Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Myth of the Democratic Internet

Following on the heels of my last post about the problem of sorting factual from dubious sources of information on the Internet, there is another pervasive myth about the World Wide Web – that it represents an exemplar of free exchange of ideas and is, potentially, an engine for world democracy. It ain’t necessarily so.

A few months back I had posted links to two videos of interviews with former US President, Bill Clinton. Several of my readers outside the US told me they were unable to view these – access from outside the US was being blocked.

In the uproar over the recent Wikileaks controversy, Reuters reported that “The U.S. Air Force has blocked employees from visiting media websites carrying leaked WikiLeaks documents, including The New York Times and the Guardian…” Note – it was not access to WickLeaks that was being blocked but access to public news sources where one could find articles about WikiLeaks.

Yes, the Air Force, like any employer, does have the right to control how their “employees” use their information technology. But the blowback against Wikileaks has been quite revealing. The entities controlling their domain registration and web hosting, bowing to outside pressure, pulled the plug effectively shutting down the site. PayPal and Amazon discontinued their financing connections making it difficult or impossible for Wikileaks to receive funding.

China, a huge engine for emerging Capitalism, has reminded us that they are also still a totalitarian state. Propaganda minister Li Changchun, after Googling his own name and finding information he didn’t particularly like, forced Google to shut down their China based servers. It has long been known that Chinese citizens are unable access information about Chinese dissidents, pro-democracy sites or even accessing any information about the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Google “Internet Censorship” and one can find any number of organizations deeply concerned freedom to access the Internet. But censorship, control and manipulation of the Internet is not solely a government intrusion. The private commercial companies who provide access, connectivity and content have a strong hand in what flows through the web. The issue of “Net Neutrality” has been lobbied and debated in the halls of Congress. Business interests would dearly love to institute tiered charges for access, promote favored products and services over less profitable, or even completely block or deny access to information they deem for whatever reason.

The technology enabling censorship is remarkably simple. Having been a network technician in my previous occupation, I know how, with simple mouse clicks within Firewalls and Routers, how to divert, block and reroute information traffic. It is common practice now to routinely obtain your precise geographical location from the IP (Internet Protocol) address of your computer or phone.

Google, of course, has made billions of dollars by charging for prioritizing search results using applications such as AdWords and AdSense which offer pay-per-click services to businesses.

Can you trust that what you search for on the Internet today return the best possible results? The answer is No. There are growing numbers of entities with vested interests to protect and the means for controlling what we are able to access. The issue surrounding the controversy about WikiLeaks is but one example. The more frightening prospects are the censorship we don’t know about.


Gorilla Bananas said...

But didn't Wikileaks publish private correspondence that had been illegally stolen? Or are you saying that US diplomats don't have the right to send private correspondence?

Elisabeth said...

Was the WikiLeaks information 'stolen' as such or was the collecting of it less egregious than that, more like the sort of thing journalists and governments do all the time, a sort of eavesdropping. The issue then has more to do with the decision to disseminate that information far and wide.

I have no doubt that the Internet is not an absolute free for all. If knowledge is power, then the powerful will seek to control it.

Jerry said...

I didn't know that your physical location could be determined from your IP address. This bothers me..quite a bit. I assume there is a way this can be prevented?

My primary concern regarding the Wikileaks stuff is the accessibility of the original information.

I long ago figured out that search engines will only provide information that is accessible without regard to its validity. The fact that the accessible information may be limited is also disturbing.

I've fallen behind on reading your essays and I regret it. Good stuff -- and I'm learning. Thanks.

DJan said...

I spent a month in Beijing in 2007 working for the Higher Education Press. I needed to access information and used Google all the time and did find much that was blocked. A fellow employee showed me how to install a quick program that allowed me to access anything I chose. The people in China who know how are not blocked.

TechnoBabe said...

Interesting how many people don't understand the Wikileaks situation.
It is a shame that people feel they are forced to the position of turning over information on the sly, it has been a long time coming to keep truth hidden. We recently watched a documentary about Daniel Ellsberg. I agree with you about questioning the reliability of the information we gather on the internet now.

Infidel753 said...

It's true that governments, whether un-democratic (China's) or democratic (ours) do try to censor the internet (whether this is justified or not in cases like Wikileaks is a separate issue).

