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Internet censorship: Let it rot in walled gardens

Attempts to shut us up in walled gardens and curb our online freedoms are impossible to implement and police. The nature of the internet sees to it that they are doomed to fail.

The quandary for governments is that because the web is ubiquitous and transparent it is hard to police and harder to censor. Photo: Shutterstock

John Gilmore, an internet activist who was also one of the co-founders of both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the first free software company, Cygnus Solutions, once wrote that "the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it".

The internet was designed to enable military communications to find their way around points of failure in the event of a nuclear war. If one node fails or "drops certain messages because it doesn't like their subject the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route", according to Gilmore.

Censorship is practised for all kinds of political, social and commercial reasons, and all societies have limits on acceptable behaviour, but the point of the web is that there are no walled gardens and no limits to what we can access. If information wants to get out there, it will.

Regardless of frontiers

The idea that the internet is a universal resource that should be accessible to all is enshrined in the Declaration of Principles of the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) of December 2003, which says, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Such declarations were relatively meaningless before the emergence of the world wide web, which has transformed the possibilities for information exchange and the dissemination of ideas, and how we respond to them.

Beyond the possibilities of static media, the internet can be seen as a democratising force. It has allowed us to interact with our peers across the cultural, racial, political and religious boundaries of the physical world, precisely because there are few barriers to what we say and how we say it, other than the approval or approbation of our peers.

What makes the internet different is that, unlike newspapers or television, it is interactive. We can determine what we read and how we read it. We are the editors and the filters. We can speak and share our vision with our fellow citizens on the opposite side of the globe without the interference of spokesmen or intermediaries.

And unlike newspapers or television, everything we find on the net can be translated into a file, and edited and copied and stored on an anonymous computer a thousand miles or more from its source.

The quandary for governments is that because the web is ubiquitous and transparent it is hard to police and harder to censor. Governments want to control the content 'for our own good' or to inhibit law-breaking, dissent or civil disobedience. The users and the technology want to route around it.

In the UK the effectiveness of a block on access to the Pirate Bay file-sharing website was shortlived, and was bypassed by the use of proxy servers, virtual private networks and other means.

Inside the walled garden

During the Arab Spring of last year an Egyptian activist is said to have tweeted, "We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world." The response of the Egyptian government was to shut down access to the internet.

Consideration of such responses is not restricted to totalitarian regimes. During the riots in England in the summer of 2011, Tory MPs called for social networking sites to be shut down, and such measures have apparently been discussed at the top levels of government.

It's worth noting that a UK police source tweeted in response to such arguments that "active online engagement has helped reduce calls and the spread of untrue rumours". The effectiveness of internet engagement and chatter is not restricted to one point of view.

For a company, a walled garden or a closed platform has different imperatives, especially when it comes to controlling the content we can access from a mobile device.

At first glance the issues are simple. The films, songs, software, texts and images that we download from the internet belong to somebody, "and should be paid for".

The greater difficulty is that the content industries are being redefined by the technology. The newspaper industry is in trouble. The music industry is no longer exclusively defined by the sale of records or CDs.

At the same time there has been a steady movement by corporate bodies to use copyright law, and its kin, patent law, which is a very different animal, as tools to lock down the ownership of ideas.

Intellectual property law may have been conceived to protect the rights of the little man, the individual creator, against the appropriation of ideas and inventions by corporate interests. But in the real world, this is no longer the case. Intellectual property is big business.

A walled garden ties users and developers into a limited subset of outlets and technologies. Some mobile providers, notably Apple, are the sole gatekeepers of their content, and are able to control the technologies, accessories and content available to their users, and to control the fees and policies they impose on their content creators.

Punishing the users

The attempt by content creators to lock down content has other consequences. Unable to stop the distribution of digital copies of copyrighted work on the internet, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Record Industry Association of America have sought to criminalise users, to encourage the others, through a series of highly publicised court cases.

One such case is that of Richard O'Dwyer, a 24-year-old student at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, who is facing extradition to the US where he is charged with conspiracy to commit copyright infringement and criminal infringement of copyright. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of five years.

O'Dwyer's alleged crime is that he created a website, TVShack.net, through which users provided hyperlinks to copyrighted content. The site did not host the copyrighted content.

In January this year Westminster Magistrates' Court ruled that the extradition should go ahead. On 13 March, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, approved the decision. The case is currently under appeal.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, who has campaigned on O'Dwyer's behalf, pointed out that although he is wanted in the US, "O'Dwyer is not a US citizen, he's lived in the UK all his life, his site was not hosted there, and most of his users were not from the US. America is trying to prosecute a UK citizen for an alleged crime which took place on UK soil."

Ironically, much of the content linked to by TVShack users was hosted on US websites, such as YouTube and Google Video. As Wales says, "O'Dwyer always did his best to play by the rules: on the few occasions he received requests to remove content from copyright holders, he complied. His site hosted links, not copyrighted content, and these were submitted by users."

The motive for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the MPAA is to inhibit users from putting links on websites that point to videos that have been uploaded elsewhere without the copyright owners' consent. The hosting sites, the so-called pirates that make this possible, are beyond the reach of the law, and innocuous intermediaries pay the price.

The harmonious society

In Europe even more arbitrary and authoritarian restrictions on basic internet usage have been proposed. A European working group, CleanIT, comprising internet user organisations, internet companies, non-governmental organisations, law-enforcement agencies and governments, and funded by the European Commission has produced a leaked working document for policing a Europe-wide, terrorist-free internet that includes recommendations such as:

  • Knowingly providing hyperlinks on websites to terrorist content must be defined by law as illegal just like the terrorist content itself.
  • On voice-over-IP services, it must be possible to flag users for terrorist activity.
  • Internet companies must allow only real, common names.
  • Social-media companies must allow only real pictures of users.
  • At the European level, a browser or operating system-based reporting button must be developed.
  • Governments will start drafting legislation that will make offering a system to monitor internet activity to internet users obligatory for browser or operating systems as a condition of selling their products in this country or the EU.

