Internet censorship, net.warfare, and the balkanization of the Net.

May 24, 2011

It seems like every time we turn around, somebody else is trying to enact another scheme to make the Internet a little less open, a little less useful, and more of a surveillance tool for people who can't quite make out what the writing on the wall seems to say.

The latest, and possibly most frightening salvo in the as-yet undeclared War On the Internet is something called the PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act). In a real sense, it's COICA v2.0 in that it still allows the US DoJ to declare arbitrary websites 'rogue' at the request of most anyone, but the special sauce to this iteration of the bill is that it explicitly would make legal something called private right of action. In other words, it makes bringing the Department of Justice into the matter entirely optional and allows anyone claiming rights over material to demand that a particular site be taken down. While this seems like it would take some legal finangling to accomplish it's fairly trivial to get even material in the public domain taken down with nothing more than an e-mail.

As if that weren't enough the PROTECT IP Act doesn't just make it easier for anyone to have something they want taken down removed from the Net, it also would force search engines to censor the results returned to users for certain things. The way the bill is written, it states that search engines are part of the Internet ecosystem, and thus are part of the problem (I'm paraphrasing, read the bill for yourself) and should be forced to silently censor search results. Incidentally, it would also cover simple lists of hyperlinks to other sites, which has a legal precedent dating back to the year 2000. Almost as an afterthought, the bill would further mandate censorship of the DNS system, which would make it only marginally more difficult to access restricted websites.

All in all, the PROTECT IP Act has been called a bill that legitimizes thoughtcrime because it makes the very act of linking to something that someone doesn't like illegal. When one starts meddling with indices of links or search tools by making the act of linking to something illegal one greases an already slippery slope.

So, where's the problem? This law is supposed to make it easier to take down pirated movies, music, and software, right? Book authors will be able to get unauthorized e-copies of their works taken down. The MPAA and RIAA will have another weapon in their arsenal against the unauthorized distribution of audio and video files. The spice money will flow to where it's rightfully supposed to go, yes?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple or that accurate. There are already legal precedents for successfully getting away with the abuse of such powers - case in point, the domains taken down just before Yule of 2010 by the US Department of Homeland Security without notice or legal recourse of the domains' owners, whether or not they were involved in illegal activities of any kind. In fact, Eric Schmidt (chairman of Google) likened such measures to those taken by the government of China, and, whether or not you drink the Google Kool-Aid you have to admit that he has a valid point. When you start restricting access to any material online without oversight, transparency or justification, you're no longer trying to protect the intellectual property of others. It's censorship, no different from getting books removed from libraries or not teaching kids about other kinds of people. It's no better than burning books.

Now, you're probably saying "This is supposed to be a solution to the problem of piracy of music, movies, and software. Why would such a bill be a bad thing? Of course, mistakes will be made; they can be straightend out later."

Unfortunately, that isn't the case. As I mentioned earlier, anti-IP infringement laws have already been used to take down sites that would otherwise be covered under fair use, freedom of speech, DMCA exemptions, or common sense if anyone had thought to look at the sites before ganking them. Even when legitimate mistakes have been made the wrongfully accused are still out of luck. One of the big problems with the state of in the US these days is that it's childishly easy to get someone's domain confiscated or their website taken down without recourse or even having to show evidence. Framing someone by doing something dastardly isn't even necessary anymore, all it takes is an authoritative-sounding e-mail and the willingness to see it through. Or even a so-called media defense company trying to intimidate people into paying "settlements" because they have the wrong IP address.

My concern is about what would happen when DMCA or PROTECT IP Act (if it passes) takedowns start being used to take down speech that someone doesn't agree with because it's politically inconvenient or just bad for business? What if consumer awareness or review sites start vanishing because a manufacturer decides that bad reviews of certain products are problematic? What would happen if political parties that aren't the Democrats or Republicans start getting uppity and people stop buying into the either/or us/them mentality of the US political climate? For that matter, what about political action committees? For that matter, and it's only a matter of time before this turns into a common griefing tactic, what would happen if an Internet vigilante decides that an advocacy group like the EFF is too dangerous to private interests and gets their website (including their archive of legal analyses and alerts) wiped from the face of the Net with a cleverly worded e-mail?

What can we do about it?

First, is running a petition to oppose the PROTECT IP Act. I strongly urge you to sign it and pass the link on to as many other people as you can. Tweet it, put it on Facebook, blog about it, but get that link out there and get people signing it. Second, keep current offline backups of your website and any important content that might draw fire. Consider investing in backup domains through accredited domain registrars outside of the United States (read the list carefully, do your homework to ascertain whether or not you can trust the registrar, and consider one that offers domain admin anonymity). I don't know if anyone who's likely to read this article is actually doing something anything so inflammatory as running a BitTorrent tracker or setting up a whistleblowing site (just as I have no illusions about how important I'm not, I have no illusions about how important this blog isn't), but to date perfectly legal websites have been seized for no good reasons, so one never really knows. Look into a distributed computing solution of some kind; right now, buying virtual machine hosting from companies in other countries is popular in some circles.

It's too early right now to look into running your own network of miniature computers and mesh networks, stuff like Freedombox and Project Byzantium (even though I'm a developer of the latter) to ensure that whatever you publish will remain available, but I think they're going to be very important sometime soon so keep an eye on them. Seeing as how search engine results are already targets of takedown orders (search sometime for the recipient 'Google'), I'd recommend looking into distributed search engines like YaCy because they're designed to be uncensorable and have no centralized system that can be attacked somehow. Lately, I'm rather interested in alternative DNS infrastructures like dot-p2p and socialDNS (which I happen to use - you can find me at go://drwho/ and go://virtadpt/ if you have the Firefox add-on installed). A few golden-hearted individuals are working on Firefox add-ons like MAFIAAfire, which would help people route around seized domains by making it trivial to find where the sites were forced to relocate to.

By now, you probably think that I'm probably overly paranoid and jumping at shadows. This is all very big, very scary, very "They're out to get me!" stuff, and right now some of it is still just scary shadows moving on the wall. However, if you take the time to look at the articles I linked to, many of them are written about things happening right now - websites are taken down, domains are taken away, and yes, even raids are being carried out on people without any actual crimes being committed. If even a fraction of all of those things were tied together into a neat legal package with a bright red ribbon and bow on top the Net would start looking like a very bleak place indeed. The Internet is quite possibly the most powerful tool for communication, data transfer and retrieval this world has ever known. It has shown itself time and again to be a force multiplier for people without representation, official standing, or legitimacy as anything other than 'mere' citizens. Voices that would otherwise go unheard can now make their presence known (for good or for ill), and people can now organize themselves into groups which can bring about great change in the world online. As Timothy Leary so famously said, "Find the others," and the Net makes doing so not only probable but easy to do. Unless it becomes trivial to silence thousands of people just so small cadres in elevated sociopolitical positions can sleep better at night.