Category: Digital Rights

BitVote: Have a say in decisions that affect us all

DO YOU remember when the internet still spread hope? After its invention in the‘80s, we had access to a mass of information, sites such as Napster allowed us to share so-called “private property” easily and, most importantly, we could publish what we had to say ourselves – and people actually listened. It was participatory in nature, without much visible regulation from above. Nowadays, with net neutrality being at risk, mass surveillance and the threat of clamping down on copyright infringements as an excuse for censorship, the web often induces more fear than encouragement.

Narcolepsy sufferer Aaron Bale – mentored by “the internet’s own boy”, Aaron Swartz, and inspired by the success of the SOPA blackout in 2012, when 20 million people effectively stopped an anti-piracy bill – has come up with an idea to return some power to internet users: BitVote. He hopes his project will let us have some say again, without being completely overrun by the powers-that-be.

What is BitVote?

As a decentralised app operating on a BitCoin-like blockchain technology with a KeyValuePair store of data strings everyone can access, BitVote will add value to ideas without a human authority having to oversee the process. The coding will be completely transparent, so everyone can improve, build and analyse the tool as they wish. In the interest of, “I don’t agree with your opinion but I’ll fight for your right to speak it,” it’ll be completely neutral and compatible with all current systems as well as third-party add-ons.

How do I vote?

Votes will be measured in units we can all relate to: minutes, hours and days of our life. You’ll be able to choose a link (or create your own) to something you feel strongly about – say it’s the fight against Monsanto’s food monopoly. After pasting it into BitVote, you can dedicate an appropriate amount of token time to it. If you have 24 vote hours, you could use all 24 hours towards Stop Monsanto. But you could also, if you don’t care about the GMO giants as much, only use four hours (or one, two, five etc.) and save the rest for a different cause. Your vote will be recorded and your available hours will drop accordingly. The time-units are easy for everyone to grasp, yet they’ll provide multiple factors for analysis. What, for instance, is more important – many people spending small vote units on a cause or a few people spending large vote units on a cause?

Bale and BitVote coder Jasper den Ouden haven’t agreed whether all voters will accumulate vote hours from the day BitVote launches or from the day you were born, but the consensus is that the assigning of “vote currency” needs to be equal for all. Importantly, although vote hours will increase every 60 minutes of your life, they’ll gain value through scarcity. This means that those who don’t use the internet so often – the elderly, people living in rural areas or just generally less tech-savvy people – will actually have a stronger impact when things get heavy. Say something drastic happens and a president decides to go to war. The above-mentioned demographic might be motivated to vote and have more hours to spend than enthusiastic internet users who vote everyday.

Slacktivism

You might be thinking, how is this different to slacktivism? It’s just a bunch of symbolic hours after all; spent in a virtual system, via a click from your armchair. Bale realises that the vote hours won’t do anything as such. But what they will do, is show what people care about. If you’re fighting for a cause, you might feel more confident addressing it in the real world if you know 80% of BitVoters feel the same way as you. Ultimately – although BitVote can be used for a vast variety of reasons, from market research to activism – the system’s strength is perhaps that it could offer evidence of betrayal. If the Film and Publications Board South Africa says pre-publication censorship on the internet is what the majority wants, citizens could take to BitVote to prove the opposite. Whether a bunch of votes will actually stop officials from executing their plans is hard to imagine, yet – if the system really is widely used by technophiles and technophobes alike – it might be more powerful than a Twitter storm or liking causes on Facebook.

What about mob-votes?

A concern is that a mob of people, who might be very uneducated on the subject they’re voting on, could get together to cast a potentially dangerous vote. Imagine this was, “kill all homosexuals”. Bale tries to explain this problem with what he calls “The Zombie Example”. “If there’s a zombie apocalypse on the rise and 99.9% want to legalise cannibalism, authorities have the option not to act on this, and the population will thank them later. You can use common sense.” Moreover, it’s an alarm bell. If a large number of voters plan to kill homosexuals, he would try to physically intervene. He believes it probably won’t come to tyranny-of-the-majority votes though because of the way people interact online. “Not in close physical proximity, and anonymously. There’s trolling, but there’s not a lot of abuse of authority. The internet doesn’t kill people.”

