Sunday, 3 June 2012

Do We Need To Reboot The Internet?

We've all read reports of domains being seized and websites shut down; people being prosecuted for posting links to copyright material on their websites, and massive fines being levied on people for posting songs they like on YouTube. ICANN controls most of the domain names and the US is battling the UN for overall control of the internet. It looks bad, but some people are already working on solutions in case the worst case scenario comes about.

Here's the problem: our governments are trying to find ways to censor the internet using #IPR and child pornography as an excuse. I'm not overly worried about them breaking the internet because alternatives are already here and more are planned — which sucks for people not versed in mesh networking and aren't on Freenet or searching for items on the internet via DuckDuckGo. Since they realise they can't have full control, they're trying to put us under surveillance via our ISPs and they're seizing websites and domains like there's not tomorrow.

As Internet pioneer John Gilmore puts it, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

Sanity prevails for the moment but we need to keep an eye on what our governments are up to in terms of laws and treaties, particularly where security and IPR (intellectual property rights) are concerned, or the future will be rather inconvenient if we want to be truly free online. Let's take a look at what's happening now in terms of censorship, IPR, and internet control.


The biggest problem with censorship is the forbidden fruit syndrome. You know you're not supposed to have it, so you want it even more. Then there's the matter of suppression of free speech to consider, at which point it becomes a firestorm. Let's examine each point in turn.

Forbidden fruit

The most "pirated" genre of online content is pornography, according to a Go-Gulf infographic, at 35.8%. I wouldn't take the monetary figures for granted mostly because they haven't cited their sources. This is despite the availability of free porn. People aren't willing to wait for movies to come out on DVD so they're not far behind at 35.2%. 

Freedom of speech

There have been some well-publicised incidents of people being sent to prison for obnoxious tweets, which seems ridiculous to me because although it's morally reprehensible to be horrible to people online, a caution would do. Besides, being nasty on your social media account can lead to the suspension or deletion of your service. While it's hard to argue in favour of the most egregious trolls' ability to cause distress to others by directly contacting them on Facebook or Twitter, I must say I have a huge problem with the idea of going after someone for making critical comments about government bodies or people. In an age where a joke can get you into trouble with the law, there's never been a greater need to shore up our rights to freedom of speech. I mean, I'm pretty critical and some of my cartoons have probably crossed the line. How long till that gets into the news? Mind you, my audience would rocket.

Meanwhile, the Pirate Party has been censored in German schools, caught up in a filter intended to protect the kids because one of their platforms is the legalisation of marijuana use. The block was lifted, but that's the problem: innocents are caught in the filter trap via keywords scrapers.


The first problem, as I've stated many times before, is that the US government is commited to the expansion and enforcement of IPR because

Royalties and licence fees cover the "the exchange of payments and receipts between residents and non-residents [of the developed world] for the authorised use of intangible, non-produced, non-financial assets and proprietary rights (such as patents, copyrights, trademarks, industrial processes, franchises, etc.) and with the use, through licensing agreements, of produced originals or prototypes (such as manuscripts and films). - Directorate-General For External Policies Of The European Union Policy Department Study ACTA: An Assessment

Basically, the maximalists are acting as landlords or gatekeepers, charging other countries "rent" to use their "intellectual property," i.e. brands, patents, and copyright to manufacture items cheaply where wages and the standard of living are low in order to import them cheaply to Europe and the USA despite the appalling damage this is doing to our economies. Companies who have to compete with them are finding it hard because they're being undercut. When "Made in the USA (or Great Britain, or your country)" is considered to be a gimmick, something is very wrong. When everyone else is at it, how do you compete?

The whole premise is wrong. The trouble with relying on intangibles is firstly that it's hard to control them in a digital environment and secondly the existence of the digital environment makes copying and sharing films, books, articles, and music easier than ever before. This makes those reliant on IPR incredibly vulnerable and because they know this they co-opt our governments into granting and enforcing their distribution monopolies to a ridiculous and unsustainable degree. I haven't even started on generic drugs and the trouble with evergreening patents. Hilariously, USTR shot itself in the foot by insisting that its stronger IPR proposals will spur innovation and investment. But as the Vietnamese Chief Negotiator pointed out,

We all know who the largest recipient of FDI is, and it’s not Singapore. 

It's actually China. You know, the biggest IPR infringer. Can't be that bad if the US is willing to invest billions of dollars a year there. Anyway, there have been various treaties floating about, the most important being TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) and ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), both of which are running into opposition from the public because the human and digital rights blogs have been stirring up a storm of protest. We can't let them through because of the threat to our freedom in the name of protecting the profits of US corporations. Honestly, if those people can't run a business without resorting to a government-sponsored protection racket, they shouldn't be in business at all.

Internet control

As I mentioned earlier, there's a huge battle over who should run the internet. The US was the incubator of the World Wide Web at DARPA, a military research agency. It was never intended to be the huge sprawling virtual world it is today, but as the universities and research groups that used it became interested in commercial applications, it spread. On April 30, 1995, the National Science Foundation ended its sponsorship of the NSFNET Backbone Service and the service ended. The internet as we know it had arrived on a wave of emerging service providers. It's hardly surprising that they still want to control it, but it's global now, and control requires a multi-stakeholder approach to prevent any one country from dominating it.

Regulation and enforcement

Being able to control its citizens is becoming increasingly important to our governments due to their growing reliance on IPR, which makes the companies that rely on it vulnerable to counterfeiting or unauthorized copying. The answer is to find another business model, but that's going to take a lot of campaigning because they're not going to do that by themselves. When they rely on ridiculous business models, only ridiculous solutions make sense to them.

Here's the problem: the public isn't buying the idea of the products they want having any particular value attached to the brand or perception, they don't want to be kept waiting and they DO want to pay, but they're being told their money's not wanted. No decent reason for geographical restrictions has ever been provided to me and "because I said so" isn't good enough.

While some people have wised up to this fact the legacy gatekeepers are unwilling to revise their opinions mostly because they're accustomed to their privileged position and it's never occurred to them that they might ever be subject to market forces. And as long as our governments dance to their tune we've got to be ready to jump if we have to. Otherwise, enjoy surveillance. For the kids. Because China is spying on us! And only the nerds are willing to question this. If it wasn't for the internet blackout in January this year, I'd be browsing lolcats with the sheeple under the watchful eye of our beloved government, who are only looking for terrorists and child pornographers, they pinkie promise. The thing is, the way they want to do things doesn't work, it's only theatre. Real solutions mean getting more involved with us and letting us help instead of accusing us and treating us as potential criminals.

Laws and treaties

We're winning. The tide is turning. While it's not over yet, continued pressure on the MEPs in the European parliament has scuppered ACTA in the key committees and there are only three left to go. The DEVE committee is voting on Monday so I'll resend my email asking them not to adopt it because a) it's invalid and b) it's a waste of time when Russia and China, the biggest counterfeiters, won't sign it. When it's finally dead, I'll let you know. TPP is on the way out; we just need to keep the pressure on till it finally drops.

Then the next thing to do is start the IPR law reform process going so we're not threatened by this nonsense again. In which case we won't need to set up an alternative internet because the one we've got will work just fine. A girl can dream.

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