There’s a new legislation proposal under way which strips us from any pseudo-privacy that we still had on the internet. Actually, it’s not just Britain and it’s not just the web. The shops are in on us, too! Andrew Gallacher analyses problems that are virtual by nature, but very real in their consequences.
It’s the good old ‘Three Strikes’ rule (governments love those, don’t ask me why): get caught sharing illegal files three times and your internet connection will be cut off. Naturally, there are a whole host of people opposed to this on the grounds of privacy and civil liberties and all those pesky things that governments do their best to ignore. And you would have to say that these people have a point. What if you simply happen to be sharing a connection with the file sharer? Are we now in the business of punishing the innocent along with the guilty? More than this, it seems to set the precedent that an internet connection is a privilege that the government may revoke at will. It’s a law that pretty much no-one in their right minds wants and which was, entirely coincidentally (?), proposed shortly after Peter Mandelson had a meeting with a major lobbyist for the media and entertainment industry.
This is hardly the first time that there has been cause for concern over privacy and civil liberties on the internet, but these issues appear to be surfacing with greater and greater frequency. In the US, the Cybersecurity Act of 2009 is under discussion which, amongst other things, grants the President the right to disconnect any network, private or public, which he sees fit. Back in the UK again and it is already a requirement for internet service providers (ISPs) to store every e-mail sent or received for up to a year. Plans are being considered to create a central government database to store this information. In France there is a proposal to create an internet monitoring agency that would have the power to cut off internet access to illegal file sharers for up to a year and to have the file sharers names added permanently to a blacklist. This is just a sample of the kind of issues that have cropped up in governments world wide during the last 12 months. If we include private industries, the list gets even longer. For instance, there was the Phorm controversy, wherein several ISPs agreed to sell details of their customers browsing habits to a marketing company. And Google’s plans to create an online library have brought up a number of problems around copyright and privacy (specifically the ability of private and public institutions to access user data).
You may rest assured that the same people fighting the good fight against Mandelson and his ‘Three Strikes’ law are at work on all these issues. And while students are naturally inclined to agree with the rebellious lot on these developments, we must ask ourselves a question: Are they actually right? Might not, on some level, on some occasion the evil governments and shady corporations have a point? What does privacy even mean in an environment like the internet? The internet is probably the least anonymous, least private space you will ever inhabit. You would, in many respects, enjoy more privacy walking naked through the city centre than you do just by checking your e-mail. The internet is an owned space, more clearly and completely than the actual physical world ever could be. It is at heart a collection of private networks. Every time you transmit and receive information it is passed over those networks and unless you use encryption that information is entirely open to network owners. That they don’t inspect the contents of data packets is taken largely on trust.
Take the aforementioned case of ISPs selling their users’ browsing history. Disregarding the means used to obtain the information, which was certainly a part of the controversy, your ISP has to know what sites you are visiting in order for you to visit them. So they’re not stealing this information, they have to have it. The issue is ownership. The argument is that you own the knowledge of what sites you have visited and thus only you have the right to sell it. Visiting an internet site can thus be defined as a private interaction in much the same way that you making a phone call is a private interaction. At the same time, supermarkets record their customers spending patterns without complaint from anybody and it seems to be an analogous situation. In fact, one of the main purposes of supermarket loyalty cards is to track customer buying habits for marketing purposes. So what is your browsing history – a private conversation or a trip to the shops?
Or, coming back to the heart of the problem, what of the government requiring our e-mails to be stored for up to a year. Reprehensible, yet the UK has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other country and there is little public outcry. If we can be monitored so completely in our day to day activities it is hardly surprising the government feels comfortable extending that to online ones. Since we don’t seem to have a consistently applied notion of privacy in any aspect of our society, how can it be anything other than quixotic to attempt to apply it to the internet? Government reaction to illegal file sharing is unnecessarily draconian, but it remains a problem and will continue to be one until either IP laws change or the actions of a great number of internet users do. So until societies catch up with the reality of the online world, it’s best not to go online in search for privacy and anonymity.