“The vigilante’s window”

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 September, 2016
Editorial: 28
Fecha de publicación original: 16 julio, 1996

Date of publication: 16/7/1996. Editorial 028.

A house with two doors is difficult to keep

Up until now, European governments have maintained a rather discreet attitude towards Internet. Apart from the much publicised cases of Germany and France, in which they tried to kill the messenger (the suppliers of on-line services) when they were unable to act on the prince (the internaut, author of the sought-after information), the Old Continent has viewed the battle for the freedom of information in the Net and “cyber-rights” quite phlegmatically, as though it were something that belonged to the folklore of those on the other side of the Atlantic. Of course, things have not really been that smooth. There was the case of the Finnish police who, at the request of the FBI, intervened against a server which made it possible to disguise e-mail addresses. Or the meeting of Ministers of the European Union in Bologna a couple of months ago to “see what we are going to do about Internet”, as a high ranking Italian official so graphically put it. Or the activity of Europol, the EU police, whose intervention in the net remains unregulated.

Nevertheless, discretion has been the order of the day up to now even in these interventions. In the end, what Europe wants is to distinguish itself from the US as far as the use of the net is concerned, so it emphasises the creation of the information society, in the face of Al Gore’s gospel of a global information infrastructure. Yes, we want that infrastructure but in order to fulfil precise objectives, concerned as we should be about questions such as employment, leisure, economics, health, social services, etc. Ironically, this is precisely where our problems begin, in that Europe does not have a network of social organisations dedicated to defending the rights of the individuals who will be the protagonists in the new digital society. At least not on a level comparable to that which exists on the other side of the pond. The above-mentiond French and German interventions have had more repercussions in the US than in Europe, where the battle against the Clinton government’s attempt to censor Internet was already being waged.

Well, now it’s our turn. The Clipper, the ill-fated encryption chip which the White House tried to put into electronic equipment to give the police a privileged window on private digital communications, has crossed the Atlantic and anchored in the ports of Great Britain and France. Both countries have agreed to create what they call the Trusted Third Parties, TTP, a kind of introduction agency which will ensure that the parties involved in electronic transactions have been vetted and are reliable. TTP offers an encryption program for commercial partners to use when they exchange confidential information. However, in both countries, the TTP agencies are obliged to hand over the “keys” of these codes to the security services if the demand for them is accompanied by an administrative order (not a judicial one).
If the intention of these governments is to protect the business world, it’s not clear what the hell government has to do with this. Up to now, and for quite a long time, business has shown that it is quite capable of developing its own security systems for digital transactions without the need of any ministry to show them what to do, and, on top of that, with the added obligation of having to hand over the codes that they are using. One imagines that the financial sector, to mention the one which, in principle, will be most affected, will take such an intervention with a pinch of salt.

But this measure is not only directed at the business world. As a spokesperson for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in England explained, “the Government will introduce the TTP to build up consumer confidence”. The White House used the same argument when they defended the Clipper, proposed by the FBI and the National Security Agency. No sooner did civil rights organisations begin to scratch the surface than the real intentions became clear: a privileged window for our perennial guardians and an attempt to create the first system for the control of information circulating in the net.

The Clipper, in the USA, has had to resist the crossfire of organisations such as ACLU, EPIC, or EFF, but has still not been completely sunk. Gore has just announced that the project is still alive. Up to now, the only response to the appearance of TTP in Europe, has been from Privacy International, a London-based organisation for civil rights defence which is run by EPIC in Washington. Both organisations, along with Human Rights Watch and The Internet Society, have just launched the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) to safeguard freedom of expression in the net. One of its objectives will be the TTP. The future of the European-style Information Society depends largely on the response that the cyberspace community is capable of making in the face of these governmental initiatives, which are driven by a vocation to control and meddle in personal communications.

Translation: Bridget King.