22 August 2013

Sinking in the west........

I'm sure that we have passed many milestones on our steady journey away from the democratic ideal but I found the closure of the Groklaw website profoundly depressing. The Groklaw site was not one that I had ever visited and I only found out about its closure on the NPR website.

In essence, the Groklaw site had reported, since 2003, on legal news and actions relating to the 'open source' coding community. Groklaw spoke to techies and geeks about legal developments of interest to them particulary in the area of software development where, for example, corporates sought to limit the distribution of software where they claimed 'open source' coders had used their intellectual property.

Sounds pretty boring but, like all journalistic endeavours, Groklaw depended, in part, on concerned individuals feeding them information which they would then research into a full story. That's what journalism is, or was, all about.

Groklaw was good at what it did and, between 2003 and 2013 regularly won awards for the quality of its reporting and for the quality of its research. So much so that in 2010 it was chosen by the Library of Congress to have its contents archived under the category of 'Legal Blogs'.

But yesterday, Pamela Jone, who founded Groklaw, announced that the site would close because 24/7/365 government surveillance makes it impossible to function safely. Quoting from Jones' announcement, "The foundation of Groklaw is over. I can't do Groklaw without your input. I was never exaggerating about that when we won awards. It really was a collaborative effort, and there is now no private way, evidently, to collaborate."

When considered in parallel with Edward Snowdon's disclosures about the activities of the US and UK government's interception activities and then the UK government's detention of David Miranda, it paints a bleak picture for the supposed promise of freedom and democracy that the Internet was meant to offer.

Malcolm Rifkind spoke on BBC Radio 4 defending government action with regard to The Guardian newspaper and the destruction of what he described as "stolen information". The implication of his argument was that, 'if you disclose information that (the government thinks) could be of use to a terrorist (as defined by the government) then you become a terrorist yourself (and subject to any sanction which the government feels justified in imposing)'.

In this digital age, governments are spending astonishing amounts of money on developing ongoing digital surveillance which operates without human oversight or intervention. The surveillance is run by software which constantly monitors traffic across the internet looking for anything that the software has programmed to recognise as being 'suspicious'. The parameters of this surveillance are so broad that almost anyone with something approaching a life can, and probably will, fit the profile of a terrorist, particularly when the term 'terrorist' is applied without discrimination.

In the case of Groklaw, many contributors would have used some level of encryption to try and protect their communications from prying eyes but with the growing sophistication of governmental surveillance, those very encrypted files will now attract attention. In government's eyes, the existence of encryption means that there is something that someone wants to hide and, immediately preceding Groklaw's closure, was the closure of encrypted email provider Lavabit, the provider used by Edward Snowdon in his whistleblowing activities.

So, if information of any kind is digitised then we can now confidently expect governments to obtain access to it and Facebook must be a gift to the security services because it gives them access to people's networks. God help you if you are a stamp collector and you get an email from a server somewhere in Pakistan. What happens if you have an interest in Muslim culture and you happen to correspond with muslims or you discuss the Koran?

Set against this increasingly invasive regime, the enquiries of journalists (and any concerned citizens for that matter) used to be a bulwark against the untrammeled power of the state. But today, as governments covertly adjust the parameters of what they define as being a 'terrorist', that constraint is being steadily undermined.

The internet, which not so long ago was hailed as an arena where 'free association' and 'free debate' would protect and strengthen our democracy and freedom, is now only safe if you are a compliant consumer. If you think for yourself, and put those thoughts out there, then expect to be stopped in the transit lounge at Heathrow, or in your own front room.