Free speech and the New Internet
While new technology online could provide security, writes Dennis Posadas, it also could expose cyber dissidents
By Dennis Posadas
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Trouble is brewing in cyberspace for free speech advocates.
Dissenters in authoritarian countries are currently able and willing to air their views through the Internet to a worldwide audience because their identities remain anonymous to some extent. This anonymity is due in large part to a portion of the current Internet infrastructure called a proxy server.
A proxy server acts like a calling office that rents out its phone numbers to other people; outsiders only know that the number belongs to a calling office, rather than who is on the line. On the current Internet, proxy servers used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) lend out a temporary Internet Protocol (IP) numbers to whatever personal computer or mobile phone is logged in at that moment; once that user logs off, the IP number is given to another subscriber.
But the current version of the Internet (IPv4) will eventually be replaced by something called the New Internet (IPv6). The New Internet will do away with proxy servers, making all IP numbers fixed and permanent to each PC or cell phone around the world.
Although some encryption may be possible, dissenters and free thinkers in authoritarian states will no longer be able to hide the identities of their computers and cell phone numbers, once the infrastructure for the New Internet is laid out.
The current Internet has been in use for around three decades, and has held up remarkably well. Serious problems, however, will start to become apparent in the next few years. IPv4 can only allocate around a billion usable IP addresses, which may seem like a lot, until you consider a country like China, where more than a billion people may eventually want to connect to the Internet. If each Chinese citizen decides to get an Internet-enabled cell phone or PC, other users around the world will not have enough IP addresses to use. This is somewhat akin to having only four digits to use for telephone numbers; once your mother, siblings and relatives each get their own four digit phone numbers, there are virtually no numbers left for anyone else.
Proxy servers are a stopgap measure to extend the life of the current Internet by allowing hundreds, if not thousands of client devices, such as cell phones and PCs, to reuse a single IP address. While proxy servers have helped protect the identities of dissidents, the anonymity has also allowed hackers to have a field day impersonating web sites, phishing and stealing identities. This is similar to calling your friend, only to find out that several people are sharing your friend's phone number.
On the New Internet, the good news is that there will be no question about who is misusing a particular IP address; hackers and other criminals will have a hard time hiding from prosecution. The bad news is that not everyone who wants to remain anonymous online is a criminal; the implications for free speech and privacy in cyberspace could be serious.
Again, take the case of a country like China. Chinese ISPs are required to maintain records of all information posted on their servers and all users who have connected to their servers for a period of 60 days. Suspicious activity must be reported by ISPs to the authorities. The rental of telecommunications equipment is tightly controlled.
The growth of the Internet in China has been nothing short of spectacular. The first Chinese Internet facility was setup in 1993. The Economist reported in April that China's Internet population grew last year to 111 million users and 45.6 million Internet-enabled computers.
In countries run by authoritarian regimes, the Internet is the only place for ordinary citizens to air their grievances and be heard by a wide audience. It is therefore a medium of speech that must be protected; a virtual town hall which often serves its citizens better than the real thing.
While cost considerations may prevent them from immediately doing so, authoritarian countries, particularly those that are already blocking sites and spying on their citizens, could shift their entire Internet infrastructure to the New Internet. And it is certainly plausible that these countries will exploit the sudden lack of anonymity of Internet users. Dissidents and free thinkers may then lose their desire to express their opinions freely.
It is imperative that countries such as the United States, whose government is built on a strong bedrock of democracy, should take the lead in developing the New Internet to reasonably protect the rights of individual users, especially those living in authoritarian countries. Even at a symbolic level, a technology as pervasive as the Internet should represent man's highest aspirations for freedom and individual achievement. There is no room in this ubiquitous technology, for authoritarian thinking and the thwarting of civil liberties.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Free speech and the New Internet