<Originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
In the middle of election season in Iceland a debate is raging about the need to protect young children from violent pornographic imagery that can be found on the Internet. Although it is unclear what the scale of this problem is, there is concern about the methods used by some in the porn industry to market their wares. There is an idea that some firms use the old tobacco industry method of 'get them while they're young'.
As I was in Iceland recently I was fortunate enough to be asked my opinions on these matters by government officials. The entire debate is being conducted during election season, so the local media are on top of every word uttered by anyone from either government or the local digital civil liberties organisations. What causes most of the (international) attention is the specific plan to put a national filter on all Icelandic internet connections. This would be a first for a western democracy (although such filters have been tried in various Asian countries from Iran to China). Proposing a method that could very well be called censorship is incongruous in a modern and progressive society such as Iceland (the only country to have convicted its bankers over their part in the current global financial crisis).
During an informal dinner a few days later with officials it became clear that no decision on a filter, or any other policy, had been made. The government was looking into the problem and discussing possible solutions. The emotive nature of the debate causes the problems and solutions to get mixed up. I therefore attempted to structure the discussion over dinner:
On February 26th 2013 I gave a talk at Reykjavik University in Iceland on Privacy & Online freedoms. The whole thing played out in during and Icelandic election season were a proposal to put a national filter on Iceland's internet connection to block violent pornography caused quite an uproar in Iceland and abroad. Slides of this presentation here.
Not sure what to say about the sudden death of Aaron Schwarz, idealist, freedom-fighter-extraordinaire and friend of open access to information for all of humanity. Aaron spend his life fighting for humanity's highest ideals, contributing to technologies most of us use every day (even if we don't know it). It just feels like something is very, very wrong is the so-called 'free world' is killing its best and brightest for living up to its highest ideals. We've got big problems and cannot afford to lose people like Aaron.
Cory Doctorow has written a eulogy here, Prof Lawrence Lessig had an overview of the case the US Department of Justice (ha!) saw fit to launch against Aaron. Glen Greenwald wrote about his heroic work in helping to defeat SOPA over the last years. A digital memorial to Aaron will be here for as long as there is an Internet. The files that started the case can be found here. Spread them around as wisely as possible.
But mostly just watch Aaron's speeches and interviews, as many times as needed before you understand his ideas and ideals fully.
On July 11th 2001 the European Parliament published a report on the Echelon spy network and the implications for European citizens and businesses. Speculations about the existence of this network of Great Britain-and-her-former-colonies had been going on for years but it took until 1999 for a journalist to publish a report that moved the subject out of the tinfoil-hat- zone. The report of the EU Parliament contains very practical and sensible proposals, but because of events two months after publication, they have never been implemented. Or even discussed further.
Under the heading "Measures to encourage self-protection by citizens and enterprises" lists several concrete proposals for inproving data security and confidentiality of communications for EU citizens. The document calls on Parliament to inform citizens about the existence of Echelon and the implications for their privacy. This information must be "accompanied by practical assistance in designing and implementing comprehensive protection measures, including the security of information technology". So not just some abstract government infomercial on TV/radio but hands-on tips to get some actual work done please!
hen in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for people to dissolve the commercial, legal and moral bands which have connected them with an industry and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which their most fundamental principles entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all lives are enriched by the sharing of culture, that citizens are endowed by their democracies with certain unalienable rights, that among these are knowledge, true ownership of their property and the sharing of culture. That to secure these rights, laws are instituted among the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any of these laws become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish them, and to institute new laws, laying their foundations on such principles and organizing their powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Eben Moglen explains the biggest and most important fight for civil liberties in the next decade. Nothing the Free Software Foundation has not been saying for over 20 years but now more important than ever. Freedom requires freedom of thought and this requires freedom of media and communications. These cannot be guaranteed if private interests, controlling or controlled by governments can interfere with the functioning of the information networks and devices. Freedom requires free technology (where free means free as-in-freedom) where the people using the technology control what is does for them and how it does it. I talked about this in 2010 and many times before and after on this blog.
Cory Doctorow's column in the Guardian about tech-politics and the importance of outreach by the tech community can be found here. Cory makes the point that ensuring your rights through technical skills is great, but not much help to society if the tech is too difficult for most people to use. Outreach activities and the hard work of polishing technical tools for non-techie use are of vital importance.
However, I do think that one important aspect was missing from Cory's argument, so my additional comment on another vital aspect of current tech/internet politics is below:
As nerd-politics is a subset of 'normal' politics, it's not just the nerd-part we need to worry about. The political system itself needs to function - at least some of the time - to get anywhere. If a country has a political system that retains the rituals of a democracy but no longer actually functions as such, then no amount of good nerd-politics (or politics of any other kind) will fix anything. Especially if such a fix threatens established and well-funded business interests.
