Turning the tables…

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Imagine you’ve just been appointed the head of the online secret police for an oppressive dictatorship. Your leader comes to you with a worried expression. The internet bothers him, he tells you. People get to say whatever they want, to talk to whoever they want, and it’s spreading dissent and destabilising the government. ‘It’s a disaster,’ he says. ‘What are you going to do about it? We need to keep this under control.’

You think about it a bit and then come up with a plan. Our main problem, you tell him, is that we don’t know enough about what is going on. We need to monitor everything. ‘If we know who is talking to who, what sites they’re visiting on the internet, which social networking systems they’re using, and for what, then we can start to take back control.’

A smile starts to appear on the leader’s face. ‘What next?’ he asks.

‘Next we need to set up a system to be able to search through all that information – some kind of filtering system to find what we want to find.’

‘You mean like a kind of Google for private communications and internet activities?’

‘Exactly. We can search for whatever we want – and whoever we want. But there’s more: we can use that information to do much more. They think the internet’s a tool for their free speech – we can turn it into a way to find them, to arrest them, to block them, to find out who likes what they say. We can access their activities in real time and respond to them before they know what’s happening. We can turn the tables on them.’

Your leader smiles and rubs his hands together. ‘Go for it,’ he says.

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This is the opening section of an article I’ve just had published in Digital Frontiers, the new volume of the excellent Index on Censorship. It’s a fascinating magazine – and this edition includes pieces by such luminaries as Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman, Gabriella Coleman, Jennifer Granick, Privacy International’s Eric King amongst others. It covers many different aspects of the issues surrounding the internet – from free speech and surveillance to child protection and the power of microblogs.

I feel privileged to have been able to contribute – my piece, as the opening might suggest, is about the dangers of the UK’s Communications Data Bill, the ‘snoopers’ charter’ in terms of free speech, and how it could contribute to a worldwide ‘chilling effect’. I’d seriously recommend buying the magazine – it’s currently available only in print form – not for my piece, but for all the rest, and to support the excellent work of Index on Censorship.

You can find details of how to buy it – and to subscribe to Index on censorship, by clicking here…

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