Dissident Devices

I've been having one of those communications-black hole weeks. I keep missing calls on my cell phone, and my ISP keeps dropping my Net connection and then restarting it. E-mail arrives sporadically. Sometimes I can get to the Web page I'm searching for, and sometimes I can't. It's like my life has become a disaster-prone microcosm of the world. Except in the real world, disruptions in the information flow are hardly random.

Over the past several days, news started circulating about Cuba's latest crackdown on dissidents. In the biggest roundup of this type in Cuba for many years, 75 people, many of them journalists, were arrested and charged with collaborating with a foreign power to undermine Cuban autonomy; their sentences ranged as high as 28 years.

One of the harsher sentences, 20 years, was reserved for a journalist named Ricardo Gonzalez, who edits an independent general-interest magazine called De Cuba. Just a few months ago I was in Cuba and had a chance to meet Gonzalez. At the time, he said he thought he would be jailed for editing De Cuba but wasn't sure, as the past several years in Cuba had seen a new leniency toward the free press. I saw this everywhere. People spoke openly about wanting to collaborate on projects with Americans and talked about reading uncensored magazines and news on the Internet. It was hard to believe that Gonzalez could be jailed when he was sitting with us in a restored hotel on the Malecon sipping coffee. It was just like chatting with an interesting journalist in the United States. We talked about social issues; we talked about poetry. The breeze came in off the ocean, and people rode by outside on their bikes.

Sure, it seems naive in retrospect, but you have to understand how normal, how safe, the scene was. Gonzalez had published his dissident magazine months earlier and hadn't been arrested. Cuba, it seemed, was changing. I wrote two columns about it. But now, just months later, one of the main reasons I wrote those columns is in jail for 20 years.

Back in the United States, where the government doesn't jail journalists as dissidents, people who want to communicate freely face pressure from another powerful adversary: the entertainment-industrial complex. Just as the news about Cuban dissidents was percolating into international awareness -- often via the Internet -- I began reading about some creepy new "communications security legislation" in Colorado. At the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America, representing an industry bloated with copyright cash, Colorado has joined several states in considering (and, in some cases, passing) a legislation package whose intent is to stop piracy but whose effect would be to cripple secure communication over the Internet.

These laws, which some are calling "state DMCAs" to highlight their similarity to the draconian Digital Millennium Copyright Act, are aimed at updating existing laws against theft of cable and telephone services. To this end, the model legislation recommended by the MPAA makes a lot of fuss about using "any communication device" to defraud a very broadly defined "service provider." Problematic definitions aside, computer scientist and digital-freedom activist Ed Felton points out in his blog that the most disturbing aspect of these state DMCAs is that they would outlaw "any communications device" that conceals or helps to conceal from the aforementioned ill-defined service provider "the existence or place of origin or destination of any communication."

Let's just unpack that one, shall we? What that means is you are breaking the law if you use most kinds of security firewalls to protect your computers from attack. Typically, firewalls use network address translation (NAT), a technology that "conceals" your computer's I.P. address from the outside world and makes said computer less hackable in the process. This law would also ban encryption, such as the extremely common use of a secure socket layer to check your e-mail. SSL technology encrypts -- i.e., "conceals" -- the destination of your e-mail. So state DMCA legislation will protect the MPAA's precious copyrights from being violated by nasty, hidden perpetrators who suck all of the movies off the Disney Channel. But it will also skin the protective layer of privacy off some of the most basic kinds of communication on the Internet.

Several states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Maryland, and Wyoming, have already passed this legislation. It is under consideration in Colorado, Texas, Massachusetts, and Florida (in Colorado, however, pressure from activists has forced sponsors to withdraw it temporarily for revision).

In the United States of America we don't jail people for attempting to spread ideas the government doesn't like. But our big industries are slowly trying to take away our ability to communicate anonymously. Without privacy online, it will become harder for people to propagate news and ideas without fear of reprisals. The language we use to crush dissent may be more technical than the language used in Cuba. But its ultimate effects could be just as harmful.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is sticking her SSL into your port right now. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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