May 24, 2011

"Let Them Eat Bits": How We Can Save Freedom On the Internet

I wish I had thought of it first. A few weeks ago when I wrote my Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google white paper, I spent some time trying to think of an appropriate image to accompany that essay, but nothing really struck home.

But today Ars Technica ran an article regarding French King ... oops, I mean French President Sarkozy (at the current e-G8 meeting next door to the Louvre) and his desires to "civilize" the Internet. Included with that article was a graphic of what I'd call an EtherFlogger.

That was the imagery I was looking for. Man, those connectors must sting!

Despite the fact that I write and speak a great deal about technical issues -- after all, my original background is techie in nature -- I'm actually of the opinion that most Internet technical issues will tend to be worked out over time.

Matters get much more complicated when dealing with policy issues though, and especially the intersections of policy and technology concerns.

Net Neutrality issues are an example of this, where the related controversies can be significantly viewed in some respects as the results of real (or artificially induced) bandwidth limitations and associated anticompetitive environments.

But even topics as contentious as Net Neutrality are likely to be dealt with successfully in the end, either through regulation, bandwidth increases, or some combination of both. Coordination and sensible international regulatory harmonization -- of often widely disparate rules regarding the implementation of opt-in vs. opt-out and cookie management for example -- could go far to ease the "Mad Hatter" landscape that currently exists for Web services operating internationally.

Undoubtedly though, the most significant threats to the Internet that are now in focus are attempts to -- for all practical purposes -- change the Internet from the greatest tool for individual empowerment ever created by humanity, into a weapon for societal control ruled from above by an unholy alliance of powerful governments and entertainment industry interests.

The work products of this chimera take different aspects in various parts of the world.

Around the planet, government pushes for encryption controls and extended-period user activity data retention are widespread.

In the U.S., Senator Patrick Leahy's abominable and dangerous PROTECT IP Act -- that could criminalize mere linking and search engine results -- is rushing forward with widespread bipartisan support, demonstrating the depth to which traditional entertainment industry forces such as the RIAA and MPAA have co-opted Congress.

The attitude regarding the Internet and free speech that we see oozing from France's President Sarkozy, and many other leaders around the world, seems much like that of traditional kings, perhaps willing to allow the serfs some access to technology, so long as the absolute power of the ruling class and their minions is not threatened in any significant way.

By continuously portraying the Internet as some sort of wild west or untamed jungle in need of strong hands to "civilize" the natives, our leaders also attempt to draw public opinion to their side, while suggesting that only a tightly controlled and censored Internet will be safe for the relatively unwashed masses of peons -- that's us.

Do not believe it.

As I implied in Why the Internet is the Most Important Thing in the World, governments are now seizing the moment for their own advantage, not for ours -- even in democratic countries where -- in theory at least -- the government is controlled by the people.

We can fight back, in at least a couple of ways.

Where possible, we can use our at least nominal control over our governments via the ballot box and other means, to make it clear to our "representatives" that we are not willing to see the Internet become a "wholly owned subsidiary" of the government and their traditional entertainment industry sugar daddies.

But we can also use the Internet itself, the fundamental technology of the Net that is so difficult to truly control, to prepare for the worst. We can work toward decentralized mechanisms that are much more difficult for governments to censor, especially in ad hoc manners without full-blown court approvals. We can build distributed naming systems and encrypted environments that use the end-to-end natures of the Net to their best advantage.

Of course, these are exactly the kinds of capabilities that tend to so upset many governments. We should expect attempts to control their use as well, especially to make it as difficult as possible for non-technical persons to employ such techniques. But we should certainly endeavor to make the best and most effective use possible of those distributed technologies that do exist.

We may discover that some of the very large Web services companies are very much our friends in these battles. After all, they're not all thrilled with the prospect of having their speech muzzled by government edicts, and their users angered by the resulting government-ordered perversions of search results and other data. These companies can all quite reasonably be expected to follow the law wherever they choose to operate -- but unreasonable government attempts at control may force some to withdraw various or all services from affected countries. This isn't to the advantage of these firms or their users.

Most important and fundamental of all, we need to decide for ourselves what we really want the Internet to be. Do we want a 21st century version of Ma Bell's phone network, fused with the Orwellian elements of government dictated surveillance and censorship?

Or do we wish to keep the Internet open, a beacon of free speech and interpersonal communications controlled by the people, not by rulers on high?

The "Kings" -- with their EtherFloggers held firmly and ready in hand -- believe that they have found a path to wrest control of the Internet from the people, and deliver it directly to their government suites and the darkly paneled corporate boardrooms of their powerful allies.

We shall see.


Posted by Lauren at May 24, 2011 04:46 PM | Permalink
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