Over in Russia, they're preparing some new internet legislation that would censor the internet using the typical bogeymen. The claim from supporters is that the law is to block access to information on drugs, suicide and child porn -- all to protect the children. The way it works is with a giant blacklist, that I'm sure won't be abused at all (yes, that's sarcasm). We're talking about a country that has abused copyright law to go after critics and which has a bit of a... er... reputation for government officials abusing power to get what they want. In fact, some are already pointing out that the wording in the bill is really vague, such that it can be used to block any site dubbed as an "extremist" site.
And it's not just the human-reviewed blacklist that's at issue. The bill will also require "a special automatic system that will block websites containing 'prohibited' information.'" Because I'm sure that'll work even better...
We've noted other Russian legislation in the past, but this bill seems to go a hell of a lot further in creating a massive censorship tool for the Russian government.
The Russian Wikipedia is blacking out its site in protest, reminding many of the SOPA blackouts of Wikipedia in the US, though it's also worth noting that the Italian Wikipedia did a similar blackout even before the big SOPA blackout. It's good to see people speaking out and realizing that they don't have to just accept it when a government sweeps away their rights online. Who knows if this will have much of an impact, but getting more attention on the issue is a good start.
Last year, we wrote about how the Russian Pirate Party was refused recognition because officials there didn't like the name, stating that it "is an attack on sea or river craft, which is a criminal offense." Apparently, something similar has happened in Taiwan, where someone who sought to establish the Taiwanese Pirate Party has been denied, after being told that it is "improper" because of "bad connotations" with the word "piracy." So much for "taking back" the word. The guy, Tai Cheh actually fought this decision in court... and has still lost. According to TorrentFreak:
In its ruling, the High Administrative Court agreed with the Ministry of the Interior’s stance that the use of the word ‘Pirate’ did not accurately describe the true aims of the Party.
The MOI said that the term “pirate” could mislead members of the public into voting for people they believed to be real, sea-based pirates. The country’s Criminal Code outlaws acts of piracy, the MOI added.
Are they really concerned that the party will advocate sea-faring piracy?
Back in February, we wrote up a warning to "the internet as we know it" as the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was looking to take over control of the internet, mainly at the behest of countries like Russia and China who were seeking a "more controlled" internet, rather than the very open internet we have today. The major concern was that almost no one in the US seemed to care about this or be paying much attention to it. The February call to action may not have done much, but the situation has certainly changed in the last couple of weeks.
Last week, the father of the internet, Vint Cerf, once again raised the alarm in both a NY Times op-ed and in a keynote speech at the Freedom to Connect (F2C) conference:
His concerns echo the ones we've been hearing for months. This move is about giving some countries much greater control over the internet:
Last June, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated the goal of Russia and its allies as “establishing international control over the Internet” through the I.T.U. And in September 2011, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan submitted a proposal for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” to the U.N. General Assembly, with the goal of establishing government-led “international norms and rules standardizing the behavior of countries concerning information and cyberspace.”
Word of a few other proposals from inside the I.T.U. have surfaced. Several authoritarian regimes reportedly would ban anonymity from the Web, which would make it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have suggested moving the privately run system that manages domain names and Internet addresses to the United Nations.
Such proposals raise the prospect of policies that enable government controls but greatly diminish the “permissionless innovation” that underlies extraordinary Internet-based economic growth to say nothing of trampling human rights.
It would guarantee moving the internet towards a model of top-down control, rather than bottom up innovation. It would give governments much more say in controlling the internet, unlike the hands-off system we have now, where no government truly has full regulatory control over the internet. It would almost certainly lead to more global restriction on the internet, including serious potential impact on aspects of free expression and anonymous speech. It might also make the internet much more expensive, as the whole ITU setup is about protecting old national telco monopolies, and many would see this as an opportunity to try to put tollbooths on internet data.
The ITU is holding a meeting in December in Dubai about all of this, and it appears that US officials are finally waking up to why this is a true threat to the open internet.
