Occupy the Internet!

I’ve been writing for several years now about the creeping attempts by nominally democratic governments to control or even close the Internet (see here for example). This week the biggest such step for some time occurs as the world’s most powerful democracy, the USA, begins a new process of introducing such controls. There are two bills before the House of Representatives (the Stop Online Piracy Bill, SOPA) and the Senate (the Protect IP act), which essentially do the same thing (although the House bill goes further): assert a wide-ranging heavy-handed jurisdiction on the Internet even beyond US borders.

Of course, the US bills do not do this as China does, in the name of political and social order, but in the name of commerce. The bills are supposedly about protecting American intellectual property, however their effect is likely to be severely chilling to free expression and the dissemination of ideas and to innovation, social and economic. The bills, amongst many other provisions, will allow corporation to sue website owners and ISPs for even unknowingly hosting or communicating copyrighted materials illicitly.

As Michael Geist has shown, SOPA in particular also asserts US jurisdiction over vast swathes of the Internet on the grounds that any site whose name is registered with a US registrar is considered a ‘US site’ regardless of the location of its server and given that name-registration of top-level (.com, .org, .net etc)  names is entirely controlled from within the USA, the provisions mean that every top-level domain is considered to be ‘US’. Further it claims that IP addresses (the numerical address of site) within the whole North American region (ARIN) which includes Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, are also ‘domestic’ for the purposes of this law. Basically, the USA is asserting a kind of Munro-doctrine for the Internet.

I wrote, half-jokingly, some time ago that the US state invented the Internet, but they don’t like how it’s being used and now they want it back: this is the demand in writing. The big problem in opposing this is of course the fact that US citizens have already been thoroughly bombarded with propaganda that has told them that they are ‘under threat’ from pirates and hackers and even cyberwar – and that openness makes them insecure. They’ve been told that the Wikileaks model of accountability through openness and transparency is an attack on the USA. In an age of economic insecurity, no doubt the protection of American jobs will also be wheeled out as an excuse.

But this is quite simply another manifestation of immoral corporate greed. Intellectual Property is in itself a kind of information-age enclosure, a concept that, while it may have some use in limited forms, has become so far-reaching that it is ludicrous, and through which financial and legal strength can simply steamroller traditional or alternative visions of fairness, sharing and openness – even though these things have been shown to be vital in real innovation. If this is an infowar, I know which side I am on, and which side you should be on, and it is not the side of Protect IP and SOPA and the negative politics of closure, it is with Anonymous and the Pirate Party, with open flows, open source and open access. We have to tell them that they can’t have the Internet back, it’s ours now. We have to occupy the Internet, to build around these attempts to stifle innovation and sharing and we have to do it now.

In the meantime, you can express your displeasure here: http://americancensorship.org/

See also: The Internet Must Be Defended! Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Unlawful Access

The campaign video a lot of us were involved in, to raise awareness of the dangers to Canadian communication rights posed by potential new ‘lawful access’ legislation, is now out. Lawful Access legislation was proposed last year but came up against the time limit of the election. It was then proposed to be included in the new Omnibus Crime Bill, C-51, but was split from this and is now likely either to be introduced separately, or attached stealthily to another bill. It isn’t going to go away…

Watch, learn, act…

Please also sign the petition, and there are also further resources and news here, here and here.

Who gets Freedom of Information?

UK transparency campaigner, Heather Brooke, writes a comment piece on The Guardian website today on why she believes that UK university cancer researchers should have to give up information to transnational tobacco giant, Philip Morris. The basis for the argument is that Freedom of Information law should apply regardless of who the applicant is.

I generally admire Heather’s single-minded work on FoI, but single-mindedness is not always a virtue, and can sometimes lead to overly extreme conclusions which lack a broader understanding of the political economics involved. As in this case. As a researcher and analyst rather than a campaigner, I can see that there are three important counter-arguments to her piece:

1. Corporations are not people. There is a serious and ongoing battle here. Although legal incorporation means companies are often considered as legal people, we should not start to think of them as having ‘rights’ like individuals, not should rights that come from citizenship or by being an individual voter apply to them. Recently, the US supreme court rejected the argument of a large telecoms company that it had privacy rights. The worrying thing is that several lower courts had accepted that it could have such rights. Rather than providing corporations with more equivalences to human rights, we need to be holding corporations to account.  This brings me to…

2. The really important issue with large private companies and FoI is why those large private companies are not subject to the same kind of transparency. Corporate confidentiality makes no sense even in the context of liberal economic theory, however it makes even less sense if we think about FoI as a method of accountability. Corporations are unable to be held accountable via electoral processes and the markets are too diffuse and diverse (and spread across too many different countries) to work as a mechanism of accountability, so we need law that rebalances the power imbalances between corporations on the one had, and people, individually and collectively, on the other – through transparency. That is, after all, what is its main point when it comes to state transparency and FoI; it’s not really about ‘value for the tax payer’, it’s about power.

3. On that note, FoI is being increasingly used against academics and activists in particular as a form of intimidation by corporate interests. This is not to say that academics and activists should not be accountable, but it is not the case that all parties here of on a level playing field, and further, mechanisms of accountability are themselves not simply neutral or unequivocally always a good thing because of what they are supposed to do. Law has to embed intention, and be interpretable by the courts, in a way that clearly differentiates between legitimate use (for people holding organisations to account), poor excuses (as in the state claiming expense or lack of time as reasons for not releasing information), and blatant misuse of the law for purposes for which it was not intended. If it does not, it can simply become another method the intensification of organisational power against the interests of people.

Lives at stake for social media users

Al-Jazeera is carrying an excellent piece from the Electronic Frontier Foundation reminding social media network owners and regulators in their home countries that lives could be at stake because of the choices they make about security, privacy and anonymity.

Countries like Syria and Iran are purusing a plethora of surveillance and disruption tactics to identity and frustrate activists using social media to organise against their oppressive regimes, and the responses of the networks could be vital. This is something that Google in particular does not appear to have appreciated at all in its current insistance on ‘real indentities’ being the basis for all networking on Google+. Its attitude makes a very naive and dangerous assumption about the nature of states both present and future.

Guess who likes the UK’s proposals to control the Internet?

In the wake of the riots, several British Conservative MPs, and indeed PM David Cameron himself, have suggested a harsher regime of state control of both messenger services and social networks. Their suggestions have attracted widespread derision from almost everybody who either knows something about the Internet and communications more broadly, or who places any value on freedom of speech, assembly and communication and regards these things as foundational to any democratic society.

However, the a yet vague proposals have gained support from one quarter: China. The Chinese state-controlled media have suggested that the Conservative Party’s undemocratic suggestions prove that the Chinese state was right all along about controlling the Internet and that now these events are causing liberal democracies to support the Chinese model of highly regulated provision (via Boing Boing).

This is pretty much what I have been suggesting is happening for the last 2 or 3 years – see here, here, here and here. It is just that now, the pretense of democratic communication is being dropped by western governments. And just in case David Cameron doesn’t get it – and he really does not appear to right now, no, it is not a good thing that the Chinese government likes your ideas: it makes you look undemocratic and authoritarian.