These proposals would not only restrict our freedoms, but are impossible to implement and police, and would not work for the purpose they are intended because "the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

Censorship and its intended effect of pushing us into walled gardens do not lead to a harmonious society, as some would wish, but encroach on the web's potential to be an unparalleled repository and resource for information, accurate and inaccurate, about everything and anything, that can be accessed instantaneously. Censorship affects us all.

About

Richard Hillesley is a writer focusing on Linux, free software and digital rights. He was a software engineer for 17 years and is a former editor of LinuxUser magazine.

8 comments
Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

of the laws made by the USA legislators in the last fifteen or so years and then forced down the throats of others as part of their supposed trade agreements. Just change the laws back to how they were 25 years ago and 95% of the trouble and problems vanish once the courts start to enforce them the way they were enforced then.

badgenes
badgenes

or so I believe. Complete censorship IS possible. Enforcing REALID is possible. You too can get screwed, tattooed, and herded like everyone else into this seriously Dystopian (pah. dysopian is way too mellow and kind to describe where we are heading) future. OR you can fight back by what this man has done: communicate to the masses. Tell your friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. This is all a sham, our world as it currently is represented to us. What we "want" is a sham, fed to you in Technicolor and stereo HiFi. Humans have spent tens of thousands of years to become....obnoxious sports fans and pathological consumers??? This is the pinnacle of human culture in the year 2012? This is what we aspire to as children? Cogs in wheels, led to our food, our entertainment, our consumables because for the love of all that is right we must consume. That new Lexus will make me happy and feel important, that new dress will make me more attractive and self confident, that new game will entertain me, that new movie looks amazing! Pay attention this is what and how advertising and media repetition are used to lead you around by your hippocampus. Drop the frontal lobe and cerebral cortex, the average human's are far too inferior. Appeal to the deep emotions. Focus societies masses on meaningless things while the "intelligencia" run the world. This is how and why we are here, how and why censorship can and will happen without any easy means of circumvention: Citizens worldwide practically ask for it, once the media feeds them all the right ideas. It happens all the time, a little here, a lot there. Wake the f**k up America, we have Europeans feeling sorry for us in our wide-open jail of a country. Yes, European's, the socialist, big-brother societies we all grew up feeling superior to, THEIR citizens openly decry American's plight. They also realize if America can be so controlled and usurped, they are the far easier prey given their governmental structures (some countries notwithstanding but this is long enough already.). Strident political hacks pretending independence while they tow one party line or another...all the while our "election" system becomes just another "Big Brother" or "American Idol"-esque experience, where we truly are just bystanders watching another show. Romney vs. Obama, please. I've got some ocean-front property in Tennesse to sell you too, views are lovely. While you throw your metaphorical "crap" from your cages, declaring me a K.O.O.K. or worse, a "conspiracy theorist" (gasp) you are only behaving like children who cannot or will not listen to their parents. Take your fingers out of your ears, for your children and their children. Stop talking about what you are spoon-fed by your TV and radio. Stop being a mindless consumer. Stop giving away your constitutional freedoms for some manufactured "terror". Do ONE thing, sleeping sheep, spend 15 minutes looking up "Edward Bernay" on youtube.com. There are multiple videos detailing how in the 50s corporate America, the CIA, U.S. Armed Services, all conspired to fool the public into accepting the attacks and assassinations in Guatamala. Fooled you say? Stalin was practically having slumber parties there!!! Of course we did what we had to...nope, no communism, no Stalin, no NADA but money and power. First time? Nope. Last time??? Can you say "Arab Spring"? 3 Percent-er Systems Engineer.

Repeal
Repeal

Regardless whether Dick Morris is wrong or right, this is national news and the the lame stream media should be all over it, either reporting on it or debunking it. And if true, the candidates should be debating it. http://www.dickmorris.com/stop-un-regulation-of-the-internet/ Stop UN Regulation Of The Internet By Dick Morris on October 10, 2012 Secretly, behind closed doors, the nations of the world are negotiating a treaty — initiated by Russia and China — to regulate the Internet through the United Nations. The only reason we know about these talks in the first place is through a WikiLeaks anonymous posting by a participant in the talks. That and the fact that a signing ceremony has been scheduled in Dubai in December of 2012. The Russian and Chinese play to get control of the Internet is one of the major themes in our new book, Here Come The Black Helicopters: UN Global Governance and the Loss of Freedom. The world learned of these negotiations only because Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, George Mason University researchers, set up a web site called WCITLeaks and encouraged anyone with knowledge of the negotiations to make an anonymous posting detailing their progress. Someone responded on June 12th of this year posting a 250 page synopsis of the proposed treaty and the talks surrounding it. The Treaty would provide: • The UN would distribute and assign all e-names. • Each country would be notified of the IP addresses of each email user within their borders (allowing China and Russia to track down dissidents). • The UN could regulate Internet content. • Every nation would have the right to censor web sites that originate in their country. • And every country could charge a surcharge for access to any web sites that originate beyond their borders.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

No impending visit from homeland security. Signed a concerned european. :D

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The ones that were meant to raise your IQ into double figures are a total failure as well. In fact they may be reducing what little you started out with.. Why didn't you just say it was wrong because they are all degenerate commies? You would have got more votes, and you wouldn't have proven right out in public that what you know about the internet, could be written on the back on a microdot with a four-inch brush... Posted from an internet cafe, using a one shot email address... Pratt.

Slayer_
Slayer_

It really seems like governments only serve to ruin working systems and implement broken ones.