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China to Cheltenham: Great Walls of Fire and Web Tempora

Here’s my post for this year’s Blog Action Day which is my geeky take on the subject of Human Rights.

Adafruit's Onion Pi
Adafruit’s Onion Pi

Privacy is one of those human rights that we take for granted. It’s listed by the United Nations as article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

 along with the freedom of expression, listed as article 19:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Since the early days of the world wide web, privacy and the freedom of expression are central, as no single person or entity controlled the chaotic sprawl of servers that spewed out opinions, information and videos of cats.

This freedom cuts both ways – the web isn’t just freedom fighters and unsigned artists, it’s also terrorists, music pirates and pornographers, but the individual was the filter, not governments or corporations. 

For years in the west, we’ve looked down at China’s great firewall that filters the internet, and  the behaviour of giants like google who meekly provide pictures of pretty gardens rather than tanks when you search for ‘Tianamen Square’ 

China now employs 2 million people to monitor the internet in a move most people in the west would regard as a creepy throwback to the cold war era.

Yet here in the UK, the government are proposing a catch all, opted-in internet filter with the noble intention of ridding the web of porn. Sadly good intentions can have unintended consequences – what makes the block list is vague at best, and could include things like ‘web forums’, ‘esoteric material’ (whatever that is) and ‘anti-blocking software’. Very little is said about who would decide what is acceptable and what isn’t, and how this would be policed. What would stop a future government blocking the websites of political parties, environmental campaigners or minority groups? how would the right to appeal a block work? would a company abuse it’s control over the block to silence criticism? could a less moderate government use this to stifle debate and eliminate opposition?

Governments do have a duty to protect their citizens – whether its from terrorism or internet nasties, but there is an issue of accountability, and trust. We need to be able to trust that government agencies are keeping an eye on the activity of people who are a genuine threat, and that this eye is accountable and itself scrutinised. It’s no longer enough to rely on the over used argument that  people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

Recently Chris Huhne, who was in the cabinet for two years until 2012, said ministers were in “utter ignorance” of the two biggest covert operations, Prism and (the deep fried in batter sounding) Tempora. Worrying indeed; who are these covert operations reportable to? what would stop this power being abused? 

And there is the case of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy who unlawfully spied on environmentalists – an example of an agent abusing his power in what should be a moderate country governed by a moderate government.

In any democracy, checks and balances are needed to ensure that the rapid rise in surveillance isn’t abused, or could be abused in the future by less moderate governments – 

Tony Benn put it quite well:

“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

When checks and balances fail, as always, the web itself has found ways around the issue of censorship and to secure privacy:

It’s possible to use a Raspberry Pi to peek round the Great Firewall of China, and for the paranoid you can protect your privacy with Privoxy or using TOR with the Onion Pi.

I’m not reaching for my tin hat yet, but it’s good to know what’s possible just in case.

You can find out more about internet freedom, and join the campaign at the Open Rights Group.