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Censorship and Freedom

What’s the price of falling in love?

What are the consequences of being head over heels, mindless crazy in love with someone?

I would say the price of falling in love is the possibility of getting hurt. Sometimes the person you fall in love with doesn’t love you back–and that can cause significant emotional pain and grief. But that’s a price we’re more than willing to pay, because a world where no one is allowed to be hurt, is also a world where no one is allowed to fall in love, and who wants to live in that world?

Everything has a price, even something as pure as love or as sacred as freedom.

Freedom isn’t free, it comes with a price.

The price of freedom is the possibility of crime–when we give people the freedom to go out at night, and walk on the streets or to speak their mind, these freedoms can be abused. Some take that freedom to become thieves, robbers, and bad men, but that’s a price we’re willing to pay, because freedom is good. In other words, freedom is worth the price we pay for it.

Some today have asked for the internet to be censored, citing the recent Malaysia Pedophile case in the UK as a glaring example of why we need to censor the internet. First of all, I’m not sure how child-pornography in the UK is used to justify censorship in Malaysia and secondly, such calls are ignorant, both of freedom and technology. I’m astounded as to how easy these people can sacrifice their freedom to information online, all in the name of protecting children–a common excuse given by those who have nothing more concrete to say.

The price of a free internet, is the possibility that it will be abused. But the price of censorship is a far higher one.

Let’s take a look at the technology.

The internet was built to be  a decentralized network, it’s not a single network, but a collection of many networks that all operate on a set of rules, rules which are affectionately known in engineering circles as protocols. As long as your network follows these protocols, you can connect to the internet and be connected to everyone else on the information super highway. And these protocols due to legacy reasons lack any real form of authentication and security, which allowed for much mis-use including that one time Pakistan manage to takedown Youtube across all of Asia.

This open nature also extends to the ‘authorities’ on the internet, who don’t have any real authoritative power, and act more like mediators rather than strong-armed leaders. Politicians, especially in our country use the rule of law, the power of the police, and the threat of sedition to exert their authority, on the internet we have something akin to a council of elders who lend advice and suggestions, without any clear consequences if those suggestions are ignored.

Censorship just doesn’t fit into this model. Censorship requires a central authority, that can control what is being broadcasted. If the government wished to censor BFM or TheStar today, all they’d have to do is make a phone call, if the media were reluctant to take on the ‘advice’ of the government, a second phone call to the police would be sufficient. The police can drive up to the doors of the offices in Malaysia, and start pulling out wires or smashing computers, and sooner of later the broadcast would stop.

But the internet isn’t broadcasted. It’s a personal connection for each and every user on it, and the government doesn’t have the same sway with Google, Facebook or Twitter as it does with BFM, TheStar or Utusan. It can’t command Facebook to take down a page, or instruct twitter to delete a tweet, and the so the model of censorship on the internet has to move from the point of broadcast to the point of consumption.

Because the government can’t stop the tweet, video or blogpost from the being broadcasted, it has to do the next best thing, prevent the information from being consumed by little ol’ Malaysians. Technologically this works through a ‘filter’ where all the information flowing into Malaysia from these foreign servers, are analyzed and inspected for the ‘censored’ content, and the moment something unsavoury is found it is either discarded, or flagged for further analysis.

In other words, in order for the government to censor the internet, it must first surveil your connection to the internet. No different from if it were to open every letter destined for your home, Internet censorship and Internet surveillance, are two sides of the same coin, and to call for one–is to call for the other.

But what’s the cost?

Technologically, this is VERY expensive, and VERY ineffective. Loads of technologies today, like encrypted VPN tunnels, and proxy servers, and TOR, work specifically to avoid these sorts of filters. And the technology only works, if it is backed up by a vast little army of minions to do the necessary manual checks–just ask China.

I estimate this to cost in the Billions, shifting through every bit of internet traffic coming into Malaysia in real-time, requires massive infrastructure, and since Malaysian consume more internet year-on-year, the operational cost are going to equally expensive as well, and ever increasing.

But the financial cost is a but a pitiful fraction of the true cost we pay when we allow governments to censor the internet, the real cost comes in the form of limited social progress.

Freedom and Social Progress

The price of Freedom is the possibility of Crime, and sometimes the possibility of Crime is a good thing.

In the not so distant past, it was criminal to smuggle slaves from the deep south of the United States to the North where they would be free men and women. Today we admire, and acknowledge these smugglers are heroes, but in their day they were common criminals committing theft. There’s a progression of things when they go from being illegal, to illegal but tolerated to completely legal.

