion without debate meaningless
  4. Deviant opinions may be unaccepted truth

The second argument I presented was from Lee Bollinger’s The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America (1986)

Bollinger argues that the urge to suppress disagreeable speech is part of a need to suppress all ideas and behavior that threaten social stability. While Mill argues that it is important to support speech because it maybe right Bollinger argues that habits of tolerance in all its forms (including speech) are important to combat paternalism.

“…the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters.”

The final argument I presented was one of positive law – free speech is important because the law says it is important. The high point of this argument can be seen as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which created an international understanding of the importance of rights (including speech).

After this introduction I presented the concepts in an historical background. Again I needed to be brief so I could not really go into detail. I jumped straight into the period 300 years ago when the discussion on the rights of man in Europe was at a high point. The fear of censorship in advance (imprimatur) or punishment after the fact was of great interest. The results of these discussions were documents like The Rights of Man and the Citizen presented after the French revolution, the United States Declaration of Independence and the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766.

The problems with these documents and the regulatory acts which followed where that they presented potential rights but did nothing to ensure access to communications media. In fact the communications media became ever more centralized and access was granted to a more and more limited group of (similarly minded) people. The negative aspect of this situation were (1) centralized media can easily be controlled and (2) allowing small group access means that the individual members have to conform to remain in the in-group.

To re-enforce the concept of in-group and out-group I showed an image of the speaker’s corner in London where any individual may speak without being harassed its not a legal right even if it seems to be an established practice. Speaker’s corner is sometimes seen as an example of openness but in reality it is proof of the failure of our ability to speak openly anywhere.

Then we moved quickly along to the Internet as an example of where a technology was developed that made personal mass communication available to a wider audience.

The exciting thing about the Internet is that it carries within it freedom as a side effect of its creation. This freedom was developed by common agreement (of a homogeneous group) into the open end-to-end, packet switching “liberal” ideology that we experienced in the early days of technology.

Naturally the problem with any idea that is developed under a consensus is that any use, concept, idea or speech which falls outside the consensus is easily suppressed and lost. But more on this later.

In the early days we were overly optimistic and believed texts such as John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

But naturally this was not going to last since the freedom we relied on was in reality a bi-product of corporate activity.

Our reliance on technology is a reliance on services created and provided mainly by corporate actors. And corporate actors have different priorities. It’s not about individual goodwill but it is about profit. Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom (1962)

There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits…

It is not evil for companies to be all about profit but if there ever is a clash between individual freedom and profit then the corporation has an obligation to focus on profit at the cost of freedom.

At this stage at the lecture I shifted on to the problem of censorship. First I addressed the issue of self-censorship and used a quote by George Orwell on the topic.

Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.

It is very difficult for us to know that we are censoring ourselves.

The next problem is the fact that even if we have something to say this does not mean that there is anyone who will (or can) listen. Basically we are lost in crowds.

These first two hindrances to communication are inevitable but they also create a bias against speech and the spread of ideas. From this point I began to address issues that can be (and should be) addressed.

The first issue was affordances. I showed the image of by Yumiko Hayakawa of the ‘Anti-Homeless’ park bench. And as I always do I asked the audience to spot the ethical problem in the image. The problem is that the bench discriminates among users by allowing only certain types of use. People with weak legs (old people?) struggle to use this bench, no people will loiter on this bench, and naturally no homeless people can sleep on this bench.

image from Yumiko Hayakawa essay Public Benches Turn ‘Anti-Homeless’ (also recommend Design with Intent)

Without engaging in a wider discussion the park authority can implement regulation without rules. No law expelling homeless people is necessary and therefore no legal review is ever carried out.

On the topic of affordances I brought up the German engineer problem. Here is the story behind the creation of SMS messaging (LA Times)

Alone in a room in his home in Bonn, Germany, Friedhelm Hillebrand sat at his typewriter, tapping out random sentences and questions on a sheet of paper.

As he went along, Hillebrand counted the number of letters, numbers, punctuation marks and spaces on the page. Each blurb ran on for a line or two and nearly always clocked in under 160 characters.

That became Hillebrand’s magic number — and set the standard for one of today’s most popular forms of digital communication: text messaging.

“This is perfectly sufficient,” he recalled thinking during that epiphany of 1985, when he was 45 years old. “Perfectly sufficient.”

Since then Twitter was developed from SMS and therefore we see how a engineer speaking German is today controlling the way in which we communicate today.

Another form of censorship is the whole problem of the chilling effect of law when it’s law is applied in situations where it has the effect of limiting speech – even if the purpose of the law was something completely different.

As a final form of censorship I spoke about the negative effects of End-User License Agreements (EULA). Many of the platforms upon which we depend for our communication have demanded of us that we agree to terms of use which we may not understand or which may have changed dramatically since we last read them. The result is that users are stuck in a perpetually weak situation.

So what’s really going on? Why doesn’t the state act or react to the erosion of our rights. These rights which are apparently so fundamental and important.

Well in part its lack of knowledge. Many states do not know the problems we are facing. The second part is that these are contractual agreements and the state is concerned about intervening in agreements (between consenting parties) and finally – and more ominously – the state benefits from the system.

States are able to stand tall and use words like rights, democracy, speech without limiting or censoring. They don’t have to. What the state does is they require acts (like data retention or surveillance) carried out by our service providers. If the state needs anything it can then collect it from the providers. The good news is that the state can claim to have clean hands. This is regulation by proxy.

So what can be done? Here I presented three strategies:

First, keep focused; remember what free speech is for. A second quote from George Orwell, this time from his preface of Animal Farm:

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Second a demand that the state should end regulation by proxy and return to its own purpose. And the protection of citizen’s rights should include limiting the rights of actors. Speech on any medium should be protected – not only from the acts of the state.

Thirdly. The third was not really a new suggestion but more of an alternative. If the state cannot protect our speech then it should declare free speech as a thing of the past a remnant of a bygone analog age. This will not help much – but at least it will stop the hypocrisy.

Defamation on Twitter

It should be pretty straightforward. Telling people that someone is a thief, a drug-pushing prostitute with a history of assault and battery who lost custody of her own child. But this case involves two complicating factors.

  • The case involves celebrities. It’s Courtney Love making these claims about her designer Dawn Simorangkir.
  • She did it using Twitter

The Hollywood Reporter writes:

So on March 17, 2009, Love took to her Twitter account and began hurling a stream of shocking insults at the designer known as the “Boudoir Queen.” Love’s tweets, which instantly landed in the Twitter feeds of her 40,000 or so followers (and countless others via retweets), announced that Simorangkir was a drug-pushing prostitute with a history of assault and battery who lost custody of her own child and capitalized on Love’s fame before stealing from her. “She has received a VAST amount of money from me over 40,000 dollars and I do not make people famous and get raped TOO!” Love wrote.

That tirade, along with others the Hole frontwoman unleashed on social media platforms including MySpace and Etsy.com during the next four days, form the basis of a unique lawsuit headed to court in January: the first high-profile defamation trial over a celebrity’s comments on Twitter.

So now its off to court which will first look at the truth in Love’s claims – telling the truth is the best defence in defamation – then the court will value if Love’s statements are protected opinions and then they will see if the protections afforded to journalists may apply in the case of twitter users.

The court in the present case may firstly address whether these comments are truthful (which is the most obvious defense to a claim of defamation), are protected opinions of Ms. Love or rise to the level of defamation. Then the court may wade into the issue of whether Twitter users are bloggers with rights akin to journalists.

Apparently Love’s defence is also planning to include a medical expert to support the argument – if none of the other defences work – that she was not subjectively malicious: in other words she could not understand how her tweets would be understood by others.