Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Three Main Threats To The Net

There are three main threats to the internet and we need to be vigilant about them. The whole point of my activism is to keep the internet free and open and we can't when we've got walled gardens, surveillance, and censorship to cope with. I'm going to explain what's going on and who's responsible.

Threats to the internet keep popping up and the vast majority of them are the result of greed and the desire to control populations and the information they have access to. I'm going to explain what they are, why they're bad and what you can do about them. Pressure works. We activists have proved this twice this year and since the politicians seem to think we've got the attention spans of goldfish, we need to prove it again and again till they get the message. Thankfully, this isn't hard: send an email, make a call, and sign a petition. Oh, and don't forget to vote for politicians who represent the people, not the corporations who are trying to take over.

Walled gardens

Since the Middle Ages there has been a trend to put a fence around a certain area and say, "Git off mah lawn!" This has always involved robbing from the commons. Any attempt to assert the commons these days is characterised as collectivism and decried as socialism. Basically if you share, you're a commie pinko [insert insult here]. These are the people who would no doubt applaud seeing turnpikes on public parks to charge people for the use thereof.

Patents are usually used to do this, but so are rival operating systems. Now pandering to advertisers threatens to kill the spirit of innovation as Twitter moves from an open platform for independent developers towards a walled garden that won't tolerate the kind of symbiosis it had with Linked In. Changes to its API now mean that users access the service primarily through the company's website and mobile apps instead of third party clients. The plan to add more services of its own instead of letting developers build apps for booking reservations, ecommerce, and games is being driven by the possibility of monetizing these with adverts and it doesn't want to have to work with API partners to do so. It's easier to keep them out to make sure ads and media are properly displayed.

Patents are a political issue

Capitalism advocates believe that in its purest form the customer is king. Excuse me while I fall about laughing. No, in a purely capitalist system profit is paramount and any idea that the market will save us has long been debunked. What we need is a balance between entrepreneurship and the public interest, not a corporate feeding frenzy for the last few coins that haven't yet been hoovered up by the 1%. The point is, the interoperability of systems is essential to providing consumers with choice and vendor lock-in is the end result of patent-driven innovation. Patents are anti-competitive at heart so I'm dead set against them. If you can't compete on the merit of your product, you can't compete. Microsoft and the legacy tech giants are resisting interoperability and have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a truly competitive environment.

The trouble with walled gardens is not the actual product, it's the wall. There is, of course, the matter of the gate. Open source is the only way out of vendor lock-in and I've been promoting it for that reason. It also keeps those corporations from being able to retain their stranglehold on our governments in terms of the technology they can use. This damages the internet, which consists of connections between millions of nodes. By walling off large sections of nodes using operating systems, patents on software, and the demands of advertising, these companies are controlling the sections of the internet they have claimed for themselves and can close off access as and when required or simply herd us where they want us to go. Where that happens, the internet is neither open nor free.

The state of play

The EU recently headed off an attempt to get patents onto software by creating a European patent court. Tussles over where it should be located resulted in postponement, thanks to UK Prime Minister David Cameron. However, this was conditional on the deletion of Articles 6, 7, and 8 of the Regulations on the Unitary Patents proposal, which would have removed patent cases from the juridiction of the European Court of Justice. Courts outside the jurisdiction of the EU would be free to broaden the range of patentability - including software patents. Needless to say, I campaigned against it. The result of activism and the MEPs' insistence on retaining ECJ oversight has resulted in a stalemate and they're going to discuss it again in September. Guess who the rapporteur is going to be? Obstruction-meister Marielle Gallo. Soft terrorism to follow. It's up to people on the internet to make up their minds for them when it comes up for discussion in the JURI committee or they won't create laws that work in our favour.


The trouble with surveillance is the chilling of freedom of speech. The increasing global trend towards total surveillance has got a lot of us up in arms and we can't see a good enough reason for it. Data retention directives from our national governments where they want instant access to all our online activities, including our emails, is upsetting people in the higher echelons of power here in Slightly Shoddy Britain, where we're giving our citizens away free to good homes in US prisons when we're not acting as America's paedophile bin.

I've put in an FOI request to the Home Office to discover how much involvement G4S has in running or taking part in the management of any aspect of the proposed mass surveillance programme under the Communications Data Act, AKA the Snooper's Charter. I'm not holding my breath for the answers since I expect they'll refuse to supply the minutes of the meetings I've asked for, but a refusal would speak volumes about what's going on behind the scenes.

The global aspect is no exaggeration and it focuses on the internet. To keep costs down (naturally. Mustn't put too much of a burden on the public purse), they're using our ISPs to do the actual spying despite not having a clue about how to actually get this done. There's also the issue of what to actually do with the data after they've got hold of it, given that they haven't got that figured out yet. Needless to say, there's the risk of actually achieving nothing unless they ban encryption and the use of VPNs. That'll probably happen, so with no way of ensuring your privacy online, why bother even going online? It's essential, says the Home Secretary, Theresa May.