But how successful are they over-all? As DJan points out, work-arounds to defeat censorship in China do exist -- I've seen a fair bit of news about that, though I don't have the technical knowledge to evaluate specific tools. And while access to Wikileaks can be blocked from this or that location, surely anyone who really wants to look at the leaked documents will be able to do so. That cat is out of the bag, for better or worse.

What I see going on is a technological arms race between practitioners of censorship and those who work to circumvent it, with the latter having the edge.

What the internet has done is to massively decentralize the power to distribute information globally. That, all by itself, isn't going to create a global golden age of democracy, but it's bound to be a force for good overall.

PeterDeMan said...

What bothers me even more than the censorship is the monitoring in our country, by our government, of all forms of communications, with hugemongous computer servers analyzing every single byte of information being spoken or sent. I was reminded of this the other day by my son when I sent a chat with some derogatory words about Obama. He said, without a doubt, that what I sent was a key phrase the would immediately been kicked out for further scrutiny. Absolutely frightening. We increasingly live in a totalitarian state and there isn't a flipping thing we can do about it.

The Mother said...

Although it is quite simple to institute censorship, it is just as easy for a moderately savvy user to subvert.

Governments may try, but ultimately will be unable, to control internet access. If nothing else, look at the immediacy of photos from Iran's contested elections on Twitter, and the antics of the Anonymous defending their hero.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas You are correct, the correspondence was both private and illegally stolen. Most of what "whistle blowers" reveal is just that. A significant majority of the released information was more embarrassing than jeopardizing national security and, I agree, I am not sure what purpose it serves to release information like that.

The "crime" though is in perpetrating lies to intentionally deceive the public. Whether it is the "Pentagon Papers" or "Watergate", governments have an obligation to maintain secrets for the safety and security of the public interest; not merely to cover their own asses.

Elizabeth Apparently a low-level military person allegedly downloaded and fed this information to WikiLeaks. It is unfortunate that the site chose to reveal all of it rather than release only the most salient revelations of deception. As I say, what good does it do to release candid and embarrassing comments about other world leaders that we probably already all share?

Jerry Check on this site. It should tell you exactly where you are located. Google and others routinely do this so when you enter a search it brings up local sources for you automatically. For example, I just Googled "Taco Bell"; though there are thousands of restaurants across the country, the second item on Google was the Taco Bell here in Corvallis. Cute, huh!

Kay Dennison said...

Most of what you said here is no great surprise -- I was married to a network tech for 28 years and have been online for 23 years.

I have no doubt there is censorship on the Internet -- for both good and reasons. And I suppose it is sometimes needed.

What you have said about searches is very true. I've been online long enough to be aware that what once was a simple search has become increasingly difficult and sorting through the rubbish really sucks. And I really hate it.

Infidel753 said...

It has occurred to me that, if Assange had taken and published a similar mass of Russian classified documents, then:

(a) he would already be dead, and

(b) the purloined documents would nevertheless be irreversibly public, and there probably wouldn't even be much of a deterrent effect on future Assanges -- they'd just conceal their identities.

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan The salient point in your comment is "... people in China who know how..." The fact is that one even needs to circumvent the blocking is important. If a government or private company puts forth a concerted effort, they can torque down information access quite adequatly.

TechnoBabe I saw that documentary about Ellsberg as well. He was later shunned by his former friends at the Rand Corporation even though he uncovered blatant government lies. I guess eveeyone hates a "rat" even if the rat had the highest of ethical intent.

Infidel I agree that the decentralization and dissemination of information is an overall good thing. WikiLeaks "mirror" sites have popped up to combat censorship. what I am saying is that, though currently there is no motivation for government to restrict access to information, were our government choose to do so, for conspiratorial reasons, it could be done. The potential for "cyber war" is one such scenario . It may not be OUR government who enacts the control or censorship.

The Pentagon Papers incident happened before the Internet when there were only newspapers to blow the whistle. The government sued the newspapers, but other newspapers then took up the story.

The point of my post is that censorship has not really happened on a massive scale... yet!

Infidel753 said...

what I am saying is that, though currently there is no motivation for government to restrict access to information, were our government choose to do so, for conspiratorial reasons, it could be done.

I understand that, but I still question it. The Chinese regime is a ruthless fascist dictatorship with no respect for freedom of information at all, and it has been making determined efforts to censor the internet for years, yet work-arounds are available to enable people who really want to access forbidden sites to do so.

The same is true in Iran -- the mullahs make efforts to prevent subversive use of the internet, but overall they don't seem very effective.

