February 16, 2016

The UK Government's Big Porn Lie -- and the Coming Global War Against VPNs

There are two particularly interesting developments occurring simultaneously in jolly ol' England and environs these days, as Her Majesty's conservative government pushes forward with their "Total Internet Control" policy effort.

This is largely a three-pronged attack on Internet freedoms and privacy, with the sharpened, curare-coated prongs aimed directly at the vital organs of the United Kingdom's residents.

Combined with other efforts in the EU -- such as expansions of their horrific "Right To Be Forgotten" (RTBF) censorship regime -- we can pretty clearly see the writing on the screens for where all this is leading -- not just in Europe but likely around the world.

In England, legislation focusing on archival of users' Internet browsing activity histories and other Internet usage "expanded metadata" retention requirements seem almost certain to become law in one form on another. A further push to ban strong end-to-end encryption without government-accessible backdoors (aimed at firms like Apple and Google) seems less certain to succeed for the moment, but still appears to be very much in play (and very likely to be enacted somewhere down the line in some form in any case).

And now comes word that the UK government wants to require "age verification" to prevent children from accessing "pornographic" websites. They're convening a panel of so-called experts to try find a magic wand to accomplish this impossible task.

Because it is impossible. Oh sure, you can come up with credit card and similar payment-based or other records-based means to apply at commercial sites that specialize in pornography. They'll be evaded and leaky but they'll have some impact.

Yet commercial porn is just a drop in the bucket. The Internet is awash in sexually explicit material of every possible genre, and the overwhelming vast majority of it is entirely free.

Leaving aside for the moment the eternal question of what "porn" actually is in any given context and in the eyes of any given beholder, most free sexually-oriented imagery isn't even on sites that are devoted to such content.

Photos, videos, and other "sexual" materials are even more likely to show up on individuals' blogging and interest pages broadly defined, and they're absolutely trivial to find and explore in depth (that's, uh, what I'm told, anyway -- uh, yeah).

Seriously though, sex is all over the Net. And attempts to block access to associated sites and individual pages would be entirely hopeless in the vast majority of instances, unless governments were willing to take particularly draconian steps.

And since we're talking about the current conservative UK government, we certainly can't take draconian off the table, or ignore how other governments around the world might follow such an example or are already moving in the same direction.

Clearly the ultimate method to control users' Internet activities is not to try ban sites and pages that are forbidden, but to only permit access to sites and pages that the government has already anointed as acceptable. In other words, instead of having a blacklist, you have a whitelist -- all that is not approved is verboten.

However, to move toward such controls there's something else you need to do also -- as the Chinese in particular have learned with their vast Internet censorship regime.

You need to try block Internet proxies and VPNs -- since both of these provide methods for knowledgeable users to bypass your mandated Internet restrictions that are the foundation of your censorship policies.

These technologies can enable accessing websites you've tried to block. They can permit web browsing without leaving an easily accessible browsing history trail. They can obscure attempts at encryption.

In other words, VPNs and proxies -- which can be so crucial for persons living under oppressive governments -- are seriously bad news for those governments trying to control their freedom loving citizen slaves.

Government officials will of course argue that they're only doing what's best for the little people -- protecting them from crime, terrorism, contaminating ideas, naked breasts, and so forth.

This is why -- peering into my flickering Crystal Ball of Technology Policy -- I predict that the current relatively low level battles against VPNs, proxies, and similar censorship evasion technologies in some parts of the world will bloom into all out global war in the relatively near future with both traditionally dictatorial governments and a range of supposedly democratically-oriented governments jumping on the bandwagon -- mostly using terrorism fears as their operative excuse.

Efforts to try convince governments not to move in these directions should and will continue, as will software engineering developments to harden, obscure, and protect VPN-style and associated technologies from blocking attempts -- likely to trigger a continuing sequence of technological attacks and counterattacks.

But if you think that government discussions and actions to monitor and control your use of the Internet were already starting to get a bit scary, you can count on one thing for sure.

You ain't seen anything yet.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so -- my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at February 16, 2016 10:42 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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