Protecting Identity and Copyright Online

At times, it really feels like the world is completely fucked. We've got a US president who somehow manages to be enough of an arse to fall out with Canadians flying off to meet a nuclear armed mad-man. We seem to be witnessing the increasing rise of a foaming mouthed racist alt-right, and have long since mourned the death of quality journalism in the media. Israeli defence forces are so focused on justifying murder of unarmed civillians that they now tweet about executing people for throwing a stone.

Yes, at times, it seems like the entire world is off to hell in a hand-cart.

Underneath it all, though, politics doesn't seem to be that different behind the scenes. Politician are still trying to implement many of the same stupid things that we've seen raised again and again throughout our lives. 

As fucked as the world may seem, it's important that it not act as a distraction from the issues we can do something about. Trump, for better or worse, is here to stay (at least until his KFC infested diet catches up with him).

But we can do something about fuckwits in Government once again suggesting that implementing the ability to control and track what everyone does online is in any way a positive. We also can do something about fuckwits from many Government's who think it's beneficial for humanity for them to take a bended knee before Copyright cartels and screw the lot of us in the process (otherwise known as Article 13 of the EU Copyright Directive).

This post isn't about the things that have become big, but about the things that will become massive infringements on our lives if allowed to pass unchallenged.

 

Digital ID's

Our security minister - Ben Wallace - would like to see the introduction of online Digital ID's to remove online anonymity and "end internet mob rule". He posits that this will help address both cyber-bullying and grooming, and argues that as financial institutions are able to verify their customer's identity, every other organisation should be able to do so too.

During the same speech, he seemed particularly put out that Silicon Valley (and the tech industry in general) would "accuse the state of surveillance". Particularly odd, as post-Snowden we have a very good idea of just how ubiquitous that surveillance has been. Government's had the opportunity and the power, and they abused it massively, so of course End-to-End Encryption has become massively desirable.

Being an experienced politician (you may remember his name - he was one of the Landlord MPs that opposed a bill that would require rental homes to be "fit for human habitation"), Mr Wallace has of course used the traditional bogey-man to try and shore up his argument - we need this in order to stop men abusing children. Never mind that this Government, and it's predecessors, have seemingly continually cut budgets for the bodies designed to try and identify online abuse (in order to actually rescue those who need rescuing). Never mind that Social Services are under-funded and under-staffed (and therefore less able to identify cases where they need to act to protect abused children), never mind that the Police (who'd be called in to help Social Services) are also underfunded and understaffed. No, what we need to address all this is a digital fucking passport.

Mr Wallace believes it will help address cyber-bullying. However, I'd suggest that perhaps he may want to visit a playground where the bullies have zero-anonymity. And, yet, they're still bullies. Maybe have a look at some of the online bullying on Facebook - again, many of those bullies don't bother trying to use a pseudonymous, much less going for full anonymity.

Many of these bullies can be trivially identified, without using any of the resources that a nation-state typically has at it's disposal. This would suggest, then, that it's not anonymity that drives so-called cyber-bullying. It is, as it has always been, that those who feel inadequate often project onto others in an attempt to make themselves look better. Digital IDs do not change that dynamic.

As a consequence of Mr Wallace's digital ID, though, everything you say or do online could then be tracked and linked directly to you. No anonymity, no matter how kinky the porn you're into, or how sensitive the topic you're discussing, it's now recorded somewhere that you were involved. 

Assume for a minute that you trust this Government with that kind of oversight and power. Do you trust the next Government with it? What about the one after that, or after that, or several after that one? It's an impossible question to answer, because no-one knows what the disposition of future Government's is going to be. Which is why we should be very, very careful about the arsenal we build them - particularly tooling that can be used to oppress us or our children. Things that no-one believes could happen, do in fact happen with a surprising regularity - so it's facile to believe that we could never have a repressive authoritarian Government in this country.

All that's before we start to look at the technical flaws with Mr Wallace's position. How is this ID requirement going to be enforced? How will websites know to enforce it if I use a VPN or Tor to originate from another country? How will the Government address providers who refuse to comply? Does Mr Wallace propose a UK only internet? Or perhaps a new version of TCP with a digital ID in the headers of every packet?

Failure to address those means the much vaunted cyber-bully pedo's will be able to continue unaffected, whilst honest citizens are subjected to a massive invasion of privacy.

Mr Wallace's proposal is not only dangerous, it's utterly and deeply flawed. He's not the first UK politician to make such a proposal (and it's by no means just a Tory thing), and he probably won't be the last. But we need to continue to fight such proposals whenever and wherever they are made.

There are two main ways of achieving this, one of which brings more general benefits with it

  • Raise the matter with your MP and explain why it should never be allowed to happen
  • Work on improving privacy on the net - run Tor relays, build/contribute to new privacy-centred solutions (whether as new chat mechanisms/systems or things on a grander scale), write new software, deploy encryption

And above all, continue to highlight consequences that occur in countries who already implement some of what's being suggested to help raise general awareness of just where this dumb-fuckery can lead.

What was true in 1993, continues to be true today.

 


Over-Enthusiastic Copyright

Copyright is important - it protects the code I write and the content I generate. However, it is supposed to be balanced to maximise the public good - the original idea being to encourage and stimulate creation for short-term profit, but ultimately increasing the amount of work entering the public domain for the benefit of society.

