Blog Post 800: Internet freedom is relative

A couple of stories came to my attention this morning, first off today’s New York Times magazine has an indepth feature about the challenges that China presents to Internet companies seeking a Chinese audience. Google’s China Problem (and China’s Google Problem) by Clive Thompson is balanced and well written. There are some interesting aspects to it:

  • The censorship is open rather than furtive
  • It involves self-censorship as a key element in it’s execution
  • Chinese people interviewed do not view freedom of speech as an absolute binary state (you’re free or you’re not) but as a continuum and are prepared to make trade-offs; so Google’s ‘Do the least evil’ approach makes more sense
  • The role of chat and forums in Chinese internet usage is far higher than we’re used to
  • The assumption that the US readership of the article enjoy ‘absolute’ freedom of speech

The last point brings me on to the text of a speech given by US attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales at National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Vigilant civil rights activists have noticed a number of items in the speech which would extend the government powers of censorship and surveillance well beyond child pornography with the implication being that in future US legislation freedom of speech may not be the absolute that it once was.

Lauren Weinstein of pressure group People for Internet Responsibility made the following post to the Interesting People email list:

 

In a speech a few days ago, Attorney General Gonzales announced DoJ plans to send Congress new legislation to control “pornography” and (apparently) ultimately to require activity log and other data retention by Internet Services (in follow-up interviews, Google and other search engines have been specifically discussed). Gonzales is pitching this legislation using child abuse as the hook. That is, he is arguing for tools to use against child abuse and child pornography — certainly a “third rail” issue these days where virtually everyone will support enforcement efforts. However, it’s also clear that the DoJ seems to have no intention of limiting such tools *only* to child-related areas. The legislation itself is currently titled: “Child Pornography and Obscenity Prevention Amendments of 2006”

A transcript of the Attorney General’s speech is here:
http://releases.usnewswire.com/GetRelease.asp?id=64319
Note this key quote: “This legislation will help ensure that communications providers report the presence of child pornography on their systems by strengthening criminal penalties for failing to report it. It will also prevent people from inadvertently stumbling across pornographic images on the Internet.” Requiring the reporting of child pornography on systems (when it is known to exist) is something that few people would argue against, obviously.

But let’s examine the second sentence again: “It will also prevent people from inadvertently stumbling across pornographic images on the Internet.” This seems to be addressing the entire broad category of non-child “pornography” (which of course can be defined in any number of ways in different locales and contexts), and suggests a requirement (here we go again!) for proactive ratings/controls (presumably ID or credit

card based for “offensive” materials) for all (U.S.) Web sites. So this isn’t just about children, it’s likely about broader government controls over many U.S.-based Internet entities (of course, Gonzales doesn’t effectively address the issue of Web sites outside the country). Gonzales goes a lot further in another quote:

“The investigation and prosecution of child predators depends critically on the availability of evidence that is often in the hands of Internet service providers. This evidence will be available for us to use only if the providers retain the records for a reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately, the failure of some Internet service providers to keep records has hampered our ability to conduct investigations in this area. As a result, I have asked the appropriate experts at the Department to examine this issue and provide me with proposed recommendations. And I am going to reach out personally to the CEOs of the leading service providers and to other industry leaders to solicit their input and assistance. Record retention by Internet service providers consistent with the legitimate privacy rights of Americans, is an issue that must be addressed.”

Again, we see that protecting children — the goal that we all support — is being used as the raison d’etre to likely later propose broad data retention requirements on all manner of Internet services. Ironically, this is occurring shortly after calls for mandated data *destruction* legislation that arose in the wake of the DoJ vs. Google records battle (where I strongly supported Google’s stance).cted that this sequence would occur — though it is happening even faster than I expected. Record retention is a particularly risky area. DoJ might be expected to argue (as Gonzales implies) that such records would only be demanded in cases involving children.

That’s today’s line. But in a general records retention environment, you cannot a priori retain only the records related to child abusers whom you don’t already know about — you must retain *everyone’s* records. While the criteria for records access might be child abuse today, does anyone seriously believe that calls for access to user log data will not massively expand over time, to the extent that such data is available? Of course it will. If the data exists, all manner of ostensibly laudable reasons for government digging through users’ Internet activities will be forthcoming. And that will create a wholly different kind of Internet, where ultimately our every action on the Net may be subject to retroactive inspection. The term “slippery slope” is definitely applicable.

We need to see the specifics of legislation before detailed comments will be possible. But the handwriting is on the wall, and it does not bode well for either Internet users or Internet-related services.