Sunday October 17, 2004
FIVE years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine – a very eminent scholar who specialises in international relations. He looks like someone out of central casting – grey hair, an absent-minded bearing, with a penchant for elegant but crumpled corduroy suits. He has an acute sense of history, and often seems to view everything from an altitude of 30,000 feet. We were talking about the internet, and the challenge it represented to the established order. I had outlined what I saw as the amazing potential of the network to transform access to information, make it impossible for governments and media establishments to hush up scandals, undermine established corporations, create new kinds of businesses which had hitherto been inconceivable, etc, etc – in short, to change the world.
My friend courteously heard me out. Then he said: ‘Well, we’ll see. Perhaps this technology is indeed a revolutionary threat to the established order. But I wouldn’t bet on it.’
Five years on, I’m not so sure I would bet on it either. Consider this report from Thursday’s Guardian. ‘Last week, Rackspace, a [web] hosting company with headquarters in Texas, handed two of its London-based servers to the FBI after a subpoena for their contents was issued by a US district court. The servers contained material belonging to the Independent Media Centre – better known as Indymedia (www.indymedia.org) – a conglomeration of global radical anti-globalisation sites produced by ordinary citizens.’
Now one of the interesting things about Indymedia is that much of its content is produced by amateurs – what it calls ‘citizen journalists’. Its Internet Service Provider, Rackspace, said it was merely complying with a court order ‘which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering’. Indymedia has been unable to find out why its material has been seized and its sites disabled. Is it because, somewhere in its web pages, there are genuinely sinister things? Or just material that someone – the Attorney-General of the United States, for example – doesn’t like? In the Kafkaesque world bequeathed to us by Osama bin Laden and his opponents, we simply don’t know.
The moral of the Indymedia story is that, when push comes to shove with the established order, the internet usually blinks first. While in principle the net provides the most unfettered and uncensored communications medium in history, in practice it has a critical weak link – the fact that in order to access the net, everyone has to go through an ISP. And ISPs are, for the most part, commercial companies – organisations owned by shareholders and run by accountants and lawyers who tend to see the upholding of liberty and free speech as loss-making activities best avoided. What this means is that the moment a threatening letter arrives, they tend to take down the site ‘just to be on the safe side’.
And usually they do this without examining whether the complaint has even superficial validity. You think I jest? Well, consider the findings of an experiment conducted recently by an activist group called ‘Bits of Freedom’. They signed up with 10 Dutch ISPs and then put online a work by a famous Dutch author, Multatuli, who died more than 100 years ago. The online versions stated that the work was in the public domain. The group then set up a fake society which claimed to be the copyright holder of the work and sent out complaints to all 10 ISPs using a Hotmail address, demanding that they take down this ‘copyrighted’ material. Seven out of ten removed the site – one within just three hours. One ISP forwarded all the personal details of the site owner to the sender of the fake takedown notice without even being asked to do so. Only one ISP pointed out that the copyright on the work had expired many years ago. Or, to put it another way, only one of the 10 ISPs bothered to look at the supposedly offending material.
The moral is clear. If you want to censor someone, just get your lawyer to write a snotty letter to the ISP that hosts his or her site. More generally, those of us who worry about freedom will have to address the issue of ISPs. There may be a case, for example, for NGOs across the world to band together to set up an ISP which would be prepared to investigate and vigorously contest complaints and injunctions from the established order. The days when we could assume that we could ‘publish and be damned’ on the net are over.