The Snooper’s Charter: another tool to control online speech

No matter who wins a UK general election, you can be quite sure that they will spend the rest of their term demanding an ever-expanding arsenal of new powers for law enforcement. Having freed themselves from the influence of those interfering lily-livered Lib Dems, the unencumbered Conservatives are therefore rushing full steam ahead with the intrusive mass surveillance legislation that they have been trying to pass for several years. While US tech companies are busy fighting government demands to make their software more FBI-friendly, authorities in the UK are trying to forestall the issue by granting themselves wide-ranging powers not only to snoop on our communications, but to compel private businesses into doing the snooping on the government’s behalf — secretly, against their will, and possibly at their own expense.

Needless to say, these plans have not proved popular. Internet providers are concerned about the cost of storing their customers’ web history for 12 months, privacy campaigners have noted the potential for abuse by hackers or overzealous authorities, and software developers are worried about the impact on UK businesses whose products will forever be suspected of harbouring government-mandated spyware. The only people who are almost certainly not bothered by the proposed law are actual criminals, who can trivially bypass the measures using freely-available foreign encryption services — but trying to explain to the UK government that they don’t rule the entire world seems to be a losing battle.

Anti-terror laws are not a recent invention, of course; there has been a new one passed every couple of years since the turn of the millennium, along with several previous incarnations of the “Snooper’s Charter” that never made it onto the statute books. What is remarkable about this particular bill, however, is how openly the government are admitting that its primary objectives have nothing to do with terrorism.

Consider the possible uses of so-called “Internet Connection Records” suggested by the National Crime Agency, the organisation tasked with investigating serious crimes such as human trafficking and child abduction. Of the eleven scenarios imagined by the NCA, only one of them even mentions terrorism and it’s purely about speech, not actual violence. The government are selling this law as a vital tool in the fight against terror, yet they can barely manage to come up with a single example of it actually being useful against a terrorist. Perhaps they are less excited about catching dangerous criminals than about the vastly increased possibilities for regulating online speech that this legislation will enable.

Some of the other proposed uses verge on the Orwellian. Locating a missing murder suspect based on his browsing habits might sound clever, until you consider how many false positives will likely be thrown up from a database of over 40 million internet users. Perhaps the most bizarre example, analysed in more detail by ISP director Adrian Kennard, involves a teenager who sends abusive emails to school staff from an anonymising email service, after which the police conduct a search for anybody who has accessed the webmail site in question, refining the results until they identify the household of a pupil at the school. A rude unsolicited email is a nuisance at most, assuming it even makes it past the spam filter. Is this really an issue that requires a police investigation?

That the official agency responsible for tracking down paedophiles and drug smugglers would celebrate the abuse of anti-terror laws to identify teenage trolls is deeply concerning, for two reasons. Firstly, because it reveals the extent to which the machinery of government has been infected by the wacky, hypersensitive politics normally associated with safe-spaced student unions, where unpleasant speech is considered a form of violence, and whining to the authorities an act of bravery. Law enforcement should be the stern voice of common sense, responding to a childish squabble by telling the kids involved to grow up, not by authorising a counter-terrorist surveillance operation.

Secondly, these scenarios give an ominous glimpse of the sort of fishing trips that bulk data collection will encourage. The government are not just seeking to examine the internet records of particular suspects, but to comb through the entire population’s browsing history looking for access to particular websites. Imagine what other dragnets could be conducted with this same technology. Anybody who has visited The Pirate Bay, obviously, because copyright infringement is illegal. Anybody who has visited the EFF or Open Rights Group, because only hackers are interested in that stuff. Anybody who has visited PETA, because they might be a violent extremist. Anybody who has visited Stormfront, EDL or even UKIP, because they are probably a racist. Anybody who has accessed Al Jazeera, maybe? Anybody who has ever read Spiked?

Supporters of this legislation will no doubt dismiss such concerns as fear-mongering, assuring us that the bill will not allow fishing expeditions, only targeted investigations involving illegal content like child pornography. But this offers little comfort given the vast range of other material that could also be considered illegal, from ripped episodes of Game of Thrones to offensive jokes or even racist dog videos. When people can be thrown in jail for posting — or even just reading — online speech, the claim that only “criminals” will be snooped on is practically meaningless. Should we really assume that the same authorities that lock people up for reading text won’t also make use of surveillance technology to identify more of these thought criminals, once they have the ability to do so?

