net.wars: The empires strike back

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 15 October 2004

Back when the Internet was young - oh, say, eight years ago - there was a school of thought that held that cyberspace was its own sovereign nation.

Wendy M Grossman

For one thing, "The Net perceives censorship as damage, and routes around it." What government could control what was said on the Net? The more fuss someone made about a particular site or piece of information, the more likely it was to be mirrored widely, even, sometimes, by people who violently disagreed with it but disagreed with censorship even more. Besides, bands of activist programmers could unite to create circumvention technologies such as anonymising Web sites, clever software to enable anonymous email and Usenet postings, cleverer software to create hidden, uncontrolled networks.

For another thing, international laws are all different. It's illegal to publish Holocaust Revisionism in Germany or sell Nazi memorability in France, but in the US those activities are protected by the First Amendment. So any time a national government didn't like something, all anyone had to do was move the material to a site somewhere else, where it wasn't illegal or even controversial.

"You have no sovereignty where we gather," wrote John Perry Barlow grandly in 1996, in protest against the Telecommunications Reform Act and its subsection, the Communications Indecency Act. Censorship and intellectual property laws, he wrote, "will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media."

Maybe it's time to change that into, "Governments perceive the Internet as damage, and gang up on it."

The story behind the week-long seizure of two hard drives, or servers, that hosted some 20 of the anarchist news collective Indymedia's 50 sites worldwide seems to be a case in point, although to be fair, no one knows yet exactly on which nation's head the dust will eventually settle. The facts of the case as far as they were known on Wednesday were pretty uncertain. The one thing that seemed clear to all concerned was that at least two, maybe three or four, nations were involved. The servers were hosted in London by the UK incorporated subsidiary of a Texas company and hosted sites from such diverse locations as the UK, Brazil, Poland, Ambazonia, and Western Massachusetts, as well as a streaming radio server. US law enforcement, acting under a request from a foreign government, applied to a US court to issue a subpoena, which was in turn presented to the London subsidiary, which pulled the servers. We say servers, but no one even really knows whether they were the tower boxes that spring to mind when you hear the word. They may simply be rack-mounted hard drives, and as one spokesman pointed out, they may not even have been removed. They could simply have been taken offline and the contents copied and transmitted electronically to - somewhere.

Some are back online; others not. IndyMedia has said that it must regard the disks as "hacked" until they have been thoroughly examined. Fair enough.

When I interviewed IndyMedia's Devin Theriot-Orr and the EFF's Kevin Bankston on Wednesday, the prevailing theory was that the source of the request was the Swiss police; but IndyMedia's most recent press release suggests it might instead have been Italian authorities. Either way, one curious point in all this is that IndyMedia appeared far more decentralised than it really was. It's certainly decentralised in the sense of everyone's having different theories about what happened based on facts that are not always well communicated from one group to another. But look at the technical infrastructure behind it: more than 40 percent of the collective's sites were hosted at a single location. Arguably, the collective could protect its content better by either having the whole set of sites on a single servers that is then mirrored on similar servers all over the world or by hosting each national site separately at locations outside its country's borders that are also mirrored elsewhere.

But the fact is that Ross Anderson's Eternity Server aside, both data and people must have a physical location somewhere. And as long as governments can find out where that is, they will find ways to act, if they can.

Gus Hosein, a Fellow in information systems at the LSE, says of the early fantasy that the Net would help us all escape government regulation, "I think that they were being legally ignorant. Since the early 1980s, US law says that if a company does business with the US it must respond to US lawful access regardless of where the world the data is and without regard to national law."

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the IndyMedia case - and the EFF believes that turning over the servers was a clear violation of the First Amendment; if the postings themselves did not violate US law, then they believe that turning over the servers was illegal - it is not the first time that the long arm of international law has been extended in this way. The first may have been 1995's raid on the anonymous server anon.penet.fi by Finnish authorities on behalf of Scientology, but there are certainly other examples.

And we should have known. You can't sit around saying confidently, "They can't get me." They take it as a challenge.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).