Also, he explains, if a tyrant boss in an oppressive regime gets a 1000 of his employees to vote at gunpoint, these workers can cast a counter-vote anonymously to get “the asshole fired”. He adds that there are a lot of scams around and BitVote isn’t immune to them – but often people have ways to figure them out. An instant “vote bomb”, in this case a 1000 people voting for a dodgy cause at once, might spur some scepticism.

Location-aware votes

Although users will be completely anonymous by default, a positive aspect is perhaps that you’ll have the option to disclose your geographical location. Imagine the City of Cape Town decides to evict a group of people from their shacks, again claiming to have the interest of the people at heart. The majority, who are not being evicted from their homes, might vote for the eviction of the shack-dwellers because they don’t understand their conditions – thus providing the City with a plausible back-up to their statement. The affected community could, however, start a location-aware vote to show that everyone who lives in the area does not approve of the eviction.  In other words, the people at the river should have more authority to decide whether it’s polluted or not. Bale also points out that, because anyone can build an add-on tool, it’s easy to create filters. This might be useful if BitVote gets flooded with porn.

One-per-ID

As well-intentioned as BitVote may sound, if it wants be legitimate and effective, there can only be one user per real-world identity, which is difficult to prove without compromising anonymity. The geek word for this is Sybil security – a tricky problem many organisations are currently trying to solve. While none of them are perfect, the BitVote team members have some ideas. Options could involve “ID pools”, i.e. having users play a game simultaneously, or reputation systems. A lot of methods have loop holes and would be extremely costly though. According to Bale, so-called Sybil attacks, also called “sock puppeting”, are often of a “social nature”, meaning they don’t necessarily involve a lot of technical know-how. Therefore, Bale welcomes everyone to help solve this problem. If you’re a social orientated professional, such as a sociologist, political student, social-engineer hacker, activist, doctor, or just someone with a good idea, please contact him at arkbg1@gmail.com.

At this stage it’s unclear when BitVote will launch officially – funding still needs to be secured and Sybil security solved – but the team is working on getting a small scale system up and running soon. This will function as an invitation-only experiment for people whose identity has been verified in the real world.

Until then, we might not be sure of the project’s practical implications. But one thing Bale said might be valuable to keep in mind: “With BitVote the concept of authority is constantly changing. The ideas themselves will gain authority, not people.”

What do you think? Are you sceptical? How would you use BitVote?  

Please post your ideas, critiques and praise in the comment section – it’s a project everyone is encouraged to participate in. 

Text: Christine Hogg

 

Taxing the Internet, Gordhan’s regressive proposals

IT’S BEEN a long time coming, the new tax proposals mooted by government could end up doing more damage to Internet access than any censorship laws. In his latest budget speech, Pravin Gordhan outlined a plan whereby ” foreign businesses which sell e-books, music and other digital goods and services should be required to register as VAT vendors, in line with regulations which have been adopted by the European Union and other jurisdictions.”

Exactly why this is bound to back-fire is obvious, since many small online website stores hosted in the cloud will not be able to cater to local tax regimes. The policy will only make sense to large global concerns like Apple iTunes who are likely to monopolise the system. Mid-sized online retailers will simply refuse to ship orders to South Africa or block services that conflict with local tax laws.

The job of collecting an Internet tax, if it is ever implemented will be extremely difficult to police. It also sets a precedent whereby sites like Youtube could find themselves susceptible to industry-lead blanket copyright taxes which are bound to come on the heels of any new SARS tax initiative.

The regressive system of taxation being punted by SARS, is also the bailiwick of the music industry who see it as a way of enforcing compliance with antiquated copyright laws. There are also proposals by on-demand digital television companies for the entire Net to be licensed. Sweden recently adopted a law forcing computer users to license their computers, and South Africa could soon follow suit.  The online freeconomy which has existed for nearly two decades, and which has resulted in mashup sites like ccMixter and Soundcloud are bound to face pressure from a government which sees the digital world as ripe for the picking.

Industry pundit Arthur Goldstuck supports these proposals and has decried the use of torrents and video streaming, blaming “a few hundred bandwidth hogs” for destroying intellectual property. Clearly the old guard just don’t get free torrents and the creative commons, myopically perceiving the digital world as a threat instead of an opportunity, in other words, they fail to acknowledge the Net as anything more than another marketplace, instead of seeing it as a way to create a new form of capitalism in which all users are effectively shareholders in a global network that redistributes wealth while creating digital assets.