But it needs to go beyond that. The positioning of this discussion from ITU supporters is that the US government has "too much control" over the internet today. And one could argue that's true at the margins, though it's an exaggeration. For the most part the US government does not have much ability to control the internet directly. Now, I think plenty of people agree that the setup of ICANN and IETF are hardly ideal. In fact, they've got significant problems. But moving from that setup to one where the ITU is in charge would be a massive step backwards.
And, certainly, there is significant irony in the fact that Congress is suddenly acting so concerned about fundamental attacks on an open internet -- when many of the same officials were more than happy to toss out key principles of an open and free internet in the past few months with SOPA/PIPA/CISPA/etc. But, in this case, worrying about political consistency is a lot less important than stopping the ITU proposal from going forward.
When the US government started seizing domains, there was significant criticism of ICANN and calls for a more decentralized solution that no one could control. The move towards ITU oversight is a move in the opposite direction. It would make things significantly worse and not better.
For those in the US, we need to speak up and keep the pressure on our elected officials to fight this move in the ITU. While they're saying the right things now, we need to be vigilant and ensure it continues. Trust me, the "irony" of their own attacks on internet freedom and openness have not gone unnoticed by supporters of this ITU takeover plan. Expect them to offer "deals" to the US, by which the ITU gets control over the internet, in exchange for allowing the US to use that process to move forward with efforts to censor the internet for copyright reasons, as well as to get better backdoors to data for snooping.
For those outside of the US, it's also time to speak up. Don't fall for the easy story that this is just about wresting the control from US interests. If you believe in the value of a free and open internet, the ITU is not the answer. You, too, will inevitably be significantly worse off with what results.
The folks over at Access have put together a petition to tell the UN that the internet belongs to us, the people, not to the UN or the governments of the world. While the UN is not as subject to public opinion, if the world speaks out loudly enough against this effort to capture and control the internet, it won't be able to move forward. But people have to speak out to make this happen.
Something that's proving popular with politicians running out of ideas for tackling unauthorized sharing of copyright materials online is to make ISPs and Web sites responsible for the actions of their users -- even though nobody would think of doing the same for telephone companies. SOPA was one of the best-known examples of this approach, and now it looks like Russia wants to join the club:
The cyber crime department of Russia’s Interior Ministry says it intends to get tough on the country’s ISPs when their customers share copyrighted or otherwise illegal material. Authorities say they are currently carrying out nationwide checks on ISPs' local networks and could bring prosecutions as early as next month.
The proposed legislation is a little unusual in that it seems to concern the exchange of unauthorized copies of copyright material across ISPs' local networks:
These networks, present within the ISPs’ own infrastructure, provide users’ access to a wealth of legal content and services such as Internet Relay Chat, but inevitably unauthorized content is available too.
As would have happened with SOPA, the inevitable consequence of passing this kind of law will be round-the-clock surveillance of Internet users by their ISPs -- not because the law requires it, but because the ISPs would be crazy not to given the financial risks they would run otherwise. The other knock-on effect, of course, is that people will just start swapping 2Tbyte portable hard discs full of unauthorized material by hand, bypassing the networks completely.
For all the talk of SOPA/PIPA/ACTA/TPP, there's another much bigger threat to "the internet as we know it." It's a bunch of countries who are seeking to use the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to create a top-down regulatory scheme for the internet. This process began a few months back, but FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has a pretty good summary of the situation in the WSJ, and why those who believe in internet freedom should be afraid. It is worth noting, of course, that things like ICANN and IETF are far from perfect today, but handing many of their functions over to the ITU with the goal of a pretty broad top-down regulatory plan for the internet is not the solution. McDowell highlights a few of the key points in the plan:
Subject cyber security and data privacy to international control;
Allow foreign phone companies to charge fees for "international" Internet traffic, perhaps even on a "per-click" basis for certain Web destinations, with the goal of generating revenue for state-owned phone companies and government treasuries;
Impose unprecedented economic regulations such as mandates for rates, terms and conditions for currently unregulated traffic-swapping agreements known as "peering."
