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Cybercrime Treaty Subjugates the Internet

Traditionally, the establishment has looked upon anarchism in a purely pejorative sense, either ignoring it or applying the term loosely to any form (or lack) of social order that seemed threatening. Thus in society, the term "anarchism" has become a synonym for chaos and disorder, rather than for the organisation of a society on a voluntary, co-operative basis without recourse to force or compulsion. The media scorn popular protest, labelling any dissenters as "violent anarchists", and news reporters describe with glee the "anarchy" of failing enemy governments. But for a brief decade or so, a loose-knit culture spread quite a different messages, showing that a form of anarchism could create a force that would revolutionise society, taking us back to the days of the printing press and the ham radio. The people were hackers, and their toy was the Internet.

At this point, it is probably worth dispelling a few popular myths about hackers. To begin with, hackers are not in any way criminals, nor are they all spot-ridden teenagers, nor do they resent society and dwell in isolated existences. Those people, who crack security systems to gain access, legal or not, to computer systems, are correctly called crackers. Hackers, on the other hand, are people who like to play with technology (in a strictly legal sense) for the sake of exploration rather than profit. Though they did not start the Internet, and they did not set-up the physical network, hackers drove the Internet's expansion and helped define the rules by which it worked, masterminding technologies like the World Wide Web and Internet Relay Chat.

Hackers co-operated over the Internet, forming their own social ties and rules on entirely voluntary bases, with the community as the central part of their work and social structure. The Internet society was truly anarchistic, and was constrained only by the limits of telecom connectivity - if you had a phone line, you could "join the collective". This anarchism led to some astounding works of creativity, culminating in the founding of the Free Software Foundation, which went on to create its flagship project GNU/Linux, an entire Operating System that Microsoft has now named as the "number one threat" above Apple, Sun and IBM's own efforts. To dismiss them as a motley crew of amateurs is grossly understating their ability.

By the mid 1990s, the Internet started to burst into mainstream culture. Yahoo! And Excite became the buzzwords in the city and there was much talk of the potential of the Internet as an economic power. Such was the allure of a tax-free low-cost trading environment that by the late 1990s "e-commerce" had gripped the world and stock markets were going wild with speculation about the heights the industry might reach. All of this was watched by hackers with quiet amusement, and often anger, at the way mainstream culture had reacted to the Internet. Soon the Web was awash with pornography, advertisements and personal homepages, and the various figureheads of society jumped on the bandwagon trying to seem one step ahead in the game. Whilst Tony Blair was promising Internet connections for all schools (presumably so they could all learn how to avoid porn), Al Gore was claiming he invented the Internet, and moralisers worldwide were bemoaning it as an evil influence.

To the West, the Internet became a symbol for false hopes, failed technologies and disastrous investment trends. Minds quickly turned to the alter ego of the Internet - anarchism, and the establishment began to roll out the red tape to bring the "dark side" of the Internet under governmental aegis. As the public was tired of talk of the Internet, little was said in public about these diplomatic movements. They went on in secret until the final few drafts of the treaty that was to tackle "cybercrime" was unveiled, to no mainstream attention whatsoever, but to horror from the hacker community. For the implications of the treaty have never been debated, and so the treaty is entirely undemocratic. To make matters worse, "the [cybercrime] treaty was written by government bureaucrats for government bureaucrats," says Steptoe's Baker. "The process was entirely dominated by one viewpoint -- criminal enforcement." The media's blindness to the true implications of the Internet have led to a bias towards the negative financial and social aspects, rather than the positive social and political aspects of the network, and so nobody has thought to discuss the Internet's role in a post e-bust era.

A force for freedom

What has not been talked of much is the role the Internet has played in recent major world events. During the Kosovo conflict in 1999 for example, a sixteen-year old ethnic Albanian girl, nicknamed "Adona", began an e-mail correspondence with a junior at Berkeley High School, America. She wrote of Serbian forces holding her village to ransom, killing journalists and community leaders, raping women, and finally of her friends and family deserting the village. Meanwhile a dissenting radio station, B92, was being given Internet access by a Dutch ethical Internet Service Provider (ISP) called XS4ALL, over which the journalists were able to send their usual transmissions via a proxy in Holland. Seeing that their censorship methods were proving useless, and trying to appease foreign aggression, the government soon allowed B92 to resume its transmissions over radio.