Customs and Excise already collect substantial tax for the exchequer from imported goods shipped via the Internet, and this duty and burden need not be shifted to online retailers. Fortunately South Africa’s Bill of Rights guarantees communication freedom and the right to privacy, it will therefore be interesting to see whether any of the Ministers proposals are able to pass constitutional muster.

https://medialternatives.com/2011/09/13/are-we-marching-to-internetoria/

https://medialternatives.com/2009/07/07/the-curse-of-king-tantalus-and-the-internet/

South Africa’s digital isolation finally at an end?

South Africa only got television in 1976 thanks to apartheid and the National Party. This pattern of late-adoption of technology was repeated again under a socialist government when the ANC imposed similar tactics of isolation. Instead of unbundling Telkom, the national cable company created by the apartheid state, the party simply took up a position in the market and engaged in the kind of monopoly behaviour that East Germans experienced under Erich Honecker — in effect promoting an artificial, communications Berlin Wall which prevented South Africans from enjoying many of the technological advances of the turn of the century.

Almost 15 years after the rest of the world got broadband, however, South Africans in 2012 finally went online in a big way only to find the world had moved on. Granted, it was always possible to get a dialup account, but Telkom’s metred pricing and uncompetitive practices stifled the kind of ubiquitous Internet that is apparent in the West. Luckily the country’s experiment with mobile telecommunications tells a slightly different story. With the national cable company stuck in the past, a new world of telecommunications unleashed a parallel universe of cheap and accessible services.

Now as the world of cable and mobile converge, we have to ask, what did we miss?

While government censorship committees were deliberating on implementing a Net Kill switch and debating the possibility of a national firewall (65% of South Africans lack Internet services) you probably learnt to ration your Net usage down to a few basic services like social networking and email. But the Internet isn’t just about facebook and twitter. Here are some points to consider.

1. The Learning Revolution.
Online Audio and Video lessons on practically any subject under the Sun, with Free educational lectures on anything from midwifery to rocket science, open university seminars, online tutorials, a plethora of instructables, the world of education never had it so good. Today you can learn how to bake a cake, share food recipes, learn a new language, start a career as a computer programmer with free coding courses, literally anything which can be taught can be related via the new digital medium as a new pedagogy of multimedia transforms education from an elitist pastime to a mass-based and popular occupation entailing lifelong learning.

2. The Open Source Revolution
Remember the days when you had to pirate that copy of Windows XP? Pirate no longer, since operating systems and the software ecosystems surrounding them became free as in free beer. The open source software revolution caused by the networked world of open distribution of digital resources has resulted in plethora of free operating systems along with free applications to match. From Android to Ubuntu, the choice is no longer simply Windows or OSX.

3. The Cloud
The conceptual leap from local storage to online storage is not all that difficult. It all comes down to issues of bandwidth. With broadband being spurred on by the many international cables now landing on our shores, several different cables all capable of quadrupling bandwidth on their own, the technological need to ration bandwidth has effectively ended. While harddrive manufacturers are unveiling their latest terabyte flash drives, Cloud Storage has become all the rage. Users no longer need to download information to a harddrive but instead store this information online to be accessed whenever it is needed. One example of popular uses of cloud storage is streaming audio and video which avoids the hassle of downloads and local storage.

4. Crowdsourcing and Collaborative Culture.
This one is a real paradigm shift. Okay, so you got online, and you figured out how to social network, but do you know you can land a job anywhere in the world while remaining in the comfort of your home? Because the Net allows us to communicate instantaneously with any part of the globe, the possibilities for online collaboration and distance work are endless. The labour market is thus free to go wherever it is needed. One benefit is crowdsourcing for example, Mechanical Turk and Ushahidi who focus on small jobs and creating digital maps respectively. Other examples are the relocation of call-centres dues to VOIP. Practically any service imaginable can be offered in this way.

5. Post Scarcity and the Internet of Things
The rapid advances in technology caused by the Internet have fundamentally altered our economic systems. From just-in-time print-on-demand publishing in which items like printed books and posters are made, but only as orders come in, to 3D printing in which objects one would normally buy at a store are printed on your desktop instead of being made in factories, the revolution that will put China on your desktop and fundamentally alter the way things are made and distributed continues apace.

