Information Insecurity: how the web is fighting itself to death

Shhh, no-one mention this is the first post here in six months…

The proposed Digital Economy Bill has, perhaps unsurprisingly, garnered a lot of attention in the blogosphere and occasionally beyond.

It had all started so differently; Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report was by no means perfect, but the discussion was broad – on universal broadband provision, opening up the wireless spectrum and looking at reforming traditional media, as well as the inevitable protections against copyright infringement.

Digital Britain’s proposals were criticised at the time, but nevertheless there were careful safeguards – the burden of proof was on rights holders, repeated infringers’ identities could only be disclosed by court order, and the final resort – after all other avenues had been explored – would be capping of bandwidth. Disliked as this aspect of Digital Britain was, it was at least balanced within a wider context: just thirty-one pages (pp 105-135) of the two hundred or so of the report were devoted to ‘Protecting and Rewarding Creativity’, as the euphemism went, and even then, some of that was on reforming fair use and reviving orphan works, rather than punishing infringers.

And there were concessions to hear the public’s point of view, with the public consultations; the Digital Britain Unconferences even got a fuller mention in the final report, with praise for “what is possible for Digital Britain when these tools are combined with channelling existing loosely connected networks and motivations.” Digital Britain at least appreciated the potential of the digital economy, rather than treating it as a threat.

And then… Lord Carter quit on the eve of the report, Lord Mandelson swooped in and all that hard work was for naught. A quick chat with David Geffen and Lucien Grainge, and the Digital Economy Bill put before the houses of Parliament is distinctly heavy on suspected infringement and light on all the other bits in the report. It is not so much one to boost the digital economy, but to protect what is left of the analogue one.

Measures include the threat of cutting off a user’s connection without due process, just on the copyright holders’ say-so, with secondary legislation allowing for “pirate finders” and forcing ISPs to snoop on traffic. This may breach European law, as Glyn Moody notes, and given the government is also committed to providing more public services online, this contradictory policy only works to effectively deprive people of access to public services without a fair hearing.

There is plenty of very good writing on the matter – two pieces by Charlie Stross, as well as Cory Doctorow and Don Tapscott, coiner of the phrase “digital economy”. And it is not just the usual suspects – this Guardian leader captures the point succinctly.

You can sign the petition, join the Open Rights Group and lobby your MP. All of these I urge you to do.

But that is not the sole point of this blog post. The fight over the Digital Economy Bill and “digital Britain” is part of a much, much, larger battle over the control of information, one that goes far beyond copyright infringement. The demands of the bill – registering copyright holders, forcing ISPs to log traffic, registering people blocked from online access – will all require enormous infrastructures and data gathering capability. Just like ID cards, or the proposed communications register, or the national DNA database.

All of these vast, vast systems are backed a political system utterly infatuated with acquiring and controlling information, in the confused and vain hope that merely by collecting it, it becomes knowledge or wisdom. So much information is gathered that the authorities have become notoriously irresponsible with it – remember, even two years on, those lost child benefit discs still haven’t turned up.

This is not to say that the governments is an evil Big Brother (never confuse bumbling desparation with malice), and it is definitely not the sole player in this game. Just look at how Google and Facebook both strive to control as much data as possible to further their business ends, while in other corner, crumbling news media empires are resorting to proposing redefining copyright in an attempt to maintain control over the information so valuable to their business and venal law firms fail in their attempts to superinjunct just about everyone.

And caught between all of them is the ordinary user – often the kind of person who’ll freely download music and movies yet complain simultaneously about the greed of the record companies; moan about our privacy being taken away from us while we Tweet every last moment of our existence; form online mobs proclaiming hate against a hatemonger; rally blog campaigns but then don’t do very much ourselves about it. We’re a funny lot, when it comes down to it.

And connecting us and them all is this big thing called the Internet. All technologies have their politics but the Internet’s are curiously contradictory; open standards and licences with their roots in counterculture, libertarianism and communitarianism abound, yet if it weren’t for the governmental, academic and corporate worlds backing and building the infrastructure, it would never have taken root in the first place.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that as the digital age has entered its adolescence, we ourselves find ourselves in conflicting times. The traditional information economy has been pulled down yet we haven’t yet worked out what to replace it with. The libertarian view is that information would set us all free; the authoritarian view is that perfect information would lead to perfect governance, but instead we have neither – we’re mired in confusion, ignorance and conflict. We’re only just realising the power in the tools we possess, but everywhere we look we see people, governments and corporations become increasingly insecure. We’re losing sense of what the web should be for, and are taking it out on each other instead.

I hope I’m not taking too much of a bellicose line here; I don’t like using conflict as a metaphor and I’m not a bloodthirsty cheerleader for all this. But there is something dark about the state of cyberspace which the rosier pictures painted in the likes of Here Comes Everybody or Groundswell (fine books they may be) do not convey. If Mandelson’s bill goes through, or if all our emails are snooped on, or if net neutrality is abolished, then it will not just be another step to destroying the open, collaborative nature of the net that has created so much already, but will only deepen the divisions and destroy all hope for a peaceful, mature and secure adulthood for the digital era.

Postscript: As far as I know yet, no-one has written that lengthily on this – the best I’ve seen being Tim O’Reilly’s “The War for the Web“. But that is just a here and now, when what is as interesting is the why; what were the social and political forces that not just shaped the net but modern politics and business, that explains why netheads tend to be libertarian (in some respects), or why governments think they need all this information. Which is a shame – there are a wealth of interesting stories on the forces that shaped these technologies and systems, some of which I used in my Master’s dissertation on the sociology of open source communities, long ago. I have no idea if there is enough for a book, or at least coherent long narrative, but I will start cobbling some blog posts together to see where it takes me.

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