Perhaps I just haven't researched this enough, but doesn't it seem like governments around the world, particularly the U.S.'s Congress, have stepped up their attack on the Internet and cryptography with proposed bills? Or am I just seeing the negative proposals? Does it just reflect the fact that the world's becoming more comfortable with the Internet so that governments can and have to pass more effective and rational acts on cyberspace to catch up with its explosive growth?
It just seems to me, through reading news sites and other sites like Slashdot.org that there are a lot more cases of governments clamping down on Internet rights than usual. The best I can figure is that after the U.S. government lost the confidence in its proposed Communications Decency Act (on which my very first Soapbox ever ruminated), it felt somewhat stunned and embarrassed and decided not to touch the Internet for awhile. But after the nouveau activists grew bored with the cause and moved on, the U.S. Congress decided to try again, in less obvious ways than proposing a bigass Communications Decency Act, a name just crying out loud for opposition. Reasonable assessment?
Example: as this ZDNet article explains, Congress is discussing taxes on Internet sales, fresh on the heels of the decision that would make the 'Net tax-free for at least another three years while a special panel does more research on the subject. States and the national government want their little share of the party online too so they can take that hot e-commerce money and distribute it to more pointless programs and "improvements". While I understand completely their view that the Internet should be taxed as well since conceivably that form of commerce could replace conventional types of commerce, I DO want to defend the Internet and keep the government away from it as much as possible, except to acknowledge Internet users' rights and that sort of thing.
"Why should these scummy Internet users use online stores to circumvent our state sales taxes?" state governments think. Hell hath no fury like a government scorned. But how exactly are they going to implement sales tax on online commerce? Wouldn't they have to tax virtually everything in that case? What about phone sales? Many people still visit a web site but prefer calling in to the company to place an order. Are those orders taxed as well? This will be a huge issue for the Internet. Will it slow down income made by companies online? It could. Imagine paying $10-$40 sales tax on computer components bought online. Profit margins for companies like Amazon.com that sell books online are tight enough as it is. If books were taxed as well, we might as well go to the store to buy most popular books. Online taxing would severely cut into your purchasing power. It would slow down Internet growth. Unfortunately, I don't really think the governments, at all levels, give a shit about that. They want their money and they're gonna get it.
I noticed Australia just passed a censorship bill allowing the Australian Broadcasting Authority to censor online content if it's offensive, pornographic, etc. etc. The bill would even possibly ban Linux since its source code has several flippant comments (no, I mean programming comment blocks) containing frustrated coders' profanities. The bill is actually quite scary -- the Salon.com link above also links to a dictionary listing supported by the Australian government. In other words, the words on this list are possibly subject to being officially censored in Australia. As the article points out, some of the strangest words that are on the list are "gothic", "pierced", and "Pamela". Heh heh heh... How far off are other countries? I imagine the censorship issue will continue to be rigorously contested in the U.S., probably only resulting in some extremely handicapped censorship laws online. We'll see -- other countries won't be so lucky.
American cryptography users also seem to be winning their respective battle with the government. The whole clipper chip deal where the FBI would own backdoors to security keys failed, and this article reflects how difficult it will be for Congress to allow the government to enforce ownership of backdoor keys for security purposes. Both crypto and censorship will continue to be huge issues, and again, with crypto, I don't see the government being very successful in getting what it wants in the future. Sure, it will have SOME control, but not full control. After all, how will it enforce these laws? The idea of a government trying to keep up with computer-savvy cypherpunks is laughable.
And if you laugh at the government's ability to control hackers and the crypto community and other such undesirables, then it's even more laughable that companies are trying to step up their assault on illegal activities such as warez and cracking! Take, for example, this declaration of war by Electronic Arts and Sony, two big electronics and gaming companies, on "pirate [rings]" that crack their games and redistribute them freely online (warez/ISO pirating). With much hullaballoo, they claimed they seized suspicious property of a member of one of the pirating groups, Paradigm. They named many of the other popular pirating groups and sought to eliminate them. Sony and Electronic Arts? You've got to be kidding me. The state of the pirating community is SO carefree. They don't seem to worry much at all about being caught. But if they DID have to go about hiding their identities, they could make themselves hard to catch, I'm sure. The efforts to stop pirating are futile, although quite understandable -- it's just sad that the companies don't see how much a waste of time it is. No matter how many pirates you catch, there'll always be another group that gets a copy of the game, cracks it, and puts it online for everyone to download. Seems like companies trying to look active and improve their P.R. More people trying to slow down the Internet in ways that will hardly faze it.
