Jesse Kline on current threats to Internet freedom: The statists strike back
Mar 6, 2012
The modern Internet is a product of the Cold War: Following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. military built a decentralized computer network that could continue to operate in the event of a nuclear attack. Where previous networks relied on a central server to facilitate the transfer of information, what came to be known as the Internet was decentralized, so that communication could continue even if a large part of the network was destroyed. The result was a communications medium that, to this day, is largely free from government censorship.
But that may change — unless those of us who treasure our online freedoms stand up to government efforts to monitor and even control our key strokes and page views.
The first major attempt by the U.S. government to enforce state control over the Internet came in the form of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Part of the Act, which was later struck down on First Amendment grounds, contained decency and obscenity standards, similar to those imposed on broadcast television stations — essentially making it a crime to swear online.
In 1998, the United States enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The idea was to attack online piracy by updating copyright law for the digital age. While good in theory, it has ended up imposing harsh restrictions on Internet users and service providers. Two of the major problems with the bill include the notice-and-takedown system, and the legal prohibition on circumventing digital locks. Here in Canada, similar provisions have been incorporated into Stephen Harper copyright reform bill (C-11), which is currently being studied by Parliament.
Under the notice-and-takedown system, website operators are compelled to take material offline if a rights holder claims ownership over the work. The problem is that this has become an easy way to censor online content, as the burden is placed on the original poster to prove it is not copyrighted material, or that it is covered under a legal exemption.
In one U.S. case, National Public Radio forced YouTube to take down an anti-gay-marriage advertisement that contained NPR content. In this way, the network had (according to critics) achieved its goal of censoring political speech — even though the NPR content was covered under the “fair use” doctrine of copyright law. In another instance, a woman’s home video of her toddler dancing in the kitchen was taken offline because of a Prince song playing in the background. She had to go to court in order to get it back online. The Canadian bill does not include the same system (it uses a notice-and-notice system), but Canadians who use American websites are already subjected to the DMCA’s draconian provisions.
A bigger issue for Canadians is C-11’s ban on breaking digital locks, which are pieces of software that prevent someone from using digital content or a digital device in a certain way. DVD and Blu-ray discs, for example, are protected by digital locks to prevent piracy, but those locks also serve to prevent people who purchase them from making backups, or viewing the content on other devices, such as tablets. Cell phones also contain digital locks, and although the Conservatives’ copyright bill has an exemption for unlocking a phone to switch providers, it makes unlocking a phone to install your own software illegal.
Such actions obviously have nothing to do with copyright infringement, but will be covered under C-11 nonetheless. The virtually all-encompassing ban on circumventing digital locks will penalize people who are not engaging in copyright-infringing activities, and stifle creativity and free expression in the process.
Another piece of Canadian legislation, C-30, is an even greater threat to online privacy and free expression. In its current form, Bill C-30 would co-opt Internet service providers into being a party to the state’s surveillance apparatus, by forcing them to install costly monitoring equipment on their networks, which would log the Internet activity of all Canadians. It would then allow police and law enforcement agencies to get detailed information on the company’s subscribers — on demand and without a warrant. There is also a provision in the bill allowing the minister to appoint an “inspector” who would have the authority to go into an Internet service provider’s offices and take any information Ottawa wants. In an age when people use the Internet to do just about everything — from banking to telephone calls, dating, shopping and staying informed — we might as well just put a webcam in our homes and give the minister a link to the live feed.
This is a part of an international trend. The U.K. plans to introduce regulations that would allow the government to track all phone calls, text and e-mail messages, as well as the websites people visit online. This is on top of a system that already directs all Internet traffic through a central filter. The British “Cleanfeed” system was initially setup to censor child pornography, but it is capable of censoring anything and, a couple years ago, the government tried to get Internet service providers to start censoring legal porn sites as well.
Other countries, including China and Russia, are trying to make a play for increased regulation of the Internet through the United Nations — the same dysfunctional and overly bureaucratic body that continually fails to stop the same authoritarian regimes from brutalizing their own people. If these countries are able to get their way, the current privately operated, deregulated environment that has allowed the Internet to flourish for decades will be gone, making way for “international control over the Internet,” as Vladimir Putin put it.
It should be remembered that the real danger comes from the physical world. Terrorists do harm when they blow people up; child pornographers do harm to the kids who are tortured in the production of such material. Government resources are better spent tracking down the people who are actually harming others, rather than creating large-scale informational dragnets to monitor law-abiding citizens.
It’s become clear that regulating the Internet is less about protecting the populace and more about establishing control over cyberspace. Anyone who uses the internet — and that’s pretty much all of us — should raise their voice against this trend. It’s all well and good to mock Vic Toews for comparing critics of C-30 to child pornographers. But he’s just the tip of the iceberg: There are many more Vic Toews types out there, who want to know what you type and where you click. We shouldn’t let them.
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