Internet regulations

Almighty Mouse and Internet Censorship

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On 15 June, Internet users found it impossible to access certain torrent sites. Internet service disruptions are by no means an unusual occurrence for Georgian Internet users. This time, however, disconnection of the torrent sites was not blamed on the typical technical problems. A statement released shortly afterwards by the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) provided another explanation for the restriction: Internet piracy.

GNCC advised the public that it had restricted access after the Georgia Authors Society reported that pirated copies of the film “5 Days of August” were available on ten Web sites. “The Georgian National Communications Commission will take all appropriate measures in regard to the matter and the owners of Web sites will be required to cease infringement, otherwise the authorized persons providing the Web hosting will be required to block the Web sites,” the GNCC statement read.

A link to the movie was removed instantly from each of the Georgian Web sites. Providers of the “suspicious” Web page hosting appeared to be from outside the country. For their part, national Internet providers found a quick and easy solution by totally blocking some thirty of the most popular torrent sites.

Georgian TV media and Internet bloggers alike quickly grabbed onto this news – each offering a different spin. Throughout the evening, Georgian audiences watched TV reports declaring it a great crime to download pirated copies of movies. Meanwhile, the restriction of access to Web resources caused a great uproar inside the Internet space.

Comical facets of the GNCC initiative became instantly conspicuous against the background of protest. Minutes after the sites were blocked, it was already evident that GNCC control of the Internet was not an easy task. A quick Google search was enough to identify other sites from which one could still download “banned” movies, including “5 Days in August.” Many motivated Internet users soon circulated a link from which the film also could be downloaded. It was not at all difficult either to upload the film on YouTube or any other video portal. Moreover, various official sites posted schemes for changing relevant parameters in computers, thereby making it a simple process to access “blocked” torrents.

These impromptu responses of Internet users made it demonstrably clear that it takes only a few clicks of the computer mouse to sidestep regulatory efforts to restrict Internet access.

In Georgia, regulations in cyberspace seem more like carrying water in a sieve than opening a censorship floodgate. The initial indignation of Internet users was soon replaced with a cynical and self-confident tone: If a Web site is blocked, we will create a thousand more instead – and with minimal effort.

There is little, if any, likelihood that GNCC regulators would ever go to such lengths as to block Google, YouTube or other portals countrywide. There is no looming threat that Georgia will be disconnected from the global network. But that threat exists in many non-free countries. Internet censorship is a harsh way of life in such countries as, for example, Iran and North Korea. In North Korea, only the political elite have access to the Internet and then only in an extremely controlled format. North Korea and Iran are branded as “Internet enemies,” a list which also includes Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and some others.

The reality is that advancements in technologies have changed the rules of the game. An open system has emerged, one which is impossible to control. A starfish is the apt metaphor used to describe the global network in the Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom book, “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” published in 2006. There was a time when it was assumed that a hierarchical structure was necessary to create and to maintain an effective organizational system. For example, corporations have executive leaders who make decisions and identify priorities. The corporate world functions according to this hierarchical system of orders, rules and procedures. If such a closed system were left without a central leadership, it would die – like a spider when its head is cut off.

It is a different situation when it comes to a decentralized or open source system, which is what the Internet is. Everything here – from pirated music Web sites to Wikipedia – is much more flexible. If a Web site is attacked, the site can easily reallocate its resources and continue functioning. This characteristic of the Internet makes it stronger and self-sufficient.

The very absence of structure, leadership and formal organization, which would have been considered a weakness in the past, is today the main advantage of an open system. The Internet cannot be “beheaded” because no “head” exists. In this regard, the Internet resembles a starfish with many legs but no head. If you cut off one of its legs, a starfish grows a new one, and that new leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. In place of one illegal Internet link, hundreds of new ones emerge in the event of an attack.

It is this nature of the Internet that enables society to self-organize against censorship. That is exactly what happened in Georgia on 15 June. The state bureaucracy developed a plan for controlling cyberspace, but it did so without ever realizing the difficulty of its task. An unrestrained desire to espouse EU-type copyright standards put the GNCC in a comical predicament.

Copyright wars are not being waged in Georgia alone. The United States and Europe spare no efforts to defend copyright in the Internet domain – with considerably more sophisticated weaponry deployed. Not long ago, France and the United Kingdom adopted new laws to remove accused copyright scofflaws from the Internet. Negative reaction followed instantly: A United Nations report determined that disconnecting people from the Internet constitutes a human rights violation and is against international law.

Apart from the right of free access to information, a number of other arguments support the view that the global network must be free from censorship and state control. The Internet is an unlimited resource – consumption of it by one does not reduce its availability for others. Banning the dissemination of information only generates negative results. The same holds true for that product – a photograph, a film, a song – which a person has stored in his/her computer and wants to share with others.

Torrent is a system that facilitates such sharing. It is used by people to supply others with the product they have in their own computers. In contrast to warez sites, torrent content is not placed directly on a server. This mechanism allows sharing many files which have, or do not need, a license for sharing. Authors often use this system to promote their product to large audiences.

Georgian Internet users who pay for Internet service and legally use torrent sites were those who fell victim to the recent GNCC restriction. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the list of sites restricted by GNCC included even those which did not contain “5 Days of August.” This broad restriction presumably was imposed as a preventive measure.

