A new generation of threats to online freedom

0 Posted by - July 22, 2011 - Blog, Policy, Reviews

Worried about how the Internet is being transformed from a creative playground into a structure for dominance and control? You should be, at least that’s the warning from the OpenNet Initative in their latest publication, Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace (2010, The MIT Press).

The Internet remains one of the central battlegrounds for cultural freedom. From the net neutrality battles being won and lost in North America, to the censorship battles being won and lost in repressive regimes around the world, to new forms of state surveillance and growing militarization of the Internet, a free and secure global online network is anything but guaranteed. Needless to say, the Internet is of utmost importance to the artists Art Threat covers whose work challenges dominant ideas and institutions of authority.  Access Controlled is an excellent and timely report about the state of Internet governance today (review follows).

Access Controlled is the second global study of Internet governance by the OpenNet Initative. In their first study (Access Denied, 2008 The MIT Press), Interent censorship was the danger and the dirty secret of totalitarian regimes. O how things have changed. Today, there isn’t a government anywhere that doesn’t proudly advertise the ways it controls and censors content. Internet censorship has become the global norm.

Access Controlled focuses on what they call 3rd generation controls: legal regulation, covert state interfererence, targeted viruses, denial-of-service attacks, legal takedown notices, and last but not least, traffic shaping strategies, the favourite strategy among Canada’s big ISPs.

The book spends quite a bit of time examining what’s been happening in the former Soviet-bloc countries, arguing that  strategies there are more sophisticated and harder to detect and perhaps are harbinger of things to come for the rest of us.  They warn against state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, datamining, the discrediting of political dissidents, and farming out by state authorities of illegal Internet activities to organized crime. Apparently things are getting nasty out there.

In total Access Controlled has six well researched and thought provoking essays followed by profiles of Internet governance in five major global regions: Russia and former Soviet states, Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and the Middle-East and North Africa. The essays cover topics such as control and subversion in Russian cyberspace, data retention in the EU, the development of international child-protection protocol, privacy protection in conjunction with freedom of expression, and what they call “intermediary censorship” which merits a few words of explanation.

Intermediary censorship describes the nefarious doings of the corporate world. These are methods and strategies of censorship that escape any kind of public accountability as they are carried out by private companies. More and more companies are filtering and monitoring their online clients’ activities. Thanks to Yahoo’s diligence and willingness to share data with the Chinese government, activist Shi tao was arrested and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

In the U.S., treasury laws are encouraging ISPs to close down sites involved in political work overseas. Brend Burrell’s Kubatana website (a human rights forum for political abuse in Zimbabwe) was shut down ostensibly in response to changes to American law, at least that’s what Bluehost (the company hosting her website) told her. Kubatana has a new home, but the authors of Access Denied are speculating that these kinds of restrictive interventions by the private sector are on the rise.

The goods news is that there are websites that have emerged in response to these threats. The website Herdict is an attempt to crowd source monitoring of interference with Internet access by anyone, state agency or private sector. And there is the Global Network Initiative, an attempt to involve private sector players in the conversation about Internet governance and human rights and to elicit voluntary compliance with principles of freedom and justice rather than, as was the case with yahoo and Shi Tao, with repression, censorship and state violence.

For anyone with an interest in this all important debate, Access Controlled is a must read. Hats off to the folks at OpenNet Initiative for their excellent and timely report.

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