Telcos and web freedom

Robert Clark
14 Oct 2010

Time was when people would seriously talk about the internet as a brave new frontier, untrammeled by government interference. Without any irony John Perry Barlow proclaimed the "declaration of the independence of cyberspace" in 1996.

From today's viewpoint, he sounds like one of those crazy hippy bastards willing to leave us at the mercy of Russian gangsters and Stuxnet.

But from today's viewpoint it's hard to find anyone left prepared to defend freedom online.

In the latest moves in the US, the Obama Administration has called for Congress to pass a law that mandates a backdoor for all communications - PSTN voice, email, instant message, VoIP, web, etc. Everything.

It argues that this is not expanding the remit of surveillance agencies but merely enabling legal interception of new forms of communications, just as it has statutory wiretap access into traditional networks.

Under the existing 1994 CALEA law phone and broadband networks are required to allow police and FBI wiretaps. But that law does not cover, for example, enterprise VPNs, encrypted services such as RIM's BlackBerry or P2P services like Skype's. Speaking to the New York Times, US officials cited examples of a drug cartel using P2P, and, rather more mysteriously, Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, using "a service that lacked prebuilt interception capacity" - presumably a workaround so accessible and so effective that it cannot be described.

To close off these "prebuilt interception" shortcomings, the feds are seeking the ability to peer into encrypted messages (like BlackBerry), P2P services (Skype), and traffic carried by foreign telcos.

Nothing wrong with that. Spooks need to be able to listen in on bad guys when they're planning dangerous and violent stuff, and nothing wrong with updating that to 21st century protocols.

The caveat is there has to be some reasonable suspicion that those actually are bad guys and not just someone planning a family visit to Pakistan.

This is old ground, but we will forever go over it because big, secretive government agencies are notorious for doing stuff they're not meant to do under the cover of protecting us.

The last decade has been a golden age for abuse of state power: extraordinary rendition, warrantless wiretaps, the war over "WMDs", Gitmo, dodgy dossiers.

This plan to extend surveillance to cover new applications has attracted little criticism from the usual defenders of web speech. It seems after the last decade, governments have pushed back the frontier so far the battle for the free web seems over.


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