How Internet Censorship and Surveillance is No Hoax

In a previous post about the Internet, my friend Dada commented that “corporate control, surveillance and censorship” is a hoax. Having answered the comment’s rhetorical bent, let me return to the topic of censorship and surveillance with the help of the book, Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace. Aside from corporations, State actors are also given primacy in the study as the main means through which control of virtual space is ensured.

Apart from what the authors categorized as “first-generation” controls that systematically and explicitly “focus on denying access to specific Internet resources by directly blocking access to servers, domains, keywords, and UP addresses,” more sophisticated “second-generation” and “third-generation” controls are being developed by States to affect “information denial” and “access shaping.” (22)

Second Wave Controls

Second-generation controls refer to the practice of creating “a legal and normative environment and technical capabilities that enable state actors to deny access to information resources as and when needed, while reducing the possibility of blowback or discovery.” (24) Common second-generation practices include the following in particular:

  • Compelling internet sites to register with authorities and to use noncompliance as grounds for taking down or filtering “illegal” content, and possibly revoking service providers’ licenses.
  • Strict criteria pertaining to what is “acceptable” within the national media space, leading to the de-registration of sites that do not comply.
  • Expanded use of defamation, slander, and “veracity” laws, to deter bloggers and independent media from posting material critical of the government of specific government officials, however benignly (including humor).
  • Evoking national security concerns, especially at times of civic unrest, as the justification for blocking specific Internet content and services.
  • [S]hutting down Internet access, as well as selected telecommunications services such as cell phone services and especially short message services (SMS).
  • [E]xtensive use of computer network attacks especially the use of distributed denial of service (DDos) attacks, which can overwhelm ISPs and selected sites. (24-26)

The overt dimension of second-generation controls include the legalization of “content controls by specifying the conditions under which access can be denied.” Its covert dimension “establishes procedures and technical capabilities that allow content controls to be applied ‘just in time,’ when the information being targeted has the highest value (e.g., during elections or public demonstrations), and to be applied in ways that assure plausible deniability.” (24)

Third Wave Controls

Third-generation controls on the other hand is less interested in “denying access than successfully competing with potential threats through effective counterinformation campaigns that overwhelm, discredit, or demoralize opponents.” (27)

In particular, it includes “warrantless monitoring of Internet users and usage,” employment of “‘Internet Brigades’ to engage, confuse, or discredit individuals or sources” through “the posting of prepackaged propaganda…, and disinformation through mass blogging and participation in Internet polls, or harassment of individual users, including the posting of personal information.” (27-28)

The intent of these highly sophisticated and multidimensional use of “surveillance, interaction, and direct physical action to achieve a disruption of target groups or networks” is the effecting of “cognitive change rather than to deny access to online information or services.” (28)

Thus, far from being a democratic virtual space for unlimited freedom, the Internet is indeed in short becoming a more tightly controlled and even “militarized” field even as it is becoming more and more embedded in the everyday lives of more people in the world.

Last time I mentioned Access Controlled as one of the books that I’ll be reading in its entirety in the months to come. However, I’ve decided to just go over the theoretical and analytical essays and stop when I reach the country reports. The book shares insightful accounts on how States and corporate actors monitor our online life and deny access to information on the Internet. But I guess I don’t really need to know every detail of what’s going on in every part of the world. ■

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