May 082012

twitter logo_word bubbleTwitter filed a motion in a New York State Court to quash a court order that would force it to hand over data on Malcom Harris, an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protester being prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office in Manhattan. Harris, arrested for disorderly conduct during last year’s march across the Brooklyn Bridge has been pursued by the DA’s office which is requesting all his tweets over a three-month period.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union:

Law enforcement agencies—both the federal government and state and city entities—are becoming increasingly aggressive in their attempts to obtain information about what people are doing on the Internet. And while the individual Internet users can try to defend their rights in the rare circumstances in which they find out about the requests before their information is turned over, that may not be enough. Indeed, even though Twitter provided notice to the Twitter user in this particular case, and even though he was able to get an attorney to file a motion seeking to quash the subpoena, the court found that the Twitter user did not have legal “standing” to challenge the D.A.’s subpoena.

The Court ruling that Harris did not have legal standing puts users in the position of having to rely on private companies to protect their Constitutional rights – even in the case as with Twitter where the company explicitly states that you own your own data. As you might imagine, Harris was understandably pleased with Twitter’s latest action:

Malcom Harris Tweet

Good for Twitter, which hardly has a spotless record in this area. But where this goes is anyone’s guess. In its filing, Twitter referred to a case where the courts ruled that attaching a GPS device to someone violates the Fourth Amendment standard against unreasonable searches:

If the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies merely to surveillance of one’s location in public areas for 28 days, it also applies to the District Attorney’s effort to force Twitter to produce over three months worth of a citizen’s substantive communications, regardless of whether the government alleges those communications are public or private. (from Mashable)

However, in a world where technology use is unevenly distributed and society’s understanding of it often borders on the dysfunctional, one would not be surprised to see the Court uphold the District Attorney’s position. That will send it to a higher court where, hopefully, commonsense and an understanding of liberty and individual rights in the digital age will overturn the decision. If the State can demand to see your communication with others – which you don’t even have in your possession by the time the demand is made – we are in trouble, indeed.

Mar 182012
OWS Demonstration on St Patricks Day

OWS Demonstration on St Patricks Day

Spring in the air? Demonstrations if you dare! The six month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement brought demonstrators (perhaps 600 or so) back to Zuccotti Park and the arrest of over 70 people. Not the largest protest by any measure but perhaps a sign of what will come as the weather warms. The police are limiting access to Zuccotti Park and keeping the Press at bay. But unclear how long that will last given that both are on suspect legal grounds (a Court upheld closing the Park at night but not at will).

And if videos floating around are any indication, the police were needlessly rough with those detained – slamming a protester against a glass door that broke. Do they really this kind of treatment keeps people home? Actually, OWS thanked the Mayor for the arrests as they claim it will help with fundraising.

The month of May just may be a little different this year. And since it was St. Patrick’s Day, someone had to show up with a sign about the snakes on Wall Street. More details about the events in Lower Manhattan at the Gothamist.

Mar 122012

Social media can play a vital role in protest and it appears the NYC prosecutors office would like that to end. For the second time, they have subpoenaed Twitter records of a protester involved in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activities. The first went to activist Malcolm Harris back in February of this year (you can read his account on Reuters) and the latest subpoena went to Jeff Rae. Both have been notified by Twitter and will fight the requests.

And the point of the government’s fishing expedition for data related to minor crimes such as disorderly conduct? It obviously undermines free-speech protections in the First Amendment, but more directly, aims at the Fourth Amendment which prohibits warrantless searches. In discussing the initial subpoena against Harris, the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes:

Cell Phone TowerBy attempting to subpoena these records, the government can get around the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrantless searches by requesting information that includes IP addresses. Twitter keeps track of IP address information regarding every time a person logged into Twitter, as well as the IP address information related to a Twitter user’s direct messages to other users, and the date and time information related to these log ins and direct messages. Armed with IP addresses, the government — without a warrant — can go to an ISP to determine who was assigned that particular IP address. And if that person connected on a mobile device — which is where the majority of Twitter users access their accounts — the ISP will hand over to the government the specific cell tower (and its corresponding geographic location) which that person used to access Twitter. This allows the government to piece together a map of where a person physically is when he opens Twitter on his smartphone, sends a direct message to a friend, or Tweets. And with that information, the government could get a record of Mr. Harris’ movement over the three months it requested from Twitter. It’s no surprise then that the government singled out Mr. Harris for this request: he currently has over 1,500 followers and 7,200 Tweets. 

