Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: Presenting the 2017 New England Muzzle Awards

Illustration by Emily Judem of WGBH News

Time for hot dogs, fireworks and the annual New England Muzzle Awards, hosted once again by WGBH News. Believe it or not, this is the 20th time that Harvey Silverglate and I have rounded up outrages against free speech and free expression. There are some good ones here, from Google and Facebook to the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden. Please have a look. It would be un-American not to.

A polite debate over Apple, the FBI, and encryption

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I had expected fireworks—or at least strong disagreements—when Internet privacy advocate Jonathan Zittrain and former CIA director John Deutsch debated the impasse between Apple and the FBI over a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Instead, the two men offered nuance and a rough if imperfect consensus over how much access we should have to technologies that allow us to encrypt our personal data in ways that place it beyond the government’s reach.

“Many other paths to data are available. We are exuding data all over the place,” said Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. “The FBI has chosen this case … in large part, I think, because there is so little privacy interest on the other side.”

Deutsch, an emeritus professor at MIT, sought to draw a distinction between law enforcement and terrorism investigations such as the San Bernardino case. Authorities say they need to know what was on the phone used by the late Syed Rizwan Farook because it might reveal the identities of accomplices who are planning future attacks.

“There’s a big difference between law enforcement and national security,” Deutsch said. Law enforcement, he explained, is about “catching bad people,” whereas the aim of national security is “to avoid a catastrophe.” There is a public interest in requiring cooperation from companies such as Apple in a national-security investigation, he said, with the courts setting boundaries for when such cooperation should be compelled.

If that sounds like disagreement, it was so polite and mildly worded as to create barely a stir. Indeed, people in the packed hall at Harvard’s Kennedy School on Monday evening—most of them Apple partisans, I suspect—seemed to appreciate a discussion that focused more on the fine points of technology and the law rather than on broad proclamations about Internet freedom versus the threat of terrorism.

Then, too, technology is changing so rapidly that the points raised during the debate may soon be obsolete.

Apple has been ordered to write software that will enable government investigators to gain access to Farook’s data; the company has filed an appeal seeking to overturn that order. But as Zittrain noted, Apple executives say they will soon offer encryption software to consumers that will make it impossible for anyone—even Apple itself—to break in. Such software, Zittrain added, is already available from various sources, which means that even if it were legally banned, it could still be used.

And that changes the nature of what’s at stake. As the San Bernardino case has played out, I’ve been more sympathetic to the government than to Apple. Why shouldn’t a corporation be required to comply with a court order to provide information in a terrorism investigation? And if it’s extraordinary to demand that Apple to write software so that the phone can be accessed, what of it? That’s simply a consequence of Apple’s engineering decisions.

As Deutsch put it: “That’s not really the essential point. It’s a minor part of the issue.”

On the other hand, I’m as uncomfortable as anyone with the idea that Apple and other companies could be forbidden to offer encryption so strong that even they would lack the means to bypass it. Requiring companies to build in a so-called back door would open the way not just to legitimate investigations but to privacy breaches and fraud, and would hand yet another tool to authoritarian governments seeking to repress dissent.

Zittrain and Deutsch talked about what role Congress and the courts might play in finding the proper balance between privacy and security. I asked them whether those institutions could have any role at all in a world in which no one but the end user would be able to bypass the encryption settings.

Zittrain responded that we have never lived in an era when every bit of data is accessible to a government investigator with a warrant. Even so, he said, there will continue to be vast amounts of personal data available to investigators despite the existence of strong encryption. “There’s a whole constellation of data points out there,” he said, calling it “an embarrassment of riches.”

I found Deutsch’s response more intriguing, reflecting as it did his both cloak-and-dagger days at the CIA and his long career in science.

“I don’t believe that phones irrevocably go dark,” he said, explaining that he believes Apple and other companies will retain the ability to unlock encrypted devices regardless of what they publicly proclaim. He also offered what he called “a suspicious paranoid point: all of these phones are made in China.” Would the Chinese government really allow the manufacture of technology that it couldn’t somehow access?

With technology changing so rapidly, Zittrain said, the current dispute between Apple and the FBI is “a bellwether rather than the case of the century.”

This time, in other words, Apple says that it won’t. Next time, it may say that it can’t.

Your must-read on the Probation Department case

As you may have heard, former state Probation Department commissioner John O’Brien and two underlings have been convicted in federal court of charges related to patronage.

In Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Harvey Silverglate and his legal assistant Daniel Schneider criticize U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and other officials for transforming behavior they don’t like — behavior that, to be sure, was grotesquely corrupt — into a federal crime, even though patronage is perfectly legal under state law. (No, neither Silverglate, Schneider nor I am impressed that this was done via a legal theory criminalizing the system O’Brien used to facilitate the patronage rather than the patronage itself.)

More broadly, Silverglate explained how it’s done in his 2009 book “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” which I wrote about for The Guardian. As for Ortiz, she recently won her third consecutive New England Muzzle Award, now hosted by WGBHNews.org.

More: Even though I join Silverglate and Schneider in believing the legal case was dubious, the facts that were unearthed would make a jackal puke. Kudos to The Boston Globe for exposing this violation of the public trust.

