Thursday, June 09, 2005

On the nature of Electronic Highwaymen


Today's link concerns a British citizen currently accused for breaking into US security systems whilst doing his best to research an obscure subject using all the software at his disposal. If the Bush adminstration request for his extradition goes ahead, he could face 70 years in prison under the increasinbgly callous US "justice" (?) system. Yet even if he remains in Britain, he stands to face trial under very nebulous charges.

The internet was built as a global information exchange and, to the degree that information is power in itself, represented what many of us thought would be an ultimate force for true democracy. When Tim Berners-Lee wrote the language that brought us the Worldwide Web, easy public access was assurred and the movement seemingly enhanced. That the system would ultimately be hi-jacked for commercial use was probably inevitable - less forseen was the way an Orwellian "big brother" society would seek to manipulate it for very undemocratic purposes of their own.

The web is now taken for granted and only a small number of modern users have any real idea of its history and purpose. It's ease of use has in some ways become a limitation in that it is seen as a threat by the political elite desparate to tame it for their own purposes. The commercialisation of the electronic highway has run parallel with the development of other digital technologies to the extent that every stop on the highway can be a gateway to any number of services.

These portals can often be art galleries, museums or other information archives that reflect the original open-access philosophy of the internet. They can also be banks, shops and other commercial services where open-access is seen as the best way to interface with modern-day customers. A third group could be said to be the traditional media - newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, etc. These too are primarily concerned with enhancing existing services. To a greater or lesser extent, all three groups are reliant on a 4th group - the advertising industry. In the 21st century consumer-driven society it is they who hold the power - dictating the functions of the search engines so we receive the information they want us to find rather than vast amount of academic knowledge increasingly buried deep inside the internet itself.

Any researcher worth his or her salt will seek to bypass the consumer-driven portals to find the information they seek and it is this attitude itself that most scares governments and other power-brokers. This is because, whilst there is still a residue of idealogy in the political establishment, the electoral process is governed by the presentation of selected information with the best advertising campaign. The resources to engineer this are, as a rule, not available to those who do not already subscribe to the status quo.

This is not the time to debate whether UFOs and aliens exist, but the fact that someone with an abiding interest in the subject has sought to find information from the logical sources hardly seems like a crime. In a cyberspace whose architecture increasingly mirrors our real world experiences, he seems guilty of little more than kicking open a stiff door. That he was able to gain access so easily is an indictment of those maintaining the portals themselves and their failure to lock the gate adequately. In the real world, this would be a farce and they should consider themselves lucky nothing was stolen. If they don't want visitors, why the hell are they connected to the network anyway?

If there is a final irony to this sad tale, it is in the forgotten history of the internet itself. Based broadly of the notion of "hypertext" developed by the British Post Office during World War II, it was supressed after the war amongst other things by Winston Churchill as being too dangerous for further development. This meant little to British scientists emigrating the the USA during the following "brain-drain" era and the system was rapidly deployed by American academia and the military. It would probably not have become public domain at all were it required for defense purposes.

The internet today co-exists with powerful closed networks operated individually by governments, military and corporations. Whilst I would always argue for freedom of information anyway, it has to be said that those networks only have themselves to blame if they build gateways that can easily be opened from elsewhere. I suppose it is still a redeaming feature of the technology that of they can spy on you - you can spy on them too! Information is power.


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