It is perhaps no coincidence that all the bad tech-policy examples that Cory cites (SOPA, ACTA, TTP, DMCA, attacks on the Piratebay, mass reading of email, etc) orginate in the US and are foisted on other countries from there. While those countries deserve their fair share of blame for allowing a foreign power to bully them into this stuff, it is pretty clear where the problem lies. With or without nerds involved.
Either we fix the completely broken US political system (and good luck with that!) or the rest of the world needs to get better at ignoring absurd US laws and treaties cobbled together by lobbyists of private for-profit organisations. Neither those corporations nor general US politics concern themselves with the interests of the inhabitants of the rest of the planet. And the rest of the planet should respond accordingly.
Nerds (aka the tech community) can provide some tools to help out with that, as the Free Software movement and Wikileaks have shown.
According to Dutch Economics Minister Maxime Verhagen, 'ordinary' people have nothing to fear from ACTA. This treaty is merely designed to shut down child pornography sites. Go to the link and have another listen (in Dutch), because he really does say this!
That's good because, although I quite like a good download, I tend to limit myself to movies and books that fall a little more within the acceptable media spectrum. However, this statement gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of our Minister-of-All. Apparently in the case of distribution of photographic evidence of actual child abuse he is first and foremost concerned with possible copyright infringement. Is this a professional contortion or is he simply exceptionally goal orientated? This is what journalists should be pouncing on. For the lulz.
But beauty emerges even from the surrealist farce that is modern western copyright policy. No, I'm not talking about more music, movies or books, for there is no evidence that more culture is created by fanatically prosecuting 14-year olds for downloading. However, the recent weeks have clearly shown the usefulness of a common enemy. Thanks to ACTA, more Europeans than ever are involved in a critical discussion of modern copyright law and the balance with civil liberties. That is a wonderful development. Furthermore, it now seems that ACTA is dying following the remarks of European Commissioner Viviane Reding (she senses the political climate). One European country after another is delaying signing the treaty. In the three years since the “crisis” citizens have developed a fairly sharp bullshit filter to detect the kind of neo-liberal nonsense that ACTA is full of, and they will take no more. Like Software Patents it always takes awhile for the protests to get going but once they go representatives tend to choose the side of the people who can get them in a seat by voting in a few years.
The Dutch Considerati think tank reported earlier this week that there is still widespread downloading in the Netherlands. But for an allegedly 'broad' piece of research, some key parties were missing - Bits of Freedom, for example. Nor did the study consider fundamental questions about the social or economic value of copyright that lasts for more than a century (when once it only lasted for 15 years), probably because those ordering the report did not want that question asked, let alone answered. There was also no mention of the copyright industry aggressively lobbying behind closed doors where laws are hammered out that our European representatives are not even allowed to see, let alone influence.
The entire debate is reduced to a financial accounting exercise for a particular industry. So all is perfectly OK then, as I have nothing to do with it – I don't work in that industry – nor indeed do the vast majority of people. The comments on Webwereld.nl quickly show that almost nobody takes such research seriously.
Now The Pirate Bay is outlawed in the Netherlands - although this ban has yet to be tested in Dutch courts - the copyright industry and its tame lobbyists face a difficult choice: should they take their customers to court or not?
This question is crucial to the survival of the lobby groups. Since the cost of fighting downloading is much higher than income, large entertainment companies constantly need convincing that all these indirect lobby costs will at least produce results in the longer term. Nobody wants to think that the funding of lobby groups is ineffective, even if those organisations claim hundreds of site removals annually.
Last year I was asked to contribute to a book by XS4All (PDF) about the history and future of the Internet. I decided to make some broad brush points on page 102. My colleague Menso also contributed (page 36), or here on his blog.
Long ago there were some monkeys on the African savannah. It was difficult for them as they hunted other animals that were stronger and faster. Other animals could digest the dry grass and live with little water. The monkeys could do none of these things. You would think they would never survive, let alone go on to play an important role in the evolution of the Earth. That they did so is through a unique combination of two things that led to everything else: an opposable thumb and big brains.
Separately, each of these makes little difference. Dolphins have large brains and are certainly intelligent. But without hands to apply that intelligence they cannot build complex civilizations. Chimpanzees have thumbs but lack the brains to make hand axes and build terabit optical routers. So dolphins and chimpanzees are in our zoos instead of vice versa.
In recent weeks a number of leaked documents has made it crystal clear how a cluster of companies (hereafter referred to as the "copyright industry") warns off any threat to its commercial interests. The copyright industry consists of all those companies whose business models are based on the most extreme neo-liberal interpretation of copyright. In this interpretation, the ability to make money by endlessly re-selling the same piece of intellectual property is considered more important not only than democratic control over the creation of laws, but also than basic civil rights such as the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
Last month, a group of European news outlets drew up the 'Hamburg Declaration'. It demands that the European authorities take measures to prevent the re-use (they call it theft) of 'their' content. They want to demand money for 'their' news, as they get with printed editions.