The Internet, specifically, the World Wide Web, has grown up on ideals of freedom of information, communication, and cooperation among users. These values have given rise to platforms providing free expression to those denied it in any other media, promoted and promulgated freedom of speech and expression of ideas, and given users access to vast stores of information and media choices unthinkable in the previous century.
Social networks, grassroots organizations, and political activists have arisen and been given a voice, often much to the chagrin of oppressive governments and large corporations. These are largely made possible by the architecture of the Web itself, which in simplified terms is composed of networks of computers linked together as peers, with no central governing authority.
It was, and largely remains, self-organizing and especially suited to spontaneous and free associations of like-minded webizens, social media, and organic growth. It has been mostly shaped by users, and free thinking entrepreneurs who embraced its possibilities and created social sites such as Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and many others.
It Can Happen Here
But the freedoms we enjoy on the Web, which were always rather vulnerable to intervention and curtailment by Big Brother, are today under unprecedented attack by governments, their intelligence agencies, the military, and big corporations. And we’re not talking about just oppressive governments shutting down dissident sites or a nationwide blockade of access to the entire Web such as the Great Firewall of China. It is happening in democratic countries as well, the best example of which is the new censorship program put into place by the United Kingdom.
It almost happened here in the U.S., under the guise of legislation to protect intellectual property rights known as SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It was heavily endorsed by movie studios and record labels, and would have allowed them to shut down sites against which they felt they had a copyright claim. It would have granted them government sanction to force Google to bar the targeted site from search results, ban PayPal from accepting payments from it, force advertisers to yank their ads from the site, and, most unsettling, order the site’s ISP to prevent all users from entering the site.
The bill was so draconian that major web portals and destinations, from Yahoo to Google to Wikipedia, went dark for a day of protest. The lawmakers, already harried by constituent users to drop the bill, relented and sidelined the legislation.
Asking For It
But recently Great Britain, which has no constitution and no formal right to freedom of expression, instituted an unprecedented censorship program allegedly to block access to pornography by children. The British government denies it is censorship because it allows, or rather forces, adults to “opt in” to the right to view “hard core pornography,” and other “objectionable content” including subject matter related to political extremism, suicide, alcohol, drugs, and even smoking.
The choice to “opt in” to access filtered material, rather than making the choice one to opt in to the censorship program as the default, has a decidedly chilling effect on users of the Web. Who wants to go on record with their government as having chosen access to pornography and extremism? There is great fear that those who choose to opt in are asking to be put on a list for special attention and extra surveillance.
Most of the Crown’s subjects have no idea what the government’s filter will block. All they have to go by is what it has already been shown to bar in operation. This includes sex education content, sites for the Gay and Lesbian community, suicide prevention sites, a site named Childline which provides help to abused children, all file sharing sites, suicide prevention sites, and many sites hosting discussion forums on topics deemed “unsafe for children.”
It seems that the filter blocks any site which contains keywords related to so-called objectionable content, no matter what services they actually offer or subjects they discuss. The collection of keywords was secretly outsourced to a third party company. It appears to be a botched job though, as any content which includes the keyword is blocked, with no regard to context or the use of the keywords in decidedly benign, even socially responsible, ways, as the examples mentioned above illustrate.
Although the British public has no express right to free speech, they have a long history of legal precedent which tends to support it. But this new program threatens this tradition, and by example encourages other democratic states to adopt similar programs. It legitimizes the idea that government and ISPs, working in an unholy partnership, have the right to decide what people should and should not be able to access on the Web.
Could the same thing happen here, in the U.S.? It already is, in subtle ways. Companies which want to sell you their wares are working with ISPs to drive traffic toward sites that they own or which mention their products in favorable terms, for a considerable compensation. Corporations also pay search sites such as Google, Yahoo and Bing to prioritize results favoring their products.
Though this is not strictly censorship, it is a sort of censorship by proxy. The search engine user naturally assumes the results of an inquiry are the most relevant to his or her query, and not ones bought and paid for by companies to appear at the top of your results to sell you something. In other words, the most accurate results are being censored in favor of those purchased by advertising agencies and companies themselves.