Lost revenues in pirated games, they whine. The pirates respond, "How much revenue have you lost from trying to sell shitty games?"
Are governments finally taking the Internet so seriously that they're trying to sign in bills that restrict movement online, without activists making too much of a fuss about it first? I mean, seriously, one of the scariest things about all this to me is how little I've heard about it. Have YOU heard about any of these events? How much does that differ from the Communications Decency Act? That thing was plastered all over the place. Tons of sites protested. But not now. No one knows much about any of these new acts -- they're underplayed and harder to prevent. Just what a government loves.
Still, what with the crypto and censorship victories in the United States, it's hard to not notice that the trend is moving towards SOME legislation in these areas. Meanwhile, Ontario, Canada, has come out and actively advocated the use of crypto to its citizens, stating that it's important for the people to learn more about that sort of thing, for the future. No other governments have strongly said they SUPPORT crypto, have they?
This got me thinking. Perhaps Ontario has made an extremely bold step. Maybe it signals the future, a direction in which we've seen in many cyberpunk novels go in. Did you get the sense in reading cyberpunk that although there wasn't a visible, physical presence of law enforcement and the government, that law and order was still a threatening, hindering danger that lurked just around the corner? It seemed as though the main government would hang around in the background with the same degree of power that other organizations had floating by it -- the Mafia, the Yakuza, local pushers, tech suppliers, that sort of thing. While the law rarely stepped in, it DID seem as though there were stern, vigorously enforced laws in which the hackers had to tread around quietly to avoid getting caught. Some preferred this route -- the rush of escaping a vigilant policing force -- most others preferred moving to cities and countries without such harsh restrictions towards those of their trade.
Usually it would be smaller Asian countries in the novels, but Ontario seems to be the case here. It's early to say, of course, but it's a whiff of what things COULD be like down the road. Maybe countries will begin to redefine themselves in a new political way, by what practices they allow and how rigorously they protect their laws. Maybe some countries and cities will become refuges for the hackers, cowboys, cryptographers, and others of their ilk.
Still, there ARE positive measures being taken in Congress to deal with the Internet. For instance, there's the proposed Internet Freedom Act, which would grant basic rights to users concerning policies such as giving fines to people who misused others' e-mail addresses as their own and other such acts. There's also positive news regarding improvement in digital copyright law, which is sorely lacking now. For instance, there's not much you can really do legally against companies like Noodle Box. Noodle Box actually, get this, stole the designs from three different sites to make up the layout for its own web design site. The sites it ripped off? GaboCorp, IconFactory, and Kaliber 1000, three kickassly designed sites. I know that if I manage to design a site as cool as one of theirs, I'll have made unbelievable progress. Sigh...
But it's funny regarding Noodle Box, because...umm...what will they actually DO if they get a client and they have to actually MAKE a site that lives up to the standards of the sites they stole? Looks like a get rich quick scheme to me -- client forks over a LOT of money early on and the designers give them a shitty site before they even know what hit them. The designers make off with a quick $2K-$10K, depending on how much they can fool the client, and how much money the client has. Not a bad plan, eh? Plus, Noodle Box seems to be located in Hong Kong. It would be hard enough seeking recourse in the States, let alone internationally... The best you could hope for in either case is for the ISP to remove the pages forcibly, assuming the designers don't own the server in the first place. Protection for copyright is long overdue.
The next 10 years will be a fascinating decade for the Internet. It's grown up in front of our eyes to be a gawky looking pimply teenager of a "mass hallucination" as Gibson put it, and now we get to watch as it defines itself and figures out what theories and principles define it, as users and governments continually wrestle and tug and pull on it to shape it into what it will be when it becomes a mature adult. It's important for us to be aware of what's happening to our little child and to make sure it's not taken advantage of and grows up free of abuse.
Now is a more important time than ever to dig yourself deep into the 'Net and become woven inextricably into its fabric. When tall, elaborate walls become the law of the 'Net, you'll have to know how to walk right through those walls, transparently, in order to get whatever you want, to get whatever it is that you get so easily now. It's a new frontier, and everyone's going to be staking their claim. I think it will be a world of chaos, and always remaining more informed and advanced than everyone else will ensure your success and survival online.
A harsh way of looking at the future of the Internet, sure, but you didn't think governments would be able to keep their penises out of the warm apple pie forever, did you?
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