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International internet censorship?

June 6, 2017

Following British PM May’s call for  “… allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorism planning.” (transcribed from a Fox News broadcast) the predictable chatter about government censorship sprang up almost immediately.

Whether the PM and her party retain their current status or not, the elephant is firmly visible in the room now.

She is not the first and won’t be the last person to suggest total government control of internet content.

Just how far should we go to take away the terrorist’s platform?  More importantly, would multinational censorship even produce the desired result?

Like it or not, the world can’t easily live without the internet now. It could go back to pre-internet days if some catastrophe took out the physical infrastructure, but it would certainly be a shock to the global system.

After all, email didn’t exist on any large public scale until the late ’80’s after  the TCP/IP networking protocol was developed in 1982. That’s less than 25 years ago. Facebook didn’t launch until 2004, a mere 13 years ago.

Even so, the world at large has already developed a love-hate relationship with the internet.

The ready access to information about literally anything is the strongest “pro” argument.

Want to know if it’s cheaper to take Uber or a taxi?  You can find that information here. Need to know what’s on sale at your favorite grocery store? Just look up their weekly ad. Need the mileage from Poughkeepsie to Portland? No sweat. Google it and in seconds you’ll have your answer. Live in the boonies but want to take college courses? Not a problem, thanks to the internet.

And then there’s the retail angle. Need a special dress, or a car part, or a replacement plate for the one you just broke in your grandmother’s 100-year-old china set? Somebody out there has it, and it’s usually only a click or two away.

But there are cons.

Almost everyone believes that the internet has contributed heavily to the coarsening of our culture, not just in the U.S., but worldwide.  It’s just too easy to pop off with something you would never dare say to someone’s face. Far from connecting us socially, the internet has largely driven us apart.

Society used to impose some restraints on behavior. Not anymore. Whether the cause is an abrogation of parental responsibility, a decline of participation in religion, or just a general attitude of “do whatever feels good” left over from the ’60’s, there aren’t many unbreakable societal rules to control us now. The internet mirrors that.

The most obscene, hateful part of our nature is on display online and it isn’t always about terrorism. Sometimes it’s just a sickening display of our basest instincts, such as the crude, disgusting drivel that just cost some Harvard freshmen their admission approval.

The ‘net is also just plain dangerous. Every deviant from burglars to sexual predators to jihadists can and do use it to victimize others. Little girls and boys send sexy pictures of themselves to perfect strangers, and the images are out there forever.

Also lost on PM May is the underbelly of cyberspace, the darknet. No government or tech giant has a handle on that, and it plays a pivotal role in online radicalization.

Calls to regulate cyberspace have been growing in number and volume for at least the past half dozen years. Evolution being what it is, that day will come, but doing it as an emotional reaction to a horrible mass slaughter may not be the way to start.

One of the most disturbing parts of PM May’s suggestion is that the internet should be regulated by some arbitrary international agreement defined by governments.

Wow. This, in a world that can’t even get its act together enough to stop one tiny country’s  headlong rush to wipe out a country or two with nuclear weapons?

Aside from that tiny little fly in the ointment, there are the challenges of actually identifying the posts you want to take down. Algorithms aren’t perfect. Remember when Facebook censored a post about the birth of a giraffe for being sexually explicit?

There have been some trial balloons floated to address the drawbacks and dangers. One such idea was to have internet access controlled by some sort of biometric marker, such as iris scans or fingerprints, and indeed there are devices now that require a fingerprint, known as Touch ID on Apple products.

The problem would be linking that information to specific posts, not to mention what happens if your biometric data is accidentally linked to a misidentified post, and Interpol or the FBI breaks your door down to arrest you.

One other problem…as soon as the good guys get the upper hand, the bad guys find a way around it. Where do you think the darknet came from?

There are already ways to fool your smartphone into thinking your photocopied fingerprint is really you.

The PM says “allied democratic governments” would be in charge. What about the undemocratic governments?  How long would it take rogue nations to put up a satellite and have their own communication platform?

There is no doubt that something needs to be done to break the lines of communication between terrorists or even just garden variety criminals.

Still, this is an area that very few people would trust to an international tribunal of nations that only get along with each other when they have to, and sometimes never get along at all. Nations with cultures that are so vastly different that what is normal speech or imagery in one could get you killed in another one.

This is one can of worms that it’s going to need the world to develop a pretty smart can opener to open it without killing the worms.

From → op-ed

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