Cracking down on crime online — or on freedom?

I apologise for all the free speech items today!  It’s not what I want to blog about. 

However today seems to be a write-off, as far as other subjects are concerned.  So let me finish the series of free speech-related  posts with another news item. 

This evening I learn that five people have been arrested by police in the Midlands for taking part in the “Anonymous” group of online hackers, who have been performing DDOS revenge attacks on sites like Paypal which removed support for Wikileaks.  Quite properly so, of course — they were engaged in online crime.  The story is here, and in many other places.  But it is the Financial Times which grasps the real implications and reports it properly.

Global police moves against ‘hacktivists’

An online “hacktivist” group that brought down the websites of perceived opponents of Wikileaks  has itself become the target of an international police crackdown.

The London Metropolitan Police arrested five men in connection with a recent spate of attacks by Anonymous, behind last month’s revenge assault on the websites of a number of organisations that had severed links with WikiLeaks.

In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it executed “more than 40” search warrants on Thursday to gather evidence likely to lead to arrests.

The FBI said it was working on the case along with the UK, “authorities in the Netherlands, Germany and France”.  …

Now I have little sympathy for Assange, nor his supporters.  What Assange was doing was espionage, and he knew it.  DDOS attacks on Paypal were criminal, and those doing them knew it. 

But as I predicted on Dec. 4, the Wikileaks attack on the US is bad for free speech.  The collateral damage from this affair is that all of us are getting a little bit less free.  I am sorry to find myself proven right.

For some things areintolerable to any government, however supportive of free speech it might ordinarily be.  It doesn’t matter what sort of politician you are, you don’t want this sort of thing to happen.  You will make sure it does not happen.  And if taking control of the internet is what it requires, you will take control of the internet.  And in a situation like this, who will oppose you?  No responsible politician opposes matters of national security.  And people have died, remember, because of all this. 

As I wrote then, what Assange did was give politicians a cast iron excuse to take control of the web, and to create the mechanisms to locate and arrest people for online activity.  “Anonymous”, with its evidently criminal activity, simply helped reinforce the perception that politicians had to act. 

Today we see global police forces, coordinating to track down people for what they are doing online.  That never happened before.  It could not have happened before.  It’s probably taken a couple of months of international negotiations.  But who, with all these DDOS attacks going on, could oppose the request?

Does it make anyone reading this feel good, to learn that the police are now geared up internationally to arrest people on the web?  It makes me feel sick. 

Because once these mechanisms for control exist, they will get used for other things.  After 9/11, legislation was passed to make it possible to lock up terror suspects, and rightly so.  But those laws have almost entirely been used for other purposes, as a quick way to arrest and deport people who are in no sense terror suspects.  So it will be here.  We’re watching those mechanisms being created, this very evening.

Giving money and power to the government is like giving money and cars to teenage boys, as P.J.O’Rourke once wrote.  It isn’t going to be good.  Bye-bye online freedom. 

It means that the freedom we have all enjoyed online is diminished sensibly.  It was never possible to track us down, and never worth the trouble, or the cost to invest in infrastructure.  But Mr Assange has given western governments just the incentive they needed to make every form of online tracking legal and technically possible.  And it’s happening right now.

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