We should bear in mind that the details of this legislation have not been fully worked out; not all of the uses proposed by the NCA may be legally permitted or technically feasible. But the message is clear: speech policing is here to stay, will likely increase in future, and, if backed by intrusive surveillance powers, could become dangerously efficient. Even if certain forms of spying can be justified in the interests of fighting terrorism, unless we see a dramatic reversal in law enforcement priorities — a focus on actual, violent crime, instead of harmless speech — we should be extremely wary of granting the government any more access to our online activities than it already has.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that for all their bluff and bluster about respecting civil liberties and offering a change from the status quo, the coalition government has decided to push the same ludicrous Internet spying policies that they originally opposed while Labour was in power. Wheeling out the usual pathetic excuses — blah blah terrorists blah blah paedophiles blah blah protecting children blah blah — they are proposing that the entire population’s web browsing history and email headers (but not content) should be collected by ISPs and made available to authorities, without a warrant, so that they can conduct fishing expeditions for potential criminals based on their Internet usage patterns.

Decision Making

The flaccid ineptitude of the arguments put forward to justify such plans, derived largely from GCHQ’s blind panic that dangerous criminals might be discussing their next suicide bombing or child abduction using those newfangled computery things, is matched only by the shocking technological ignorance that is reflected in their proposed implementation. For starters, British ISPs are capable of accessing data only for messages which are exchanged via their own servers, which immediately excludes anything sent within or between major US webmail providers such as Google, Hotmail or Yahoo. But nobody uses those, right, and it’s not like any Abdullah, Mohammad or Jamal can just sign up for an account no-questions-asked, is it? Oh wait.

The security services also want access to web browsing history and the details of private Facebook and Twitter messages, and here the government continues to demonstrate its inability to grasp the fact that it does not have jurisdiction over the entire world. The British Home Office is no more in a position to demand privileged access to the internals of American social networks than the governments of Iran or Libya, and their requests will most likely be met with much the same response. In some cases that doesn’t matter, because the data can be collected when the UK-based user accesses the foreign website over the internet — except when the connection is encrypted, like Twitter’s secure login page, or Google’s secure search, at which point the British spies are, once again, out of the picture.

The proposals have also made no mention of VOIP services such as Skype (also encrypted) or video chats such as Google+ hangouts (which produce so much data that storing all of it would be next to impossible), so we can safely assume that the government either has no solution or simply hasn’t thought of these issues. It also appears to have given little consideration to the potential for abuse by hackers or corrupt insiders — one might think that the recent phone hacking scandal would have served to illustrate the danger of innocent people’s private information falling into the wrong hands, but expecting politicians to get the message would be to under-estimate the resilience of human stupidity.

In short, we are looking at plans based on little more than guesswork, platitudes, and a childishly naïve faith in the impartial objectivity of law enforcement with regard to the powers it needs, which are not just technically flawed but so utterly trivial to bypass that one has to wonder if the government is being deliberately set up to fail by its “advisors”. Given the contemptuous disregard for evidence and the scientific method that has been displayed by various administrations over these past few decades, it would be unsurprising if the current crop of consultants have simply decided that giving ministers enough rope to hang themselves is more effective than wasting time dispensing advice which will fall on deaf ears. Perhaps when some influential “family values” blowhard gets their fetish porn-browsing history leaked to the tabloids the New English Stasi will actually learn something.

Failure is in the brain of the commentator

One particularly tiresome meme endemic to the ADHD-ridden three-minute culture is the idea that a product or service has “failed” purely because it hasn’t taken over the world within the first few weeks of release. For example,

  • Linux “has failed” because most people still use Windows.
  • Google+ “has failed” because most people use Facebook.
  • Electric/hybrid vehicles “have failed” because most people drive petrol cars.

In the minds of the masturbatory waffle-generators calling themselves journalists who somehow get paid to write this sort of drivel, it is irrelevant whether a product was only made available a few days ago (e.g. Google+ Pages), or has a loyal, enthusiastic and growing user-base (e.g. Linux): if it doesn’t immediately knock out the competition with one punch, it is declared a “failure”. The market for money or users is reduced to a winner-takes-all pissing contest, where there is no such thing as healthy competition, the only valid definition of success is becoming a monopoly, and it is never too soon to write off a newcomer.

