Opinion: How Dangerous Does the Government Want the Internet to Be?

With the rising tide of internet surveillance and tough copyright laws, Drew Wilson comments on an infrequently discussed topic that really could be the elephant in the room in all of this. He then concludes that threatening the internet is a bad idea.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

In the last several months, we’ve seen seemingly countless stories about broad internet surveillance and overreaching copyright laws. We’ve seen the relatively under-reported H.R. 1981 which is the latest US surveillance legislation. We’ve seen the spectacular rise and fall of SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act which was also a piece of US legislation aimed at bringing forth an unprecedented internet censorship regime under the guise of protecting the artists and protecting copyright. I, for one, am all too familiar with what it’s like, as an artist, to be censored by copyright. These actions are by far not an isolated case with what is going on in the world today.

In Canada, there is copyright reform bill known as Bill C-11 which contains the flawed digital locks provision. There’s even surveillance legislation known as Bill C-30 which has been heavily protested in Canada. In Europe, there’s also the disintegrating Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) which is being dropped by a number of countries already. In addition, there’s new surveillance legislation which would log all communication and store it all for a year. There’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which has been known as the trade agreement that contains all the provisions that even the record labels failed to keep in ACTA (including the push for a global three strikes law). Really, the list keeps going on and on and on with examples of government and corporate attempts to reign in on personal freedoms that exist on the internet to this day.

But, with all of these attempts to control how people use the internet today, there’s been a well-documented push back to retain these freedoms over the years. There’s been countless protests in Canada over the copyright laws, there’s been the massive protests in Europe over ACTA (as we just mentioned), there’s been the rise of the global political party known as the Pirate Party, and there’s been numerous DDOS attacks and more made by the nebulous group known as Anonymous (just how many tango-downs have there been so far in the last few years anyway?). When one looks at all of these threats to the internet and free speech, it can be easy to understand why there has been such a push back in the first place. Is all of this the result of a completely ignorant corporate world? Possibly. Is the government completely ignorant about all of this? Depends on what part of the government you talk about.

I would argue that even the government, specifically, the NSA (National Security Agency), saw a glimmer of the elephant in the room. In 2010, there was a very heated debate over France’s HADOPI law which is essentially the infamous French Three Strikes Law. The idea is that you get accused of copyright infringement three times, you get disconnected from the internet. The law was morphed and changed numerous times, but that was the core original idea of it. As the debate raged, it turns out, the NSA was very nervous about it. A report surfaced that the NSA “yelled” at the French government saying that such a law could encourage more people to use better security that would, in turn, make their jobs of maintaining national security more difficult. Now, say what you will about congress critters going back in forth saying that they are not a “nerd”, but they need to pass SOPA, but with respect to the NSA on the HADOPI law, the US government really hit the nail on the head in all of this.

The only other glimmer I can recall seeing in regards to the elephant on the room was also in 2010 when the British record labels insisted on ramming through the Digital Economy Bill. In that case, British spies expressed concerns that their jobs would be made more difficult because of a potential encryption arms race thanks to such a piece of legislation. If you think that these are just empty words, take a look at one of the more recent TOR project blog posts where there’s been discussion of the development of Obfsproxy which is said to defeat Deep-Packet-Inspection employed by ISPs just to name one example.

So, what does all of this mean? I’ll just go back to what I’ve been referring to as the elephant in the room. Before any government wants to employ surveillance of any kind or copyright reforms that would stifle free speech, the government really needs to ask itself, “How dangerous do we want the internet to be?” If the government, regardless of country, wants the internet to be the most dangerous threat to its existence ever, then it should push through legislation that would heavily crack down on free speech and privacy as seen in the previous examples I mentioned above. Go ahead and put 8 year olds in prison for life for downloading the latest bad album through an unauthorized channel. Threaten everyone with unimaginable fines for downloading a bad quality cam film. Make sure every man, woman or child is being monitored for every single key stroke they make, every offhanded comment they make in their own personal podcast or every drunken rant they put on a YouTube video. Believe me, at this stage, the powers that be have made the internet angry and it’s already causing major headaches for them. Just imagine what will happen when the internet generally feels threatened. People merely got a very small taste with the blackout protests that protested SOPA. We’re talking encrypted communications that would take spooks centuries to decipher, alternate networks not controlled by traditional ISPs, hidden services that would likely never be traced to its original servers (let alone having the ability to track down those who started up such services in the first place), untraceable e-mail messages and things we today didn’t even think of.

Bottom line, you mess with the internet, the internet will mess back. Go ahead and brag you got the best in the business to take down the leaders and facilitators of defiance today, but you have an untold number of coders willing to piece together solutions that will constantly frustrate the best and brightest who are paid to stop any form of dissent against efforts to control the internet. This is the kind of war that is entirely possible if the governments around the world insist on trying to curtail any freedoms that even smells like a threat to deprecated business models or the political status quo.

If, however, the governments around the world want to simply stop all that is bad, rather than trample on personal freedoms in the process, they need to put the breaks on everything that even kind of looks like copyright and internet surveillance. Take a breather if need be. They are, after all, probably trying to deal with a crowd who is already angry at them anyway. If consultations have already occurred recently (say, within the last two years), look back on the expert opinions made by those who really know the internet well. If not, call for a consultation and involve everyone. I mean everyone. Not just the big lobbyists who have a stake in destroying the internet – everyone including people who want to preserve the internet and the general public. After a period of time and study, return with legislation that is surgical and precise. Clearly state that, for example, this surveillance legislation will only go after those who are dealing with, say, child pornography and that this surveillance is conducted under the explicit approval of the courts. If you have no intentional relationship with said content, your activities will go unmonitored and should anything about you be monitored accidentally, then it’ll be both in-admissible in court and destroyed quickly.

Can such an idea be improved on? Probably. I only say this as an example in part because going out in public and borderline saying that you have no idea what is in the very legislation you are pushing through or simply hanging up the phone in an interview when asked general questions about copyright legislation you are pushing for after giving a few confused sounding questions or even mumbling about not being a nerd during congress markups about SOPA makes it sound like legal precision and careful thought was never even considered. Heck, at the risk of stating the painfully obvious, it’s just downright embarrassing.

Bottom line, if a government does eventually get a grasp on this internet techno mumbo jumbo, that government, in this day and age, has a very simple choice: either it can have an internet it can live with or an internet that will be a continual threat. If it chooses to make the internet dangerous, attack it with sledge-hammer legislation we’ve already mentioned. If it chooses to not upset the internet, work with it. Crowd-sourcing can be workable. I think that reasonable and incremental solutions can be found in all of this.

When a given government is at the drawing board to draft such legislation, the ball is really in their court. In this day and age, threatening the internet is a bad idea.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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