How to Kill the Internet

This from the newsletter of our friends at riseup.net:

“Around the world, there is a magic formula for passing laws to severely limit internet freedom: claim that you must block and monitor traffic in order to prevent child pornography.

If you are like me, your impulse is to stop reading right now. There is nothing that I would like to avoid more than a discussion of child pornography. This unease, of course, is why evoking the specter of child pornography is so effective when attempting to pass controversial legislation. As a new parent to a young hatchling, my first impulse is to support any measure that might prevent even one child from being abused.

However, once you scratch the surface of these attempts to regulate communication in the name of saving children, it’s clear that these laws ignore children entirely and work to catch-all of society up in a giant web of surveillance and control.

The copyright lobby in Scandinavian countries was the first to figure out the magic formula. Johan Schlüter, head of the Danish Anti-Piracy Group, complained that “politicians don’t understand that file sharing is bad.” The solution, he said, was to focus on child pornography, “because that’s something the politicians understand, and something they want to filter off the Internet… Once we get them to filter child pornography, we can get them to extend the block to file sharing” [1]. This strategy was wildly successful, and has led to a series of laws in Scandinavian countries that allow the government to force ISPs to block certain sites, most of which are sites accused of file sharing. The same story has been repeated in Australia, the UK, South Korea, and others.

More recently, law enforcement agencies around the world are using this magical formula. Police find it hard to convince people in a democracy to submit to totalitarian levels of continuous surveillance — unless they drape these extensive powers in the cloak of child protection (anti-terrorism used to work, but is less effective these days).

In the US, the same lawmakers who introduced the infamous SOPA bill have another gem: “Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act.” This bill requires ISP’s to retain the internet addresses and billing records of their customers for over a year. Rather than limiting police access to cases involving suspected abuse of children, customer information would be made available to government agencies for any suspected crime [2].

In the UK, the current government is pushing a bill called the “Communications Data Bill”, commonly referred to as the “Snoopers’ Charter”. This bill would automate the process of allowing police easy access to all the “meta-data” of all online communication (with whom, when, and how long) and require this data be captured and stored by communication providers for over a year. The Home Secretary could order a provider to give the government unrestricted access to datamine all the data that is retained [3].

The audacity of the Snoopers’ Charter is impressive and if it sounds too far-fetched to be real, the defense of this bill is equally surreal. In response to criticism, the current Home Secretary, Theresa May, penned a dismissive editorial where she wrote that “conspiracy theorists will come up with ridiculous claims about how these measures infringe freedom.” She warns that “paedophiles are avoiding capture because the police cannot get access to all the data they need”, and that “without changing the law the only freedom we would protect is that of criminals, terrorists and paedophiles”, [4].

In Canada, a similar bill is being advanced by the ruling Conservatives called the “Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act.” If passed, it would grant the Canadian police an automated backdoor into ISP’s to monitor the historical and real-time digital communications of any Canadian–all without a warrant [5]. The only mention of predators or children is in the title, which used to be called the “Lawful Access Act” [6]. The new name appears to be nothing more than a “rhetorical ploy of appealing to the sake of children to garner support”, as the opposition Green Party has suggested [7].

In all these cases, lawmakers are attempting to use “child pornography” as a Trojan horse to enact sweeping new surveillance powers once thought unimaginable in a free society. None of these proposed bills do anything to increase funding for investigation or prosecution of child abuse. Even worse, these measures create the illusion of action while ignoring the evidence-based public health approaches that have been shown to be effective at reducing child abuse [8 & 9]. In place of actually protecting children, we get a greatly expanded police state.

Unless encryption is completely outlawed, expanded surveillance powers will do little to catch child pornographers. Sadly, pedophiles are among the few people who practice good communication security. These proposed bills will catch the general population in a giant dragnet of surveillance but will let the child abusers slip through.

Social movements rely on more than the ability to speak, they also require the ability to whisper. Around the world, there has been an all out assault on the right to whisper in the form of attempts to “civilize” the internet. Now we see this assault wrapping itself in the banner of child protection. It is a cynical approach that should be called out for what it is: a distraction from real measures that can help children, and a threat to the possibility of dissent.”

You might like to read riseup’s primer on internet security

Taking action for activists

I’m an unashamed fan (and user) of Riseup, the Seattle-based autonomous tech collective. Here’s an item from their latest email bulletin – a nice bit of action to protect activism.

We Fought the Law, and We Won

(warning: legal stuff specific to the United States)

What do right-wing churches, kiss-ins, homophobic lawyers, and Riseup have in common? They were all involved in “Mount Hope Baptist Church v. Riseup.net” in US Federal court. The short story: we kicked ass.

After a right-wing church subpoenaed the account records of several Riseup users, we went to court on behalf of these users to defend their right to anonymous speech. By winning our case, Riseup has established an important precedent in US Federal court. Riseup’s legal victory is important because it strengthens our ability to defend the anonymity of Riseup users.

The legal system in the US has consistently ruled that the ability to speak anonymously is an important part of the right to free speech. However, there is a bit of a catch-22: when someone tries to identify you online, how can you defend your right to anonymous speech if defending your anonymity in court reveals your identity? At the moment, this is untested law in the US, and some courts have ruled that internet sites cannot protect the anonymity of their users without the users coming forward themselves. Our success in defending the right of users to remain anonymous, on their behalf, helps to establish a vital precedent in the US: you don’t lose your right to anonymous speech when you go online.

Google also received subpoenas as part of the same case, and turned over their gmail information without any attempts by Google to defend them. Legally, online service providers can receive subpoenas and hand over data without even informing the individuals that their data was requested. Riseup would like to thank movement lawyers for the long hours put into this case. Without you, the world would be a scarier place.

Thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Lawyer’s Guild, and our very own Sunbird. We would also like to thank the opposing counsel for suggesting that the Riseup users in this case don’t deserve protection because their speech was not “patriotic” free speech. Hilarity ensued. We wish you safe travels back to the bizarro world where you came from. More details about the activist action in Michigan.