Establish for the first time ITU dominion over important functions of multi-stakeholder Internet governance entities such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit entity that coordinates the .com and .org Web addresses of the world;
Subsume under intergovernmental control many functions of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Society and other multi-stakeholder groups that establish the engineering and technical standards that allow the Internet to work;
Regulate international mobile roaming rates and practices.
Again this attempt to give the UN and certain governments unprecedented control over parts of the internet is not new. It's actually been in process for a few years, but it's expected to heat up in the next few months, and most in the US don't seem to even know it's about to happen. While there are some issues that are worth discussing among the proposals, it's been pretty transparent from the start that a lot of the plan is to give certain governments much more control over how the internet is used... and not in a good way. The internet thrives today in large part because it's not controlled by governments, no matter how much they've slowly tried to encroach (and the US is particularly guilty of that lately).
The fact that this effort is mainly being led by Russia and China should give you a sense of the intentions here. Neither country is particularly well-known for supporting the principles of open communications or freedom of speech.
Unfortunately, as McDowell notes, the US doesn't seem to be taking the issue particularly seriously, and hasn't even assigned a negotiator to handle the discussions (though, I'm afraid to find out who they eventually do assign to that role). McDowell also points out that simply saying "no" to any changes probably won't go over well with many countries -- and all Russia and China need to get this approved are half of the countries to side with them on this proposal. Since doing nothing is often seen as ceding the internet to the US, that could be a problem. Of course, that doesn't mean caving in. It means engaging and getting enough people aware of these issues so they can make a reasonable case for why a top-down management system would have massive unintended (or, um, intended) consequences that the world doesn't want:
As part of this conversation, we should underscore the tremendous benefits that the Internet has yielded for the developing world through the multi-stakeholder model.
Upending this model with a new regulatory treaty is likely to partition the Internet as some countries would inevitably choose to opt out. A balkanized Internet would be devastating to global free trade and national sovereignty. It would impair Internet growth most severely in the developing world, but also globally as technologists are forced to seek bureaucratic permission to innovate and invest. This would also undermine the proliferation of new cross-border technologies, such as cloud computing.
A top-down, centralized, international regulatory overlay is antithetical to the architecture of the Net, which is a global network of networks without borders. No government, let alone an intergovernmental body, can make engineering and economic decisions in lightning-fast Internet time. Productivity, rising living standards and the spread of freedom everywhere, but especially in the developing world, would grind to a halt as engineering and business decisions become politically paralyzed within a global regulatory body.
Any attempts to expand intergovernmental powers over the Internet—no matter how incremental or seemingly innocuous—should be turned back. Modernization and reform can be constructive, but not if the end result is a new global bureaucracy that departs from the multi-stakeholder model. Enlightened nations should draw a line in the sand against new regulations while welcoming reform that could include a nonregulatory role for the ITU.
This issue is going to pick up steam pretty quickly in the next few months, so educate yourselves now...
We keep pointing out just how disastrous SOPA and PIPA look from a diplomatic perspective. Just as the US is going around talking about the importance of internet freedom, to start pushing a bill that involves censorship (and yes, it is censorship) looks really bad. SOPA supporters like to point to Hillary Clinton's letter that said there's no conflict between internet freedom and copyright enforcement. But she did not comment specifically on the bills at issue -- and furthermore her statement is wrong. There doesn't have to be conflict between the two, but you can't say there's never conflict between the two, because you could easily design a rule that proves otherwise (e.g., "we shut down the entire internet to prevent infringement.") The State Department, frankly, is having a really tough time straddling both sides of this debate, because everything they say about the importance of internet freedom acts as the perfect arguments against SOPA.
But, really, the true test of the diplomatic impact of SOPA on the international community is not what the State Department says... it's what those other countries say. And they seem pretty shocked that this is the path the US is going down. Here are two examples. First up, we have the Voice of Russia, noting that the US is joining China in censoring the internet:
The US and the West have long criticized China for stifling dissent and for censorship but now they are not only joining China but they are taking censorship even further and attempting to censor the whole world.