One can only imagine what claptrap these nincompoops would come out with if they lived in a different time: “Ford’s automobile a failure, rail transport still dominant!”. “A eulogy for the helicopter, ‘aeroplane-killer’ fails to materialise!”. “Fluorescent lighting officially a flop: incandescent bulbs account for 90% of sales!”. Maybe their ancestors were indeed doing just that. My guess though is that this phenomenon significantly increased with the rise of the content industry in general, and the internet in particular. When ad impressions count, readers must be attracted at any cost, and if that means fabricating a “story” out of thin air, that is exactly what happens.

The Internet witch hunt

No to witchesFollowing the recent rioting and looting in London and various other UK cities, politicians and other career pontificators have been quick to apportion blame to social networking sites for the part they supposedly played in organising the violence, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence that the internet had anything to do with it. One example is MP Louise Mensch, who has gone as far as to suggest that social networking should be “turned off” during times of trouble. Even if this were possible, it is a policy more readily associated with totalitarian states cracking down on popular uprisings than with relatively minor incidents of public disorder in Western cities. It seems that there is just something about the internet that causes even the most inoffensive authority figure to start channelling Gaddafi or Ahmadinejad as soon as it is mentioned.

Politicians making fatuous knee-jerk comments in response to high-profile public events is of course not news; as far as anyone can tell this seems to be their primary function. However, the breathtaking arrogance underpinning the belief that a supposedly free and democratic country should be able to arbitrarily decide whether, when and how its population can communicate, along with the abject ignorance of how the internet works — Facebook and Twitter are both based in the US, which is not subject to diktats from the British Home Office last I checked — does not inspire much confidence in the leadership’s ability to deal with future incidents in a reasonable manner, and makes its criticism of regimes such as Libya and Syria seem rather hollow.

The ridiculous over-reaction to anything technology-related doesn’t end with politicians either: two men in Chester have each been sentenced to four years in jail for “inciting violence” via Facebook, even though no actual violence resulted from their actions. To put that into perspective, footballer Marlon King was sentenced to less than half of that (18 months) for smashing in a girl’s face after she had the temerity to turn him down. In the eyes of the law, posting inconsequential words on the internet is apparently a more heinous crime than causing permanent injury and disfigurement to an innocent woman in a sexually-motivated attack.

Blaming technology for human failings is hardly a new phenomenon, these examples are just individual drops in a much larger cesspit of modern-day superstition and irrationality which seems to grow ever deeper and more malodorous by the day. If a murderer kills a victim he finds on Facebook, the media label him the “Facebook killer”, implicitly blaming a web site for the tragedy as if murders were not already happening thousands of years before computers existed. If the embittered gunman who massacres his classmates happened to play a video game at any point in his life, it must have been the game that turned him from a gentle peace-loving soul into a deranged lunatic. A disturbed individual kills his girlfriend — you guessed it, it was the internet! Gather up a few more hysterical nut-jobs and demand another worthless thought-crime law to honour her memory. And so the stupidity continues.

People have always needed somewhere to point the finger; a bogeyman hiding under the bed which is the cause of all of their problems. At the same time, wider access to knowledge, whether it’s from the printing press or the internet, threatens to undermine the authority of self-elected information gatekeepers who derive power from artificial ignorance. The solution for the savvy despot is therefore simple: demonise the disruptive technology, convince the populace that it is dangerous and not to be trusted, and let the scared idiots beg for their own enslavement. The small minority of people with reasoning abilities worthy of the name will object, but they can be easily ignored, outnumbered and out-voiced by the shrieking believer horde, and quite possibly branded as witches themselves for daring to question the inquisition’s divine purpose.

Yet somehow science marches on, struggling beneath the dead-weight of a society full of credulous, anti-intellectual parasites; forced to circumnavigate roadblocks dropped into its path at every turn by self-serving and dishonest professional fear-mongers. And eventually, like all witch hunts, this one will be over; just as we are no longer running scared from devil-worshippers or communists today, the time will come when it is clear to all but the most stubbornly pig-headed of ignoramuses that the unprecedented social catastrophe supposedly threatened by the internet has simply failed to materialise. Not to mention that this is a cycle, rather than an isolated occurrence, and there will soon be a new moral panic in progress. One can only guess at what the next one is likely to be, but my money is on either sex-bots or virtual reality porn. There’s nothing like easier access to sex to start those dogmatic moralists and student union feminists frothing at the mouth.

