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Sci Tech    H3'ed 7/22/13

Track and Truth: Manning and the "Other" Surveillance System

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The tumble of revelations and developments involving the Internet has produced a pastiche of truths that, when examined closely, show links between what might usually be considered separate news stories.

This week we encounter a stunning ruling by the judge in the Bradley Manning case while, in a totally different setting, the people who come as close to governance of the World Wide Web as we get can't decide on a major Internet issue that significantly affects your freedom.

On Thursday, the Manning case's presiding judge Colonel Denise Lind -- who is also determining the verdict -- announced that she is going to consider the government's contention that Manning was "aiding the enemy" when he blew his whistle. The defense had moved that she drop that charge. Yesterday, my colleague John Grant wrote incisively on the social and political impact of this ruling. I want to say a bit about the view of the Internet that drives Colonel Lind's decision.

Meanwhile, the W3C (short of World-Wide-Web Consortium), which is as close as we come to a world "authority" on web-browser standards, continues to grapple with a major issue popularly called "Do Not Track". It's an attempt by the Consortium to agree on "standards" (the do-and-don't rules for web development) for tracking: the way that somebody you don't know, have never heard of, and have certainly given no permission to, is recording your every move on the Web and doing whatever the heck it wants with that information.

The Elusive Don't Track Option and Judge Denise Lind
The Elusive Don't Track Option and Judge Denise Lind
(Image by Clark Stoeckley, Bradley Manning Support Network)
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The Elusive Don't Track Option and Judge Denise Lind by Clark Stoeckley, Bradley Manning Support Network

The two developments are linked by a profoundly perverted notion of the Internet and a destructive vision of what it should become. They highlight, taken in tandem, a truly frightening development.

Succintly put, if you have an Internet that acts as it's supposed to, everybody is going to have access to whatever is published. Effectively, anything you publish on the Internet could, given the right circumstances, "aid" an enemy and you'll never know it. That's the character of the Internet -- it's open. On the other hand, it's also supposed to protect your privacy: what you decide to publish is open, who and what you are isn't...until they started tracking.

The Manning issue is better known and merits a caveat: Judge Lind has not determined that Manning is guilty of "aiding the enemy". She might, at which point we at This Can't Be Happening will surely have a few things to say about her verdict, but the issue here is that she would even consider this ridiculous charge.

The law prohibits any military person from providing assistance of any kind to an enemy during a conflict. It's a horrible law full of contradictions and suppositions, starting with "what constitutes an enemy" when there is no declared war happening? But the prosecution's charge surpasses the law in foolishness.

Effectively, the charge prohibits any member of the military from posting anything considered "dangerous" by the government on the Internet knowing that "enemies" could read it. That he released the information isn't really contested; Manning has pleaded guilty to that charge (although the court has yet to accept that plea). The point of contention is whether he could reasonably assume that these "enemies" could read it.

Leaving aside the question of what is "dangerous", given that we have a government that could slap that label on just about anything we do at any time, there's really no contention possible here. Enemies can read anything on the Internet; it's the Internet.

His own statements and actions demonstrate that Private Manning probably didn't give the enemy much thought; he was thinking about people in his country and the information they had or didn't have on which to base their opinions of these war efforts. But it wouldn't take much thought to realize that the information could be read by "enemies" because it could be read by everyone in the world.

That, of course, is the very purpose of the Internet. It exists to break down walls of ignorance and hidden information. It moves across national boundaries and pays no attention to the battles of interest and policy that divide governments. Its role is to allow people who are ruled by those governments, often oppressively, to share information. It's the human family's reunification center and the world's tool for sharing information of all kinds in an unfettered way.

That it is based technologically on those premises is the reason why governments' increasingly frequent attempts to suppress and control it are as ludicrous as a KeyStone Cops chase scene and the outcome of those attempts are often obscenely repressive. There is simply no way of productively or even selectively censoring the Internet without destroying a democracy and that's what Judge Lind's decision is leaning towards.

The only way not to be guilty of such a charge is to never post anything the government might consider "dangerous" or to install "targeted" censorship (prohibiting the publication of certain facts, words, or information). That's the kind of censorship the Chinese government continues to try to do with little effect and lots of denunciation. The average person using the Internet in China is, in fact, limited in their information choices but the bloggers and activists this mis-guided effort is designed to shut down find lots of ways to get around the repressive measures.

Those of us who work on the Internet and know how it works at its core know that this kind of censorship is quite simply impossible and any attempt to make it happen would severely damage communications for the average person while allowing the knowledgeable to work around it. On-line censorship isn't bad because it's completely successful but because it discriminates in its censorship against those who aren't adept at using the Internet. It's divisive and harmful to the natural progression of use people have -- from writing some emails to doing your own blog to becoming an on-line advocate of some issue or movement.

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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.
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