Most of the time, I start my morning with reviewing new legislation in the area of control over the Internet, fight against piracy and further debate on the accuracy of definitions in the area of copyright. Amid daily reports from hot spots and various crash sites, there is very little news about repressive legislation regarding the Internet. We are now used to widespread access to the Global Network and can hardly imagine ourselves without our “virtual alter-ego.” Having armed myself with open sources of information and expert opinions, I decided to take a look at what the Internet may have evolved into over the course of the past fifteen years.
Walking through a long and winding path we call life, it’s vitally important, especially at fast-moving times like these, to make regular stops along the way: not only to gain rest, but also to reevaluate or reaffirm the purpose of the path itself. When it comes to future accomplishments, however, a retrospective look may be our only true “teacher.” No matter how we describe our future today, it will most likely be an “offspring” of speculative constructions; and yet, every experience accumulated by humankind is all-encompassing. When used in a limited way or applied ad hoc, we may acquire a universal tool – a skill that we could apply in all areas of life: from business to private life, from giving public speeches to passing down knowledge from one generation to the next.
The boom of construction, which challenged humankind as a whole and the power of our imagination in particular, has subsided. While it gave us a vast legacy of technology and innovation, it also proved how arrogant we are as a human race, a slogan like “This too is not beyond us” being one example of such arrogance. 1843, for instance, saw the opening of the first underwater tunnel in history – the Thames tunnel. In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal for traffic forever changed the history of commercial navigation, while the period of Great Depression coincided with the completion of the world’s tallest building at the time, the Empire State Building, its spire proudly piercing the American sky. Some six years later, the Golden Gate Bridge was built (spanning the strait of the same name), which up until 1964 was considered the largest suspension bridge on the planet.
Construction of the world’s “tallest” building or “largest” bridge would hardly be breaking news today, as construction fever was soon replaced by high technology breakthroughs. The use of information as an asset was rediscovered: it was shared, accumulated and analyzed. In the third century BCE, Ptolemy II Philadelphus1 (The king of Ptolemaic Egypt from 283 to 246 BCE) was obsessed with the idea of preserving handwritten manuscripts for future generations, which is why he heavily promoted the Great Library of Alexandria, viewed as a major trove of human knowledge at the time. Today, the amount of digital information consumed is 320 times bigger than what “is estimated to have been stored in the Library of Alexandria.”(1) Much of this is owed to the rapid growth and popularization of the Internet. But let’s look at the figures.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in 2000, approximately 400 million people across the globe were active users of the Internet, and that’s about 6.5 per cent of the planet’s population. According to We Are Social,(2) 14 years later, the Internet space was “inhabited” by 3.01 billion users. By the end of 2015, that figure rose to 3.2 billion people (43 per cent of the population of the Earth, as reported by ITU). This may sound sinister, but in 1960 there were as many people inhabiting our planet, as there are Internet users today. Facebook, the largest social network in the world, echoes the ITU’s findings, though Facebook views these figures differently.
Like some see a glass half full and others – half empty, Facebook pays a lot of attention to its potential users – those who still prefer to avoid the Internet for one reason or another. One of Facebook’s primary concerns is that during the past four years there has been a rapid decline in the number of people, who only begin to use the Internet in earnest: from 14.7 per cent in 2010 to 6.6 per cent in 2014. By Facebook’s estimates, at this pace, five more years will pass before the company celebrates its next billion users.
What are the consequences of “injecting” Internet technologies into everyday life? Despite the fact that TV is still the most consumed medium, its inviolability not in question, the Internet remains firmly in second place. That’s a great accomplishment for TV, isn’t it, seeing that the technologies used now and then are almost 50 years apart. According to latest research by We Are Social, users connecting to the Internet from a personal computer spend on average 4.4 hours on the Internet, while mobile device users – approximately 1.7 hours. Out of this time, almost 2.4 hours are spent in social networks. And this, my friends, is only a tip of an iceberg. In 2012, GfK (2) did a research on the amount of time teens, aged 13 to 17, spend on the Internet, and it showed a growth by 37 per cent, which is more than 4 hours per teen a day. What’s also intriguing is that the number of hours people over 18 spend on the Internet remains intact. All in all, the figures are quite straightforward and speak for themselves, but let’s end this discussion here.
Tim Wu, in his book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, notes that change in industrial structure can happen quite radically, when “information is the underlying commodity.” Think of the emergence of Hollywood, for instance. Viewed as a “manifestation of mass-produced culture,” it succeeded the age of independent cinema owners. As a result, American film industry “went from one of the most open industries in the United States to one of the most controlled one.” (3)
Today, the Internet seems to be following a similar path. Statements, born at the dawn of the Internet age, were often bold and pompous in their nature, and sought to meet expectations of a rather small community of Internet users, who envisioned almost endless opportunities of the new era.
“A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy. Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive re-routing of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering.” (4)
“Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.” (5)
In order to understand how utopian some of the older views on the Internet sound today, let’s examine several excerpts from Julian Assange’s A Call to Cryptographic Arms published in 2012.
“And the paths of encipherment between people can mesh together to create regions free from the coercive force of the outer state. Free from mass interception. Free from state control … As states merge with the internet and the future of our civilization becomes the future of the internet, we must redefine force relations … It is time to take up the arms of our new world, to fight for ourselves and for those we love.” (6)
A few months before Assange’s essay was made public, Russia implemented a federal law, aimed at protecting children from harmful content. Fight against child pornography, popularization of drugs and suicide was heavily publicized. The law talked about creating a “blacklist” and implied that any company, distributing information, the dissemination of which is prohibited by court order, would be blacklisted. The experience, accumulated by Internet users and companies, showed, however, that something else was “lurking” behind the government’s good intentions: an attempt to censor the Russian-language segment of the Internet. Artem Kozluk, the head of RosKomSvoboda, was instrumental in explaining the scope of the implication of the law.
