America · Computers

“It didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted”

We’ve recently been told quite a lot about the activities of the US National Security Agency in monitoring internet communications. Much of it could be described as “stuff you might have feared, but that’s a bit depressing to have confirmed”.

For people outside the US, one perhaps surprising thing is that the US government seems happy to say the NSA’s surveillance programmes are OK because they are only aimed at non-Americans.

It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted.

— US administration official quoted at

Blanket orders from the secret surveillance court allow these communications to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time.

For people outside the US who have been encouraged over many years to use American internet and cloud-hosting companies, it comes as a bit of a surprise not just that the US government feels this way but that it is so unashamed about it.

Although the details about NSA snooping are new(ish), this principle isn’t a new one. It turns out it’s normal for constitutional safeguards not to apply to non-Americans, even when they are using the services of US companies. A current case:

Chevron… is asking Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, to cough up the email data. When Lewis Kaplan, a federal judge in New York, granted the Microsoft subpoena last month, he ruled it didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted.

Now this one has nothing to do with the NSA; it’s about gathering evidence for a court case. The only reason it is considered news is because the opposition argues that the hosting service didn’t know for sure that its users were not Americans.

This is so problematic not because the US necessarily behaves worse than any other country—I suspect it has better oversight in place, for its own citizens, than the UK—but because people like me from outside the US have got used to thinking of US-based hosting, services and companies as the norm in the Internet world.

This attitude long pre-dates pervasive cloud computing. Hotmail, the example above, has been one of the world’s most popular email hosting providers for around 15 years, with (I’m guessing) a couple of hundred million users outside the US.

But it’s quite a problem now that cloud hosting is routinely used to store business data and private documents. And it seems obviously problematic for EU-based businesses, which have a legal obligation to follow data protection rules that presumably don’t include sending their customer data off to a country whose government is unapologetic about taking a copy of it, just in case.


I’ve been a bit prickly about the USA and Americans a few times before on this blog. That prickliness has the same cause: I’m sensitive about having become so dependent on American companies and attitudes myself. I have grown used to engaging with American companies, working methods, and laws, almost more than those of my own country, and certainly more than those of other European countries. That has a lot to do with the USA’s historical reputation as a stable, reliable democracy with visible workings, answerable to a relatively incorruptible legal system.

But this dependency increasingly seems just perverse.

I have become used to giving all my personal and business records to companies that have promised to make it all available to a spy agency run by a foreign government that openly declares it has no interest at all in my rights.

Why would anyone want to do that?

Crap Things from Big Companies

No Refunds

Bogus Pokemon evolves into iTunes smash hit; 2012: The Year Scam Apps Killed the App Store — As someone who used the Android Market before either of Apple’s app stores, the thing I found most mind-boggling about Apple’s was the lack of any apparent way to get a refund if an application doesn’t work.

It fascinates me, although not in a good way, that the world’s most successful software store should be one in which normal consumer rights are effectively suspended. (It is possible to get a refund, from Apple rather than from the individual app developer, but by all accounts it isn’t easy.)

This really pains me as a developer, as well: if any of my customers are unhappy, I want them to get their money back immediately. It’s fair, and because it creates a better impression, it’s good business as well.

For developers, it’s both a logistical benefit and the curse of the App Store model that you generally have no contact with your customers. But not long ago I had an email from someone who had bought an app of mine from the Mac App Store and was disappointed with it—it didn’t do what they expected. What can I say? There’s nothing I can do to help you. That feels wrong: it is wrong.


We Profit For You

Gosh, all this MONEY! It’s so EXCITING! Aren’t we all doing so WELL!

When does this delight that finally our superior methods are winning start to wear off?

When does it become a bit of a worry that no other company seems capable of doing this? That we’re probably entering two decades of another closed single-company ecosystem, across a far broader market than the PC market in the 90s? What makes this a good thing? How is it so wonderful exactly? How do you avoid feeling even a little bit queasy about it?

I’m almost grateful for Samsung’s shameless duplication. It feels like without it, there’d be no competition at all.


The Apple textbook

Apple have announced a free application for making textbooks, along with a push to provide commercial textbooks from existing publishers through their iBooks delivery medium.

It looks as if commercial books produced in this way will remain entirely restricted to reading on Apple hardware.  (There’s more flexibility for free books.)

Apple have had an increasing reach in educational settings for a while now, particularly in the US but also in many UK schools. But of their various pieces of educational wheeling and dealing, this has had by far the most publicity, and so far it hasn’t all been good.

This move has a slightly sinister feel. I can hope that consumers might prove less sanguine about locking their children in to proprietary systems than they are about locking themselves in. Perhaps, in hindsight, we will see this as the point where the wider perception of Apple started to creep across the line from ubiquitous but helpful to insinuatingly controlling.

I doubt it, though. Textbooks are a mess, expensive and cumbersome for the reader and impenetrable as a market. This is a move to make textbook production simpler, make textbooks cheaper, and bring more of the visual and interactive mechanisms children are becoming used to into the formal school environment—while working with technology that many schools are already using and more are considering. What could seem better?

This combination of an immediately appealing proposition with an unprecedentedly strict control regime is an Apple hallmark. I regret the failure of more open systems to make more inroads into education—a failure I feel like I’ve played my own part in. Even so, we can try to resist a little by at least encouraging variety. To encourage our children to use every kind of system, to explore, to share, to build, and to understand that a computer is a complex human and social construction in itself rather than just an enabling object.