6. The End of Money
The Internet has not only changed the way we think about money, it has altered our perception of value and created a world in which the only real commodity is our attention span. Whether it is the world of micropayments, Paypal or Flattr, or just the freedom of being able to sell stuff online via Gumtree or eBay, the entire global economy has been transformed and in a relatively short period of time. Increasingly Internet users are conceiving of money as software, the result is crypocurrencies like bitcoin, alternative economic systems like time-banking, Circle of Gifts, and the Talent Exchange, and veritable host of virtual currencies.

7. The Maker Revolution
Amateur robotics and home electronics is proceeding apace as the Arduino platform inspires a host of “makers” to create DIY projects such as the popular Raspberry Pi computer. Anything that can be automated will be and this is bound to impact on human labour as the more menial tasks in society become the domain of robotics. If you can Do it Yourself, life has never been better with an Internet that caters to the DIY home enthusiast, whether it is making home solar power, building log cabins or growing your own food, someone on the Net has a solution.

SEE ALSO:

Why is Telkom opposed to broadband cable freedom?

South Africa’s cable monopoly scam exposed.

The curse of King Tantalus and the Internet

Are we marching to Internetoria?

End Telkom Carrier Preselect on Cable

South Africa’s “Go Digital” Television Revolution

The Department of Communications has announced new standards for digital television set-top boxes which will provide millions of South African households with Internet access for the first time.

The new STB decoder standard, known as SANS862:2012 announced in conjunction with the SA Bureau of Standards, provides for a “return path” functionality which will enable broadband access for households. There are not details as yet on the quality of the broadband service in terms of bandwidth, latency and contention, but expect more about this as HDTV becomes a reality for South African households.

The new revised STB decoder standard includes a USB port and will deliver similar functionality to that of cable and wifi.

Medialternatives raised the issue of Internet via Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) back in 2008. You can read the posting here.

The new standards are bound to impact on South Africa’s domestic electronics industry, as major players jockey for position in the award of tenders.

The Democratic Alliance has  criticised the new digital strategy of government subsidised decoders for being “Dead on Arrival”, since according to the party, the “decoder can be more cheaply manufactured overseas.”

DA MP Marian Shinn said in March that the demand for the set-top boxes had a limited lifespan and that local manufacturers would therefore not create long-term employment.

The opposition party has obviously not done its homework, since the new standard is a real boost for local electronics manufacturing, providing a baseline for subsidised consumers who are bound to demand further value-added technologies.

The South African Communications Forum (SACF) applauded the move, congratulating Minister Dina Pule, and this blog can only concur — at last common sense has prevailed with a triple reward — digital television is going to benefit local industry, Internet service providers will see a boost from value-added services in particular web-hosting, as the  consumer benefits from an increase in Internet access  options .

Nedbank’s Biometric Bungle exposes Personal Info Bill shortcomings.

South Africa’s constitution may have guarantees against the invasion of one’s body in addition to strong privacy protections, but corporations perceive a future in which article 12 and 14 will be amended by simple legislation. Nedbank for instance, has already installed biometric scanning equipment in the expectation of the eminent passing of the so-called “ Protection of Personal Information Bill” (POPI) . A piece of post-RICA and 911 legislation drawn up by government securocrats that could open the doorway to intrusive gathering of biometric information by private companies under the pretext of new privacy protections in the “interests of the consumer”.

Rights Violation?

The new bill  may authorise “a responsible party” to process personal information, even if that processing is “in breach of an information protection principle.” According to the Bill, ‘biometric’’ data means “a technique of personal identification that is based on physical characteristics, including fingerprinting, DNA analysis, retinal scanning and voice recognition.”

Although already aware of the bill due to  my ongoing lobby work for the People’s Health Movement and the Right2Know Campaign — I have submitted concerns related to the problem of securing patient records under the new NHI –  I only became aware of the breadth of the new legislation being contemplated by our government, upon encountering Nedbank’s Guardian system during the festive season

The bank has already rolled out its biometric fingerprinting and security device “pursuant to legislation” being passed.

The issue of consent, which is also covered by the proposed act proved a lot more trickier to navigate than Nedbank had contemplated.