Conspiracy theorists will come up with ridiculous claims about how these measures infringe freedom.

But without changing the law the only freedom we would protect is that of criminals, terrorists and paedophiles — and that is something I am not prepared to let happen.

Well, if it'll catch the "innocent and incompetent" paedophiles, criminals, and terrorists, I suppose that's a start. Yeah, right! We activists are fighting it as hard as we can and hopefully it'll go the way of National ID Cards and the dodo.


There are two main reasons for internet censorship: commercial and political. Copyright maximalism drives the commercial censorship while our governments are using that and the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse as an excuse to restrict what we can and can't see online. Needless to say, both are intertwined because Big Content is funding the election campaigns of the politicians who pass laws that favour them.


Ever since SOPA got the beatdown in January, the MPAA and RIAA have been working to find a way to get us all under surveillance to further entrench their copyright monopolies to the detriment of our digital rights. We've just kicked ACTA into touch here in Europe but for some strange reason the Mexican ambassador has just signed the already rejected treaty — which forces it back onto the table to be voted on again. I wish they had double jeopardy for treaties!

TPP is running into trouble to the point where it might be an election issue for US President Barack Obama. It's causing more problems than it solves for its partner nations, two of whom won't be allowed to see the text till December. Oh, and Japan wants to join, even though this means a 90 day wait for them if they decide to join at the end of August. This is the funny part: they need to be approved by Congress, who are not allowed to see the text of the treaty. It's the leaked IP chapter that seems to be getting the most attention, though the leaked investor clause looks pretty grim. USTR appears to be waking up to how controversial it is to crush the rest of us beneath the weight of copyright maximalism and has agreed to accept the limitations and exceptions we need to get stuff done on the internet.

Internet Freedom Movement has been campaigning against those, but now another monster has emerged from the slime, the Canadian-European Trade Agreement. It's so bad that some Canadian cities have joined a coalition to demand exemption from it. CETA lead lawyer Matthew Kronby has found new work at Bennett Jones. This news sparked a brief spike in interest until the man himself announced that he'd quit because he didn’t like the commute. Since we've got no access to the text we'll have to take this on trust. However, what we do know is that it either does or doesn't contain much of the text of the IP chapter in ACTA and we're not going to know until the European Commission presents it to the EU Parliament as a done deal. Correspondence with Mike Masnick of Techdirt has resulted in a promise from yours truly to try to have a story put together by Tuesday about the Canadian cities's revolt. Watch this space.

Political censorship

On Wednesday, the Russian parliament's lower house approved legislation that would block Web pages selectively. The proposed law is basically the Russian version of SOPA, where websites get blocked and blacklisted on the word of officials. Apparently, it's for the kids, but basically it's about suppressing dissent. To my vast amusement, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), issued a statement condemning the move, which is rich when you consider that most of the nations aligned with America are doing the same thing. I suppose he thinks it's fine as long as it's only The Pirate Bay.

Meanwhile, FUD-filled nonsense is spewing in torrents from the mouths of our national security officers, who apparently don't know much about the internet but are determined to frighten us and our representatives into handing over power to them. Over the internet. Which they know nothing about. In America, the NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, told the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute on Monday that the costs of dealing with computer hacking is “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.” In GOP*-speak that means, "Hackers are Communist Socialists, you guys!!11eleventyone!" Apparently, Republicans see Communists and Socialists the way I see spiders and they jump if you even mention the word. Seriously, I actually met one in real life who came over from Virginia for a few days in Manchester. I told him our government was "sort of Socialist Lite" and he gulped and looked warily around. I LOLed.

Commercial censorship

It's bad enough when copyright holders push through laws to oppress us (although the opportunity to change the law is there), even though it's easier (and better for the rest of us) to follow the money and provide legal, superior alternatives to those provided by the pirates. But when your ISP wants to decide what you can or can't access online for commercial purposes, that cannot stand. This is what happens when monopolies on service are permitted. They consolidate their market position, then start to sqeeze their consumers. I've got two words for that: mesh. Networking.

What's particularly horrible is when a content producer like Viacom begins to squeeze carriers like DirecTV for higher fees. It reminds me of the Virgin/BSkyB spat of 2008. Basically, they've got the leverage and in a buyer's market they can raise their prices, confident that their hapless carrier has got to capitulate or lose the programmes on offer. This time, it's on the internet, where streaming rights are at issue. This is what drives piracy; greed from producers who want to control every aspect of their product and squeeze as much out of the hapless consumer as possible.


I was on the cusp of ending this article but I've got to mention the fact that Matthew Inman overcame the attempted censorship by deranged lawyer Charles Carreon by withdrawing the exact amount of money he raised on Indiegogo to take the photos he promised and send them, with the picture he drew of Funnyjunk's mother seducing a bear, to Funnyjunk, or presumably to Charles Carreon. Funnyjunk's owner hasn't been identified. Sometimes it's necessary to keep the details of a court case confidential, but Carreon was being ridiculous and I'm glad he got his comeuppance.

* Grand Old Party, i.e. Republicans

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