Internet as Democracy

Among the many misconceptions about internet communication is the democratizing effect.

This myth begins with the idea of the marketplace of ideas. This is fundamentally an idea that as long as ideas are allowed to freely compete the best idea will emerge. This is a myth since it does not explain why bad ideas and regimes gain in power. If we add to this the techno-optimism of the early internet (which is still sometimes present) which put forward ideas such as John Gilmoreâ??s famous quote: â??The Net treats censorship as a defect and routes around it.â?? Similar sentiments were reflected in Yochai Benklerâ??s new book â??The Wealth of Networksâ?? (download as pdf here).

These sentiments are overly optimistic and mythical since the reality is far less utopian. It is important to understand the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Stated simply the Internet is all the hardware and cables which connects the world of computers. The Internet is the necessary technology on which different applications can be run. The World Wide Web (WWW) is one such application which is run on the Internet. eMail is another. Filesharing is another etc. You can have file-sharing without the WWW but you cannot have any of the applications without the Internet.

Since the Internet is based on physical cables and physical equipment. Technical, social, economic and legal pressure can ensure that regulation (both good and bad) can be applied to the Internet. Thus we can see that Internet censorship is a growing phenomena. Among those studying and reporting on this phenomena are the Reporters without Borders and the Open Net Initiative.

What their work clearly shows is that by using a mix of hi-tech and low-tech states are ensuring that the Internet is not an automatic democratizing tool.

Denying Censorship

Georg Greve of the Free Software Foundation Europe is present at the Internet Governance Forum in Athens and he posts daily reports. On the second day of the forum the discussions turned to openness â?? a topic which many states that censor Internet traffic may find embarrassing.

So it was natural to expect hostile reactions towards countries which have a well documented history of Internet censorship. One way of dealing with bad news is simply to deny everything which Mr Yang Xiokun of the Chinese mission in Geneva did.
He stated that China has no access restrictions â?? at all.

Here is Georg Greve report of the exchange:

NIK GOWING:  Could I — may I ask you a question?  How would you define, for those who are not familiar with your government’s policy and the detail of it, what is the principle on restrictions of openness in China?

YANG XIAOKUN:  We do not have restriction at all.

Lets not forget that China is not alone in censoring the Internet. Organisations like the Reporters without Borders publish a list of â??15 Enemies of the Internetâ?? and many (most? all?) enlightened (?) European/Western countries intimidate, censor or limit access to information through alternative means – but at the same time it is almost impressive to be able to deny everything.

For more information about China and Internet censorship read the Open Net Initiative report on Internet Censorship in China between 2004-2005.

Expression, not Repression

Amnesty is one of those organisations which you know you should support more than you already do. They have also moved into the digital domain and are supporting all kinds of online expression. In an attempt to prevent online censorship they launched their irrepressible campaign.

Part of irrepressible is a technical solution that breaks censored texts into small pieces and maintains them online. Read more about how to help here.

If you cannot do more then at least sign their petition:

I believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference.

I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet â?? and on companies to stop helping them do it.

Amnesty International will also be present at the Internet Governance Forum in Athens next week. Again they will be â??â?¦stressing the importance of protecting free expression and privacy onlineâ??

Read their press release here.

Danish Courts Discover Internet Censorship

Denmark has taken up the fight against the freedom of Internet traffic. In a recent court decision (in Danish here) the court has decided that the Internet Service Provider must prevent users carrying out illegal activities.

The background is the controversial Russian site (more info about background controversies on wikipedia). The Russian company claims to follow Russian law while the IFPI claim that they have not paid for any western labels. In addition to this the music is not protected by DRM and can be freely transferred to others.

The Danish court has found that since the music is downloaded is actually copied onto the ISPâ??s equipment then they are guilty of copyright violation. The court has not seen this as aiding someone elseâ??s copyright violation but find that the ISP is directly responsible for carrying out the actions.

ISP liability for the actions of their customers has a long background and basically takes three positions. The ISP is totally innocent in the same way as the post-office is innocent of a blackmail letter it delivers. The ISP is guilty since without their equipment the crime could never have taken place. And thirdly the more complex: it depends. This last case must answer questions such as:

Did the ISP have knowledge of the actions?
Did the ISP take actions to prevent it?
Would it be possible (technically, economically, politically) to take action?

