Posts tagged: News

Internet Freedom Starts Back Home, Minister Bildt

The Washington Post recently published a column by the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, titled “Tear down these walls against Internet freedom“.

The column seems to present a very optimistic view of the Internet, a liberal view seldom seen among politicians today. Between the urge to stop file sharing and combat terrorism and child pornography, censorship and mass surveilance among the western nations has taken our Internet connections several steps closer to what the average Chinese user sees when logging on.

Sweden has traditionally been a strong country for new technology, so why wouldn’t the fight for a free Internet take root here? Indeed, Sweden is the birthplace of a political movement focused on saving the free Internet, the Pirate Party, so why not? I feel the need to offer up a report from within the country governed my Minister Bildt’s party.

The column in the Washington Post was preceded by a similar column (google translated) in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers and a blog post on Minister Bildt’s own blog. Sadly, the Swedish columns are less clear on this issue of what freedom means.

Here is a translated quote:

“It is obvious that the international rule set is far too weak and that the means that are available to ensure adherence to the rules in place are insufficient. The users have ended up trailing far behind the abusers.”

I wouldn’t call that obvious. The summary of Minister Bildt’s columns appears to be “more freedom will be had by introducing more government control”. This matches the actions of the government he is part of as well.

It is easy to criticize the Chinese government for their surveilance and censorship, yet the last year alone the Swedish government has put in place a law breaking a long tradition of free communications, ordering a mass surveillance of all Internet traffic that crosses the nation’s borders. Knowing how the Internet works and considering the small size of the country, that works out to just about all Internet traffic — all emails, IMs, chats, you name it.

This caused a wave of protests through the country and an online protest now known as the “blog quake”. Google declared that after the law was passed, it would no longer place any servers on Swedish soil, due to concerns for user privacy and integrity.

The same government has given media companies rights that go further than the national police force when it comes to hunting file sharers, and is preparing a new law mandating that every cell phone call, text message or other communication be logged, together with the position of the device at the time, essentially turning every cell phone into a tracking device in the state’s service.

The columns caused an outcry among Swedish Internet activists and supporters of freedom. The minister responded on his blog, showing just how ignorant the government is:

I do not understand that Christian Engström and others are upset about what I have said. Do they not think it is good that Sweden has a government that wants to defend freedom on the ‘net? To whine about FRA (the governmental body tasked with the mass surveilance of the Internet, my note) and our intelligence agency has nothing to do with it. Sweden does not restrict freedom of speech on the ‘net or anywhere else.

I would applaud Minister Bildt’s call for Internet freedom in the Washington Post, had I seen it in isolation. However, all is not well in the state of Sweden. While I would love to see the Iranian attempts to silence protesters fail and the great Chinese firewall break down, an easier political target would be to respect the rights of the people in your own country.

And sadly, the Swedish government has failed to take even the slightest account of it’s citizens’ right to privacy on the Internet. I would not trust a pest control company with roaches inhabiting its offices, and I will not trust a government that censors the Internet to tear down any walls against Internet freedom — in China or elsewhere.

The Gaming Police

Howard County Sheriff’s Department have been on the hunt for a drug dealer for a while, but lost track. The dealer skipped the country to hide in Canada. He made a mistake though — he chose to play World of Warcraft. Someone told the police about his online gaming habit, and they sent a Subpoena to Blizzard, requesting any information they had about the dealer in question.

Something interesting happens here. Maryland police has no legal juridistiction to subpoena things from Blizzard (situated elsewhere). The subpoena is more to be seen as a kind request for information. Months passed, and eventually Blizzard provides a chunk of information. Among others, the police gets an IP address that can be located and used to coordinate an apprehension together with Canadian police.

There have been plenty of reactions to the story, with comments like “if you don’t fancy prison life, you shouldn’t be selling drugs”. This is some form of the “if you’ve got nothing to hide” argument and thus misses the central problem of it all. You get caught on a quite common, but still quite false, line of reasoning that equates the possibility with the action. The problem here isn’t the action itself, it’s the possibility; not the result in itself, but the span of potential results that are made possible by the action as it is.

Let me explain that further. When the police nicely asks for information this way, Blizzard ends up in a problematic position of power. The company now has to take a moral position and in principle act as an authority of law. Maybe this had been a clear-cut case if we had been dealing with something that was illegal everywhere, and which everyone agreed constitutes an illegal and immoral action, like violent crimes.

Now it’s about the war on drugs. Regardless of how you feel about narcotics, you have to realize that laws about them are different in different parts of the world. So, now it’s suddenly up to Blizzard to decide if these sorts of laws also apply in the virtual Azeroth, regardless of where the people playing are in the world, or relative to where the police who’s asking the question is. Has Azeroth signed an extradition treaty with the United States of America?

In and of itself, it’s not a major problem, but the fact that Blizzard doesn’t answer “no” to any such requests as a policy is somewhat dubious. It opens the door for enforcement of any law in any country around the world — in the online world.

This is what I mean with that the possibility is the problem, not the specific action in the case at hand — what happens when Chinese authorities want some information? There are a whole lot of Chinese World of Warcraft players out there. Is that request equally much ok? The matter could concern different crimes there, and most of us agree that it would be less than pleasant if all the laws from all countries could potentially be applicable online, internationally. Is the next person who hides in Canada a Chinese dissident? What will Blizzard’s decision be in that case?

Of course I realize that Canadian police may not be very helpful when it comes to the Chinese government wanting to hunt dissidents, and that it’s very likely that Blizzard would take a different decision in that case, but there are issues in the decision to hand out information that are decidedly unpleasant, regardless of if you find the effect in this specific case upsetting. It’s a path that doesn’t look brushy, but leads deep into the djungle undergrowth.

Image credits: jluster.

Sunday Link Run

Time for a new blog feature… I’ll post some interesting links that I’ve come by during the week.

  • Microsoft presents a new programming language, Axum, built with a focus on paralell programming and message passing between agents. Looks interesting.
  • Andrei Alexandrescu’s slides from boostcon are online: Iterators must go.
  • The news of the week in the games world: 3d realms is shutting down. Duke Nukem Forever looks to be forever a dream. Also shows you why deadlines are good.
  • DICE is hiring a front-end and back-end web developer for a new product, causing a bit of a stir. If you’re a web developer wanting to play in the games industry, go for it!
  • The EA3 press event happened during the week. EA Forum members are putting their full creativity into getting a better look at BF: Bad Company 2.
  • And while some of these actually do make sense, 13 things that don’t make sense is an interesting read.

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