If those regimes can't do it, can it be done?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Peter Indeed, strong laws apply to phone tapping but those laws have not been extended to the newer forms of communication. Someone once said that if you want to convey information to someone and be reasonably confident that no one else will receive it, write it on a piece of paper and deliver it via the US Postal Service.

I don't worry about my computer or cell phone information be interdicted as what I do is too boring to be of any interest to anyone, let alone a government. But yes, anything done on a computer leaves a trail... put it out on the Internet and it's gone, baby! You have no control and few rights in this realm.

Dr. Mom That may be, but again the technical attempts at censorship have been tepid and feeble. Having worked in this field, I can assure you that the "potential" to massively control the flow of information is technically feasible. Satellites, for example, the military has it's own separate communication satellites. One of our big security fears is that hostile governments could potentially take down communication satellites. Most information flows through centralized "hubs", rather than shut down the hubs, the information can be intentionally routed to a "nul" destination. If someone seriously wants to target information retrieval, they can.

Case in point: See how difficult it has become now to download popular music for FREE. It can be done but it isn't easy.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Infidel See my above comments to Dr. Mom about blocking satellites and other methods. What I am saying is that the attempts to censor to date have been feeble and tentative. However It is possible to completely shut down large segments of communication, "backbones" are another potential throttle point.

There was an incident a couple of years back, I vaguely recall, where ALL texting in the country was halted for a day due to an unintentional system malfunction. (trying to find that article)

"The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 (PDF) gives the president the ability to “declare a cybersecurity emergency” and shut down or limit Internet traffic in any “critical” information network “in the interest of national security.” The bill does not define a critical information network or a cybersecurity emergency. That definition would be left to the president.

Kay People who are not intimately familiar with the technology tend to believe that the Internet is a freely open network with nobody really in charge. To some extent that is true, but key elements of this network are in the hands of specific entities. This includes hubs, backbones, satellites, cellular systems.

A parallel example would be that we, in this country, were complacent thinking we were invincible from terrorist attack... until some people flew airliners into our skyscrapers.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Infidel Just a quick point - Iran doesn't have it's own satellites... we do!

billy pilgrim said...

i think the main thing the internet has done is made marketing an exact science. we're like lab rats, the marketing people give us stimulus then monitor and record our every move.

i wonder how much of the wikileaks material is misinformation purposely leaked to hide the truth. i suspect there are layers within layers within layers of skullduggery.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

No matter the information leaked by Assange, it has truly brought to light that 1. Information is accessible, even if classified, on the internet and 2. The government keeps a lot of weird information secret.
Censorship/public information is an issue that must be readdressed with every new technology. We are now doing that in light of the internet-and it is long overdue.

MartyrMom said...

WOW! Interesting. I always wondered how you could be found out if you were looking at child porn....

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy There are some who said the leaks were intentionally supported by government officials to forward some strategic purpose. Personally, I don't think government officials are capable of such "strategic thought".

BackRow And you can rest assured that there are officials right now wanting to put into place "safeguards" so something like this never happens again. That is why I am a regular contributor to the ACLU

MartyrMom Tracing back to your computer is a remarkably easy thing. I have been able to track people back pretty close to their location simply form the "headers" in their e-mail.

Orhan Kahn said...

I've only been gone 3 weeks but it seems the only news I've heard is Oprah in town, a boat load of immigrants crashing offshore and this whole Wikileaks drama. I don't know how I feel about it, to be honest. I'm conflicted in alot of ways.

GutsyWriter said...

I believe we shall never find out the exact truth on any topic. We can believe A, then B says something and C, depending on which country we're in etc. I wrote an article on Media Manipulation, so how can we ever know, and should we? What about real life with real people?

KleinsteMotte said...

After reading all the comments I am wondering if we are missing something? There is something much deeper lurking and we seem to be missing it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Orhan Is there any way we can convince you guys to KEEP Oprah down there?

Gutsy Indeed the Internet is "media" and is not immune from manipulation. As I pointed out, there are subtle "edits" done to sites like Wikipedia which many believe are objective and unbiased. Caution is warranted.

KleinsteMotte Good question. You might have to Google for that answer. *smiles*

Artist and Geek said...

Hi Rob,
I'm not sure if you read comments on older posts, but we're about to get a cyberspace ID card, if passed. Big Brother...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Artist This is a new thing I am unfamiliar with. What on earth is the purpose? Yes, it does sound very "Big Brother".