The Digital Economy – state control of the internet

The Digital Economy. The government’s vision of the internet’s future. This new legislation has been controversial from the outset. Lobbied for by the Recording Industry in an effort to thwart file-sharing, the Digital Economy Act has far reaching implications.

In particular, clauses 9-18 have been especially controversial, not least because they were rushed through parliament in the dying hours of the last government, late at night, and with little debate. But more importantly because of the effect this new legislation is to have on the internet using public.

In an effort to prevent file sharing, the act introduces the “three strikes rule”, whereby ISP customers who are suspected of sharing copyrighted material will be sent a letter warning them to stop. If three warnings are issued the customer will be disconnected from the internet. There is also a maximum fine of £50,000 for anyone “making, dealing with or using illicit recordings” or “infringing articles”. The act also grants the secretary of state powers to have websites blocked, the motivation behind which is allegedly to prevent access to sites infringing on copyrighted material.

Of course there has been much opposition to this as it has made its way into law. The Liberal Democrats made a pledge to repeal it (no news of that now), and the Open Rights Group have been lobbying politicians for at least a partial repeal. Some ISPs have also voiced their objection to being forced to police the internet, and alienate customers by withdrawing services without due process, promising to fight the act in court.

The technicalities of implementing this are also a privacy nightmare. In the effort to monitor customers’ internet connections, they will use a technology known as deep packet inspection. This means that every aspect of a customers online activity can be logged, monitored, analyzed, reported on or disclosed to a 3rd party. This can include emails, online chats, information entered into forms on websites, browsing history and almost anything else imaginable.

There are many potential technical issues with this. For example, concerns regarding people downloading copyrighted content on other peoples unsecured or hijacked wireless networks have been ignored. And this is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to technical problems. Internet address, or IP address spoofing (making it look as though you are using a different computer), or adding random IPs to file sharing networks to confuse the authorities (this could be your address that is randomly picked). Let’s not also forget Trojan viruses that allow your computer to be used by someone else for whatever they see fit from a remote computer.

All these problems add to the possibility of internet customers being falsely accused, and disconnected from the internet. This is a clear case of assumed guilt and yet another attack on the concept of being innocent until proven guilty.

While this act clearly flies in the face of privacy, there have been many people repeating the old “Well I have nothing to hide” argument. But in the age of identity theft and online fraud, the databases that gather all this information will be like all you can eat buffets for internet criminals. It is understandable why organisations like the Online Rights Group have been trying so hard to oppose this act becoming law. However with their lack of success it is now necessary to evaluate what can be done to protect ourselves from this increasingly Orwellian situation we find ourselves in. The first step to this is to understand why the large amount of resistance to this has so far utterly failed.

The real problems with the Digital Economy bill/act is the increasing corporate control of the internet, and the media and computer industries obsession with intellectual property. In the mid to late 90’s as internet access was beginning to become very common, and before the advent of broad band, the internet was a largely unregulated place. Adverts were uncommon, games were slow and websites were basic, yet just as informative as today. Gradually though companies saw the money making potential and started to turn every service on the internet in to a business. Not least of this has been the media explosion on the internet. But media becoming popular on the internet is a direct response to P2P networks and file sharing that first came to notoriety with Napster. Suddenly all the media companies realized the market they were missing out on, and scrambled to provide the “legal alternative”. The digital Economy Act is a direct result of the lobbying of media organizations.

But the media companies attempted control of music and film on the internet, is only one aspect of the battle for control of the net. On the one hand we have the attempted commoditization, sanitation and regulation of all online activity, into pre-packaged consumable activities. While on the other hand we have the battle for freedom of information, creative expression and our right to privacy and free choice. It boils down to the online battle of information.

Information is a commodity long sought after as a means of control. Four hundred years ago the church controlled all information. All communication was dictated from the top in a pyramid fashion. Not only did they enforce the will of God, and woe betide anyone who questioned them. They would explain how people did not need to learn to read or write, because the priest could tell them everything they needed to know. And for the lucky few who did learn to read and write they produced all the books too.

Then suddenly the printing press came along, and for the first time, information could be produced on mass. The Church was no longer the only source of information, and the full force of the British state moved into action. Printers were allowed to operate only with royal court approval. Only they could pass on information by copying approved books and other works, such as the bible and government information. This law was called copyright.

Copyright has now expanded into all walks of life. But never has it ceased to be a means of controlling information. Now it is applied in the likes of intellectual property laws. These laws have allowed software companies to patent concepts like the “file menu” or the “desktop” and threaten to sue the open source and free software communities on the internet. It is these communities of people who work together for the love of it, and develop software for everyone to use for free. It is these communities that have built the internet, who have continually pushed the technical envelope and who the media companies and others that seek to control the internet have forever been playing catch up with. It is worth remembering that despite the apparent successes of Microsoft, many more web servers are built on open source software, than proprietary software such as theirs.

Now more than ever, we must fight for a free internet. The digital economy act is a loss, but it is not as big a loss as it may first appear. But with it’s passing into law, we are now forced to seek ways of protecting our online privacy and freedom. So what can be done?

Luckily we still have the advantage. We have a movement of programmers on the internet dedicated to internet freedom in the open source community, who have already provided many solutions. And we also have a history of government incompetence, bureaucracy and bloat in implementing large IT projects.

What is needed now is a drive to share information freely once again. An effort to get basic computer understanding into peoples lives.

Firstly hacklabs must become more common, and outreach more. They are a fantastic concept of a place for free computer learning, and can be used for many purposes towards resistance of the digital economy act. The main problem is their scarcity

Secondly there needs to be a mass project to recycle old computers with open source software and give them freely to the people. It must come with free help, and teach the skills needed to use the internet safely.

Finally there needs to be a mass adoption of resistance techniques. And there are quite a few. We must exploit the flaws in the methods they want to use to monitor our activity. All of which relies on having good information on what we are doing. Obscuring this information or filling it with large amounts of pointless random data makes it useless. Some ideas for achieving this include (some of this may be a bit technical):

• Using software such as Tor. This can encrypt information as it leaves your computer, split it up, scramble it and bounce it all around the place. Other methods of encrypting data must be used to, such as open to the public, encrypted virtual private networks.
• A drive should be made to use digital certificates to encrypt communication with web servers. This is in common use now when you pay for items online. However, for it to work seamlessly, the certificate must be issued by a “certificate authority”. Therefore we need a network of alternate certificate authorities.
• Public proxy servers should be set up that also trust the alternate certificate authorities.
• A push should be made on establishing wireless mesh networks with multiple gateways to the internet. They should be broadcast from large antenna for max coverage, that can be DIY built. People could link up for free, and obscure information by distributing it about the wireless network, and randomizing whose internet connection is used for what.
• Friendly viruses (like the friendly bacteria) should be written that broadcast random information, or visit thousands of random web pages. They should be offered to people, with a full explanation of their purpose. They must not interfere with their performance too much, and be designed to truly confuse the monitoring software used by the ISP.
• Recycling of old computers with open source software installed should be given away and supported freely
• Doing any combination or all of the above.

Most importantly it is worth remembering that this really is a historic moment in the battle for information. Once again the people have tasted freedom of information, and it has been on an unprecedented scale. Governments all over the word have tried to stop it, but it has grown so fast it is beyond their control. The digital economy act is an important step in reining in the availability of information. A pivotal moment, just like the printing press was. The question is, will we defend what we have, or will we let it slip away into the never ending pit of commoditization?