The result of this is that the ISP has been protected by its own strategic ignorance.

But now the Danish court argues that the ISP is not contributing or aiding crime (which in itself is a questionable stance as the questions above indicate) but is guilty of the crime itself.

The court writes

â??Retten finder … at ogsÃ¥ den flyktige og tilfældige fiksering af musikværket i form av elektroniske signaler, som foretages i de forskellige routers under datapakkernes transmission via internettet, er omfattet af ophovsretslovens § 2.â??

Basically: that the consequences of millisecond that it takes for the music to zoom through the companies routers is, in fact, the creation of a copy of digital music. This is done without the permission of the copyright holder.

Wow! The Danes have really begun something here. First of all you can hardly read, listen or see coherent information while it flies through the router. Since information online is mixed up in many packets and mixed together with other packets and all the little packets can take different routes to their final destination.

IF the Danes were right then I should be able to sue the Danish ISP for copying all my emails which happen to go through Denmark without permission.

Another problem is that the Danish court has ordered this whole problem to be resolved by blocking all traffic from the Russian site. This implementation is both unpoductive and dangerous. It is unproductive since those who want can still download – site blocking is a minor impediment. It is dangerous since it shows a lack of understanding of how the Internet works. Faith in blocking only leads to the false impression that something is being done.

(via Oscar Swartz, Copyriot)

Odds & Ends

Occasionally when writing my PhD I could attempt to image what the period between handing in and defence felt like. Just as I still try to image what the day after the defence feels like.

Naturally nothing is what it seems. My days are not spent in still contemplation and preparation but rather an endless list of tasks ranging from the trivial to the truly important.

I move from discussing with a reporter whether the investigators guidelines for modernizing the use of content delivery were biased in favour of the music industry or not (they are).  To the more trivial buying stuff at Ikea (how very Swedish). From preparing a very important personâ??s 10:th birthday to buying socks. Itâ??s high and low at the same time.

Today I am off to Slovenia (Maribor) for a conference in Social Informatics where I am looking forward to taking my mind of the waiting by engaging in real discussion. I shall be presenting a paper on Internet censorship and the different approaches to circumvent such practices.

Summer progress

It’s a hot summer. Brains are melting and work is sluggish. Despite this deadlines loom over us the unrelenting sunshine. My PhD thesis defence is on the 2 October. The book goes to the publishers in the last week of August.

The title of the work is “Disruptive Technology – Effects of Technology Regulation on Democracy” and it will be available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License. The blurb on the back cover will have this text:

Social interaction is partly shaped by technology being used. Therefore technological innovation affects modes of social interaction. While gradual technological innovation is often assimilated, some changes can be more disruptive. This research examines the democratic impact of attempts to control disruptive technology through regulation. This is done by studying attempts to regulate the phenomena of online civil disobedience, viruses, spyware, online games, software standards and Internet censorship â?? in particular the affect of these regulatory attempts on the core democratic values of Participation, Communication, Integrity, Property, Access and Autonomy. By studying the attempts to regulate the disruptive effects of Internet technology and the consequences of these regulatory attempts on the IT-based participatory democracy this work shows that the regulation of technology is the regulation of democracy.

If anyone wants to read an advance version it’s available here. If you send me comments before end of August then I can make changes in the text.

Other facts about the book:

It’s 272 pages long
It’s 103027 words long
It will have a cover design by Jähling.

Are we losing the right to dissent?

Most of us have been in the position where we wanted to ask a stupid question â?? but did not ask it for fear of being seen to be stupid. We practice the noble art of silence. That this is common can be seen when someone else asks the stupid question and immediately a group of people in the audience gratefully acknowledge the importance of the question. Fear of standing out from the group is a powerful force of censorship.

The main problem with consensus is that anyone who disagrees is in the unfortunate position of being abnormal. The group is the norm â?? therefore disagreement with the group is abnormal. This is why censorship is dangerous. It creates the impression that anyone with a dissenting voice is abnormal. Fear of being considered outside the group leads most people to conform with the group and practice self-censorship â?? which in turn reinforces the illusion of consensus and the oddity of the dissenter.

