Obama’s New ‘Decider’ Gives Free Speech Activists Cause For Hope

Nicole Wong, nicknamed “The Decider” on matters of free speech during her 8 years at Google, will soon leave Twitter, where she’s been for the past 8 months, to become a senior adviser to White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

Wong’s role will be a new one for the administration, but will involve deciding the administration’s approach to internet privacy. ReadWriteWeb describes her duties as fairly opaque:

It’s not entirely clear what the White House chief privacy officer will do. Cabinet-level CPOs are generally tasked with ensuring that their departments follow federal rules for the handling of personal information (see, for instance, these authority and responsibilities of the Homeland Security CPO). It’s fairly likely that the White House CPO would do likewise for the Obama administration, and might also serve as a presidential advisor on privacy-related federal regulations and legislation.

One thing that should give civil libertarians cause for hope is Wong’s free speech record. She has won praise for her protection of free expression in her roles at Google and Twitter. She has alsoworked with cyber-advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The New York Times described a situation where Wong, in her role as “The Decider” at Google, put free speech above business, refusing to block worldwide access to videos Turkish politicians found offensive.

But last June, as part of a campaign against threats to symbols of Turkish secularism, a Turkish prosecutor made a sweeping demand: that Google block access to the offending videos throughout the world, to protect the rights and sensitivities of Turks living outside the country. Google refused, arguing that one nation’s government shouldn’t be able to set the limits of speech for Internet users worldwide. Unmoved, the Turkish government today continues to block access to YouTube in Turkey.

Declan McCullough at CNET reports favorably on Wong’s time at Twitter :

Twitter has won applause for protecting users from police requests that are overly broad: the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave the company 6 of 6 stars in its latest survey of tech companies, titled “Who Has Your Back?” Twitter is also part of a coalition that has been lobbying for over three years to rewrite federal privacy law to require search warrants for e-mail messages and other data stored on remote servers.

While it’s not clear exactly what Wong will be doing, what’s absolutely clear is there is a lot to do. Privacy-violating legislation crops up regularly, the last major near-miss being the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. CISPA makes it much easier for government agencies to put politically disfavored people in prison, government’s shoddy secret keeping may mean CISPA actually makes data less secure and that data suggests that U.S. businesses would rather see the private sector develop cybersecurity solutions.

The bill demonstrates how legislators are getting smarter when they propose privacy-violating legislation. It was in many ways similar to, and shared many of the same problems as, last year’s widely reviled SOPA. But CISPA enjoyed far more corporate support due to its major handout to tech companies. Under CISPA, companies are protected from lawsuits if or when they break their Terms of Service in order to give government agencies like the National Security Administration their users’ private data, as long as the government claims it’s for cyber security.

In addition, CISPA, as Mediaite put it, “effectively creates a ‘cybersecurity’ loophole in all existing privacy laws.” It does this first by expanding allowable warrantless government surveillance by letting government agencies collect information on users of sites like Facebook and Twitter even when that information is supposed to be private under existing Terms of Service without warrants or warning. It then immunizes those companies against lawsuits for violating their Terms of Service.

Civil libertarians should be on the lookout for moves to take decisions on what content to ban away from companies and bring them under the administration’s purview. National Journal reports Wong saying in a very recent New Republic’s cover story: “I think the Decider model is inconsistent,” she said. “The Internet is big, and Google isn’t the only one making these decisions.” National Journal’s Brian Fung:

There’s clearly a need for something more institutionalized than a bunch of Silicon Valley employees judging for themselves (and the rest of us) what constitutes ban-worthy material, often on a case-by-case basis. One way to read Wong’s comment is a statement of intent: In her new position, she’ll be perfectly placed to help design a system that’s clearer for everyone.

Clarity may be helpful, but there’s a potential danger here: The only thing worse for free and open dialogue than governments around the world requiring that Google remove content to operate in their countries is the US government getting in on the banning game. It’s unfortunate that more totalitarian countries put Google in this position. It would be even more unfortunate for our government, under the guise of “clarity,” to participate as well.

In an administration beset with a history of flagrant privacy violations and an unprecedented number of whistleblower prosecutions, those concerned with First and Fourth Amendment protections should watch this appointment closely. Wong’s previous moves give reason for hope. But any moves to consolidate and legislate free speech matters or expand surveillance must be guarded against and opposed forcefully, no matter who is at the helm.

This post originally appeared at Doublethink magazine.

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