“All legislation, aimed at blocking sites in Russia, allows providers to block not only banned content, but also thousands of Internet sites and their IP addresses. These sites do not contain any banned content, but are subject to blocking ‘just in case’. According to our own research project, which we have been conducting since the laws were first implemented back in 2012, there are over 1.2 million of such online resources. We collect this data and make it public. This information can be analyzed with the help of various Network tools (IP addresses, recorded in the registers of Roskomnadzor11 and other government bodies, which have the authority to block sites without a court order). That’s why over 1.2 million websites have been blocked, which constitutes about 96 per cent of the total number of blocked sites. 4 per cent is being blocked directly. Most of such decisions, however, are unfounded. We inform our subscribers of such cases on an almost daily basis. Let’s say, Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) (A federal law enforcement agency, now dissolved) blocks the website of the Hungarian Academy of Science, which published an open report (with a library identifier) on the subject of addictive drugs. And then imagine Rospotrebnadzor (Russia’s consumer rights watchdog) banning distribution of video campaigns, aimed at preventing accidents; campaigns viewed as public service ads elsewhere in the world and proved to be highly efficient. So, while this kind of social advertising does help reduce a number of casualties, Rospotrebnadzor thinks it may provoke suicide among children. Even if adequacy or inadequacy of such decisions is not in question, 96 per cent of sites, which had nothing to do with it [publishing banned content], are subject to blocking, and that is a huge number. Many people, including designers, IT specialists, communities of writers and journalists, are already facing this problem, their sites being blocked. We are talking of websites of various content and traffic, of course. That’s why we are introducing methods and tools to help Internet users skirt the ban in just a few clicks and access the sites. Thereby, we demonstrate that Internet users have the right to access information and online resources.” (A. Kozluk (2016, June 15). Skype interview.)
Blacklisted websites aside, it would be a mistake not to mention pro-government bloggers, slacktivists, hundreds of websites affiliated with the government, etc., even though legislation is still the main factor here. Any savvy Internet user probably knows that in post- Soviet countries legislation is no longer conforming to reality of the digital era and is in need of immediate modernization. However, the [Russian] government often mistakes “modernization” for “regulation”, relocating servers inside the country and giving full access to the users’ data. Here’s an excerpt from my own book The BlackList.
“Roskomnadzor drafted a bill, proposing amendments to the current legislation, to regulate the use of messaging apps across Russia. According to these amendments, all messengers operating in the country must be included in the country’s register of service providers. A corresponding contract must be signed and Roskomnadzor should be informed. The law requires all users of messengers to be “identified” to restrict distribution of unwanted messages, spam in other words. And this is it! However, we all understand, that a slogan like ‘Let’s fight spam on a state level’ sounds ridiculous. Perhaps, the world has changed so much we failed to notice it. Allegedly, the task of introducing such amendments was given by the President’s Administration because of a ‘grave geopolitical situation’. At the time of writing these words, the aforementioned amendments are still being reviewed and adjusted by a corresponding working group. It is still too early to say when these amendments will come into effect.”(К. Лобецкий. Черный список [The BlackList] (2016). Available from http://www.hardcore.today/ portfolio_page/blacklist/ [July 2017].)
An almost warlike campaign to discredit and ban the Telegram messenger is well under way too. It’s hard not to notice how, ever since the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) / VKontakte (Russia’s most popular social network) standoff, Pavel Durov’s (A Russian entrepreneur, the founder of VKontakte and the Telegram Messenger) laudable vision ran in stark contrast with the realities of political power in Russia.
“Telegram does not disclose any data or encryption keys to third parties, including governments,” – said Durov in an interview to Izvestia (One of Russia’s oldest broadsheet newspapers). – “The laws, implemented in selected countries, shall not affect this policy.”
It should be noted that technologies, preventing governments from spying on users’ data and correspondence, have been a distinctive feature of Telegram ever since its emergence. Further on, this trend was picked up by other popular messengers. Today, the encryption technology can hardly surprise anyone and are used by all innovative messaging apps.
Experience has shown, however, that the architecture of the Network and a desire to use certain well-loved services may help us uphold our own right to free access to information. This is further demonstrated by a significant increase in the usage of VPN services in Ukraine, the anonymous browser Tor, and other tools, which help users skirt online censorship of popular Russian sites, currently under sanctions by the Ukrainian government. Not denying ourselves the pleasure of watching the “game”, where one “team” seeks control and issues bans, and the other – pretends the ban is working, is probably our best option.
(1) Mayer-Schonberger, V.M., & Cukier, K. (2013). A Revolution that Will Transform How WeLive, Work, and Think. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
(2) Лобецкий К. (2016). Черный список [The BlackList]. Available fromhttp://www.hardcore.today/portfolio_page/blacklist/
(3) Wu, T. (2010). The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
(4) May, T. C. (1992, November 27). The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. Abstract retrieved fromhttps://www.activism.net/cypherpunk/crypto-anarchy.html
(5) Barlow, J. P. (1996). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. The Electronic Frontier Foundation. Abstract retrieved from https://www.eff.org/cyberspace- independence
(6) Assange, J. (2012, December 5). A Call to Cryptographic Arms. Cryptome. Abstracts retrieved from https://cryptome.org/2012/12/assange-crypto-arms.htm