How Microsoft Bing Censors the Middle East

According to a paper written by ‘Berkman Center for Internet and Society’ researchers, Microsoft had been censoring some of their Bing results quite arbitrarily since 2009 back when their search engine was first launched. Apparently, Bing searches that originated from specific places in the world yielded Safe Search-only results, in an effort to forcefully steer the users clear from any ‘inappropriate’ content.

According to Bing, any results are remotely related to sex, or any LGBT-related content, should be considered inappropriate, and people who lived in specific countries should not be granted access to them by default.

The paper resulted in Microsoft lifting some of their limitations in some specific cases, in which they were falsely enforced. However, it appears that even now, Safe Search limitations are still being applied arbitrarily in some regions even after some years later.

When citizens of China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the Middle East, Singapore, Thailand and Turkey attempt to search a ‘taboo’ keyword in Bing, they may very well be presented with an automated message instead, stating that their country or region requires a strict Bing Safe Search setting which filters out results that might return adult content. How does a Region require anything?

Indeed, these countries, to name just a few, are categorized by Microsoft as ‘strict’ countries. That means that content searched that originates from these places should conform to the local laws as well as to local customs and social norms. Which I thought it was fine. At this point, it would make sense to wonder what they are thinking, since nobody should be forced to conform to anything but the law; anything more than that should be a matter of personal choice and certainly not the business of a company that is supposed to be protecting and promoting internet freedom!

And why would Microsoft bother to take censorship further than a country’s legal requirements? Frankly, we think that it’s easier for them to just lump together the regions that are located near or around an oppressed country and enforce the same rules to all of them. It looks a bit lazy to us to just disregard the people’s right to choose the type of content they wish to browse -not to mention how unethical it is to blatantly refuse them their rights to equal internet access for no reason at all!

Under no circumstances should a search engine or a company act as an intermediary, acting in accordance to the demands of strict regional repressive regimes. We understand that sometimes it’s unavoidable, but even if Microsoft was forced to heed an oppressive legal system’s dictates, they should take extra precautions to protect the rights of the citizens in nearby countries, instead of just brushing them off and putting them all together.

Microsoft’s reply was that people, who live in countries that shouldn’t fall under the ‘strict’ category, but somehow still get filtered results by default, could just change their account’s regional settings. But why should thousands of users take extra steps to change their account location settings, in order to be able to use Bing without any censored results? Why should they be logged into their user accounts 24/7, in order to not be treated as second-rate internet denizens? Couldn’t Microsoft just examine each country’s case individually and customize their regional Safe Search settings accordingly, instead?

FBI and DOJ Target New Enemy In Crypto Wars: Apple and Google

All computer users know how important security is; most of us rely on preventative measures against intrusions, Trojans and viruses on our computers, since having to wipe an entire HDD clean after an infection is not a rare occurrence anymore.

But that’s not the only type of security computer users should be worried about though. What happens to sensitive private data we push after it has been sent out there? While it travels through the great unknown, before reaching its final destination. Is that data safe from interception? And more importantly; is it completely safe from being ambushed or intercepted?

Well, the FBI and the Department of Justice both say ‘absolutely not’! They recently turned against two of the most powerful companies, Apple and Google, in order to force them to stop providing end-to-end encryption (E2EE) services to their clients – or to obligate them to provide the authorities with the means to actually interpret any end-to-end communications they may intercept. ‘Wait a minute, what is this end-to-end encryption, exactly?’ you may ask. Apparently, not all types of encryption are equally effective, and this particular encryption method is infinitely more secure than the rest of its counterparts – so far, at least. With all other types of encryption, even the super-hard-to-crack ones, which would take a supercomputer aeon to get through, the data is only secure as long as it is not intercepted.

Do you really know what servers your data travels through while being transmitted to its recipient? Some of them might be compromised; some might even be keeping logs of everything that goes through them! Generally speaking, the only way to be certain that even if someone gained access to your data, they wouldn’t be able to read or view it. That is end-to-end encryption; it allows your data to remain encrypted throughout its digital ‘journey’ towards its intended destination. Only the recipients of your choice will be able to read or view your data, since you will provide them with your key.

