From Privacy to Censorship – Activists Have Their Hands Full

Digital rights activists pages have lit up over the week this week over just about anything to do with civil liberties online.

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

The issues at hand deal with privacy, throttling, network neutrality and even censorship. It’s no surprise that when even one of these items of concern surfaces, the issue becomes a major topic for debate – just imagine all of them occurring all at once.

Some BitTorrent users may still be reeling from Comcasts “delaying” tactics last month. It’s an issue that is currently being fought in the FCC. While it is fair to say that this is a big issue, it may be advisable to take a step back and look at the other issues at hand to understand that this is just one of the issues currently being dealt by users today. Should the worst happen, then Comcast delaying BitTorrent packets, a topic that hits at one of the core network neutrality debate points, may be one of the least of everyone’s worries from a digital rights activist standpoint.

Another similar issue that has caused blogs to light up like a Christmas tree has been the major record labels decision to sue an Irish ISP for allowing P2P to flow through their networks. It’s a story that has already been covered here on ZeroPaid. Now Digital Rights Ireland has responded to the issue with a number of interesting thoughts on the matter. Among the arguments about cost, overblocking (blocking of legitimate content), Damage to Irish knowledge economy, futility, privacy, and other barriers, they comment that such practices might already be illegal under European law. According to the European law, “Member States are prevented from imposing a monitoring obligation on service providers only with respect to obligations of a general nature” It raises the question, did the court simply miss this law or is it asking an ISP to break European law for surveillance purposes? It’s a question that may remind Americans of the current retroactive immunity for warrentless wiretapping case which is currently being vigorously fought still.

Privacy concerns over Internet Service Providers monitoring or filtering their networks has been a concern for many over the years. Only recently are those fears seemingly being realized in recent times. The question is, are these privacy issues spreading further in North American and Europe? In fact, there’s at least another case of a similar nature happening in Britain currently.

The open Rights Group have recently compiled information related to the Phorm controversy. Essentially, Phorm is a technology employed by an Internet Service Provider to drop ads onto users browsers based on content being viewed.

“On top of this, question marks are beginning to appear over Phorm’s compliance with the law. Can ISPs’ employment of Phorm comply with the Data Protection Act?” Asks Open Rights Group poster Becky, “Is intercepting traffic in this manner an offence under section 1 of RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act)? The Information Commissioner has issued a statement (pdf) saying his office is making inquiries but is this enough?”

Open Rights Group then points to a petition with over 4,000 signatures which demands that the government stop ISPs from breaching privacy through advertising technologies. The last known case of an ISP trying to intercept the browsing experience and placing content over top of the requested page occurred in Canada where Rogers placed warning messages about users net usage late last year.

While privacy and filtering by ISPs is one thing, a newer development is occurring in the United States as well. An anti-phishing bill being proposed, according to the EFF, contains provisions that would not only have a chilling effect on free speech, but overrule otherwise Fair Use provisions in domain names as well such as parody and criticism.

“To make matters worse,” writes Corynne McSherry of the EFF, “another provision allows any Tom, Dick or Harry to force domain name registrars to reveal a customer’s personally identifying information by simply sending an email alleging that the customer has violated the new law. No need to comply with the traditional legal niceties of, say, an actual filed lawsuit or a subpoena that might permit the customer to go to court to protect her anonymity. A mere allegation is enough.”

This development came on the heals of an earlier report where a Kentucky lawmaker wanted to ban anonymous online postings.

So, effectively speaking, there are instances of traffic interference, throttling, privacy breaches, dragnets and general censorship. If anything else, this clearly proves that such concerns don’t merely happen mainly in the United States. These issues are being grappled with by many others in the world other than in Asia and third world countries as well. Since a number of these battles between companies/regulators and civil rights activists/concerned individuals are just getting started, it’s unlikely an end will be in sight for a very long time to come.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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