Taking the lead on web freedom

Time was when people would seriously talk about the internet as a brave new frontier, untrammeled by government interference. Without any irony John Perry Barlow proclaimed the "declaration of the independence of cyberspace" in 1996.

From today's viewpoint, he sounds like one of those crazy hippy bastards willing to leave us at the mercy of Russian gangsters and Stuxnet.

But from today's viewpoint it's hard to find anyone left prepared to defend freedom online.

In the latest moves in the US, the Obama Administration has called for Congress to pass a law that mandates a backdoor for all communications - PSTN voice, email, instant message, VoIP, web, etc. Everything.

It argues that this is not expanding the remit of surveillance agencies but merely enabling legal interception of new forms of communications, just as it has statutory wiretap access into traditional networks.

Under the existing 1994 CALEA law phone and broadband networks are required to allow police and FBI wiretaps. But that law does not  cover, for example, enterprise VPNs, encrypted services such as RIM's BlackBerry or P2P services like Skype's. Speaking to the New York Times, US officials cited examples of a drug cartel using P2P, and, rather more mysteriously, Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, using "a service that lacked prebuilt interception capacity" - presumably a workaround so accessible and so effective that it cannot be described.

To close off these "prebuilt interception" shortcomings, the feds are seeking the ability to peer into encrypted messages (like BlackBerry), P2P services (Skype), and traffic carried by foreign telcos. 

Nothing wrong with that. Spooks need to be able to listen in on bad guys when they're planning dangerous and violent stuff, and nothing wrong with updating that to 21st century protocols.

The caveat is there has to be some reasonable suspicion that those actually are bad guys and not just someone planning a family visit to Pakistan.

This is old ground, but we will forever go over it because big, secretive government agencies are notorious for doing stuff they're not meant to do under the cover of protecting us. 

The last decade has been a golden age for abuse of state power: extraordinary rendition, warrantless wiretaps, the war over "WMDs", Gitmo, dodgy dossiers.

This plan to extend surveillance to cover new applications has attracted little criticism from the usual defenders of web speech. It seems after the last decade, governments have pushed back the frontier so far the battle for the free web seems over.

Asia lags

Of course, these debates in the US are far ahead of the kinds of discussions in Asia.

Too many Asian governments are hostile not just to the web, but to just about any kind of independent exercise of civil or political liberties. The governments of Burma, China, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam don't believe in subjecting themselves to the oversight of a free press or other elements of civil society.

We don't expect any of those to defend internet freedoms, but the real blows are being administered by those countries that see themselves as champions of civil liberties, such as the US, the UK and Australia.

The reelected Gillard government in Australia is determined to push through with its web filter, based on a secret blacklist of outlawed websites, aimed at, of course, protecting children. Whatever happened to parents and desktop filters?

The burden of carrying this out falls on telcos and ISPs. They may have thought their role was to enable people to communicate, but they are being called on to spy on people and stop them from communicating.

Telcos can play an important role here. They don't have the option, like Google in China, of walking away in protest.  But because of their reputation as good citizens and their knowledge of networks they can be powerful advocates for light-touch regulation and surveillance. 

Ultimately, censorship is costly and counter-productive and inevitably becomes a pretext for deeper intrusions. The leaders of Asian telecom operators need to convey that message.