‘Material support’ and the case of Tarek Mehanna

Tarek Mehanna
Tarek Mehanna

In today’s Boston Globe, civil-liberties lawyer and friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate explains in chilling detail the constitutional underpinnings — or, rather, the absence of such underpinnings — in the 2012 conviction of Al Qaeda sympathizer Tarek Mehanna.

Mehanna’s conviction on charges related almost entirely to his labors as a propagandist and translator led to the first of two Muzzle Awards for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. (The second was for her unconscionable crusade against the young Internet visionary Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while facing prison for downloading academic articles without permission.)

Silverglate and his associate Juliana DeVries write in the Globe that the First Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld Mehanna’s conviction and 17-year prison term on the basis of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. That decision, Silverglate and DeVries write, “allows federal prosecutors to bring charges for a wide range of expressive activities that supposedly constitute ‘material support’ to terrorists.”

Such a standard would appear to fly in the face of rulings such as the landmark Brandenburg v. Ohio decision of 1969, in which it was held that even vile, hateful calls to violence (the case involved the Ku Klux Klan) were constitutionally protected unless they were likely to result in an immediate conflagration. Silverglate and DeVries put it this way:

With the Humanitarian Law Project decision, the civic life of our free nation took a radical, though under-appreciated, turn for the worse. “Material support” is now a top contender for the American equivalent of the Soviet (now Russian) “hooliganism” statute, a notoriously vague criminal law that enabled the imprisonment of any opponent of dictator Josef Stalin’s regime…. A “material support” charge is a product not of our nation’s legitimate anti-terror concern, but of its overreaction and paranoia.

The Mehanna case was not entirely clear-cut from a legal point of view. He was also convicted of seeking (unsuccessfully) to join Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen and of lying to the FBI. But Ortiz went out of her way to prosecute Mehanna for his expressive activities, and his loathsome rhetoric was given an ample airing before the jury.

Mehanna is no mere Sudbury pharmacist, as his supporters would have you believe. But it is a fact that he is serving a prison term today because he expressed what he was thinking — an activity that is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment under nearly all circumstances.

Several years ago the late Anthony Lewis wrote a wonderful primer on the First Amendment called “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.” Sadly, that freedom is becoming more and more a part of the past.

Booking photo of Mehanna in 2009 from the Sudbury Police as published at Boston.com.

A chilling act of intimidation and harassment

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald

This is pretty shocking. On Sunday, David Miranda, the partner of lawyer/activist/journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained at Heathrow Airport in London for nearly nine hours and questioned under Britain’s anti-terrorism laws. His computer and other electronics gear were confiscated. Greenwald, who writes for The Guardian, describes what happened here, writing:

This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It’s worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic.

Greenwald, along with filmmaker Laura Poitras, has been the principal media conduit for Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs. Miranda had been visiting Poitras in Berlin and was on his way home to Rio de Janeiro. (If you haven’t read it yet, here is Peter Maass’ New York Times Magazine story on how Poitras, Snowden and Greenwald came together.)

What were the British security agents up to? Who knows? Maybe they genuinely believed Miranda might be carrying data they wanted to seize. Maybe they were trying to send a message to Greenwald and any other journalists about the consequences of working with a leaker such as Snowden.

Regardless of what you think of Snowden’s actions, there is an enormous difference between leaking and journalism. A generation ago, Daniel Ellsberg was put on trial for providing the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post; the Times and the Post weren’t prosecuted for publishing them.

The British enjoy fewer press rights than we do in the United States. But Britain is our closest ally, and the U.S. and British security services may be presumed to be working together on the Snowden matter.

The danger is that the U.S. is moving ever closer to criminalizing certain types of high-stakes, leak-based journalism. As I argued several months ago, there is nothing to stop the government from prosecuting journalists for publishing such information other than custom and the fear of a public backlash.

And consider what Snowden has accomplished. In just a few months, public awareness of and debate over government surveillance that came into place after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have finally reached critical mass. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls it “The Snowden Effect”:

Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.

Given President Obama’s oft-proven contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society, we may be moving closer to the time that such constraints melt away.

Update: My outrage has not diminished, but my understanding of what happened has shifted. As this New York Times story makes clear, Miranda’s trip to Berlin was paid for by The Guardian. It appears that he was facilitating Greenwald’s and Poitras’ journalism, even if he’s not a journalist himself. So this was not harassment of a journalist’s family member. It was harassment of a journalist, or at least of someone engaged in journalistic activities.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Right, wrongs and the Supreme Court

Wednesday was a very good (if not quite great) day for gay and lesbian couples. Unfortunately, the stench of Tuesday’s voting-rights decision remains. Here is some needed perspective on the Supreme Court’s week by Linda Greenhouse of Yale Law School, who used to cover the court for The New York Times.

As a country, we are moving left on individual rights (though not individual liberties) and right on everything else. You will be free to do as you’re told.

Another year of outrages against free speech

The 16th annual Muzzle Awards are now online at WGBH News, as well as at The Providence Phoenix and The Portland Phoenix. A New England tradition continues.