The international implications of SOPA are worrying for as experts claim: it appears that the US is taking control of the entire world. The definitions written in the bill are so broad that any US user who uses a website overseas immediately gives the US the power to potentially take action against it and enable them to force ISPs to DNS-block any foreign site.
On a global scale it grants the U.S. Government far-reaching powers to go after Web sites which it claims are hosting copyrighted content.... Not long ago the U.S. admitted that it was in a state of information warfare and that it was losing the war. So what do you do if you are losing the information war? You muzzle the messenger.
Considering Russia has a bit of a history using copyright law to stifle political critics... folks there certainly know exactly how censorship via copyright can lead to much more than just protecting a few companies.
Now, let's jump over to the Middle East, where Al Jazeera is pointing out the State Department's rank hypocrisy on this subject, assuming that Clinton's letter was, in fact, in support of SOPA, and showing how that seems to undermine the rest of the State Department's arguments for internet freedom around the globe -- especially when it comes to circumvention tools:
In the year and a half since, the State Department has had limited success promoting online awareness and circumvention tools in foreign countries. But given SOPA's incredibly broad definitions of which sites are liable under its censorship provisions - merely claiming the site "engages in, enables or facilitates" infringement is enough - it won't be long until the bill destroys social networks that spread news of protests and the anonymity software that keep activists protected.
Many tech groups worry social networks such as Facebook - which were instrumental in organising protests in Egypt - would be at risk under SOPA. Brooklyn Law School professor Derek Bambauer also argues YouTube, which hosts countless human rights videos, would be "clearly unlawful", since it allows users to upload videos that may contain copyrighted content. While Google and Facebook may have enough money and lawyers to fend off lawsuits and court orders without being shut down completely, emerging social networks in foreign countries would not. Any site hosting videos, even if they are used to draw attention to human rights abuses, will be easily derailed if an overzealous copyright holder decides to use one alleged violation to strangle the whole site.
But circumvention tools - which allow activists to foil internet censors and evade government surveillance - would be the bill's greatest casualties. While many are developed explicitly for human rights advocates, they can also be used to download copyrighted content. Tor, the anonymising software that masks users' IP addresses that was instrumental during Egypt protests, would be a prime target of copyright holders, despite being funded by the US government.
In fact, most of internet freedom programmes currently funded by State Department are in danger. Hillary has pledged millions of dollars to various companies to create a "shadow" internet "that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments", according to the New York Times. But by endorsing SOPA, Hillary is giving the green light to copyright holders to destroy it. Virtual Private Networks, proxies, privacy or anonymisation software could all potentially be deemed illegal if they can also help get around SOPA's censorship mechanisms.
Even if Clinton truly believes that SOPA doesn't harm the US's diplomatic position on internet freedom around the world, it sure looks like large parts of the rest of the world disagree. The site TorrentFreak recently had a caption contest about a photo showing MPAA boss Chris Dodd sharing a hearty laugh with Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui. Perhaps they were laughing about how the bill that Dodd is pushing is the perfect cover for the Chinese the next time the State Department asks them to stop censoring the internet.
Rebecca MacKinnon, from the New America Foundation, has an absolutely fantastic opinion piece in the NY Times today, explaining why SOPA/PROTECT IP represent the Great Firewall of America, and why it's the exact wrong approach. It notes that the bill doesn't just bring the "major features" of China's Great Firewall to America, but that it also strengthen's China's ability to censor. While she notes that the intentions are not the same, the "practical effect," would be:
Abuses under existing American law serve as troubling predictors for the kinds of abuse by private actors that the House bill would make possible. Take, for example, the cease-and-desist letters that Diebold, a maker of voting machines, sent in 2003, demanding that Internet service providers shut down Web sites that had published internal company e-mails about problems with the company’s voting machines. The letter cited copyright violations, and most of the service providers took down the content without question, despite the strong case to be made that the material was speech protected under the First Amendment.