Today, women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, but I have no doubt someday they will. There are already those who defy the law, and drive anyway, regardless of how many X chromosomes they have, and the country is slowly but surely making progress. Unfortunately, in a country like Saudi Arabia, where freedom is so curtailed, progress is hard. The more control the government has over it’s people, the harder it is for social progress to be made, and granting the government the power to censor the internet only serves to inhibit this natural social progression.

If the Government knew who was Gay or Lesbian 10-20 years ago, there would be little in the way of LGBT rights today, simply because all the Gays and Lesbians would be ‘dealt’ with, and before you get all righteous, just look back at history, and imagine if the Roman empire had a similar surveillance apparatus and was able to identify who was Christian. The point isn’t whether you agree with these shift in social trends, but that granting the government powers to censor the internet inhibit these movements, which lead to stagnating society, which everyone can agree isn’t a good thing.

Limiting everyone’s freedom

You do not limit freedom on everyone just because some have abused it. Instead you focus your efforts on the offenders, and remove only their freedoms, while keeping everyone else free. This is basically the concept of jail, you remove freedom from those that have abused the system, while keeping the freedom of those that have played by the rules.

Internet censorship is such a broad-based thing, that there is no way it can be focused to such an effect. If you knew the government was censoring the internet, and you knew they were carrying out mass surveillance, would you dare search online for keywords like Altantuya, Shia, Innoncence of Muslims, etc? Some might argue that it is a good thing that Government surveillance would scare people from searching for these things, but I argue a country that hopes to keep its citizens in ignorance is not a country worth living in.

Government surveillance of the internet affects the way we use it. The moment you realize that the government ‘might’ be watching, is the moment you change your online habits, a sort of reverse of the old analogy of “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about”–the truth is that if you know the government is watching you’ll make sure everything is hidden.

Government doesn’t have a good Track record

Plus our government hasn’t really had a good track record on internet censorship. The first time, we officially censored the internet was during Pak Lah’s time, when all ISPs in Malaysia were ordered to block access to Malaysia Today, a website that was run by Raja Petra Kamaruddin. It’s ironic, that the very same questions raised by RPK way back then, are almost identical to the questions raised by Tun Mahathir today, specifically around issues like Altantunya.

You see we can’t just grant one government the ability to censor the internet, we have to grant all of them. Maybe you’re OK with Najib Tun Razak leading a government with the ability to curtail information on the internet, but maybe you’re not OK with giving that same power to Anwar, or Wan Azzizah, or Lim Kit Siang. I would have huge issues granting that power to the late Nik Aziz, as I’m quite sure there would be very little internet left if he got his fingers on the filters–the point is, even the most hard-core BN supporters must be open to the possibility that they may not be in power come 2018, and if you grant the government censorship rights, you just might be handing over that power to Pakatan–think about that for a minute.

Finally, child pornography doesn’t exist on the ‘regular’ internet. It’s not like as though a Google Search is going to turn up some disturbing image of children. These things exist in the dark-web, the un-searchable, un-goggle-able part of the internet that is obfuscated by a technology called TOR. Internet censorship isn’t going to stop child pornography, just like closing down all highways isn’t going to end all car accidents. To use that as an excuse to call for internet censorship, is political convenience rather than an arguments formed by facts.

Conclusion

But Keith—if it only saves one child, we must do it…I hear you say.

If it were my child, I’ll let you go all Nazi on Malaysia, I’ll spend the entire Malaysian Gold Reserve, pawn all the oil in the ground, and lock up half of the country in Kamunting to save my child–but is that really the way we want to discuss Government policy in this country, like as though every decision has to be made from the basis of an irrational tiger mommy parent. Spare me the theatrics, a policy decision of this magnitude must be made rationally with a sound mind, and don’t drag the children to bolster your ill-conceived arguments.

Post-Script

One of the central authorities of the internet are the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), who govern the protocols we discussed earlier. They are nothing more than a bunch of engineers who get together once a while, and discuss engineering specifications, they release documents that are mere suggestions on how the protocols should be executed, and they do so by consensus–no veto power leader, no mandate, no instructions. They vote on these changes by ‘humming’, because humming is anonymous (hard to tell whose humming in a room), and it’s quite difficult to hum twice as loud as someone else,  a solution only engineers could come up with.  This is a world, governed  through consensus, with no central authority yielding veto power.

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