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Policing the Internet

5 · JUN ·2013

The Internet has become such a vital part of our lives it only seems right to have a system in place that monitors and controls crime in the same way we would offline.

Certain images may pop into one’s head when thinking of how the internet is policed. Pondering ‘cyber-crime fighters’; guarding against Trojan horses, spyware or any other sinister sounding web menaces, or the ‘internet police’; censoring inappropriate content, we might, in lighter moments , succumb to imagining funny, cartoon miniature policeman, dashing round our screen’s; wagging fingers and blowing whistles, attempting to restore order in the digital world. Fanciful? Well not if you live in China - in China this actually happens! Funny images, but ones that mask something a touch more serious, because Chinese citizens are subjected to unparralled levels of internet censorship and repression. All internet traffic in China runs through a walled garden network, or country wise intranet – fittingly called the ‘Great Firewall of China’ and upto 30,000 people are employed within the internet police – blocking sites and even monitoring what their citizens search. That China has “the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world” also suggests that there are serious repercussions for transgressing internet law.

And China aren’t alone, the likes of Pakistan, Syria, Burma, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, to name a few, also exercise an iron clad grip over how and what their citizens use the internet for.

Of course in the UK a far more liberal policy towards the internet and internet crime is in operation. Our version of the ‘Internet Police’ is the PceU (Police Central e-crime Unit) which provides investigative response to web crime – effectively it’s a reactionary unit. Most prosecutions for ‘web crimes’ in the UK are either for hacking, security breaches etc or related to inappropriate content which is generally confined to ‘criminally obscene adult content’. However, as more of our lives and lived out and expressed over the net, changes to policy are inventible , and indeed already in process. For example in 2012 Matthew Woods and Liam Stacey both spent time behind bars for comments classified under the title of ‘menacing communications’ which loosely pertains to anything deemed either ‘racist or grossly offensive’. When does policing the internet become more about monitoring individual’s speech, right or wrong, rather than its initial use for clamping down on criminally obscene content?

The UK is also beginning to witness battles over the issue of internet privacy. The recently drafted Communications Data Bill proposed for ISPs to store all the details of a user’s communications for a year- including social media usage, voice calls over the internet and gaming. Additionally police would not need permission to view these communications should they require them. With drafts of the bill constantly being reexamined, those in opposition are questioning its ‘big brother’ effects. Would the UK’s Communications Data Bill extend internet policing power too far and actually constitute an infringement of people’s privacy and freedoms?

Though the Communications Data Bill would give police access to user’s information- other ISPs and service providers have made it clear policing the internet is not their job. ISPs have been asked in the past to disconnect their users who may be using their service to illegally download video or music (no criminally obscene content) and refused- stating they are neither in control of what is on the internet, nor the supervisors of what their users choose to look at. ISPs have even appealed provisions to the Digital Economy Act (another piece of UK’s technology driven legislation) that would force them to send out letters threatening service cancellations to users who have downloaded illegal material.

Regardless of your position on policing the internet, monitoring cyber activity isn’t going to stop. The question becomes not about whether policing the internet acceptable, but rather how far is too far? When does policing the internet for those abusing it actually become an abuse to the benign users as well?

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Posted by Sanita Karra