The House bill would also emulate China’s system of corporate “self-discipline,” making companies liable for users’ actions. The burden would be on the Web site operator to prove that the site was not being used for copyright infringement. The effect on user-generated sites like YouTube would be chilling.
I'd argue it's even worse than that. We've already seen how countries like Russia have abused copyright law to stifle speech. Do we really want to justify that kind of activity? If SOPA/PROTECT IP is in place, any government around the world can put in place something similar, justify blocking access to just about any website by abusing copyright law to find some form of "infringement."
In the hearings today, the MPAA's Michael O'Leary somewhat stunningly suggested that repressive regimes that censor the internet are a model worth emulating in the US, since they didn't "break the internet." Perhaps he should speak to those who have had their speech blocked in countries like China and Iran to see how they really feel about that. And is he really comfortable setting up the same system here in the US? Is he convinced that it won't be abused, despite the long history of abuse we've seen by the members of the MPAA? Just last week alone we heard a story about how MPAA member Warner Bros., took down tons of content it had no right to, including some open source software it just didn't like.
Fact is: we've seen copyright law abused repeatedly, even by MPAA members, to stifle companies and speech they don't like. We've seen how repressive regimes use the same tools in their countries to stifle speech. Setting up such a system in the US would be an epic mistake.
The failure rate of space programs makes space travel a bit of a risky venture. Sitting on enough explosive materials to escape the Earth's gravity isn't the safest-sounding job, but there are still plenty of willing volunteers to try it. Here are just a few stories on some recent space missions.
Last week, Roskomnadzor, Russian Federal Service for Telecoms Supervision, announced a public tender for developing Internet monitoring system. According to the tender, the budget for such system is 15 million rubles (about $530,000) and the job applications should be submitted by April 15, 2011. The system needs to be developed by August 15, 2011 and the testing period should end on December 15, 2011.
The stated purpose of the monitoring system was quite specific:
The major target of the monitoring, at least according to the Russian officials, is not traditional media websites or blogs, but comments at the online media outlets (it is important to note that the monitoring system is intended to be used for the content of the sites officially registered as online mass media).
Here's what it would be searching for:
Michail Vorobiev, an assistant to the head of Roskomnadzor, told [ru] Russian information agency RIA Novosti that the system's purpose was to discover content recognized by the Russian law as illegal. Such system will be based on two elements: a storage that would contain illegal materials (some sort of "thesaurus of illegal keywords") and the search system that will scan through the online space and compare the online text with the illegal content in the storage.
The description of the tender is a long and openly published document [ru], so what exactly the system should look for is not a secret. The number and the nature of goals that the search robot should achieve are surprising. It goes ways beyond incitement of national hatred or appeals to violence. In includes not only terrorism, appeals to actions that threaten constitutional order, materials that disclose classified security information, propaganda of drugs and pornography, but also false information about federal and regional officials, as well as content that threatens the freedom and secrecy of choice during elections. Another interesting goal is to discover content with hidden embedded components that seek to influence subconsciousness. If it’s not enough, the program would monitor not only textual, but also visual content (photos and videos).
It's hard to see how a system costing just half-a-million dollars could achieve all that. And as Russian commentators have pointed out, allowing just a few months for the development and testing is equally suspicious:
For instance, Maksim Salomatin from Park.ru says [ru] that the fact that participants of the tender should finish the work on the system in impossible 3 months means that, probably, Roskomnadzor has in mind some particular organization that has already worked on this program.
In other words, perhaps the whole tendering process was a formality, and things had already been moving forward on this front in the background for some time. Support for that theory comes from the fact that despite the "impossible 3 months" of development, the system will indeed be rolled out next month:
Roskomnadzor, Russian telecommunications control body, will launch content monitoring system in December 2011, Kommersant.ru reports [ru]. The system ordered in March, 2011 (see GV analysis here) is now in pre-release condition. Its documented abilities allow the monitoring of up to 5 mln keywords published at the websites registered as online mass media outlets. It will also monitor user comments. The experts fear that the scale of monitoring will extend to non-registered blogs and sites.
