After the terrible events of September 11, 2001 it didn’t take long for a piece of legislature to be passed in the US, called the Patriot Act. That is a massive set of laws ostensibly designed to help in the fight against terrorism, with the initially ignored but now widely recognised ‘side effect’ of weakening civil liberties and disregarding human rights when convenient.
This exhaustive set of laws was passed just 20 days after the attacks. Of course, the law wasn’t just created in those 20 days. Instead, it had been written many years before already and was just sitting in the drawers waiting for the right time to be passed. The ‘right time’ here being a state of fear and panic, which would make the passing of such a controversial law possible.
What does this have to do with us and this Internet/computer related blog and site? Well, as it turns out, a similar law is already written and waiting to be dropped ‘on the Internet’ in case of a major security event in that space. Take a look at this video here, where Lawrence Lessig recalls a conversation with Richard Clarke, the former US government counter-terrorism czar. The video is long, but you just have to watch from 4:30 to 5:55 for that.
Lessig had asked Clarke if the Department of Justice had something like the Patriot Act, an “i-Patriot Act” if you will, ready to be applied to the Internet in the event of a “cyber-9/11.” Clarke responded, “Of course they do. And Vint Cerf won’t like it.”.
You can also follow the discussion about it here on Slashdot.
With the Patriot Act many got the impression that some ‘hawks’ in the government probably were quite grateful for whatever happened on 9/11, so that they finally had a chance to pass these laws. I’m not into conspiracy theories and I don’t believe that the US government had any hand in these attacks. But one can’t help the impression that the event and the resulting fear and panic was certainly taken advantage of to get rid of some of those pesky human rights and civil liberties. Not even by all of the government, but just by some people within it.
I think in the case of the Internet the desire of the same type of people to limit its inherent freedom is even greater. These people don’t understand the Internet, or they fear that with the freedoms that it brings we are not as easily controllable anymore. And as we are removing ourselves from control and censorship, we are to be feared for our free will and opinions and ideas. Thus, a reason needs to be found to bring us back under control.
What forms will this take? Exhaustive monitoring of communication, gathering of data, possible bans on encryption, limits on what can and cannot be trasmitted over the Internet, etc. Basically, all the things the Patriot Acts did, just applied to the Internet. As we know now, the law for this is already written. Its proponents are just waiting for the right time.
On one hand, a security event in ‘cyper space’ is not going to as horrifying to most people as planes crashing into sky scrapers. But on the other hand, most people don’t understand the technology on the Internet anyway, they don’t understand that the Internet has the potential to change human civilisation in a profound and positive way. And because they don’t understand… well, there will be even less outrage about draconian laws being passed. In the end, it probably doesn’t take an event of the same horrific scale to get this new legislation through.
This is something to be very worried about, because we know that there is a Damocles Sword hanging over the Internet that we know and over the freedoms that it brings. And some people are just waiting to cut the string.
And before we get all high and mighty about this being a US issue only, and how we (in other countries) would never do something like this… well, get off your high horses! After 9/11 many governments in the western world had nothing better to do than to follow the examples set in the US and to willingly, even eagerly follow along with it. Because the very same people that passed those laws in the US also exist in other countries, of course. The same would happen again.
This is truly an issue affecting all of us.