Internet Wars: The Ongoing Battle Over How the Web is Run
The Internet is the new frontier and everyone is scrambling to decide who gets to do what, when, and how. Here’s the short list of the most vicious battles currently raging for control over the Web.
Most people believe that Internet service providers (ISPs) aren’t supposed to discriminate against or prioritize users. In most countries, if you want to spend your whole day streaming TV or compulsively checking your Twitter account, that’s your right. But if certain ISPs have their way, it won’t stay that way for long.
The fact of the matter is, certain types of Internet activity use up more bandwidth than others. When you watch a television show by streaming, your computer isn’t just sending out a signal and getting a block of information back, it’s constantly sending and receiving data via an exchange hosting server. Enough people doing something like streaming—and let’s face it, we all watch TV online these days—can slow down the Internet connection of not just one user, but everyone on the network.
The companies that control the telecom lines say that this fact should entitle them to “manage” the Internet use of the people buying their services. It’s not fair, they say, that it takes forever for one person to check their e-mail because another person won’t stop watching TV. They want the ability to use deep packet searching to slow down certain users who are taking up more than their fair share of the bandwidth. Management privileges, they claim, would also allow them to prevent their servers from crashing because of a sudden spike in usage—for example the shut down caused by the millions of people on the Internet after the death of Michael Jackson or denial of service attacks. This would also allow them to prevent piracy as they would know what you were sending back and forth over your connection and handicap your connection if you were behaving illegally.
There is a sinister side to ISPs having this kind of power. Proponents of net-neutrality—people who believe that everyone should be free to do whatever they please on the Internet without interference or limitation so long as they pay their monthly bill—forsee a future where ISPs will milk money out of their subscribers by instituting a tiered system of Intenet provision. People would only be able to access more bandwidth by paying more money. Even worse, they could “throttle,” or choke out the connection, of anyone found doing anything with their connection that they didn’t approve of, controlling the sites you were able to visit.
Bell Canada has already been caught throttling some of its users. Various ISPs in the U.S. such as Comcast have been accused of throttling, but won’t admit to it.
Here’s a short breakdown of what’s been going on around the world in the big war for the control of bandwidth:
Oct. 21, 2009
-The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that controls broadcasting in Canada okays “traffic management practices” on the part of ISPs.
-Encourages ISPs to discriminate according to economic lines, not content lines.
-Customers must be informed 30 days before practices come into effect
-Traffic shaping or “throttling” is allowed but only as a “last resort.” What a “last resort” consists of is not clarified in the legislation.
-Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009 presented to U.S. congress on July 30, 2009
-people are dependent on the Internet
-the internet is a resource akin to roads or electricity.
-unfettered access is vital
-The national economy would be severely harmed if the ability of users to operate freely were “frustrated by the interference from broadband telecommunications network operators.
-This legislation is being actively contested by telecom companies and various members of the Republican party.
-EU Telecoms Package legislation dictates that large telecom companies already in operation must open their lines to newer ISPs at a regulated rate. Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner in charge of Information Society and Media says this will ensure competition for ISPs by preventing a monopoly by incumbent companies, and will save the government from having to legislate net neutrality; if people don’t like the service or find that their Internet provider is acting unethically they can just switch to a different provider.
-Net neutrality activists the likes of Cory Doctorow believe that this amounts to the death of net neutrality in the EU as the law relies on market competition to guard the rights of Internet users.
The idea of censorship on the Internet might seem absurd to some. If the web let you find Two Girls, One Cup, there’s nothing you can’t see, right? Well, a lot depends on what country you live in, what government you live under and what search engine you use. As people become more and more depended on search engines and the good will of the telecom companies to get them where they want to go, users are at an increasing risk of being the victims of censorship, sometimes without even knowing it. Though China is most often on the receiving end of censorship charges, many fear that other governments will begin or have begun using the same methods to censor their citizens.
- Documents appeared on Wikileaks in May 2009 about the censorship practices of Baidu, a prominently ranked Chinese Internet search engine. The document included a list of permanently banned words—89 events, Falun Gong, reactionary remarks—as well as a guideline for when certain terms would be deemed objectionable—Communist Party is okay, but Communist Party in conjunction with “topple” or “overthrow” would be objectionable.
