The Growing Threat to Free Internet

The internet is, in the course of its projected life, still in its infancy. Programmers, designers, and consumers are still blazing trails in mostly free creative/commercial medium—resembling a nebula of information with no limits. This is by design: in order to facilitate the growth of communications networks world wide—and increasingly in outer space—users must be guaranteed unfettered access and net neutrality. It is the last bastion of free speech and democratic criticism of the extremes of authority; the burgeoning network for connecting with our remotest brothers and sisters in struggle.

Everyday it becomes more important to recognize that freedom of information is not only a postmodern necessity, it is a human right and therefore requires communal democratic defense. The struggle for free media and software has been bitterly fought for more than a decade and now more than ever, users are facing censorship, arrest, and total internet prohibition. Filesharers are being punished for corporate mishaps and information is being filtered in just about every country in the world—users are left in a repressive state, learning how to censor themselves on the internet rather than face (misguided) institutional wrath.

Concurrent with the growing penalization of access is the militarization of the internet by sovereign governments. Antagonist countries, especially those in direct economic international competition with eachother, have developed comprehensive web security plans, which have only made the internet a more dangerous place for human communication and commerce. Average users now finds themselves playing the cynic, asking how exactly they’re supposed to use a space democratically that has become a punitive tool for big business and a coveted weapon for the military.

The Chinese people face some of the most extreme challenges to free and equitable internet access in the postmodern world. Content coming into mainland servers is regularly filtered—the government claims this is not a violation of free speech and net neutrality, but rather a case of cultural sensitivity. Basic information and networking sites such as wikipedia and facebook are completely blocked to the point where users must access proxy serves, usually in Mongolia, in order to find free information. Massive contingents of savvy internet pirates have sprung up in the country, but the threat of widespread and persistent censorship extends beyond the right to access.

With such stringent regulation naturally comes a total disregard for individual web privacy and human rights. Like the US, China uses its web technology to not only actively spy on and persecute critical internal groups, but also to terrorize the digital security infrastructure of foreign nations. After three years in business in China, Google is refusing to filter its searches for google.cn, meaning that they are now subject to the same censorship that they only recently brought to light (and formerly supported).

This calling-out comes in the wake of what Google referred to as a targeted challenge to their corporate security by suspected government hackers. More than simply a dastardly attack on user privacy, this attempt to hack the email accounts of local dissidents by Chinese authority signals the increased militarization of the web. Cyber espionage and harassment tactics are becoming commonplace among governmental organizations the world over, but only in the last few weeks have they taken the media spotlight. This brand of emergent warfare, free of geographical limitation, is willing and eager to utilize advanced technology to track down users for punishment under the guise of national defense and is therefore a challenge to corporate profitability (Google for instance) and to user security alike.

On Dec. 22nd, the Obama administration gave the US a gift, a new, permanent, cyberczar in charge of national and Department of Defense internet infrastructure security. Howard Schmidt was named for the position because of his extensive history in the private security sector, a fact that casts a dubious shadow over the entire public mission of his brand new office. Like with everything else that the American military touches, the budget for internet regulation has boomed in recent years.

This appointment poses some interesting problems for the American internet using public—no one wants some hacker to be able to launch missiles, but does the military need a web presence? They have already ravaged the “real” world enough, now neutrality of our only free resource is being challenged. Once the internet is subject to the intense scrutiny of international law enforcement, there will be no true freedom of information, no way to circumvent unjust laws, and nowhere to hide. Principles of free and secure access are being weakened at their foundations.

Currently, US servers block certain websites and recent digital legislation allows for greater censorship and militarization of the internet. Law enforcement can track users on the internet and prevent them from sharing or accessing certain information. Furthermore, citizen journalists are regularly prohibited from linking certain legal content on American IPs—our free speech is being actively subverted and digital information withheld.

So why do we need a cyberczar now? Schmidt has warned that the recent mainland-launched cyber attacks are an indicator that China (and other nations) is already trying to gain malicious access to US digital infrastructure (possibly to steal military secrets? the Cold War isn’t far enough away). Other US security specialists up the ante by warning of the potential threat absentee Osama bin Laden poses on the internet. As an all-encompassing policy and enforcement advisor, the new cyberczar has so far only served to instill novel fear in users while expanding its own capacity for punitive actions. We may never see the digital terrorism predicted by the likes of Richard Clarke, but when will casual users be sent to Gitmo for downloading music?

Countless Americans have already been arrested, fined, and imprisoned since 2001 for doing exactly what our parents taught us to do: share. Properly credited material must remain safely and easily accessible and not subject to copyright infringement laws placed on physical production. Sharing and file duplicating—no more than a mere click of a button—do not constitute bootlegging! It seems like the only direct threat to internet efficacy is the spectre of authority, which is actively transforming the web into hostile territory, counter to technological innovation and communicative development.

In Europe, after years in dubious legal territory regarding copyright laws and the judicial power over digital sharing, the bad guys won big. English and French courts are now seeking to permanently shut down offending users’ connections (by banning their IPs or in other ways). Recent English internet legislation is supposedly designed to curb the 10% of users suspected to be sharing files “illegally,” but most free media analysts note that the percentage is probably much higher and that sharing won’t stop. We see the same situation in France where the law is now empowered to fine and block users it finds guilty of file sharing.

Here’s the real crime: spending public funds to prosecute people who didn’t actually steal anything to begin with. Simply put, internet commerce defies standard laws of economics because demand can be satisfied by high speed transfers without the waste of physical production. Economists must find a new supply model for the internet, one that guarantees net neutrality as well as profitability without sacrificing the individual user.

What these giant media firms are doing now to curb the problem is unprecedented—suing the consumer directly for their own market incompetence, to recoup lost revenue. I don’t want to sound like an old school capitalist—or a capitalist at all—but when a company is unable to earn, aren’t they supposed to change their business strategy and not punish the consumer for shifting trends? With increased connectivity comes increased vulnerability and the governments of our nations need to protect citizen-users and not the interests of multinational business.

Vincent Cerf, one of the “Fathers of the Internet” predicts that government attempts to monitor and regulate web content will not only be generally undesirable, but wholly impossible given the wide range of communication available. While the “free market” environment that seems to be entailed by the internet has served to keep content relatively free (or at least unregulated), it also compromises the free transfer of information that it deems profitable. Sustainable profit must remain ideologically subjugate to freedom of information.

The tools of liberation are at our hands and specifically the hands of the savvy pirates of the broadband because we are the web. Using and supporting psiphons, free access proxies, and other digital circumvention tools allows users internationally unfettered access to neutral information. Some users in such web-censored countries as Cuba, transfer contraband data by external drive, thus circumventing their repressed network altogether in the communication of data. Information wants to be free!

We must act now to make sure the internet remains free in our lifetimes and for the lives of those to come. We will find time and time again that information, whether creative or institutional, will not adhere to current (outmoded) market standards when it is recognized as a right so revolutionize! No more judicial supremacy of commerce, the government should be protecting the people and not profit, which are not synonymous! Take action in the analogue world, petition your politician, support the Electronic Frontier Foundation as they fight for maximum accessibility, and boycott any company or government that wants to control what you can see and do in virtual reality.

The next step will be to extend internet access to the economically disenfranchised world wide through extensive computer donations from the developed world and local investments into free digital infrastructure.

– Michaël Veremans

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