While the phrase “there’s no privacy online” holds true in many respects, it’s always worth remembering that there’s a great deal of internet freedoms we currently enjoy that could be put at risk by cack-handed, or downright malicious, legislation. Indeed, we appear to be in the midst of a state and corporate-level scramble to update laws in order to cope with the rapidly evolving communication and consumption habits, making this risk higher than ever.
So let’s take a brief look at five of the biggest threats to global internet freedoms, taking into account existing laws that are continuing to have ramifications and potential legislation that would be disastrous if implemented. You may think different of course. If there’s something you think we’ve left out let us know in the comment section below.
EU Data Retention Directive
Europe’s Data Retention Directive was passed in 2006 and is probably one of the most important pieces of legislation related to internet privacy (in the western world at least) currently in effect. The directive mandates that all EU ISPs record and store customer data – such as web logs, email logs, addresses, billing info – for 1 to 2 years after the individual has left the ISPs service. True, some EU countries, like the UK, already implemented similar legislation before the Data Directive passed, but others, such as Germany, are still fighting it. After the US, the EU is the biggest and most important political entity in the west, so the standards it sets in the relatively new arena of online surveillance is a big deal indeed. All eyes are on US legislators to see if they try to use the EU example to bring mandated data retention to US ISPs. At the moment US ISPs are perfectly entitled to hold data for as long as they like, but there’s no mandate from government. How long that will last is anybody’s guess.
With the internet becoming more and more integrated into people daily lives it’s no wonder that law enforcement agencies across the world are collectively rushingto update surveillance legislation. It’s true that some laws do need updating, but it’s also true that law enforcement – from Australia to the UK – is seeing this as an ideal opportunity to gain new powers to make their lives easier. Unfortunately a lot of these new powers would have terrible consequences for our privacy. The UK is one of the first western countries that has really got the ball rolling with the Communications Capabilities Development Programme. This act enhances surveillance power beyond the already contentious Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and gives police complete access to email and web logs with little judicial oversight. There’s certainly a feeling that other western democracies are waiting to see how the CCDP fares in the UK before implementing similar laws. While UK public opinion appears to be against the bill, there’s little opposition in mainstream UK politics.
The Trans Pacific Partnership is multi-national trade agreement between nine nations – specifically, the USA, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore and Brunei. Canada and Mexico have also been invited to join the negotiations and are likely to do so. The TPP has been billed by activists as an attempt to get the failed SOPA legislation passed through the back door. It contains a section dedicated to intellectual property, which the EFF says is “far more restrictive than currently required by international treaties, included the controversial ACTA” and “puts at risk some the most fundamental rights” that enable access to information. The biggest problem with the TPP is that it’s a truly multinational piece of legislation that could be pressured onto other countries, outside of the group, and used to create a global standard of IP enforcement.
Great Firewall of China
Of course, while we tend to focus on threats to internet freedoms in the west we often ignore the huge censorship and oppression going on elsewhere. The extent of China’s internet surveillance is hard to assess exactly, as the government uses the threat of closure to ensure ISPs, and content platforms, employ internal staff who censor and monitor communications. Along with this, it’s errected the so called ‘Great Firewall of China’, which scans data flowing across its section of the net for banned words or web addresses. It’s probably the largest scale internet censorship programme currently operational in the world. China provides a template for other totalitarian regimes to look up to and, while it is often vilified in the west for its approach to the internet, its successes and failures are surely watched by western law enforcement agencies who want to tighten their grip - especially when much of the surveillance technology used is being created by US and European corporations.
Iran’s ‘Halal Internet’
Iran has repeatedly mentioned plans to create a ‘Halal’ internet, cut off from the outside world, and in conformity with Islamic rules and morals. This nationwide intranet goes beyond China’s firewall approach. It hasn’t yet emerged, but there is evidence that it’s being worked on. As New Scientist reports, Iran appears to be allocating two IP addresses to every internet-ready machine, one which connects to the internet and an internal one only accessible from within the country. The idea is to “throttle” connections to the outside networks , rendering them too slow for use, and push people onto the internal network, where ‘Halal’ versions of email services, search engines, and even Facebook are speculated to exist. While such a creation would be pretty terrible for Iranians, it’s also worrying for the wider Islamic world. If Iran manages to make a ‘Halal Internet’ work - and it’s branded as somekind of ‘muslim internet’ - then many other Islamic countries may want to follow suit.