So, why would the FBI and DOJ feel threatened by such a foolproof, solid encryption system? Well, the simple answer is that they would like to be able to monitor any kind of digital communication they want, in order to facilitate their investigations. They apparently need to be able to decrypt all messages they intercept, so they turned to the Senate for a solution. In a recent Senate Judiciary, FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates presented their case, namely that companies such as Google and Apple should retain access to their client’s information at all times, in order to avoid compromising criminal and national security investigations!

They said that they would like to work with the internet and communications providers, in order to discover a happy medium; where customers are to feel perfectly secure in their communications, but at the same time the FBI and the DOJ will be provided with a ‘skeleton key’, which will allow them to read or view any message they intercept, at any given time. Yates and Comey didn’t hesitate to stress the importance of solving this issue, and even threatened the companies with the possibility of enforcing compliance! They seem to believe that by actually forcing the Silicon Valley to develop a way of circumventing end-to-end encrypted communications. The developers will end up presenting them with more creative results at a fraction of the time.
The FBI and DOJ also raised the moral issue of the problem as they claimed that; whichever company develops code that prevents compliance with a lawful court order should be held in contempt and they even compared the companies to citizens that withdraw information in court! And expect them to make their case even stronger by providing numbers and analytical data that would present all of the ways in which strong encryption prevented them from doing their job on important cases. However, neither of them did so; Yates only mentioned that whenever the Department of Justice comes across strongly encrypted communications, they don’t even look into getting a wiretap order. However, according to the Federal Court report, it seems that in 2014 there were only four cases where wiretaps were dropped because of the data or communication was encrypted! We don’t know what are those four cases might have been about. But we do know that the Bureau and the DOJ have multiple other methods of tracking and cracking criminal activity, anyways!

It looks like this attempt to trivialize the importance of the general public’s communications security didn’t hit its mark, and we’re glad it didn’t! As important as fighting crime and terrorism is concern, I believe that the internet should remain free. Developing a ‘skeleton key’ would render all end-to-end communications obsolete, since it surely wouldn’t take long before it falls into the wrong hands.

Think about it, if everyone else had the option. What would you choose? Would you prefer being vulnerable as long as everyone else is vulnerable too? Or would you rather remain secure and protected?

New Proposal on Trac to Remove Post Formats from WordPress Core

Before the release of WordPress 3.1, quite a few users cried out for the implementation of a core way, which would allow them to easily format the visual appearance of their posts, according to their content type.

This idea seems to have stemmed from Tumblr, which had already become hugely popular, partly because of its awesome micro-blogging style format options, which allowed users to blog as often as they liked, and in shorter bits.

So, in an effort to appeal to a greater audience, and make their pre-existing users’ lives easier, a a radio button box was implemented to the core of WordPress (with version 3.6), which allowed users to customize the way each and every one of their posts was presented; they had the option of choosing between a multitude of default formats (as long as their preferred theme supported them), such as:

  • aside – minimal style with no title
  • gallery – ideal for viewing images
  • link – good for linking to another site
  • image – used when posting a single image
  • quote – used for presenting quotes, with specific locations where the name of the quotee and the quote itself would appear
  • video – for sharing a single video, or a playlist
  • audio – good for pod casting, or for sharing an audio file
  • chat – used when uploading a chat script

Looks like the users’ voices were eventually heard, and that they got what they were asking for all along, right? Well, not exactly; in truth, ever since Post Formats were implemented, they have not been upgraded or improved in any way at all – which is problematic, considering how finicky and inconsistent this core feature seems to be.

Besides the Post Formats’ behavioral issues, there were actually quite a few functionality-related problems, as well; they would not appear by default in WordPress installations, and needed to be enabled by a coder. Upon being enabled, they would require some design work by the themes’ developers, so that the users could actually see what they were doing. After all that hassle, the feature would become accessible, but their UI position was still kind of obscure while in the WordPress Post Editor.

