Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The Theoretical

"By "genocide" we mean the destruction of an ethnic group…. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups." -Raphael Lemkin, Polish Jew and jurist, 1944.

Legally, genocide involves action taken against "in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."(1) In order to take action against a group. just as to obtain a remedy for a class under Rule 23 of the FRCP, the group must be ascertainable. This means that the acting entity(2) must be able to know, with a certain degree of efficiency and precision, who is and is not a member of the group for the crime to be feasible. Consequently, limiting the ascertainability of a group when confronted with actual or impending genocide is extremely desirable both from a moral and a practical perspective. Secrecy and anonymity(3) both have substantial roles in limiting ascertainability. Secrecy is most critical because the revelation of all of one's personal communications would reveal all of their group affiliations. Anonymity is also important because it allows one to speak out as a member of the group without revealing the group membership of oneself to the audience.

The Practical

For decades, the Burmese military junta controlled access to media in the country. Creating unlicensed print or video was an extremely risky vocation, often ending in disappearance.(4). In 2007, digital video recording and technology for circumventing government restrictions on internet access led the Saffron Revolution protests to receive unprecedented international media coverage. Over the next 8 years, international pressure and a gradual thawing eventually led to the democratic opposition finally taking power in 2015 through open elections. But the environment is still less than democratic, and genocide against the Rohingya minority is ongoing now. Right now.

Moreover, free expression has not improved much, if at all, since the military junta. "When people here in Burma refer to the “Internet,” what they often have in mind is Facebook — the social media network that dominates all online activity in this country to a degree unimaginable anywhere else."(5) Despite the fact that private broadcasters still cannot exist in Burma(6), Facebook remains allowed to operate in the country. What, exactly, does Facebook give up to get inside countries with authoritarian regimes? Partly, it is the fact that by providing insufficient privacy protections and connecting all communications to a real identity with geo-location data, critics of the regime can be persecuted more easily. And the chilling effect on online speech, difficult to measure, must be massive. And it is hard for media to get off Facebook when many of Burma's citizens use no web browser and only access the internet via the Facebook app on their smartphones - and, while Free Basics was pushed out of India, an unknown number of Burmese use Free Basics in partnership with Myanma Posts and Telecommunications, a state-run telecommunications company dating back to the military Junta. This means Facebook is content to give out free connectivity to Burmese users so long as it can surveil their traffic and deliver targeted advertising to them. They do not mind sharing those packets with an authoritarian state which uses them as intelligence and evidence to target and arrest dissidents.

But what happens when Mark Zuckerberg's allies within a nation become genocidal? Since the transition to the NLD's so-called democracy, persecution of the Rohingya minority has only escalated and is undoubtedly a full-blown genocide, with Doctors without borders recording 6,700 violent deaths in one month of 2017.(7) At the same time, Facebook is actively censoring journalists and reports coming from the Rohingya community while police and vigilantes simultaneously target journalists critical of the government.(8) One danger of a 'platform company' is that the platform can be revoked when it is not in the interest of the platform company to offer it. Meanwhile, despite the NLD government actively lying about events through its "Information Committee on Rakhine Affairs" (9), and these events happening after the 2016 US election and promises to crack down on fake news, this propaganda arm of the government maintains an active, uncensored Facebook page.(10)

The Rectification

FreedombBoxes? would be useful in Burma. But, aside from that, there is a practical question of law. Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide prohibits "complicity in genocide." Allowing an entity of a genocidal government to share in collecting your packets after you provide connectivity is, undoubtedly, complicity. Additionally, censoring activists and allowing the government to promote their own speech may also provide a separate complicitly charge. With sufficient evidence of collaboration, liability for conspiracy to commit genocide may even be conceivable. The answer as to whether the theoretical issues of genocide in an era of platform companies will manifest in practice is already directly in front of our faces. And there is law against it. And, while articles about hate speech being promoted on Burmese Facebook and the Rohingya being censored do exist, no one is making the connections, let alone making change in society using words.

-- JoeBruner - 23 Mar 2018



1 :

2 : State action is not necessarily a component of genocidal acts. Private organizations can collect platform data or open-source intelligence for their own purposes.

3 : For definitions, see Snowden and the Future.

4 : See, e.g.,

5 :} Since Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD took power, there has been a rapid increase in charging people for criminal online defamation under Article 66(d) of the country's media law - often for Facebook posts critical of the military or government.{{

6 :

7 :

8 :

9 :

10 :


Webs Webs

r1 - 23 Mar 2018 - 22:25:02 - JoeBruner
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