Therefore to ensure that social discussions are not limited or quashed voicing dissent is important since it may encourage others to think and participate. Naturally the object of criticism would prefer not to be criticised and may work to prevent the voicing of criticism. This is, in most cases, not taken to extremes. But in the recent years the limitation of dissent has become a legitimate form of government activity.

Since government has a legitimate interesting in protecting all citizens it can be forced to prevent the actions of some citizens to ensure the safety of all. But this principle is being perverted. By identifying themselves as the nation, politicians are beginning to protect themselves from open criticism. Through the use of the extended public defence argument politicians now argue that it is wrong to criticise them since they are acting in the best interests of the nation.

In 2003 Stephen Downs was arrested for wearing a T-shirt with the text â??Give Peace a Chanceâ??.

In 2004 Nicole and Jeff Rank were removed from the event at the West Virginia Capitol in handcuffs after revealing T-shirts with President Bushâ??s name crossed out on the front. Nicole Rankâ??s shirt had the words â??Love America, Hate Bushâ?? on the back and Jeff Rankâ??s said â??Regime change starts at home.â??

In 2005 Charlotte Denis was arrested for wearing a T-shirt with the text â??Bollocks to Blairâ??.

In 2006 Cindy Sheehan was arrested for wearing a T-shirt with the text â??2,245 Dead. How many more?â??

In 2006 Mike Ferner was arrested for drinking coffee while wearing a T-shirt with the text â??Veterans for Peaceâ??.

Another example is the UK law that prevents ANY demonstrations within a mile radius of parliament. This has led demonstrators to meet and conduct an extremely civilised form of protest â?? a tea party at the Winston Churchill statue. On occasion police arrest these demonstrators.

Read this book

The blurb on the back of the book is important since it has to interest the reader and at the same time be a factual discription – without being too long, complex or explanatory… So after a period of thought and procrastination this is what I have:

This work is on the democratic effects of attempts to regulate disruptive technology. By looking at the phenomenon of online civil disobedience, viruses, spyware, online games, software standards and Internet censorship this work shows the effects of regulation upon the core democratic values of Participation, Communication, Integrity, Property, Access and Autonomy.

Social interaction and organisation are, in part, shaped by the technology used. The social differences between the technology of snail-mail and the technology of e-mail are defined by features that the technology allows, and the limitations that constrain, the user modes of interaction. Therefore technological innovation and development over time affects the ways in which social interaction and communication are carried out. Certain forms of gradual technological innovation and development may be easily assimilated while other forms are more disruptive. This disruption can be seen in the way which new technologies affect the organisation of social interaction and are called, in this work: disruptive technology.

This work studies regulation as an attempt to come to terms with the disruptive effects of technology upon social interaction. This is done by focusing on the attempts to regulate the disruptive effects of Internet technology and the consequences of these regulatory attempts on the IT-based participatory democracy. In conclusion, this work will show that the regulation of technology is the regulation of democracy.

Would you read this book? If so you can download it here.

Text editing blues

Like bad tasting medicine editing is an aweful process which is only done because of its obvious benefits. Its terrifying the amount of errors that can be spotted at this late stage. Today I even found an incomplete sentence… it simply tapered off like someone losing a chain of thought.

This is the begining up until the research question. Not sure about it though…

This work begins with the thesis that there is a strong relationship between the regulation of technology and the Internet based participatory democracy. In other words, the attempts to regulate technology have an impact upon the citizenâ??s participation in democracy. This work will show what this relationship is and its effect on democratic participation.
Taking its starting points from the recent theoretical developments in regulation, disruptive technology and role of ICT in participatory democracy, this work is the application of three theoretical discussions. These theoretical discussions are used in the empirical exploration of six areas: virus writing and dissemination, civil disobedience in online environments, privacy and the role of spyware, the re-interpretation of property in online environments, software as infrastructure and finally state censorship of online information. The purpose of these studies is to explore the effects of these socio-technical innovations upon the core democratic values of Participation, Communication, Integrity, Property, Access and Autonomy. The overall research question for this thesis is therefore:
What are the effects of technology regulation on the Internet-based participatory democracy?

To connect to an earlier ongoing discussion about the text: The book is now 257 pages long and 99 479 words long. Do you think that word can handle going over 100 000 words or will it simply melt…