TCS Daily

Arrests won't stop Net threat to governments, corporations

By Jon Katz - March 13, 2000 12:00 AM

For all the media hype about technology, pornography and e-commerce, one of the most striking but still largely unrecognized legacies of the Net has been the death blow it has dealt to the very idea of censorship. One industry and institution after another - music, the law, medicine, Wall Street, academe, the media - is coming to terms with this new reality, voluntarily or otherwise.

For hundreds of years, censorship has been the primary tool by which government, monarchies, educational and religious institutions and, lately, powerful corporations, have asserted political, cultural and economic dominance. They're going to have to learn to live without it.

China and the Motion Picture Association are both about to learn the hard way what American educators, religious leaders, law enforcement officials - even politicians - are just beginning to figure out: The Net isn't censorable. Neither is the software that runs programs, links Web sites, plays movies and music, stores or transmits information and ideas.

The Net is an unyielding trade-off. If you want to do business or sell things on it, you sacrifice monopoly and control, and you use technology to offer choice and options. If you don't, you're heading backwards.The Chinese government and the MPA have learned little from recent technological history, following in the bovine steps of the music industry, which alienated a generation of liberated music lovers by huffing and puffing but failing to slow or stop the spread of digital music technology.Institutions, both government and corporate, that feel threatened by the Net and the Web are developing a pattern. Rather than embrace innovative and empowering new technologies to offer consumers and citizens choice and freedom, they seek out a handful of targets to use as warnings, examples of the nasty fate that will befall transgressors.

If any approach is doomed to fail in this era, it's that one. Too bad some people will have to pay along the way, sacrifices on the altar of corporate or government obliviousness.

Recently, police in Norway raided the home of Jon Johansen, a teen-ager, at the request of the Motion Picture Association, which has joined in the global effort to suppress certain software - in this case DVD viewing code - deemed responsible for copyright violations and intellectual-property theft (last week, the recording industry went after

In January, the DVD Copyright Control Association sued 72 hackers and Web-site authors for posting or even linking to software (DeCSS) that unlocks the system for preventing illegal copying of video discs. Movie industry officials argue they have the right, even the obligation, to protect the notion of copyright and intellectual property. Movies, they argue, belong to the people who made them, not to any kid with a computer and some up-to-date software.

In fact, the Net is challenging conventional notions like copyright and intellectual property and the movie industry is right to grasp the need to consider the legal and social implications of the information revolution. But one of those implications is that tossing the occasional teen-ager in jail isn't going to address the pressing issues: In this age, how do we define and protect ideas like intellectual property?

Or do we have to find new ways to sell and distribute intellectual property?Johansen's arrest got widespread news coverage in America, unusual for a foreign-based copyright case. Perhaps one reason is that companies like Disney, owner of ABC News, which covered the story on television and radio, have a decidedly vested interested in publicizing the notion that music, movies and culture in general belong to private corporations, not code-writing geeks and nerds. Hackers (usually crackers) have often been singled out in this way - paraded before hordes of reporters and hauled off dramatically to jail. The authorities know they haven't got a prayer of rounding up all the alleged wrongdoers, but they may think that if they make enough noise, they might fool people into thinking otherwise.

The arrest came at almost the same moment China announced restrictions on its burgeoning Net chat rooms and e-mail accounts. Occurring continents apart, the two incidents seemed oddly connected.

The MPA - along with the music industry, one of the world's largest cartels outside of Columbia - has claimed in several legal actions that the kind of DVD-viewing software Johansen allegedly used was developed outside of the industry's monopoly, and is thus illegal. The organization particularly wants to suppress so-called reverse engineering and the public posting and sharing of DVD codes.

Governments like China are attempting a different kind of information control, an equally doomed effort to stick their fingers into the digital dike.

Recently, the agency that oversees China's Internet users issued severe new regulations intended to control the release of "state secrets" and other unauthorized information over the Internet, one of the broadest efforts yet by a government to do what is inherently impossible: control online speech.

The Chinese government is in a classic technological quagmire, almost the same one facing the movie industry. Does it want to grow and prosper in a techno-driven, linked global economy or not? Embracing and deploying innovative new technology is essential to investment and development in the 21st century. But such innovation puts increasing pressure on undemocratic governments, which quite correctly dread the spread of computing, e-mail and chat rooms, and on corporations, which fear the loss of profitable monopolies.

China has nearly 9 million Internet users, significantly up from 2 million a year ago, according to a survey by the government's China Internet Information Center. But many Chinese believe the figure is dramatically higher. One computer analyst working from Hong Kong wrote earlier this year that China may actually have more than 35 million e-mail accounts. As for the world's code-sharing DVD nerds, nobody knows how many there are - but it's believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

Despite Johansen's arrest, and the imprisonment of a handful of Chinese political dissidents speaking out online, both groups are beyond conventional policing. But that doesn't mean a lot of people won't pay by being persecuted, jailed or worse before the futility of the censorship effort becomes clear.

New regulations in China were announced by the aptly named State Secrecy Bureau, a murky agency that seems to be taking over efforts to control the Net and to identify and arrest users who post "illegal" information on the Web.

Does this seem vastly different from the way corporate interests around the world (for more on the issues surrounding the Johansen incident, see the Electronic Frontier Foundation) are seeking to curb the dissemination of software and intellectual property online? Maybe it isn't. Both corporations and government, since they can't monitor all of the many millions of offenders online, are singling out targets of opportunity. They believe they're sending miscreants a message, but instead, they appear to be alienating and enraging the next generation of consumers as well as prodding geeks and nerds to continue to develop software as a political and cultural tool.

The powerful new reality is that there aren't enough cops and lawyers on the planet, not even in China, to monitor all the chat rooms and the millions of e-mail accounts. There surely aren't enough to police the distribution of open-source and other code like the one that runs DVDs. As the music industry did with MP3 customers, Hollywood and China both may find it's easier to alienate people than control them.

Ultimately, such regulations are utterly doomed, as are efforts to restrict source codes for DVD players or the transmission of music and information online.

But before China and the MPA learn this inevitable lesson, an indeterminate number of victims will be snared and made examples of. As futile and sometimes tragic as these persecutions are, these people will pay the price for the freedom everyone else is enjoying.

Jon Katz writes for, where this column first appeared.

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