“Frattinising” isn’t the only threat

An article in the Edri-gram newsletter – September 26, 2007

(italian translation is available here)

So there’s 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 wasn’t much reporting of this statement in mainstream media. But there was immediate reaction online, starting with ALCEI’s 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 didn’t even notice that, by following his suggestion, his own statement would be censored and removed from any accessible source. But, unfortunately, this isn’t 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” don’t 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 it’s 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 wasn’t. 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 wasn’t 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 haven’t 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 Frattini’s threat that deserve some specific analysis «an exploring exercise with the private sector». This isn’t a new trick, and it’s very dangerous. Some obnoxious forms of repression can be obtained in parliament, by getting legislation though when watchdogs aren’t 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.

It’s 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 authority’s 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 can’t 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 (10.09.2007)
http://www.reuters.com/article/internetNews/idUSL1055133420070910ALCEI Press Release – Sept. 11 2007 (11.09.2007)

Prum Convention text (7.07.2005)

An update on the Peppermint affaire (15.05.2007)

Cassandra (06.1996)

The network society as seen from Italy (6.04.2000)
http://gandalf.it/free/cfp2000.htm http://gandalf.it/free/monticfp.htm

Internet freedom, privacy and culture in Italy (and the activity of NGOs) (02.2000)

EFFI: Search engine censorship is an absurd proposal (13.09.2007)

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/