During recent months, we have seen several examples of attempts and suggestions to restrict access to different types of net resources, and in some cases the Internet itself. Is this a method that accomplishes its end, or is it more of a “shooting the messenger” type of action?
We shall give some examples and discuss different issues in this article.
Some high-profile examples of restricting access to net resources
Among the many different incidents during the latest year, which may be seen as attempts to restrict access to net resources, we will mention the following:
- Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco USA, shut down mobile telecommunication services (mobile-internet and phone service) in a particular area in order to suppress the ability to arrange a planned protest.
- Great Britain's Prime Minister suggested that restricting access to social media might be used to stop rioting like the recent incidents in several cities in Great Britain,
- Authorities in Syria and Egypt attempted to stop Internet access in order to quell the demonstrations and uprising that were ongoing and upcoming.
- PayPal, MasterCard and VISA suspended payments to WikiLeaks.
- Amazon.com stopped hosting WikiLeaks from its web servers.
Obviously, these are totally different cases. It may even be argued that not all are about restricted access to net resources. However, we find that they are relevant for our discussion, as they all in some way have to do with restricting some people or organizations their use of the net or net services.
Several of the incidents mentioned above have been met by severe protests. Individuals and protagonists organizations for the freedom of expression have shown considerable engagement. Some have chosen to express their disagreement by attacking the entities that were perceived to have initiated the blocking. Particularly those who engage in the Anonymous “group”, have been active protesters and have used different types of means to protest. These means include denial of service attacks against Internet resources.
The different ways to express disaccord against what is perceived as a kind of censorship, may in itself be an interesting topic to discuss in an article. This article, however, will solely focus on restricting access to the Internet as a method to accomplish a particular goal (not as a method for protesting).
Several links to more extensive information about the cases mentioned above are available at the end of this article.
There are various reasons why restricting access to Internet resources may seem like “a good idea”. A general motivation for restricting access to net resources can be stated like this:
Certain activities are seen by authorities and/or organizations as undesirable and/or illegal. By restricting access to the net or to net resources, these activities will not occur or be more limited in scope.
The restricted access in all the cases in the listing above, should be in line with this general motivation.
The structural problem
The potential problem is rather of a structural character.
The Internet and mobile networks should not be viewed as products or services. A more correct way of viewing such networks, is as part of the infrastructure in a nation and between nations. Similarly, some of the services that are available on these networks should be viewed as part of the infrastructure. To mention a few:
- Access to the net itself (the service provided by net access providers)
- Access to banking systems available on the net
- Access to systems for communication between end user nodes (social media, “good old” telephone systems)
- Access to emergency numbers from telephones
The entities that operate such systems are often organizations that are allowed to act within public control and license.
The new technology problem
One of the reasons why it seems so tempting to implement restricted access to e.g. newer communication methods, is that these are not yet sufficiently integrated in society. Or more precisely: They are not yet an integrated part of what is perceived as a tool that is beyond regulation for “political” (in a wide sense) reasons.
It is inconceivable that the use of traditional telephone system would be stopped in a certain area in order to avoid certain types of communication. This is an action that would not even be among the options up for discussion.
Stopping access to mobile phones and social media on the other hand, may seem like an efficient and logical step to take in certain conditions.
Why are these communication methods viewed differently? We suggest that the reason why is that newer communication techniques are not fully understood by those who have not grown up with their presence.
In some years other sets of communication methods will supplement and in some cases replace the current. These will then be subjected to the same kind of “distrust”, while today's newer communication methods will be viewed in a similar way as old-fashioned telephones are viewed now.
Western societies' dilemma
During the uprising in several countries in the Middle East, the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook were praised by western societies as useful and even instrumental in overthrowing the former regimes. Resources were allocated in order to circumvent the oppressive regimes' attempts to censor and block net access.
Planning and implementing similar restriction techniques against western nation's own citizens to oppress certain types of communication, are seen as hypocritical both by those who criticize these methods, and by those who used them in the Middle East and in other countries. A quote from an article in China state media's Global Times about Great Britain's Prime Minister Cameron's suggestion, illustrates this perfectly:
Cameron’s suggestion to block social networking websites smashes basic concepts of freedom of speech in the West, which always takes the moral high ground in criticizing the reluctant development of Internet freedom in developing countries.
The violence has brought a comprehensive and diverse influence on the whole of the West. Created by globalization and the development of the Internet, the headache of governance suffered by developing countries has now spread to their developed peers.
Democracy and freedom of speech should have their pragmatic connotations and denotations. (…)
Targeting the illegal act
More in line with modern societies' way of approaching illegal actions, would be to target the illegal act itself, rather than the communication mediums that may be used in planning undesired activities. After all, the freedom of communication is one of the fundamentals in democratic societies.
That said, one can also imagine situations when parts of any infrastructure may be temporarily closed for security reasons. This should, however only happen according to rules and regulations that are defined by proper authorities, and not according to actions that are more ad hoc and initiated by random organizations, which (by coincidence) are able to accomplish this.
Selected further reading about the examples used
- Amazon Says WikiLeaks Violated Terms of Service (The Wall Street Journal, 3 December 2010)
- PayPal shuts out WikiLeaks (CNet, 4 December 2010)
- MasterCard Pulls Plug on WikiLeaks Payments (CBS News 6 December 2010)
- Wikileaks' Visa payments suspended (BBC News 7 December 2010)
- PayPal Busted for Bogus Wikileaks Excuse (Gawker, 8 December 2010)
- Egypt severs internet connection amid growing unrest (BBC News, 28 January 2011)
- How Was Egypt's Internet Access Shut Off? (Scientific American, 28 January 2011)
- Internet Access in Syria Goes Down Amidst Protests (PCMag, 3 June 2011)
- DataCell files a complaint with the European Commission (DataCell news item, 14 July 2011)
- RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger reportedly used by London rioters (Financial Post, 8 August 2011)
- David Cameron considers banning suspected rioters from social media (The Guardian, 11 August 2011)
- Riots lead to rethink of Internet freedom (Global Times, 13 August 2011)
- FCC looking into BART mobile phone shutdown (InfoWorld, 15 August 2011)
- San Francisco Subway Spokesman Says Cellphone Shutdown Was His Idea (Wired, 16 August 2011)