There isn’t much doubt that the internet has revolutionised the way we generate and consume information. Even when I was a kid in the 1990s, if I wanted to find out information for a school project I’d have to either hope it was on Encarta or actually (gasp) go to the library and read some real books. Now, with tools like Google and Wikipedia, we have more or less everything the human race has ever learned at our fingertips.
Not only that, but we can see things from a different perspective now. I can compare
what I read in the newspapers to what the media in other countries is saying, and even what individual people think about the matter.
I think that this almost ubiquitous access to information is a huge leap forward (and a fantastic equaliser) for everyone, but it wasn’t always here, and it’s not guaranteed to last forever.
Where did this all start?
Let’s go back in time a bit to get some context about what I’m talking about. In the Middle Ages the Bible was written in Latin, and the Catholic Church were the ones responsible for interpreting it all over Europe – giving them the power to define suitable solutions to almost every problem of society. Suddenly someone had the bright idea of printing them, and then it was freely available to almost anyone (and in French, not Latin). This snatched a lot of power away from the Church – anyone could now read their own copy of the Bible and interpret it in a manner they saw fit.
Unsurprisingly, the printing press was blamed for this new avalanche of “disinformation”, and eventually its use was outlawed in France under penalty of death in 1535.
Also unsurprisingly, trying to make this new technology illegal didn’t work. The modern printing press is still used to print millions of Bibles the world over, as well as other media that billions of people consume.
Now let’s fast forward to the present day (you can see where I’m going with this eh?). Not only are the governments of the world doing their best to stop people sharing media, they are using this motive – amongst others – to tighten their grip on the internet in general. Moving towards tighter control of this revolutionary freedom we have at the moment to both publish and consume information freely, no matter what the topic.
Consider the case of MegaUpload, which was completely shut down by the US government, meaning even legitimate users could not access their files. A great example of attacking the underlying technology rather than trying to actually embrace it.
MegaUpload offered to join up with content providers: “If the content industry would like to take advantage of our popularity, we are happy to enter into a dialogue. We have some good ideas. Please get in touch.” but to no avail. Instead the whole website was shut down.
Recently the Pirate Bay was blocked in the UK, a move I personally found rather shocking. Once we accept it is OK for the government to force ISPs to block sites, where do we stop? I look at the list of websites blocked in China (one of these is Pirate Bay, by the way) and wonder if the UK will have a similar list in five or ten years time.
I agree with Jim Killock – director of the Open Rights Group – when he says that blocking sites in this way is “pointless and dangerous” and “will fuel calls for further, wider and even more drastic calls for internet censorship of many kinds, from pornography to extremism … Internet censorship is growing in scope and becoming easier. Yet it never has the effect desired.”
But it’s not just piracy…
The government already considered shutting down sites like Twitter and Facebook during the riots of 2011 to prevent it being used to organise and rally groups of people – which is, by the way, the exact same reason that the Chinese government has blocked the site altogether within its borders.
Here in the UK we are seeing that the Government is planning to pass legislation that will allow GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) to access information about internet traffic in real time and on demand. This includes email, chat, VoIP, the sites you visit and the files you have downloaded.
The Queen herself has even weighed in, saying “My government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data”.
And where are we going next? A rapid-fire volley of various bills and acts that would try to control internet traffic are being leveled at us now, one particularly scary one being CISPA (the Cybersecurity Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act). This would effectively allow countermeasures to be used by private companies in the US – meaning a Network Administrator could legally install spyware like keyloggers on your computer if they thought you might be trying to break into something. It wouldn’t even be “Big Brother” watching you, it’d be an employee of a private company.
It all adds up to a pretty bleak outlook – one where what we can and can’t read on the internet is defined by governments and private companies. Whether we trust them to choose the right content for us isn’t really the point in my opinion – that fact that our freedom of access to the internet is being rapidly diminished is the worrying thing – as is the fact that we would be breaking the law if we tried to circumvent these measures.
I’d like to close with a quote from Loyd Blankenship, a notorious hacker since the 70’s:
“We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals.
Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.”