You can understand how this entire deal was kind of hard to explain to the end users, most of whom didn’t really need to use the feature, anyways.

In an effort to address this issue, Morten Rand-Hendriksen, who has been teaching WordPress via Lynda.com, has created a ticket on trac, requesting that the Post Formats feature be removed from the platform’s core, since it rarely behaves as it should.

According to Morten Rand-Hendriksen, Post Formats support is not consistent across the various WordPress themes out there, and sometimes the panel and options disappear between themes.

Another major issue is that sometimes the feature’s behavior ends up causing posts to appear broken or glitchy, in the eyes of the viewers.

Not to mention that each theme developer can customize their theme’s Post Format options to behave in any way they choose, which may end up confusing the user. So, when a user switches to a theme that supports a new set of Post Formats, all their former assignments will be altered, as well. Post Formats don’t really have a use case anymore, to be honest. They seem to have been replaced by the goal of developing modular post editing options, instead. The feature’s behavior can actually be mimicked by theme creators by using categories, or other custom taxonomies, thus rendering it obsolete.

Finally, Morten Rand-Hendriksen asked for the Post Format feature to be moved into a plugin, which would allow it to evolve alongside WordPress, and also inspire potential experimentation and ideas for its improvement. If not, it could always just be abandoned entirely.

EU to Ditch Mobile Roaming Fees

The European Union announced that, by June 2017, there will be no more mobile roaming charges within the 28 EU member countries. It has also approved a ‘net neutrality’ plan, which is a first step in the right direction, but still leaves much to be desired.

The issue of roaming fees has been a staple in EU discussions for a while now, and their elimination was initially intended to take place back in 2015; however various EU countries asked for a delay, until 2018. The happy medium apparently ended up being June 2017.
Andrus Ansip, commission VP for the digital single market, said in a statement: “Europeans have been calling and waiting for the end of roaming charges as well as for net neutrality rules. They have been heard. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to create a Digital Single Market. Our plans to make it happen were fully endorsed by Heads of State and Government last week, and we should move faster than ever on this.”
Bear in mind, that the plan regarding roaming fees, should be first permitted by the European Parliament and the European Council before it can actually be implemented. As a preliminary example of things to come, roaming charges within the EU will decrease slightly in April 2016, by €0.05 / minute for calls, €0.02 / SMS, and €0.05 / MB of data. Of course, providers will still be able to retain a ‘fair use’ policy, which will help them prevent abusive users from hogging bandwidth while roaming. Don’t get too excited, though; incidentally, telecommunications companies may see fit to raise domestic prices as a counter-measure to the EU ruling!
In addition to the decrease in roaming charges, and their eventual abolishment, the EU is taking steps towards ensuring that all users will be treated as equals, as far as internet access and online content are concerned.

The EU will soon be called to review the 2009 Telecoms Package, which addresses five main issues:

• The creation of a true single digital market, which will ensure equivalent access to the internet for everyone.
• The sale of spectrum rights, which will bring members of the EU sizeable revenues.
• The creation of sufficient incentives for markets to invest in high-speed networks, which will ensure that end-users will be able to benefit from competitive, affordable and fast connectivity.
• The examination of new online players, who may be able to provide similar or equivalent services to traditional telecoms services.
• The creation of a regulatory consistency across the EU, regarding spectrum management and other related issues.

They EU officials seem to think that telecommunications companies should treat all traffic equally, when providing internet access services, and forbade them from blocking or slowing any users down – except for when there have been hacker attacks, or when they need to enforce countermeasures. No more prioritization for paying customers, it seems!

However, some new, innovative and expensive services, such as IPTV, digital doctor-type of aps, high quality teleconferencing and self-driving vehicle technology, will require, apart from optimized hardware, a way faster and more reliable internet service, which seems like it will only be available to paying customers. How is that fair and neutral?

Well, EU officials seem to claim that this ‘better’ internet service will still allow room for open and unencumbered internet access for the rest of the users, and it will not hinder them at all. That remains to be seen!