Are we sleepwalking into the beginning of the end of internet freedom?

With a perfect storm of security, child protection and sexualisation and copyright enforcement we may be sleepwalking into the end of freedom online as we know it.

Should BT really be able to see every detail of what we do online?
Nick Pickles
On 4 November 2011 10:11

Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) may sound like something you definitely don’t want to hear your GP say, but the reality is arguably far worse.

The legal action against file sharing site Newzbin2 was the first large-scale legal action of its kind, and resulted in a legal order mandating BT to block its customers from accessing the site.

There are various ways of achieving this, from simply blocking the web address to more complex technical methods. But the question of key concern is whether BT should be able to inspect everything you see and do online to ensure that you’re not looking at a website. 

In other words, is the price for copyright enforcement our privacy?

According to the Honourable Mr Justice Arnold, BT not only should be able to see every detail of what we do online, but the court expects it to look.

In section 6 of his ruling of the 26 October, Arnold says BT’s Cleanfeed technology should be used to stop users accessing the site, believing Cleanfeed involves “a two-stage system of IP address re-routing and DPI-based URL blocking.”

In human-speak, this means looking at the digital address of the website you want to look at, not just the www name, but also that BT should look at the individual ‘packets’ of data your PC transmits to make absolutely sure you’re not looking at that website. To use a well-worn analogy, it’s like the Royal Mail opening every letter you write to check one of them doesn’t include a copied CD.

Let’s be clear, there is no law, and this court order does not make it illegal, to view the contents of Newzbin2. Cleanfeed was developed to block images and sites connected to child abuse, and it’s suitability for this kind of enforcement is far from clear.

It’s also unlawful in the UK for a private company to intercept communications without the prior consent of both the sender and recipient. So, it would appear a UK judge has just ordered BT to break the criminal law, in the name of copyright enforcement – which remains a civil matter.

This kind of uncertainty and contradiction is not new; it has been at the heart of policy formulation in the UK for several years, and is evident in the hand-wringing around the Digital Economy Act and its enforcement.

However, this ruling does have a wider impact - it brings into question the way in which individual privacy is protected online and the regard with which it is held.  

It should not be forgotten that no UK regulator took action against BT when it used deep packet inspection as part of its advertising business development. The UK’s attitude to privacy online has been one of a badly blurred human right, a data protection regime created before Google existed and mismatched legislation that authorises investigations into suspected terrorists.

There is little discussion of how online privacy can be protected, with most of the debate focused on whether privacy comes at too great a cost to society. This cannot be a healthy situation for a society that is democratic.  

As the legal question of protecting intellectual property and enforcing the criminal law becomes blurred with the moral questions posed by the likes of Claire Perry, the future of British access – private access – to a free internet becomes ever less certain.

This week, the great and the good of the internet world gathered in London to discuss the impending doom that an explosion in cybercrime entails.

Yet perhaps the greatest threat lies from within, and with a perfect storm of security, child protection and sexualisation and copyright enforcement we may be sleepwalking into the end of freedom online as we know it.  

Nick Pickles is the Director of Big Brother Watch, a campaign group formed to defend civil liberties and protect privacy. He tweets at @nickpickles.

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