Week in Review: November 5, 2015

by Muira McCammon

Australia: Department of Foreign Affairs Pilots Virtual Passport Program

Australia will become the first country to launch a virtual passport program. The Department of Foreign Affairs began to consider the idea of cloud-based passports after they held a hackathon and X-Factor style audition, wherein the Secretary Peter Varghese, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, Assistant Minister Steve Ciobo, and Chris Vein from the World Bank acted as judges. At this juncture, Australia is starting slowly, beginning to conduct trials with a neighboring country, New Zealand. Bruce Schneier, a Berkman affiliate, reflected on the complexity of the proposal: "On the one hand, all a passport needs to be is a pointer into a government database with all the relevant information and biometrics. On the other hand, not all countries have access into all databases." Despite the challenges that might lie ahead, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated, "We think it will go global."

Russia: Torrent Site Asks Users, "Should We Delete Links Or Face the Consequences?"

The Russian National Federation of the Music Industry (NFMI) has asked RuTracker, a popular Russian torrent site, to remove 320,000 separate links. “We have been handed a huge list containing several million artists, albums and songs with an ultimatum to remove everything that is in this list and block the appearance of any of these songs, albums or artists on RuTracker in the future. Otherwise the NFMI will insist on blocking RuTracker in the territory of the Russian Federation through the courts,” the site said. In response to pressure from the NFMI, RuTracker has asked its users to partake in a poll to determine the site's future direction, deciding whether to delete the 320,000 links or keep them intact (this latter move would almost guarantee a nationwide ISP ban). In an earlier statement this week, a representative from the site took a different stance: “We cooperate with right holders, precisely because the role of RuTracker is a non-profit library." It is unclear how much RuTracker's staff members will take the poll's results into account while deciding their next steps. At this juncture, almost all of the news coverage of this issue has been in Russian; updates and opinion pieces [RU] related to RuTracker are available here, here, and here.

Twitter: The Company Replaces the Favorite Button with a Heart

This past week, Twitter eliminated its popular "Favorite" button, prompting a variety of responses from users around the world. The change in format prompted one Guardian journalist to suggest that the time had come to nationalize Twitter. Twitter's Product manager, Akarshan Kumar, reflected on the logic behind the new heart-shaped “like” buttons: "We are changing our star icon for favorites to a heart and we’ll be calling them likes [...] The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it." Zeynep Tufekci, a Berkman affiliate, responded in a Tweet, "[The] problem isn't hearts; [the] problem is hearts as [the] only means of expression. [We] need a +1 or a "check" or something neutral." It's unclear if Twitter plans to roll out any other ways for users to engage with online content. The other major change that the company made to the platform was to add polls in late October.

United Kingdom: Home Secretary Publishes the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill

On Wednesday, November 4, 2015, British Home Secretary Theresa May unveiled a draft of the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill. Netizens and policymakers alike have struggled to make sense of all the changes the 299-page-long document would bring to the British government and to citizens' online activities. May gave an extensive oral statement to the Parliament (readable in full here). She explained, "[The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill] will not include powers to force UK companies to capture and retain third party internet traffic from companies based overseas. It will not compel overseas communications service providers to meet our domestic retention obligations for communications data. And it will not ban encryption or do anything to undermine the security of people’s data." The Bill also introduces measures that would require consultation with the Prime Minister should British authorities wish to intercept the communications of a Parliamentarian, including members of the House of Lords as well as the House of Commons. Now that the Bill has been released to the public, British civil liberties groups, judges, Members of Parliament, and others will have the opportunity to dissect the new provisions and determine if they comply with existing UK and European laws.