Upon entering the double-door security system which is de rigeur even at the post office, I was assaulted by the new guardian system which at the time, had been programmed to bar entry unless one “consented” to being fingerprinted and photographed.

I immediately objected and complained to management. Surely this was a violation of my constitutional rights, a biometric assault in fact, that could in no way  imply consent?

After numerous phone-calls and a few tweets later, I received the following letter, in which it appears Nedbank capitulates, customers will be requested to use the system on a voluntary basis for the time being, at least until the legislation is passed:

We refer to your complaint regarding the use of fingerprints at Nedbank branches in the Nedbank Guardian biometric system, in particular during your visit to Nedbank Salt River on 21 November 2011, and advise as follows.

You are correct in stating that the Constitution provides a right to privacy for all citizens.

As is indicated on the poster wording outside the Nedbank Salt River branch door, use of the Nedbank Guardian system is optional, however, and you may enter a participating Nedbank branch whether you choose to provide your fingerprints or not. Should you not wish to provide your fingerprints, you are welcome to speak to the security guard on duty or contact branch management. Branch management will then arrange for your access to the branch, as is also indicated on the poster wording outside the Nedbank Salt River branch door.

The wording in the notices placed on posters at Nedbank branch doors is based on the wording of the Protection of Personal Information Bill (“the Bill”). The Bill has not been enacted yet, but Nedbank is already striving to embrace the spirit of the Bill by using the appropriate wording in anticipation of this enactment.

Consent would be required for the use of biometrics at branch after enactment of the Bill, since other exemptions in the Bill which would allow Nedbank to process personal information without consent would not necessarily apply to the processing of personal information of visitors to its branches.

“Consent” is defined in the Bill as “… any voluntary, specific and informed expression of will….”  This would include cases in which visitors voluntary elect to enter participating branches and provide their fingerprints.

The sole purpose of the fingerprinting is to match the identity of visitors to branches with records kept by the Department of Home Affairs, and will only be disclosed to the Department of Home Affairs, the South African Police Service, the South African Fraud Prevention Services, and to Nedbank’s security services providers, or when Nedbank is compelled under law to disclose this information to other parties.

We confirm that Nedbank Guardian records and stores biometric data and photographs of visitors to the branch confidentially and in accordance with applicable legislation.

Nedbank Guardian uses the Advanced Encryption Standard specification for the encryption of electronic data, and we attach a link in the event that you would like to obtain more information in this regard:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Encryption_Standard

Nedbank will not sell your personal information to third parties.

Nedbank strives to provide the best customer service possible, and to protect its clients and members of the public against criminal activities. It is with this in mind that it has introduced the Nedbank Guardian biometric system at branch doors.

We trust that our response is satisfactory to you.

If not, please do not hesitate to contact the undersigned so that we can follow up on this matter.

Yours sincerely

Edwin Smerdon

Read the Bill

Are we marching to Internetoria?

Discussing Network Neutrality as if it were a Network Switch that government can turn on or off, implies having a rational debate between opposing parties. Technologically speaking, the Internet has always routed around the problem of censorship. Advances in technology however, do not appear to stop lawmakers from making bad decisions. Recent failed attempts by government to create a national firewall, to effectively RICA the Internet, are warning signs that Network Neutrality in South Africa (as well as Africa) is under serious threat. One has only to examine the statements on BBM made by the deputy minister of communications Obed Bapela at the Southern Africa Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference (SATNAC) to be extremely alarmed at the prospect of state intervention in our online communications.

Back in 1996 the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and South Africa’s constitutional assembly was putting the final touches to a document which would become our Bill of Rights. I wrote a letter to Wired Magazine about the inclusion of a home-grown right which had heretofore been excluded from the lexicon of government and especially the previous apartheid regime.

The Right to Privacy (article 14), and more specifically the right of citizens to not have the privacy of their communications infringed, was written during a period in which cryptopunks and cyberanarchists were under threat from various quarters. The US government had only a year previously attempted to clamp down on PGP encryption technology, while South African anti-apartheid activists had been caught by the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) using IBM technology. (The matter is still the subject of litigation in the Khulumani case.) The very real possibility of an Orwellian world in which privacy was a practical impossibility because of the new technologies then emerging, scared us enough to want to secure privacy as well as communications freedom.