Toward the end of the war, Witness.org trained four Kosovars to document human-rights abuses on digital video, which were sent back to Witness.org via the Internet. These videos, along with the accounts of Adona and many others, are now being used as evidence in The Hague to put away Serbia’s war leaders.

Because of the anarchistic, anonymous nature of the Internet, the Serbian authorities could do nothing to stop this flow of information between its citizens and the outside world, which meant that it could no longer censor all information. This not only gave the people of Kosovo who had some access to these Internet organisations hope and a sense of purpose during the conflict, but helped the international community better understand the circumstances in Kosovo during and after the conflict. Having the Internet was like having top secret agents all across Kosovo who would then report to the whole world, not just top intelligence organisations.

There are similar tales of people using the Internet to fight repression across the world, from the indigenous Zapatistas of Mexico, to journalists in China and Tibet. This revolution is being fuelled by a growing number of groups dedicated to bring the power of the Internet to people fighting for freedom. The most prominent perhaps is the Independent Media Centre, or Indymedia for short. They started up in 1999 in Seattle as a news service for protestors in the famous street battle, and have since spread across the world providing the technology and to some extent the funding to give people on the ground a voice without having to use the corrupt governmental and corporate media sources.

The treaty to "stop crime"

While these facts went unreported, the media bombarded us with loose tales of "hackers" (crackers) taking credit card numbers, of paedophiles prowling the Internet for our children, and of terrorists organising their networks through electronic mail. Our governments promised to bring in legislation to deal with these threats, and have since not said anything publicly about the matter. The US Government did get very public about copyrights however, and brought in a raft of legislature under the title of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Aimed at stopping people from breaking copyright law digitally, the act gave corporations sweeping powers to crack into people's systems, monitor Internet traffic, and arrest people for tampering with goods they bought (like making your own aerial for your TV). Because the Act was sold to Congress and the Senate as a copyright Act, it got through with little reading.

The same mistake has just been made in Europe, but this time the implications reach far wider than copyright. The cybercrime treaty, recently signed by 30 nations including members of the Council of Europe and the United States (who drafted the treaty), was aimed at extending our current laws to apply to the Internet, so that copyright infringement was the same crime on paper or over the Internet, for example. But the treaty reaches far beyond this goal, and waivers dangerous amounts of power from our national law enforcement authorities.

The first part is relatively uncontroversial. It requires nations to outlaw such things as unauthorised computer intrusion; the release of viruses; and the use of a computer to commit crimes already covered under current laws. The second part requires nations to develop standard procedures to track and store online information, and gather real-time information on the origin and destination of all traffic on a network. Nations would also be required to issue "retention orders" that would "freeze" data on any computer. The third part requires national governments to co-operate with other nations in sharing gathered information across borders, and this would apply to all crimes: not just those laid out in the first section of the treaty, but crimes in every signatory nation.

The first part is relatively uncontroversial because it does not seem to stamp on any civil liberties; few would argue against giving governments the power to arrest child pornographers who operate on the Internet. But this sort of legislation has already given rise to one highly controversial arrest in the United States - of one Dmitri Skylarov, a Russian programmer who was arrested under the provisions of the DMCA for revealing details on how to crack the cryptography for a product sold by Adobe Inc. It was controversial because many argue that under the US Constitution what he did was perfectly legal, and was in fact a service to Adobe, showing them the weaknesses in their products.

The second and third parts, however, have caused outcries from the hacker community, and have now given rise to an unlikely allegiance: hackers have joined up with the business community in fighting tooth and nail against this treaty, because of it's implications for international business. Telecom and Internet companies are worried that they will have to expend a lot of effort meeting the demands of foreign investigative authorities, with no reimbursement for their troubles. Worse still are the implications of the international co-operation. Imagine having Bulgarian authorities coming to your London office and telling you that you cannot continue with your current business practices because they conflict with Bulgarian law, even though you are well within your rights in the UK.

Industry groups say that the best strategy is to try to improve the treaty rather than kill it. Hackers seem to agree, as much as this can be judged from conversation without any leaders to speak for the pack. Now that it has been drafted and ratified, the best we can hope to do is to wipe off the last two parts of the treaty, and to rationalise the first part so that it does not lead to the absurdity that US law has gotten itself into. And fight we shall, for an Internet without anarchism is like a Labour party without a trace of socialism. Enough said.

This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2001, under the GNU Free Documentation License. As such, the article may be reproduced free of charge so long as this notice is preserved and the author, Tom Chance, is notified.