Internet freedom is under assault from many quarters and has been for some time though we have been slow to recognize it. It started innocuously enough a year ago with the European Court of Justice epic ’’right to be forgotten” ruling, which is now likely to be expanded if French regulators have their way. Another wound was inflicted by the FCC’s decision which resulted in the Internet being regulated as a utility in the contentious net neutrality debate. The fear is this type of overregulation and censorship is likely to increase-not decrease. This doesn’t bode well for the future of innovation or freedom on the Internet.
The topic was front and center during the annual Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas which was kicked-off last week with remarks by keynote speaker, Jennifer Granick, director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. Her speech lamented the slow erosion of Internet freedom and the creep of government regulation as well as the lack of innovation that has been diminishing over the past two decades. This threat, she says, is compounded by the fact that new Internet users aren’t in countries protected by a Bill of Rights and/or strong constitutions.
Also confusing the picture is a possible misplacement of priorities where we repeat the past. It is often pointed out that mankind is continually preparing to refight the last war. Similarly, said Grannick,” Should we be worrying about another terrorist attack in New York, or about journalists and human rights advocates being able to do their jobs?’ Then there is the duality of governments to contend with. On one hand, the Computer Fraud and Abuse act carries penalties of up to ten years in prison for a first offense but a blind eye is turned to China and Russia where hacks emanate with apparent impunity. So small-time hackers are harshly prosecuted while bigger fish swim away. It is this type of contradiction which stifles free expression and innovation.
The subject of Internet freedom and innovation was only one of a handful of topics on tap at the conference. Much in demand were the two Fiat Chrysler hackers, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, who regaled the audience with a light-hearted talk about their year-long endeavor hacking into Jeeps, ultimately gaining control of the vehicle utilizing the cellular connection to its radio. Later items on the program ranged from the future of contactless pay devices to the hacking of an Internet- connected sniper rifle and even the hidden risks associated with biometric identification systems .
With such an ambitious agenda, it is likely that Jennifer Granick’s comments and warnings would be glossed over. That would be a pity for the future of the Internet as we know it or as we knew it hangs in the balance. Who will speak up before it’s too late?