People fought and died for these rights — In addition to the right to privacy, our progressive constitution lists under Freedom of Expression (article 16), the “freedom to receive or impart information or ideas” and the terms used specifically exclude the kind of bureaucratic doublespeak which often seems to place the binary world of noughts and ones beyond the scope of liberty and freedom.

Our constitution is very much a pro-Internet and information-friendly document, and I therefore welcome the speedy clarification by Minister Jeff Radebe, the Coordinator of the Justice Cluster in Government, that “Government has no intention to regulate or legislate against Blackberry Encryption messenger services (BBM)”. Pretoria/Tshwane is apparently still ‘working on a policy statement on Cybermatters,” and last month hosted the inaugural South African Internet Governance Forum (ZAIGF), where groups such as ZA-FREE, were needless to say, not invited.

The invariable result is that we now appear to have two schools of thought in government on how to go about fostering “an inclusive Information Society, creating a multi-stakeholder information sharing platform, formulating the common South African position with regard to the global Internet Governance” and accommodating the various academic, scientific and technical and need one add hacker communities.

The one approach, professed by people like Radebe is that South Africa simply implement the code already packaged in the constitution, for example, by adopting the Geneva Action Plan and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society which has also been endorsed by the AU. This is the popular view. The other less-popular outlook advocated by securacrats such as Bapela and Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba, both of whom don’t appear to know what the Internet is all about, is essentially a totalitarian and interventionist approach, a Marxist dream in which all communication is controlled by a central authority in a fascist political dispensation in which individual rights do not exist as we know them, and if they do, they are extremely limited.

The self-serving attempts by Gigaba to limit Internet freedom under the guise of an anti-pornography campaign

for example, arise periodically and there is no guarantee that the progressive rights in our constitution will be upheld or that bad laws will not emerge.

The Gigaba Plan may have quietly died, but we should note with concern that Home Affairs publicly expressed the desire to build a “national firewall” like the one surrounding mainland China, that would essentially filter out content which government deems to be a threat to national security. Gigaba and his ilk, appears to believe that Internet service providers will willingly allow themselves to be implicated in the erosion of civil liberties guaranteed by our constitution, in the same way that mobile telephone companies have allowed themselves to become platforms for the clipper chip which is now in every mobile phone.

According to Home Affairs, not only would first tier Internet providers pay for the new firewall, but consumers would have the Department to thank for providing content. If the proposed legislation is ever adopted, every single website will end up under the purview of the Publications Control Board and the concept of Net Neutrality will be abolished in the national interest.

Unless we secure our rights with laws that give affect to our Constitution — implementing a Bill of Rights for the Internet which also recognises the rights of the individual qua machines, and which includes Net Neutrality and other core ideas such as the right to share content via fair use and copyleft, we will be forced to encrypt everything. Our web pages will become slower, our work will be more difficult, and Big Brother will merely succeed in retarding development by disabling the kind of fast, open social intercourse that yes, delivers pornography as much as it delivers new ideas like Open Source Software and Ubuntu Linux to the rest of the world.

Clearly, as the Egyptian Revolution has shown, when the Internet is shut down, when Service Providers are banned,  hackers fall back on modem dialup, BBS, POP servers and other pre-Web 2.0 devices to get their fix of data. We can only welcome the new self-regulated and distributed world which is being created and hope that what emerges is not simply colonisation of a different variety but rather a new Congress of the People, in which all are able to have their say and input in the new digital frontier which evolves.

Instead of marching to Pretoria, (when we get upset about something we see on the Interweb) what the Net needs is something like a Magna Carta. Both John Perry Barlow and myself have come up with documents that propound an essentially libertarian approach to the problem. Freedom can only be guaranteed if liberty is the default position in our discussion, and if access to the Internet is considered a human right. There are a number of other Internet rights documents out there, such as APC Internet Rights Charter and I suggest you read them.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Towards a South African Internet Bill of Rights

Back in 1996 the WWW was in its infancy and South Africa’s constitutional assembly was putting the final touches to a document which would become our Bill of Rights. I wrote a letter to Wired Magazine about the inclusion of a home-grown right which had heretofore been excluded from the lexicon of government and especially the previous apartheid regime.

