Free again: Doctorow signals the danger of states pushing tech boundaries. Photo: Rex/Will Ireland/Future Publishing
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Betrayed by your smartphone: Cory Doctorow on the future of internet censorship

“Information doesn’t want to be free,” writes the sci-fi novelist and activist Cory Doctorow, “people want to be free.”

When in May the European Court of Justice issued the ruling that has become known as “the right to be forgotten”, allowing individuals to request their removal from search results, it startled many in the tech industry. The decision jarred with their respect for freedom of speech, and commentators pointed out that Google would have to develop an infrastructure for assessing and removing search results. This seemed a very big ask.

Yet Google already has an effective system of self-censorship. It exists to comply with takedown notices issued under copyright legislation, when rights holders want links to piracy sites removed from their search results. One of the main arguments the sci-fi novelist and activist Cory Doctorow makes in his new book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, is that the infrastructure for copyright enforcement is the same as that for censorship.

“Information wants to be free” is a rallying cry for many of those who fight against legal restrictions on the internet. The phrase was coined by the tech writer Stewart Brand in 1984 and referred to the way the web reduces many of the costs of producing and disseminating data to near zero. “Free” in this phrase has also come to mean “freedom”, because the internet makes it easy to avoid censorship.

Doctorow is challenging both interpretations – not because he doesn’t agree with them but because he thinks a crucial premise has been lost. “Information doesn’t want to be free,” he writes, “people want to be free.”

The first two-thirds of the book discusses ways in which artists are penalised by the internet’s present regulatory system. He criticises digital rights management (DRM) technology, which limits the platforms digital files can play on; not only does it mean we don’t “own” the files we pay for, but when a company that supports a file goes bust, the culture locked up in their DRM can be lost for ever. Doctorow describes this as “a library burning in slow motion”.

Many companies such as Apple sell devices that block you from downloading non-approved apps. “That is sold to creators as an anti-piracy measure,” Doctorow tells me when we speak on the phone. “But the most practical application has been to allow Apple to exert market power that it would never have had in any other world.”

This links to the final third of the book, which explores how systems for protecting copyrighted material can also be used for censorship.

Last month the security firm ESD America found dozens of “fake” mobile-phone towers across the US which were extracting data from users who unknowingly connected to them. Similar towers have been used at protests by police forces around the world to monitor activists. Doctorow argues that a government (he cites Ukraine as an example) could react to a protest by cross-referencing that data with information gleaned from domestic internet connections, because anti-digital piracy legislation often mandates “taps” on home web connections. Then it’s a simple job to establish protesters’ names and addresses. If they have a new smart thermostat, which is connected to the web, the state could even extract individual protesters’ thermostat ID. “Then they just cut off everybody’s heat that night,” he says. “Problem solved, done in one.”

Doctorow’s novels are often set in a technologically enabled dystopia. Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free offers a blend of mundane copyright policy recommendations and warnings about what will happen if our societies do not change course. “This,” he says, “is about whether our devices will betray us.”

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.