Computing technology impacts nearly every aspect of modern society. It significantly increases the speed of business operations, and it makes life more convenient in many ways. The effects are similarly far-reaching when critical computer systems are compromised by hackers. Today’s hackers include nefarious white-collar criminals as well as technologists who use their skills to promote a free and open Internet. As cyber crime policies evolve within the international community, the former group of hackers arguably has no future. However, the latter group, which popularly practices what is known as hacktivism, may be just getting started. Here are some potential threats to internet freedom that could spark their ire.
Internet Change of the Guard
While many of the world’s brightest engineers and programmers are credited with contributing to the early formation of the internet, it was the U.S. Department of Defense that funded and generated the first working model of the internet during the latter part of the 20th century. Until recently, the United States has been the de facto guardian of the internet realm. Its inherent, constitutionally-derived freedoms of speech and expression have been the context in which the internet has continued to develop over the years. As of October 2016, the United States no longer controls the internet. The U.S. Department of Commerce handed over governance for the internet to a private, third-party group called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The non-profit company is affiliated with multinational corporations, foreign governments, prominent computer scientists and engineers. While ICANN claims that it will keep the internet free and open for all users, the potential is there to censor and block undesirable websites from having access to the Internet. Targeted websites could include ones that promote ideas that are in opposition to the agendas of corporations and governments.
Anonymous is a decentralized and global group of hackers that opposes undue internet censorship and controls. The group became active as early as 2003 but hit its stride in 2010 and beyond. Anonymous traditionally strikes companies with distributed denial of service attacks and Low Orbit Ion Cannon tactics when those companies attempt to stop the free flow of information sharing among internet users. The group’s victims also include U.S. government agencies and foreign governments that have engaged in forms of unethical practices or obstruction of free speech on the internet. Any attempts by ICANN or its affiliates to ban legitimate, informational websites from the information superhighway would likely draw a response from Anonymous.
How Real Is the Threat to Internet Freedoms
The push for more democratic political systems around the world may have lulled many people into a false sense of security regarding free speech. However, the world is an increasingly turbulent place, and some countries attribute this chaos to too much freedom of expression. For instance, China represents a large portion of the world’s internet users, but for better or for worse its people’s access to the information superhighway is highly restricted by the Chinese government. In recent years, many believed that China was moving towards more freedoms for its people as the people gained more economic prosperity. However, sources inside the Asian superpower confirm that restrictions on free speech and Internet censorship are increasing there.
The Chinese government has always restricted access to the Internet for its people. They even bypassed the web search giant Google with their own government-approved search engine that is called Baidu. However, brave locals and daring visitors usually have had access to virtual private networks (VPNs) that allowed them greater access to the internet through unofficial channels. Uncensored news, blogs and educational YouTube videos became accessible behind Beijing’s “Great Firewall” through the use of VPNs that allowed the secure exchange of encrypted data .
While the use of a VPN is not currently illegal in China, the government obviously frowns upon its people using VPNs to circumvent government information security processes. Some of these VPNs are allowed because foreign business people who live and work in China often need to access their companies’ systems remotely. VPNs allow them to securely access corporate data as well as the internet to do their work. However, it is becoming more challenging for foreigners, especially Westerners, to live and work in China. The Chinese government is also actively locating and blocking VPN systems as a form of internet censorship. The government of Iran has similar policies to block VPN services that are not government approved.
Representatives from these governments are sure to bring different perspectives to the ICANN table than those that are traditionally held by Americans who take First Amendment rights to free speech as a matter of course. The stage is set for clashes with anti-censorship hactivists and internet overseers in the future.
Free Speech Erosion At Home
Many Americans take the right to express themselves freely without fear of reprisals for granted. A recent survey that was conducted at some of America’s Ivy League universities showed that an overwhelming majority of students said that they were willing to nix the First Amendment if given the opportunity. This turn of events is disturbing on many levels whether the students truly think that free speech is not valuable or if their attitudes toward free speech has been influenced by the educational institutions that they attend. They are considered the future leaders of the country, and it appears that they have no problem letting a group control the types of information that become available to them digitally or in physical print media.
Hacktivists such as Anonymous realize that there is a limit to the level of freedom that civilized society can experience on the internet. Groups that use the internet to do harm politically or socially often become prime targets of their hacktivism. For instance, Anonymous infiltrated online child pornography networks in 2011, disabled their websites and exposed their extensive membership lists. Their motto is, “The corrupt fear us, the honest support us.” As global citizens’ attitudes change about what is corrupt and what is honest, it will be interesting to watch hacktivist groups like Anonymous adapt and maneuver in the future.