anche in italiano
auch auf Deutsch
isnt the only threat
An article in the Edri-gram newsletter September 26, 2007
So theres a new verb in Europe: to frattinise. It first appeared in German, soon after in French and in Italian, it may creep around in other languages. Or it may be replaced by another one, next time someone else jumps on the same hideous bandwagon.
On 10 September 2007 (quite deliberately, one day before the anniversary of September Eleven) European Commissioner Franco Frattini declared to Reuters: «I do intend to carry out a clear exploring exercise with the private sector... on how it may be possible to use technology to prevent people from using or searching dangerous words like bomb, kill, genocide or terrorism.»
As far as I can tell, there wasnt much reporting of this statement in mainstream media. But there was immediate reaction online, starting with ALCEIs press release Repression and censorship. The ghost is still around in Italy and in Europe. A distressing statement by European commissioner Frattini leads to a devastating form of censorship: the prohibition of words or concepts. The way is open for punishing who dares to think too much.
The threat per se is so stupid that it could be brushed off as sheer nonsense. Mr. Frattini didnt even notice that, by following his suggestion, his own statement would be censored and removed from any accessible source. But, unfortunately, this isnt a joke.
Would it work? Of course not. Thousands or millions of perfectly legitimate pages could be removed from networks, or made unsearchable, just because they contain one of the forbidden words (or any other content assumed to be dangerous.) While criminals could easily bypass the problem by not using revealing terminology... it is quite easy to write instructions on how to make disruptive weapons and call them how to repair a vacuum cleaner. Or, even more easily, to disguise words so that no automatic system can detect them. Once again, all sorts of authorities dont understand how the internet works. Or deliberately choose to ignore realities, in order to gain control.
But... is crime prevention the real objective?
Since the very beginning of networking, there have always been attempts to censor, regulate, prohibit, filter, profile, centralise, spy etc. Frattinising is just one of many ways of interfering with free opinion and communication, with all sorts of excuses and disguises.
Terrorism and violent crime have always been one of those false pretences. Of course how to make a bomb can be found by anyone in simple chemistry manuals. But its easy to play on scare and thus obtain political and public opinion support for actions that are useless for that purpose, while they justify all sorts of abuses. And, of course, that has been getting worse after the September eleven tragedy.
Other classic excuses are pornography (or an even more vague definition of what is considered decent), child abuse (or, more broadly, protection of minors), copyright etc. as well as deliberate misunderstanding, by law enforcement bodies, of civil rights-related computer forensics and other investigative tool issues, such as an online DNA database built for the sake of crime prevention (see the Prum Convention text).
Time goes by, it has been proved countless times that repression of freedom does not solve these problems, while it causes countless abuses, but the same mistakes (or deliberate distortions) are happening over and over again.
A bit of history.
ALCEI was founded in August, 1994. Some people, at that time, thought that it was a reaction to the infamous Italian crackdown. It wasnt. From its very beginning, it intended to be a permanent watchdog for continuing presence, not just short-lived reactions to specific episodes.
The 1994 crackdown was, to some extent, misunderstood internationally. It was described as the largest police seizure of bulletin board systems in world history. But it wasnt aimed at hackers or (assumed) terrorists. It was originated by a search for unregistered software, expanded to a grotesque extension by a few overzealous and technically ignorant magistrates. In following years there were no single events of such overwhelming size, but countless cases of similar abuses, based on an Italian law that treats as criminal the use of not fully registered software (or the unauthorised reproduction of music etc).
Protection of minors was used as an excuse for several extended crusades, de facto scarcely aimed at arresting those who produce infamous content, and even less at identifying people guilty of actual violent crimes while aggressively investigating thousands of individuals (and their families) who were often totally innocent, or were guilty of such crimes as looking at a few sexy pictures of girls who were (or appeared to be) under 18 years old.