Thanks to the efforts of organisations such as Disney, we're a long way past the point where that remained true. Copyright periods are now ridiculous, and seem to get extended whenever a certain mouse is about to enter the public domain. The creators continue to benefit whilst the public gets nothing (other than more draconian restrictions).

Something far, far worse and far more harmful is on the horizon though.

The European Commission (essentially a group of national government representatives) have been busily working away on the European Copyright Directive - an attempt to reshape copyright to reflect the realities of life now that the Internets (and particularly the World Wide Web) are a thing.

Article 13 attempts to make all internet platforms responsible for policing for copyright infringements. That is, every service that allows media (images, video, audio, whatever) to be uploaded, embedded or otherwise linked to would become liable if some of that content infringes copyright.

It would (sort of) require them to actively police for infringing content. The reason it's "sort of", is that it's not actually spelled out as a requirement, however not doing so increases the platform's liability. It is, in effect, a de factor requirement that the Commission daren't explicitly state. Even with this filtering in place, the platform doesn't escape civil liability for the content.

Being unable to avoid liability at all, of course, would be unfair - so there is a way that platforms can avoid liability. What they need to do, is simply to obtain licenses from all rightsholders on the planet before allowing their users to upload or publish anything. Simple as that......

If passed into law, the result of this will be that all platforms need to filter any content entered into them (remember, of course, that a plain text post could be song lyrics, or other copyrighted content - so they'd need to check those too). For a platform of any scale, this will need to be automated. But, the platform remains liable for any content that slips through the net, so they are inevitably going to err heavily on the side of caution - resulting in a lot of non-infringing content being blocked.

The impact on freedom of speech and expression should be obvious - it's going to introduce defacto censorship across platforms, making it far, far harder to express ideals. Worst of all, some of this censorship won't even be deliberate, but the result of platforms needing to reduce their exposure to liability - it's already been pointed out that machines are all-but-incapable of distinguishing fair-use from unauthorised use.

Some platforms won't bear the cost of implementing this, of course, and instead will simply close their services. We've already seen examples of this from GDPR (which at least, for it's flaws, has the public good in mind). Others will begin by geo-blocking users in the EU, though given the cancerous nature of draconian copyright restrictions, Article 13 type requirements will likely surface in other areas once they've been "proven" in one jurisdiction.

Github have been very open about the impact it's going to have on developers using their service, and the commission has been receiving negative feedback about Article 13 more or less since it was drafted.

To date, though, most of their amendments to it have been only to appease member states and have made it worse. Some member states, for example, object to the definition of what would fall under the new "Link Tax" (and not because they think it covers too much, unfortunately).

The "solution" to some of these objections is to allow member states to decide their own definitions. This ultimately means that platforms will automatically comply with the strictest/most-stringent definition as the only safe course of action. In the process, they've completely undermined the aim of the law - to align copyright rules across the Single Market.

And, yes, you read that correctly - I wrote "Link Tax". Sharing "insubstantial" parts of an article will remain free, but there's no agreement on what the definition of insubstantial actually is. It's not even accepted that the title of an article is "insubstantial". Some member states may define it as "lacks creativity", others that the snippet has "no independent economic significance". There's a huge, huge legal clusterfuck coming with just that one element.

Oh, and just to make sure that clusterfuck sticks, an amendment was submitted aimed at ensuring that news sources couldn't give search engines "free" licenses to use their snippets

Unfortunately, the Commission has made their decision, and adopted their flawed version, so it's down to the European Parliament to block it (and don't think there won't be lobbying in support from those who benefit most).

To help prevent what may well amount to the destruction of the World-Wide-Web as we know it, we now need to lean on our MEPs to encourage them not to adopt Article 13.

To help:

Blog, tweet and post about what this means for the net, to help raise awareness. Many of those complaining about the effects of GDPR are only doing so because they missed their opportunity to speak out about it when it mattered. Don't make the same mistake now.

Visit https://saveyourinternet.eu/ for more information.

 


Closing

These two issues may seem distinct and unrelated, but they actually both share a commonality. Both will ultimately lead to censorship - deliberate or otherwise - and a loss of our fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Neither will actually achieve their stated aims (and in fact, the EU Copyright Directive has undermined it's own aim from the outset by devolving certain decisions to member states) but carry potentially serious consequences for the internet community as a whole.

Both need actions to be taken to try and prevent them becoming reality (though one is further towards this than the other), and in both cases speaking out is the quickest and easiest way to show support. 

Where they attempt to wave away criticisms with aspersions to technical magic solving those issues (*cough*, getting people who understand the necessary hashtags), create software to demonstrate just how easily their "solution" can be bypassed. If that means we get a thousand new open chat protocols, and fifty new anonymous overlay networks to choose from, that's a positive.

Don't let perfect be the enemy of good, demonstrate just how easily those they claim to be targeting can bypass the measures whilst the rest of us have to live with the negative effects of their ill-conceived legislation.

The world might feel truly fucked at the moment, but by focusing on the smaller things we can address, we can at least start to slow the rate at which politicians contribute to that feeling. For all the harm that the rise in Populism seems to be doing, it does also demonstrate the power that can be wielded when people unite behind a common cause - we need to use some of that power to strike down the interminable bollocks that politicians seem to keep coming up with.

 

Above all, if you hear a politician suggest (without detail) that there's a technical solution to something, it needs to draw scrutiny. They almost never understand what they're proposing, and often don't care about the potential repercussions even once made aware of them

 

 
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