-Objectionable posts are deemed “yellow, anti-information” and users who routinely search for such anti-information are flagged and monitored.
-The international community was in an uproar in January 2006 when Google admitted that it intended to comply with the Peoples Republic of China and censor “sensitive” results that might be harmful to its ability to govern. As a result Google, like Baidu, will not let Chinese citizens access pages about the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Tibetan freedom movement or the Falun Gong, to name a few. Google defended itself by pointing out that they are the only search engine based out of mainland China that informs its users that the search results have been censored.
But China isn’t the only country that has requested that Google restrict its search results. In the U.S., Google censors “dirty” suggestions that might promote abuse or pedophilia. In the U.K. Google “delisted” Inquisition 21st Century, a website that says it challenges moral authoritarian and sexually absolutist ideas in the United Kingdom. In Germany and France 113 anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic and Nazi websites had been removed from the search engine.
These last examples are rather benign compared to the extent of Chinese censorship, but they serve as examples of Google’s willingness to comply with the censorship wishes of government.
-Bing was unveiled in May of 2008 and is supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to Google. The search engine is touted to be smarter than Google, employing filters to give users more accurate search results. How Bing uses its filters, however, has already been called into question.
Just one month after the search engine’s official release, reports were already springing up that Bing was filtering out “sensitive” terms from searches that used simplified Chinese script or came from an IP address in China.
-In 2006, one of Denmark’s largest ISPs, Tele2, was given a court injunction and told it must block its customers from accessing The Pirate Bay
Iran has installed one of the most comprehensive mechanisms for controlling and censoring the Internet and it was Western Telecom companies that built it for them. With the help of industry giants such as Siemens AG and Nokia Corp. the Iranian government installed a monitoring centre in the government owned Telecom Company that holds a monopoly in Iran in late 2008. This equipment performs deep packet searches on all of the information flowing through it, everything from tweets to telephone calls to e-mails, serving as a “choke point” for dissent. An example of the power of this system is how effectively coverage of the 2009 post-election riots was stifled.
-To get around the monitoring during the riots, many people worldwide changed their Twittering locations to places in Iran to overload the system and hide the information coming out of the country.
As more and more information, important and frivolous, is stored online people are starting to worry about the security of that information.
It seems like every new Facebook application comes with a flurry of privacy concerns. First it was the auto-stalk feature—also known as the news feed. Next, users were outraged to find out that Facebook claims ownership of all information users post on it and will save profile information even when an account has been deactivated. Finally, users were upset to find out that their information, including your personal photos, could be used in third party advertisements without your consent. As a result of the ongoing controversies, Facebook was recently pressured by the Canadian government to change its privacy policies and ordered by the U.S. government to pay $9.5 million towards a nonprofit online privacy foundation.
Deep packet searching
Not only is deep packet searching a really creepy way to censor your population, it’s also a really creepy way to invade users’ privacy. Deep packet inspection allows ISPs to screen all of the information it directs, allowing your Internet provider to know exactly what you are sending and receiving from your computer.
Hacks, Trojans, and phishing
Identity Theft is so big these days, that we’ve had to divide it into five sub-categories—business/commercial, criminal, financial, identity cloning, and medical identity theft. The more personal and financial information we put online, the more tempting it is for hackers to steal it for their own ends. There are all sorts of ways of accomplishing this: e-mail scams , Trojans, and good old-fashioned hacking. In the U.S. in the month of January along there were 31 recorded breaches of major databases. These breaches involved the theft of everything from credit card numbers to U.S. court documents.
No one is a stranger to the ongoing battle over Intellectual Property rights; you can’t throw a rock without hitting a public service announcement asking you if you would steal a car. But as web-based content becomes more prevalent and the Internet becomes the primary method of getting your stuff out there, the debate over IP is heating up.
Copy Right v. Copy Left
In the right-hand corner we have the likes of Rupert Murdoch. The owner of the News Corps recently announced that he plans to pull all of his sites’ content out of Google to prevent other people from using it without paying him his dues. In a stark contrast to the Obama administration’s permissive net-neutrality legislation, a secret copy right treaty was leaked that gives ISPs the right to actively police copyright infringements on user-contributed content.
In the left-hand corner we have the open-source community that believes IP laws stifle the natural evolution of software. Needless to say, it looks like right now the Right is winning.