Of course innocent people, eventually, are acquitted in court. But, before that, they are submitted to persecution, defamation, disgrace etc., that are not remedied by the fact that they are not found guilty. In several cases, defendants just negotiated a guilty verdict abdicating their right to defend themselves in court in exchange for a lighter sentence, not having the strength (in terms of money and psychological endurance) to face a long and uncertain criminal trial.
In many instances the Italian interpretation of European Union directives, as well as locally produced legislation, was warped by politicians desire to assuage (existing or assumed) public concern (thus not risking their privileged positions) as well as satisfying specific lobbying interests. One of many examples is the infamous Peppermint case.
What is behind all this? In 1996 I wrote a short article called Cassandra. It was soon adopted by ALCEI, and also published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US as a statement with international value. Eleven years later, things havent basically changed.
Other reports in English on the general situation in Italy are two presentations at the 2000 Computers, Freedom and Privacy convention and an article in Cyberspace and Law.
There are a few critical words in Commissioner Frattinis threat that deserve some specific analysis «an exploring exercise with the private sector». This isnt a new trick, and its very dangerous. Some obnoxious forms of repression can be obtained in parliament, by getting legislation though when watchdogs arent watching, or are deliberately ignored and by using popular excuses such as terrorism, crime, protection of minors, copyright etc. But there is a faster and (unfortunately) easier way.
Its unlikely (or so we can hope) that search engines will be persuaded to censor keywords. But service providers can be conditioned in many ways (they may even voluntarily comply just to stay out of trouble and that has already been happening.) Not only individual pages, but entire websites can be wiped out with all sorts of excuses and that, too, has already been done. We may not care abut some specific cases. We can live without one more offering of illegal gambling, kinky sex, or maybe miracle medicine or other fake stuff. We would be actually pleased if some spam, especially scam, could be removed (but very little, if anything, has been done effectively in that direction.) The problem is that, once the principle is accepted that something can be removed, blacklisted, censored or filtered, by immediate execution of an authoritys decree or by so-called voluntary compliance, that concept can be used to interfere with any information or opinion that displeases some controlling power.
Even in countries, such as Italy and all of the European Union, where freedom of opinion is an unquestionable constitutional right, manipulation of fear, or distaste for obnoxious content, can lead to censorship and other abuse in many disguised forms with public opinion being tricked into believing that such abuses are acceptable.
The Frattini threat is just one of many such dangers. They have been there for many years and they will not come to an end. That is why we need watchdogs such as EDRi, and our associations in each country, to keep watching and, when necessary, biting. We cant stop them altogether, because whatever we do they will come up with some other trick. But we can prevent them from completely prevailing.
(Contribution by Giancarlo Livraghi EDRI-member ALCEI-Italy)
Web search for bomb recipes should be blocked: EU
ALCEI Press Release Sept. 11 2007 (11.09.2007)
Prum Convention text
An update on the Peppermint affaire
The network society as seen from Italy
Internet freedom, privacy and culture in Italy (and the
activity of NGOs)
EFFI: Search engine
censorship is an absurd proposal
An explosive idea download frattinizzare.js
In Italian http://www.sclerosi.org/frattinizzare.php
In German http://www.spreeblick.com/2007/09/15/bombenidee/
In French http://www.spreeblick.com/2007/09/15/une-idee-de-bombe-frattinizerjs-a-telecharger/
Postscript October 22, 2007
It isnt just a coincidence that something similar to the frattinising software appeared on October 19, 2007 in a cartoon by J.D. Frazer Illiad. The context is different, but the concept is the same.
Copyright © 2007 J.D. Frazer Illiad
Its no joke, and its quite worrying, that on October 19 there was another statement by Franco Frattini, European Union Commissioner for Justice, freedom, [sic] & Security, who not only insisted, but turned up the volume on aggressive censorship threats, calling them an ambitous counter terrorism package due for imminent action.
This is not the matter of one persons attitudes and intentions. As confirmed by several circumstances including those explained in the statement published by EDRI on October 10, 2007, on other sorts of threats in an obtuse and repressive recommendation by the Council of Europe.