Total blocking of torrents is not an act practiced in the developed world. A torrent itself is not considered illegal. The breach of law occurs with the downloading and storing of unlicensed productions. When discovering unlicensed content, copyright watchdogs demand from breaching Web sites that they themselves block illegal product. If Web sites fail to do so, they are brought to court by copyright watchdogs determined to neutralize “dangerous” sites.

Vigorous pirate-hunting often results in Internet censorship. In Europe, numerous individual torrent sites have been blocked due to breach of copyright laws. In the face of such censorship, consumers may protest, but they hardly feel helpless; they merely access the banned sites via proxy-servers. As for the blocked torrent sites, many of them continue functioning at different addresses, thereby providing additional sources of consternation for copyright watchdogs.

Georgia is second to none in world piracy. Foreign torrents, in terms of possession and release of unlicensed production, are considered a lesser evil. The GNCC so far has not shown any particular interest in going after public organizations which use unlicensed Windows products and other unauthorized programs.

Nor has any official body shown any interest in voluminous downloading warez sites belonging to Georgian Internet providers, which grossly breach copyright protection laws. One Internet provider, Caucasus Online, recently entered into an agreement with the sound recording company, Bravo Records, to create a joint Web portal which will contain licensed media data. That agreement leaves unknown the fate of popular Caucasus Online warez sites containing thousands of unlicensed foreign movies, music and other programs.

The 15 June action of the GNCC was not the first time that Internet content was restricted in Georgia. In contrast to the recent torrent blocking, an Internet restriction imposed in 2008 was connected to a far more dramatic situation: the Russian-Georgian war. At that time, a political decision was made to disconnect the wide-scale Tbilisi forum and sites with Russian domains. Whereas the latter could be accessed via proxy-server, the shut-down Tbilisi forum was inaccessible. Although alternative communication channels remained open and acquiring information did not present any great difficulties, the 2008 Internet restriction pushed Georgia down the scale of freedom-of-media ratings, relegating the country to the category of “partly free” rather than “free” countries.

On 16 June, the day after the GNCC action, those restrictions were lifted by large Internet-providers – Caucasus Online, first, and then, Silknet. As Caucasus Online explained: “In addition to illegally released content, these Web pages contain other information. We have taken into account legal interests of our customers and, based on special technical decision, restricted access from these Web pages to concrete content, in this particular case to ‘5 Days of August.’” It is not clear why no one showed any concern about “consumer interests” when IT employees of this company totally blocked all those torrents.

Technological advancements all but ensure that attempts to control cyberspace will fail. That has proved to be the case in many countries besides Georgia. Even in China, the Internet is freer than any other media – despite persistent reports of cyberspace censorship by the 30,000-strong Chinese Internet “army.”

Perhaps the best example of the supremacy of technology is the high-profile case of the Pirate Bay. This was one of the most popular Swedish torrents and a frequent target of copyright watchdogs. Back in 2006, Swedish police, armed with a court order, confiscated servers of the Pirate Bay. As expected, extreme measures failed to achieve the goal. True, the site went offline for three days and all those servers hosted by Pirate Bay’s Internet provider were shut down. But Pirate Bay opened a blog which enabled it to maintain continuous contact with its customers. And Pirate Bay’s Jolly Roger logo was soon hoisted again and the torrent restored. To thwart subsequent attacks, back-up Pirate Bay servers were created in Russia and Belgium.

The Swedish restriction produced a counter-effect: the number of Pirate Bay customers in the following two years almost trebled, reaching three million while the confiscated server was purchased by the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology, where it is now displayed for its great symbolic value as a “big problem or a big opportunity.”

Government attacks against Pirate Bay culminated with court trials in 2009. Four representatives of the besieged site were accused of infringing the rights of copyright holders. Pirate Bay’s lawyer argued that the possession of a torrent was as legal as driving a car and, just as some drivers exceed permitted speed limits, some customers used torrents to share unlicensed material. The defense argument that Pirate Bay owners were not responsible for the actions of customers did not carry the day, however. Intellectual property rights won out in court and the four Pirate Bay defendants were sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay a large fine. The jail sentences were subsequently reduced.

The Pirate Bay case has provided a source of inspiration for a new political movement in Europe. The Swedish Pirate Party gained huge popularity following the court trial. Within seven hours of announcement of the sentence, the Pirate Party was joined by seven thousand new members; within a week, its membership rose from fifteen thousand to forty thousand people. In the 2009 elections, the Pirate Party mustered 7.3 percent of the vote and is now one of the largest political parties in Sweden. As its name suggests, the Pirate Party’s main goal is to achieve the free exchange of materials on the Internet. To this end, legislation on intellectual property rights needs to be amended, first and foremost.

The Pirate Party movement has been followed by parties in thirty-three other countries. As regards the Pirate Bay Web site, it is blocked in the United States and many European countries but still operates with millions of users. Incidentally, “5 Days of August” ranks fifteenth in the top hundred of the Pirate Bay torrents.

All this indicates that the war against digital technologies is a losing game. Since its inception, the Internet has posed the biggest challenge for copyright protection. Any censorship of the global network faces insurmountable obstructions. One way or another, thousands of torrents exist on the Internet today. Whatever the scale of any campaign against torrents, alternative ways of exchanging information will instantly emerge.

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