Something terrible is happening on the Web and changing it into something that didn’t exist even a year ago. This isn’t just about the entertainment industry trade groups trying to turn back the clock on their rapidly changing business, although it is a part of it, nor it is just about broadband providers trying to increase fees while giving us less service, or even mediocre service compared to competing nations.
What is happening is a steady encroachment of the US government to exert command and control of the Web, either directly or acting as strawman for the entertainment industry.
This isn’t an argument about net neutrality even though it is an integral part of what is being subverted by recent actions by the US government. What is happening is far more insidious than that, while at the same time our Web is being changed and challenged to the point that net neutrality becomes a secondary problem.
There has been two events in the past week or so that serve as signposts as to what is happening now and by all indications will continue to happen, with possibly an increased pace.
ICE acting like Mickey Mouse’s bodyguard
The first instance of events that should be raising alarm bells everywhere is the recent seizure of a large number of domains. I wrote about it when it first happened asking the question as to when ICE would go after Google. Since that post there has been others who have raised some very good points much like Mike Masnick at Techdirt when he writes
As we noted, in an earlier similar domain name seizure situation, Homeland Security announced the seizures from Disney’s headquarters — which should raise lots of eyebrows. As we said at the time, imagine any other government agency announcing a third party action that benefits a particular company from that company’s offices. For example, imagine the FTC announcing antitrust actions against Google from Microsoft’s offices. Wouldn’t people question the legitimacy of that?
So not only do we have due process being totally ignored by these government agencies but they openly admit that they are all intents and purposes acting as a police force for the entertainment industry. As Erik Barnett, assistant deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is quoted in Entertainment Weekly as saying this:
“In general, what we can say is, there are specific complaints from rights holders that these sites were infringing on copyrights,”
Barnett’s statements get even scarier when it comes to the whole problem with due process being ignored.
Homeland Security made its move after an undercover investigation that lasted about 90 days. The websites’ owners were given no advance notice that they were at risk. “I mean, when we’re conducting criminal investigations, we don’t notify criminals that you need to abate your criminal conduct or there’s going to be an enforcement action against you,” says Barnett.
The problem with this argument is that; using Barnett’s example, in criminal investigations nothing is seized while the investigation is under way. The seizures happen at the time of arrest of a person who has committed a crime and what is being seized is a byproduct of that crime, either directly or indirectly.
In the case of the seized domains no-one was arrested, no-one was charged with a crime and yet their property – said domain name – is seized.
The other thing that is really bothersome about this whole thing is that it was done without the knowledge of the hosting companies or the domain owners. All it took was ICE going to VeriSign and ICANN and politely request that all the offending domains be redirected to seizedservers.com.
To date no charges against the domain owners have been filed.
The U.S. pouts and web companies evict to make them happy again
While the above events had the government acting on behave of the entertainment business this second points to how the government is also trying to exert direct control of what is posted to the Web.
If you haven’t been hiding under a rock you will have heard of the uproar over the recent data dump of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks. The dump and subsequent coverage, especially by the mainstream press, has created a firestorm of controversy as well as Julian Assenge being charge, or going to be charge with espionage by the U.S. government.
However it seems that the U.S. Government is happy with just that, and I am sure that there are some who would like to see Assenge hung from the highest yardarm possible but it also turns out that the government, or rather Senator Joe Lieberman through the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs, put pressure on amazon to boot Wikileaks from their servers.
The reason Wikileaks was using the Amazon A3 cloud hosting service was because it was a good way to make sure the Wikileaks site would be able to stay up under the continuing DoS attack. This is Senator Lieberman’s statement regarding the move by Amazon to kick Wikileaks off (via ReadWriteWeb):
This morning Amazon informed my staff that it has ceased to host the Wikileaks website. I wish that Amazon had taken this action earlier based on Wikileaks’ previous publication of classified material. The company’s decision to cut off Wikileaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies Wikileaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material. I call on any other company or organization that is hosting Wikileaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them. Wikileaks’ illegal, outrageous, and reckless acts have compromised our national security and put lives at risk around the world. No responsible company – whether American or foreign – should assist Wikileaks in its efforts to disseminate these stolen materials. I will be asking Amazon about the extent of its relationship with Wikileaks and what it and other web service providers will do in the future to ensure that their services are not used to distribute stolen, classified information.
Now I will admit that my knee-jerk reaction to this news was the typical WTF! but after talking with a couple of friends whose opinions I respect I can understand the reasoning behind the move and can see how the whole censorship argument that some blogs are using in the hue and cry over this is really not relevant.
That said, and as one friend pointed out, how does the US Government think this is going to stop Wikileaks in the slightest. As it was the site was back up and running on a new European host within hours of being booted from Amazon. What this does though is make one ask what is the threshold one has to cross before a government agency can have you evicted from your host? At what point do you suddenly find yourself in the cross-hairs of a government who doesn’t like something you have said or written?
What does this say also of Amazon that they were willing to capitulate to pressure from the government and boot a site from their servers?
Also if the government is in the business of seizing domain names as they have already proven why don’t they seize the Wikileaks domain?
Where does this leave us?
While the whole Wikileaks things is a hot potato with valid points on both sides of the argument the more important thing to keep in mind here is the actions of the U.S. Government across a wide area of the Web. From seizing domains because entertainment companies claim they are being damaged; even though the government’s own GAO has called the so-called facts flaunted by the entertainment industry into serious doubt, to forcing American multi-national companies to deny services to people who haven’t been convicted of crime, the American government is trying to control what is happening on the Web.
image via FLOW TWE graffti art Flickr stream