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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Good Censor, Bad Censor

In a week that has seen both the condemnation of the US National Security Agency for surveying emails and other personal data worldwide, and major calls in the UK for the complete blocking of online pornography, the pressure to control and rein in the internet is growing stronger and stronger.


There is no such thing as good or bad censorship, as there are only good or bad people and content, visual, verbal or written, is what it is. It is how we, as adults, react, or respond to it that gives content its power, be it private, moral, political, sexual, criminal or offensive. Yet the internet with its labyrinthine pathways and myriad ideas, images, and views, reflects all mankind. It is our psyche, a huge digital Id into which we pour our thoughts and impulses.  Each day we upload the minutia of our lives, be they bland, brutal or base, good or bad, moral or immoral, legal or illegal, whatever mankind is capable of, the internet absorbs and stores it. Then, when we plug in, we have a choice, of what amongst man's cerebral detritus, to look at, read or ignore. 

Now our governments want to control, monitor and in some cases, expurgate sections of the internet in much the same way that doctors use electro-convulsive therapy to wipe out and erase parts of the brain. The result, even on a digital brain, is likely to be just as brutal and damaging.

Google is the current internet bugbear, chastised for the amount of tax it does or doesn't pay, and ordered by governments to stop this, or block that. Google is attacked relentlessly, but because of its size and financial clout, has been able to pretty much ignore these assaults on its propriety. However, the current furore around the activities of the US's National Security Agency (NSA) has caused Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, to worry that the internet is about to suffer from a process of "Balkanisation", in which, like the countries of the Balkans, the internet begins the process of fragmenting as national governments seek to exert greater influence over it, essentially breaking it up.  Thereby creating a series of tightly controlled national networks and ending forever our current open communication platforms and the free flow of information that has been at the centre of the internet since its inception some twenty plus years ago.

This drive to control the internet and breakup the power of independent US companies like Google and Amazon with their huge stores of data, is coming not just from Authoritarian regimes like China and Iran, but from the law makers of the European Union. EU lawmakers in the wake of the National Security Agency scandal, are using the fear of data snooping to promote the idea of creating their own internet platforms separate from the likes of Google et al. Indeed for many European lawmakers the move now is to push for the ringfencing of their national networks which in turn will force internet companies like Google to comply with local rules for protecting local data and so on.

The result, according to an EU spokesman is that "You are likely to get a federation of different data centres, each fiefdom with its own different rules", which aside from its immediate aim of protecting its citizens data from the prying eyes of US intelligent agencies, becomes more sinister if used to repress political or other perceived subversions.

Indeed the fact that the National Security Agency (NSA) is spying on foreign nationals and probably eavesdropping on phone calls and reading the occasional email should not surprise or excessively worry us as this is what intelligence agencies do, and given that Facebook can already interpret everything from our taste in music to our political allegiances from analysing our 'Likes', the activities of the NSA will not make much difference to someone after your personal data. What should worry us are the calls for national security surveillance to be stopped or monitored, presumably by human rights lawyers and EU functionaries, as that will begin rendering any kind of clandestine snooping potentially unworkable, with possibly disastrous implications for our ongoing national security.

We should expect the United States, the most powerful country on earth to protect its people from attack, as likewise we expect our UK government agencies to do the same and as our main ally to share information and data when necessary. In effect, we expect our intelligence agencies to get the terrorists and our enemies before they get us and to do that successfully agencies need to snoop, spy and lie. Indeed, surveillance and data gathering are crucial, and by the very nature of their work the agencies involved need to be able to operate in secret, and monitoring the mass of internet traffic worldwide is a big part of that. Where this falls down is when those actions are perceived either as a threat to the citizens in whose name the surveillance is being carried out, or as a threat to other friendly nations, as the NSA's actions are now being made out to be.

Ironically in the name of democracy, and in a perceived benign move to protect its citizens from US data collecting, the EU's lawmakers could now begin the breakup of the Internet as we know it. Even more alarming is that the EU's desire to ringfence the internet along national borders is playing well with China, who's gleeful words on the NSA story see them sticking the knife in:  "Washington has been accusing China of cyber espionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US is the unbridled power of the government". 

This means that countries like Iceland who have said that they wanted to ban access to all pornography, or in the UK where Prime Minister David Cameron or Labour MP Diane Abbott have called for a block on access to pornography in an effort to protect the young, and who have previously been mocked for their naiveté in thinking that an internet block along national boundaries was unworkable, can now look forward to a future where bans could not only be workable, but be made to work. Indeed, the calls of UK politicians for the blocking of pornography are now being championed by the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times. Therefore the chance for the UK Government to create its own server will now be perceived by many on both sides of the political spectrum as a real vote winner. State control of the internet along national borders is coming, and coming fast, and ironically it will be championed not by China or Iran, but by the unelected and unaccountable law makers of the EU and I believe, by our own government.

The former CNN journalist and writer Rebecca Mackinnon said in her book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (2012), that: "We cannot assume that the Internet will evolve automatically in a direction that is going to be compatible with democracy" and prophetically that "Ten years from now, we will look back on the free and open internet with nostalgia". Yet this will all be done in the name of Democracy, of protecting personal data, and of fighting the currents totems of evil like racism, pornography, Islamophobia, homophobia, fascism, incitement to hatred and so on. As once the government and their state authorised censors are unleashed on an internet with borders, they will be unstoppable. For like the doctor who sees a once wild and dangerous patient rendered quiet and placid by the effects his electro-convulsive therapy, the glorious digital and untrammelled Id that represents our collective self, warts and all, will be blasted into submission and left, safe and inert, cured and cared for, in our new world, where nice is the new nasty and all bad thoughts have been erased. 

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© Nigel Wingrove 2013

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