Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I'm scared for the Internet

(This article was written for Entelechy Edition 33 (February 2012). The news is slightly old, but posted here so I have a public permalink to the article)

When the Internet began over 30 odd years ago, it was an ideal of democracy. Born in universities, where only meritrocracy ruled, it was used by hackers whose ideals were very egalitarian. In its very protocols, the Internet encodes equality. No piece of data is considered more important or more dangerous than any other.

Even as the World Wide Web exploded some 20 years ago, it retained the ideals of the Internet, although in some sense these very ideals led to corners of the web which were just evil.

Of course, as the Internet went global and required physical infrastructure and government permissions, what you could and could not do became much more controlled. Child pornography was plain illegal, but freedom of speech was not, often because much of the core architecture and servers were based in democratic countries who were benefiting massively from the Web.

Of course the web came along and made piracy much much easier. As Paul Tassi states in Forbes, piracy is a 4 step process, while any conventional means of media consumption from the Old Big Media Houses is way more inconvenient. With laws differing across borders, delayed releases, abominations like DeCSS and so on, it was far easier to use a general purpose computer to circumvate all these measures.

In the last few years however, piracy and freedom of speech has come back to bite us. Rather, it has come to haunt the old bastions of power, governments, religions and media publishers. Faced with a series of attacks, the Web is now caught between the devil and the deep sea. On one side is the battle for intellectual property. On the other hand are repressive governments (even so-called democracies) where certain factions wish to curtail the one medium that is impossible to truly shutdown.

There are also the silos of Facebook, Google and a thousand walled App Gardens that are eating mouthfuls of our data and keeping it behind closed doors. They aren’t the worst part though.

I’m not scared that the Internet will die, but I’m scared that it could lose its essence. The essence of freedom, of equality, of opportunity and communication that has brought hope to many and improved countless lives immeasurably. If we the common people keep lying down as our freedoms are taken from us, we will lose the one chance to truly step into something new, to fully embrace human potential, and go back to watching the shiny rainbows on Blu-ray discs whose only use is as coasters. It is not as if we are powerless, we just need to be educated. After all in the case of SOPA/PIPA, mass protests were effective in sending the bill for reconsideration.

It is no secret that politics is financed by capitalists. Much of this money flows in from media conglomerates and thus politicians are puppets when the MPAA or RIAA decide to take out their battle axes on pirates. What the old media does not realize is that the Internet has levelled the playing field. It is now possible for anyone to publish high quality content. Rather than focusing on making it cheap and easy to spread their content, so that most users will be willing to pay for it legally, they continue to impose draconian laws on sharing, copying and accessing their media. The solution – piracy. When technologists like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon try to make it ever easier, they crawl back into their shells. A perfect example is HBO’s Game of Thrones.

There are fundamental problems with new bills that are tabled to deal with piracy. These laws are often framed in secret in a nexus of politics and old media houses, most notably ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), rather than in public scrutiny where rights groups and the general public can see what is happening. It was only as ACTA started to get ratified around the world that people realized what is happening. The result – plenty of EU countries have seen protests that have led to ACTA being put on hold. What is laughable is that the United States actually rejected Right to Information requests saying that it could be a threat to national security. The second problem is that all copyright laws have always focused far too much on tightening copyright regulations, and what it means for something to be copied, what requires royalties and what requires permission. Copyright was initially a way to give creators sufficient returns for their works, not how can I get the maximum money out of this. By tightening the noose, it is getting harder for artists to re-use other’s creativity to create even better works. In addition every anti-piracy effort has put costs on innocent third-parties, taken huge cuts from taxpayers money, and pushed technology that had non-infringing uses out of the market. For example, BitTorrent is a fascinating technology with huge potential for better Internet services, yet it has achieved negative connotations due to its use for piracy. In the aggregate, they reflect a disproportionate focus on the interests of a handful of large companies. It’s hard to think of a single example during this twenty-year period of copyright restrictions being repealed, relaxed, or any in any meaningful way liberalized. Finally, there is a great paradox between the Western world’s constant demands for the right to free speech on the Internet and the principles embodied in stronger copyright laws. For example, SOPA’s feature of allowing the shutdown of arbitrary websites without judicial hearing, ACTA’s removal of safe harbour protections and the outlawing of circumvention technology leads to the internet quickly toeing the line with new regulations. Ironically, even as SOPA seeks to outlaw technology like Tor, the US Department of Defense actively funds its development to help activists in repressive regimes like Iran.

The Internet has now reached its prime, e-commerce is commonplace, startups for media distribution are blossoming all over, our identities are now better known by Facebook and Google than by our Governments. Power and opinions flow over wires, free of the meddling of higher-ups. This is leading to politicians and other old bastions of power (cable TV, telephony) feeling lost, and so they are taking concrete steps to clamp down on what they consider a menace. They then repackage it and sell it to the public as ‘stealing’ or ‘content that can cause public unrest’. Caught between these two forces, the Internet could become a nanny state in the next few years.

Over 20 years after an international agreement that deregulated the Internet and led to a meteoric success story of capitalism and free markets above all else, the United Nations plans to establish “international control over the Internet”. In December 2012, Russia, China and others will push for:
  • allowing ISPs to charge ‘international’ fees for Internet traffic - this is just absurd. By its very nature the Internet is not supposed to have ‘boundaries’. It goes completely against Net Neutrality
  • Subsume under governmental bodies many of the tasks of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Society, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and others. These bodies currently operate solely on merit, technical competency and democratic votes, and as private bodies are free from governmental interference.
among others. Censorship is emerging stronger and stronger. Censorship across the world has been well covered, and I will not go into the details. Two things are relevant though. One is #IdiotSibal’s attempts at getting social networks to take down ‘offending’ content. It seems in our bid to compete with China, we’ve decided to one-man up them in censorship too. Shivam Vij has very correctly stated in Kapil Sibal doesn’t understand the Internet,
So Sibal and Tharoor think social media can cause riots, but it hasn’t actually done so yet. Now that Sibal and Tharoor are telling us there’s stuff out there that could make us kill each other, some of us will go looking for it out of curiosity and…
In neighbouring Pakistan, every Tom, Dick and Harry with complaints of online hate speech approaches the Lahore High Court. In India, Kapil Sibal wants to be the high court.
He wants to be judge, jury and executioner. And he wants to do it silently so we don’t get to know.
Google’s Transparency report on India clearly identifies politicians lack of ability to accept criticism.
In addition, we received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove 236 communities and profiles from orkut that were critical of a local politician.
In the private sector, Reliance Communications has taken it upon itself to be the moral and economic guardian by obtaining ‘John Doe’ orders from a local court to ban file sharing websites in the days around a movie release. In sheer violation of Indian law which states that only the Department of Information Technology may request censorship, they then went and blocked websites country wide. It was as if SOPA was already passed in India. A John Doe order is the type of insanity that you think can only happen in movies until some lawyer actually dreams it up. Multiple, unknown, offenders can be acted against. Interestingly while Reliance stated that they were within law, no actual complaint was recieved. The court order and ban was based on speculation. I sent a Minority Report Precrime in action.

In retrospect there are 3 things (amongst others) that threaten the future of the Internet as a ‘commons’: Net neutrality, draconian copyright-laws and censorship. There is only one thing stopping that from happening - YOU.

Further reading:

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