The Right to Privacy (article 14), and more specifically the right of citizens not to have the privacy of their communications infringed, was written during a period in which cryptofreaks and cyberanarchists were under threat from various quarters. The US government had only a year previously attempted to clamp down on PGP encryption technology, while South African anti-apartheid activists had been caught by the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) using IBM technology. The very real possibility of an Orwellian world in which privacy was practically impossible because of the new technologies then emerging, scared us enough to want to secure privacy as well as communications freedom.

In addition to privacy, our progressive constitution lists under Freedom of Expression (article 16), the “freedom to receive or impart information or ideas” and the terms used specifically exclude the kind of bureaucratic doublespeak which often seems to place the binary world of noughts and ones beyond the scope of liberty and freedom. Our constitution is very much a pro-Internet and information-friendly document.

It is therefore extremely disconcerting to see attempts by the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba to limit Internet freedom under the guise of an anti-pornography campaign. Not only has Gigaba expressed his desire to build a “national firewall” like the one surrounding mainland China, that would essentially filter out content the government deems to be a threat to national security, but he appears to believe that service providers will willingly allow themselves to be implicated in the erosion of civil liberties guaranteed by our constitution.

If one follows the Ministers obsequious reasoning, not only will first tier providers pay for the new firewall, but consumers will have the Department of Home Affairs to thank for providing content. If the proposed legislation is adopted, every single website will end up under the purview of the Publications Control Board and the concept of Net Neutrality will be abolished in the national interest.

How is it possible that we have come to the Orwellian future in which the right to receive and impart ideas, the privacy of our communications is infringed to the point where Google searches, Yahoo mail, Facebook and Flikr are all subject to the dictates of the Minister of Home Affairs?

Shortly after 911, under pressure from the Bush administration our government passed a series of bills aimed at clamping down on global terrorism. The Anti-Terrorism Bill  (ATB) became known as the The Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act (Democracy Act). Fortunately South Africa did not end up with a Patriot Act, but it proceeded to adopt off-the-shelf US legislation which had once been shot down by the democrats under Clinton, only to be adopted under George W Bush. Despite criticism the new bills passed without substantial debate and opposition from political parties  in Parliament.

FICA and RICA are bizarre acronyms that you will find in postings about the infamous Clipper Chip and anti-PGP technology on mailing lists doing the rounds BEFORE South Africa’s Bill of Rights was even adopted. Not only do we get fingerprinted by Home Affairs (a rights violation if ever there was one) but we now get FICA’d and RICA’d — retinal scans and chip implants are surely not far behind?

While we all know that FICA gives our government the right to delve into our bank accounts, do you realise that RICA (Regulation of Interception of Communications Act) forces mobile telephone companies to install technology that allows our government to record wireless conversation and capture SMS traffic without judicial oversight? That’s right, Clipper Chip technology has already been implemented in our telephone system thanks to people like Malusi Gigaba.

Now the Department of Home Affairs is in the process of drawing up a RICA FOR THE INTERNET. The deputy minister has essentially expressed the desire to censor content while placing back-doors and clipper chips in every computer using broadband technology. In essence the government wants a backdoor into your social life and desktop – the right to spy and censor your communications without having to bother with the rigmarole of court orders and judicial oversight.

The reason they are unlikely to ever succeed in completely eradicating Internet freedom is because of public key encryption technology. PGP and GPG are the de facto standards of encryption technologies today. You see this type of technology in action every time you get a VeriSign SSL or TLS web page. Programmers use it to authenticate software and people use it to sign documents. Personal Encryption i.e privacy is something we all take for granted but seldom use, lulled into the complacency of ubiquitous and freely available content. It may soon become the only way to experience freedom in cyberspace.

Unless we secure our rights with new laws that give affect to our Constitution — creating a Bill of Rights for the Internet which also recognises the rights of the individual qua machines,  and which includes Net Neutrality and other core ideas such as the right to share content via fair use and copyleft, we will be forced to encrypt everything. Our web pages will be slowly served up as encoded noughts and ones as Malusi Gigaba merely succeeds in retarding development and disabling the kind of fast, open social intercourse that yes, delivers pornography as much as it delivers new ideas like Ubuntu to the rest of the world.

NOTE: The Protection of Information Bill is currently under consideration in the South African Parliament, the ISS and Open Society Justice Initiative are hosting a public seminar to exchange ideas about the protection of information within a democratic dispensation