Monday, 18 May 2009

Privacy

I'm working my way through Jonathan Zittrain's excellent book, The Future of the Internet And How To Stop It.

The book itself makes some excellent points. The heart of the book concerns the web, and how it became the hotbed of innovation it is today. Essentially it boils down to two factors; experimentation is possible on the endpoints - everyone is free to use their computers how they like - and, secondly, the web doesn't discriminate between different types of traffic.

These factors are under threat. People are increasingly relying on devices that are locked down (think iPhone and Tivo), where users rely on benevolent vendors to allow changes on their behalf. What's more, these devices are tethered to a vendor's remote system, and it's therefore possible for those vendors - or more likely, an over-bearing government or court - to force changes on those devices without the consent of the user.

And where the network is concerned, at the moment, your traffic is treated with the same level of prioritisation as everyone else's. But ISPs (and others) are keen to re-prioritise this traffic for their own benefit (usually under the auspice of network optimisation). Most ISPs provide a browser with the home page defaulting to their portal, and it isn't difficult to give this content priority over that offered by competitors. I'm relieved to say that good folks like the EFF are doing a stand-up job resisting these changes.

Nevertheless, the generative nature of the web is under threat. These are the foundations on which the internet was built and it has flourished as a result. But this post isn't about that! Oh no. I'm not in the habit of writing look-what-I've-found posts, but....look what I've found!

While reading the book, I discovered that the USA PATRIOT Act allows their government to order a service provider to turn over the contents of their server without probable cause. That includes your emails, attachments, your online documents, everything you've saved online. Not only is the company not allowed to appeal this, they're not even allowed to tell anyone they've received the order! A court has to approve the order, but out of about 8,000 requests made between 2003 and 2006, only 15 rejections were made. That's 0.2%.

Like Zittrain, I would argue strongly in favour of a sensible balance between the rights of government and the rights of the individual. Checks need to be put in place to keep governments honest. I'm just astonished to learn that such a flagrant abuse of the legal system has been allowed to take place, tipping this balance and eroding a huge chunk of liberty and freedom from under the noses of the average American.

Unfortunately, Zittrain's excellent (funny! entertaining!) presentation at SXSW hasn't made its way onto their youtube channel, but a similar presentation can be seen here. It comes as "highly recommended".

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