So you don’t need to go through the trouble of getting a court order to track someone electronically. Now you can just do it after the fact but getting hold of their Twitter feed and the IP address information, essentially gutting the Fourth Amendment against abuse of police power. There’s been some progress on the legal front here – the Supreme Court ruled in January in United States v. Jones  that for law enforcement to install a GPS device on private property, it requires a search warrant. Nonetheless, the Court also noted that the rapid technological developments of our era may require that Congress step in with legislation. And given the dysfunctional environment of Washington these days, that doesn’t seem very promising.

Amazing how quickly things can change. Back in 2009, the State Department was praising Iranian students for using Twitter and pushed the country to not cut-off Internet access. But more recently, a number of subpoenas have been issued by local law enforcement in the States for Twitter data, including the Boston Police who subpoenaed two accounts but two hashtags (not quite sure how they were to defend themselves in court).

Malcolm Harris summed up the danger here:

The biggest danger that comes from this subpoena isn’t that it’ll help convict me — I don’t think a judge will have any trouble understanding what happened on the bridge — but that it will produce a chilling effect and discourage people from using Twitter while protesting” Harris wrote for Reuters. “It’s a win-win for prosecutors: Either they use Twitter archives to build cases against demonstrators, or they scare us away from using the platform

The subpoena for Jeff Rae’s account has been posted on Scrib if you want to see it. Scary stuff and yes, protesters may think twice. Win-wins for law enforcement are never good when it comes to social protest – unless, of course, one would prefer a police state.

Dec 142011
John Knefel being dragged off by NYC Police

John Knefel being dragged off by NYC Police

Boingboing has an insightful piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker on the journalism issues brought up by the OWS protests. Who is a journalist today? How do you issue credentials? We have policies and practices created in another era that no longer make sense given the digital tools available.

She takes the example of John Knefel, a writer and comedian arrested yesterday while documenting an OSW action in New York:

Knefel doesn’t work for a major media outlet. But he’s also not just some random bystander. He’s got a political podcast with new episodes three times a week. Do we only call someone a journalist if they have enough page views? Do they have to have a journalism degree? What’s the line?

Knefel is a biased source of information. But so are a lot of mainstream commentators. We’d call someone from Fox News a journalist. We’d call someone from Reason magazine a journalist. We’d call somebody from Mother Jones a journalist. Having a clear political angle to your coverage doesn’t make you not a journalist. Except when it does. So what are the actual criteria?

Knefel didn’t have a press pass. But, as Xeni has pointed out, the press pass system in New York is incredibly convoluted and contradictory. So what if you can’t get one? Does that mean you aren’t a journalist? This is particularly problematic given the fact that the rules seem to be set up to favor long-standing publications with lots of resources that mostly just cover New York City. How does that fit into a globalized world? Why punish media entrepreneurship?

We live in an age where publishing is easy and the tools to do it are available to a much wider swatch of people. But our standards and rules for who gets protection as a member of the press are based on a paradigm where publishing wasn’t easy and only a limited number of people could do it.

What is even more bizarre here is that the rules for obtaining a press pass in New York essentially require you to break the rules – repeatedly – as pointed out in an article last month by Elizabeth Spiers, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Observer, who ironically cannot get a press pass for herself. Simply put, it’s a form of control by the NYPD and stifling of the First Amendment.

