Writings of a techie wizard
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Wed, 22 Jun 2011

In a recent post, Eric Raymond describes an alternate history in which the Internet and the World Wide Web never happened. In this alternate timeline, the DARPA research that led to the Internet never got out of the "research curiosity" stage, and instead of having one Internet, we have multiple "walled gardens" like Compuserve and AOL. It's not a pretty picture: imagine not being able to email, text message, or Facebook a friend just because you and they have different ISPs. Imagine also that there is no Linux, no open source software, no way for anyone except a dedicated hobbyist to have a computer that doesn't run proprietary programs that you can't see the insides of. Not to mention that censorship would be a lot easier on networks that did not have infrastructure specifically designed to make that as difficult as possible.

Apropos of that last point, soon after finishing Raymond's post, I came across this post describing the French government's plan to, as the author puts it,

...censor and block web sites to such a degree that commentators have described it as "industrial scale". The ministries of Defence, Justice, Interior, Finance, Health and Digital Economy will have sweeping powers which will not have to be sanctioned by any judge. In fact, it is difficult to see what part of public life is not covered by these organs of the state.

The post goes on to note that, in what seems to be the typical modus operandi for such things, "it would seem that the French government was intent on burying such complex measures" in the minutiae of an amendment to an existing law. French President Sarkozy says this is an attempt to create a "civilised Internet". I know the French are experts on what is "civilized", but this is a bit much.

This French scheme is but one of a number of reminders we have had lately that something like Raymond's alternate future could still come to pass if we don't take continuing steps to protect the open Internet we currently have. Raymond himself posted recently about the Apple patent for a phone camera "kill switch", which could potentially allow third parties to control what you could take pictures or video of with your iPhone. And of course there is the Protect IP Act, the latest in a long line of attempts in the US Congress to restrict what you can do online in the name of preventing "piracy"; as I argued in this article on DRM on my old site (and I'm sure I'll be posting more about such things here as well), such attempts will not actually prevent "piracy", but they will certainly impose undue burdens on people's honest use of the Internet.

In the right-hand column of this site you'll see an image with a link to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's campaign to say no to online censorship. As I noted on my old site when I first posted the image there, Robert Heinlein once wrote that "the human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire", and the fact that the Internet makes it much, much harder for the first type to control the second type is a feature, not a bug. Whether it's the government wanting a way to control online traffic to censor a site like Wikileaks, or the RIAA and MPAA wanting draconian DRM to avoid having to come up with a better business model, there is never any lack of people of the first class. But in an online world, the liberty to decide for ourselves what we will read, and just as important, what we will post, is more important than ever.

And it's not just me saying this. Of course there's the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but since the Internet is global, I'll quote instead from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

I think even the French President would have to admit that the Internet qualifies under "any media and regardless of frontiers". So it looks to me like what the French government is trying to do is against human rights, pure and simple. But don't just take my word for it. Follow the link and make up your own mind. Isn't it nice that we have an open Internet where I can post that link, and you can read it, no matter what any other person or government says? Of course I'm not posting defense secrets or a torrent of the latest movie DVD or child porn. And as Oliver Wendell Holmes argued in his famous Supreme Court opinion, the right to free speech does not include the right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. But we already have a legal system for dealing with cases where someone has a legitimate reason to seek redress for what someone else posts. I didn't see any qualifications in the human rights article above that said it's OK to go beyond that and restrict freedom for everyone just because some people don't exercise their freedom responsibly. However loudly and often governments ask for that kind of power, we should not give it to them.

Posted at 19:29   |   Category: opinions   |   Tags: computers, politics   |   Permalink
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