As that points out, the danger is that once such a system is up and running, it will be progressively extended to include first "unofficial" media sites like blogs, and then, eventually, everything online. That might also explain why the tender quotes such a ridiculously small figure: the final system would be pretty expensive, but revealing that fact in the original tender would give away the true scope.
The question then becomes: what will the authorities do with all that information? Since 2010, Roskomnadzor has been able to require online mass media to remove illegal comments, so it will presumably do the same when content is flagged up by the new system. But the very breadth of the online search is troubling, including as it does things like "false information about federal and regional officials", something that could clearly be used against whistle-blowers.
Moreover, the danger here is not just for Russian citizens. Once again we are seeing a government striving to keep a much closer watch on key parts of the Internet – in this case, mass media sites. Assuming it succeeds -- or at least claims to have succeeded -- that is likely to encourage other countries to do the same.
Although it would be nice to think that only "repressive" governments would even think of doing such a thing, recent proposals by politicians in the US and Europe regarding blocking sites and spying on users indicate how naïve that would be.
Bill Bliss was the first of a whole bunch of you to write in with a version on the story of how Valve has continued to show how to compete with free. This alone, isn't new. We've been covering these kinds of stories concerning Valve and its CEO, Gabe Newell, for years. There's a lot in this latest talk by Newell that repeats what he's said for years, but there are also some new experiments in there as well. Such as the following:
Newell: The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from the pirates. For example, Russia. You say, oh, we’re going to enter Russia, people say, you’re doomed, they’ll pirate everything in Russia. Russia now outside of Germany is our largest continental European market.
Ed Fries: That’s incredible. That’s in dollars?
Newell: That’s in dollars, yes. Whenever I talk about how much money we make it’s always dollar-denominated. All of our products are sold in local currency. But the point was, the people who are telling you that Russians pirate everything are the people who wait six months to localize their product into Russia. … So that, as far as we’re concerned, is asked and answered. It doesn’t take much in terms of providing a better service to make pirates a non-issue.
Now that's doubly interesting, because at the same time as we got this story, we also got another submission (anonymously) about how Russia has finally started cracking down on infringement by arresting a Russian couple who was caught distributing movies online. Assuming they're guilty, they certainly don't deserve any sympathy, but it does seem intriguing to see these two stories juxtaposed.
The entertainment industry has been pushing hard for Russia to crack down on infringement, insisting that there's no way they can make money in the Russian market. And yet, Valve is proving that's false. It's just that these other companies are incompetent, don't know how to adapt, and don't know how to provide a good service. If you do that, you can make a ton of money even if the products are available in unauthorized ways.
Christopher Best: He was a disturbed individual, and a disgruntled software developer. There's explicit tax law that treats software developers very unfairly if they try to work as independent contractors... yaga: that's very true CB Alana: AJ Seriously just compared arguments against copyright infringment to rape. ... Yeah, nobody should take him seriously at this point. err, against copyright* silverscarcat: seriously? Jay: Glenn Beck asking for a 9/12 movement isn't the least bit suspicious? Along with all of the other issues with the IRS right now? Ninja: I am honestly amused that the community is marking the comments of that "horse" guy as funny silverscarcat: Who takes Glenn Beck seriously? Jeff: did the 'new' comment color bars go away? dennis deems: ya I hadn't noticed until you said that. I don't recall seeing them the last couple days. Mike Masnick: new color bars ran into some big technical problems. :) we took them down while we fix them. fix is currently going through testing and should be back (and better than before) soon. dennis deems: yay! the color bars rule! Jeff: whew! Thought I was going... wait for it... "Color Blind" thanks! I'll be here all day... :-) Jay: @ssc I'm talking more in 2011 at the peak of TP hysteria TheResidentSkeptic: @mike - mod for your business model - CwF+RtB+DoP..too many miss the "Deliver On Promises" silverscarcat: Piracy will destroy software! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlniehU08ks Back in 1985