And it gets even more twisted: the current rules are in response to a court settlement with bloggers who had argued that the prior even more arcane rules gave them no opportunity to be seen as legitimate news gathers by the NYPD.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter after all since credentialed reporters have been arrested at OWS gatherings. But it’s time for someone to breech the castle moat and let them know the world has changed.

Nov 192011
OWS Projection on Verizon Building

OWS Projection on Verizon Building

The Village Voice has an update on the OWS 99% image projected on the “Verizon” building in lower Manhattan. Turns out that the building has never been owned by Verizon (their sign at the top is simply advertising) and they only rent out a few floors. Nevertheless, it makes a compelling target. A few of the details from an interview with Mark Read in Boingboing on how this was pulled off:

Read, 45, told BoingBoing the idea to project the messages on the building, which is near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, came up during an action coordination meeting. He spent the following two weeks devising a plan to execute the ambitious effort. The group secured a nearby apartment to set up the projection after putting up signs offering tenants money to rent out a unit for a few hours. 

The tenant ended up providing the space for free and with a 12,000 lumen projector and Modul8 VJ mixing software, they were in business. A clearer image to the right (though I still prefer the original one as it seems more fleeting, distant, yet still powerful); below a short video of the projections:


Nov 172011

​The Verizon Building near the Brooklyn Bridge finally has a purpose – as a projection screen for the Occupy Wall Street march. As members of the Communications Workers of America, Verizon employees have been without a contract for some time. Now at least the building – and an ugly one at that – has a purpose for tonight’s protest on the streets below. Via The Village Voice.

In a word: breathtaking.

Projection on Verizon Building - November 17, 2011

Projection on Verizon Building - November 17, 2011

Nov 172011

The media references to “income inequality” surges from 91 instances a week before the demonstrations started to nearly 500 by the end of October according to Ben Smith. It may be a difficult time with the protesters removal from Zucotti Park and the demonstrations in the NYC tonight, but the cultural dialogue may be changing. The question is: how many references will there be in another month and does it impact the political landscape? Via Politico.

"Income inequality" Media References per Week

"Income inequality" Media References per Week

Oct 272011
Giles Fraser in front of St. Paul's Cathedral

Giles Fraser in front of St. Paul's Cathedral

Giles Fraser is resigning in protest over plans to forcibly evict protesters camped out on the steps of the church. Fearing “violence in the name of the church” Fraser tweeted around 9:00am this morning:

It is with great sadness that I have handed in my notice at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

As Cathedral Canon, Fraser has been a supporter of the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement, denouncing corporate greed, and helping clear police from the steps of the Cathedral. Over the past week, it has become increasingly apparent that the City of London Corporation (which controls the square in the front of the church) plans on forcibly removing the protesters. Naomi Colvin, a spokeswoman for the group said the following:

Courage like that is really very inspiring. It reassures us that what we’re doing is important. The people who have a bit of integrity, it’s becoming more obvious who those people are. I hope we can do well enough to justify their sacrifices.

For Fraser, the effort to close down the protest camp was contrary to his own beliefs but also flew in the face of what the Church should stand for:

He . . .  realised, as some of his colleagues did not, how the cathedral chapter’s attempts to close the camp down – and their over-reaction in closing the cathedral – would play in the outside world and how it would make the church appear: scared, cowed, out-of-touch and pro-establishment – the very things he consistently preaches against in sermons and broadcasts.

But there may have been more going on behind the scenes including efforts by those who would like to see him removed for his outspoken views:

He had been talking privately about possibly needing to resign when the chapter voted to take action against the protesters, but his hand may have been forced – ironically – by the revelation of that in the media. It is an interesting question who leaked it: there are church conservatives who would be delighted to see him fall.