There is also a move afoot among ISPs, in league with Big Business, to make users pay extra just to view entire classes of content, such as video, rather than have the content providers themselves decide whether to charge individual users themselves. Thus the Web would follow, after a fashion, the cable television model of charging extra for “tiers” of content.
The extensive monitoring of your emails, texts, phone calls, and activity on the Web by the NSA, as revealed by NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, also casts a chill on free speech on the Web, and makes you think twice before entering a site that might be deemed extremist, for fear of being labeled, and thus singled out for more intense monitoring, by the spy agency.
Law enforcement routinely announces the arrest of people allegedly posting extremist comments on their social media sites, and whom the agencies claim are planning terror attacks. But in most cases, it is generally their speech in favor of extremist groups which gets them special notice, without specifically advocating or announcing plans to carry out such an attack.
The government has consistently asserted that it has the right to obtain all the personal data on these “suspects” by the social network host. Facebook and the others happily complied for years, until Snowden’s revelations were made public. Now these sites are pushing back, claiming the practice violates freedom of speech.
The government responded with granting an existing judicial body, the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), expanded powers to monitor not just suspected foreign spies, but American citizens as well. In fact, its greatly enhanced powers have grown to the point that it has been called “almost a parallel Supreme Court.”
Its decisions are secret, in fact its very existence was mostly secret, until Snowden revealed that in 2013, the court issued a top-secret order to Verizon to provide a daily, ongoing feed of all call detail records–including domestic calls, to the NSA.
We’ve all seen, or should see, video smuggled out of the NSA of analysts laughing and having a good time viewing nude pictures and racy texts and emails of American citizens caught up in the net spread wide by the spy agency.
Though the greatly expanded powers of the NSA and CIA to collect Web activity by U.S. citizens has not resulted yet in shutdowns of Web sites, aside from those whose sole purpose is to share pirated copyrighted material, such as the Pirate Bay, the methods and means are certainly in place to allow it to do so when and if it can convince a FISA court of the need to act, and FISA has shown itself more than ready to comply.
We’ve already lost our privacy on the Web; from there it’s a short step toward censorship of sites deemed subversive or a danger to national security.
And the fact that the intelligence community is already collecting terabytes of data posted to the Web, casts a chill on people’s perception that they have the right to express their opinions–exercizing their freedom of speech– or even viewing such material out of mere curiosity.
This is censorship by proxy fueled by fear of being a terrorist suspect. There is no other term for it.
Watching Them Watching You
There is an old saying, once the boys have their toys they will certainly use them. It’s only been that pesky Second Amendment that has prevented widespread censorship of the Web as has taken place in Britain. But you are being watched by faceless NSA employees, which has cast a chill on online speech and viewing habits. And chills lead to bad colds, followed by pneumonia, which is often fatal.
Politicians and intelligence flacks are constantly warning that ISIS is a master of using social media to recruit Americans to join them in battle in the Middle East. They also up the ante by claiming that ISIS is spawning “lone wolves,” radicalised Americans who are being encouraged to commit mass murder terror attacks here at home in America.
The only reason outright censorship hasn’t been employed here, in the name of national security, is that the NSA is reluctant to shut down sites that contain extremist posts and discussions because they provide a rich vein of potentially dangerous ore, unsophisticated radicalised citizens who blithely post their hateful spew and their intentions to commit acts of terror on public forums.
These people usually get caught before they carry out their crimes.
But after awhile they will learn to communicate in code, and fly under the radar of traps set by the intelligence agencies and the military. Or, they will turn to the incredibly huge, anonymous Dark Net, the secret basement of the public Internet, where criminals, spies, pirates, hit men, black hat hackers, and big business and government conduct much of their illicit activities. In fact, many already have done so.
My next column will explain the Dark Net. Until then, be careful of where you go on the Web, what you read and view, and know that Big Brother is hovering over your shoulder watching your every move.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.