Internet dating is a waste of bandwidth

Create a profile on any popular Internet dating site, and one of two things will happen. If you are female, you will be swamped with illiterate mass-mailed horseshit from knuckle-dragging imbeciles who would struggle to pass the Turing test, while as a male you will be largely ignored by everyone save the occasional time-waster who might string you along for a few days before determining that you are Just Not Good Enough. The result is inevitable: most sites are a barren wasteland of abandoned profiles, comments by long-deleted users, and maybe a small core of long-timers who use the site as little more than an insiders’ social club.

Such a meagre reality stands in stark contrast to the advertising campaigns of dating sites, all of which paint their associated offering as a magical paradise overflowing with perfect soulmates all waiting to fall into your arms (or your bed). The internet, we are told, exposes you to a global community, where you can meet like-minded people without the limitations of geography, happenstance or conflicting schedules. So why then is the common experience of internet dating one of disappointment and frustration?

Matching algorithms are garbage

One of the purported advantages of using the internet to meet people, rather than relying on chance encounters, is the ability to use published information to more easily exclude people with whom you have no hope of compatibility. Yet, for some reason known only to themselves, dating sites seem only to implement coarse-grain matching based on gender, age and location, largely ignoring any other information that might be available. If you don’t want to have children, for example, there is no point in even reading the profile of somebody who does — but you will repeatedly receive such people as match suggestions.

This is even more puzzling when you consider that the one thing computers are really good at is sifting through large databases in search of information, so finding suitable matches ought to be trivial. One can only assume that there is some misguided policy at work in the minds of the site owners which assumes that major differences in lifestyle, future plans, philosophy or political views are considered unimportant, even though they are genuine deal-breakers for many people.

Imbalanced demographic

Like most of the internet, dating sites do not have an even split between the genders. If you are a heterosexual man and you join a site which has 9 men for every woman, you are just going to get lost in the noise, while a resident of the UK who joins a site with mostly US membership is going to be similarly frustrated. Unfortunately it is difficult to get much information about the demographic distribution of most sites, since they are generally more concerned with maximising their membership (and hence their revenue), whether or not those members have any chance of success.

They recruit from the bottom

It may be 2011, and with the advent of Facebook and Twitter the internet is not quite considered the nerd’s leper colony that it was in 1995; nevertheless, you can be fairly sure that Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts are not going to show up on Match.com. With almost no barrier to entry, most dating sites are replete with txt-speaking illiterates, pathetic whiners begging to be “given a chance”, narcissistic douchebags with lengthy lists of ridiculous superficial requirements and small-minded bigots with bizarre prejudices you didn’t even know existed. By the time you’ve ruled out all of them, what you are mostly left with is a homogeneous core of inoffensive but bland cardboard cutouts with little to offer beyond the same tiresome, generic clichés.

Writing sucks as a form of personal introduction

Sure, it’s great for expressing complex ideas, literary works and humour, but trying to get to know someone purely through online messaging is often a balancing act between coming across as boring on the one hand and offensive on the other. In a face-to-face encounter you can use body-language and other cues to tell if your conversation partner’s interest is waning or if that last attempt at humour touched a nerve, but in an online conversation the first you’ll hear about it is when they mysteriously stop responding to you.

There is no incentive to improve

Dating sites are generally funded in one of two ways: selling advertising on an otherwise-free service, or requiring a premium subscription for important functionality (like sending messages). What both of these business models have in common is that they benefit from customers continuing to use the site for as long as possible, which is the exact opposite of what will happen if they quickly find a match and leave. They are therefore in the curious situation of providing a service which will make them less money if it is too successful, which may go some way to explain why their matching processes are so breath-takingly inefficient.

Not that any of this makes dating sites entirely worthless — if you are a woman who by some glitch in the matrix doesn’t already receive enough attention in real life and feels that some additional ego-massage from random strangers on the internet will make up the balance, or a man who is too stubborn, desperate or just plain thick to realise that nobody wants to hear your hollow compliments and “hi hunni wanna chat xxx”, then PlentyOfFish or OKCupid may be just what the doctor ordered. As far as meeting interesting, rational, and intelligent people goes though, you will have better luck trolling Chatroulette.