Oct 162011

Occupy Fawks Button

Tens of thousands of people around the world protested issues ranging from the growing concentration of wealth in the finance and banking industries, government bailouts, economic inequality to cutbacks of government services on Saturday. Much of the American and U.K. media is portraying this as a protest movement that started in the United States ” . . . Occupy Wall Street movement spread to the streets of Europe, Asia and Australia . . .” While the name may mark something different, you could just as easily see this as coming from the “Indignants” movement in Spain for protesting economic conditions or from people taking to the streets in the Arab Spring for standing up to indifferent power structures. MSNBC had the best description:

. . . an exercise in social media-spread, Arab Spring-inspired, grassroots democracy with an emphasis on peaceful, homespun debate, as seen among Madrid’s “indignados” in June or at the current Wall Street park sit-in.

But no matter. My point is more a complaint about American media than anything to do with the protesters. At least the media is finally taking them seriously (just how many marches and arrests does this require?); and clearly, the momentum is clearly on the side of the protesters. There was a little disappointment here and there with the size of the crowds, but the sheer scale and the online coordination of the protests makes it remarkable. Here’s a few highlights:

Demonstration in Puerta del Sol

Demonstration in Puerta del Sol

  • In NYC, 10,000 people marched from Zucotti Park up to Times Square; there were more than 80 arrests midst a number of tense moments
  • London saw protesters trying to get into the London Stock Exchange, and after being turned back, set up camp near St.Paul’s
  • In Madrid, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, the focal point this summer of the “Indignants” movement
  • In Hong Kong, about 500 people turned out, but there were larger gatherings in Sydney and New Zealand
  • Anarchists associated with a group known as “Black Bloc” moved among peaceful demonstrators in Rome and fought with police and burned cars. had gathered as part of the global Occupy movement.
Protest in Rome - October 15

Protest in Rome - October 15









Oct 142011
Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit says he'd be happy to talk to the Occupy Wall Street protesters

Citigroup CEO, Vikram Pandit, Wants to talk

And here’s his cell number (and office number below). Gawker shared the information after Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit let a Fortune conference know that he’d be happy to talk to the Occupy Wall Street protesters about the financial crisis. He claims he actually wants to be held responsible:

I’d talk about the fact that they should hold Citi and the financial institutions accountable for practicing responsible finance . . . . Trust has been broken between financial institutions and the citizens of the U.S., and that is Wall Street’s job, to reach out to Main Street and rebuild that trust. 

So we’re using a little old-style technology – call me! – to counter the YouTube videos, Twitter and Facebook pages. With Citigroup now expected to earn $2.49 billion after losing $29.3 billion over the previous two years and demonstrators upping the pressure in numerous cities (including marching to CEO’s homes), maybe we’re getting just a little nervous here.

But as Gawker notes, there are a few other things related to that “trust” issue that Pandit probably doesn’t want to discuss but you might want to ask anyway, and they helpfully offer some questions:

Can I borrow $3.4 billion at no interest if I put up a bunch of my worthless shit as collateral? I promise to pay it back, because I’m just going to lend it out to a bunch of idiots at like 9% interest and book profits. Or how about you just buy $27 billion of my worthless shit? No deal? How about you just guarantee to eat 90% of the losses on that worthless shit up to $300 billion? 

Better yet, the Citizen Media Law Project notes that taping a phone call NY State is legal as long as one party is aware of it (you). So go ahead, call and record. And send the recordings to Gawker which will post them later on.

Oh, and as promised, here’s his office line (212) 793-1201 and email address, Depending on what happens tomorrow with the coordinated October 15 Protests, his phone may be ringing all day and night.

Oct 142011
Occupy Wall Street protest's welcoming table in the financial district's Zuccotti Park

Occupy Wall Street protest's welcoming table in the financial district's Zuccotti Park

Battle lines were drawn last night with the City’s announcement that the Park would be cleaned and that protesters would not be allowed to return with sleep bags and overnight gear. Effectively, it would have ended the protest if carried out in force as there’s no alternate site in the area where protesters can remain overnight. The protesters had vowed to stay, they cleaned up the Park yesterday, and now the City has backed down.

Perhaps the cost in terms of YouTube videos of participants being beaten or dragged off was judged just a little too much to bear.

Protesters react to Postponement of Eviction from Zucotti Park

Protesters react to Postponement of Eviction from Zucotti Park