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Devices of Dissent

By Annalee Newitz

I'VE BEEN having one of those communications black hole weeks. I can't seem to hear my cell phone, and every time I look at the little glowing green window on its face, there's a message saying I've missed several calls. Meanwhile, my ISP has been mysteriously dropping my net connection and then restarting it. Email is arriving sporadically. Sometimes, I can get to the webpage I'm searching for, and sometimes I can't. It's as if my life has become a little 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. They were sentenced to up to 28 years for collaborating with a foreign power to undermine Cuban autonomy.

One of the harsher sentences, 20 years, was reserved for a journalist named Ricardo Gonzalez, who edits an independent magazine called De Cuba. Just a few months ago, I was in Cuba and had a chance to meet Gonzalez. At that time, he said he thought he would be jailed for editing De Cuba but added that he wasn't sure what would happen because the last several years in Cuba had seen a new leniency toward the free press. Everywhere in Cuba, I saw that he was right. People spoke freely about wanting to end the U.S. embargo and talked about reading uncensored news on the Internet.

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

Back in the United States, where the government doesn't openly jail journalists as dissidents, people who want to communicate freely face pressure from another powerful adversary: the entertainment industry. 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 MPAA, 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 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 (www.freedom-to-tinker.com/superdmca.html) that the most disturbing aspect of these state DMCAs is the fact 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."

What that means is that 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 IP 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 Secure Socket Layer (SSL) to check your email. SSL encrypts--i.e., "conceals"--the destination of your email. So, state DMCA legislation will protect the MPAA's precious copyrights from being violated by nasty, hidden perpetrators who suck all 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 we don't jail dissidents. But big industries are trying to take away our control over the ways we communicate. Without private communication online, it will be very difficult indeed for people to leak important news 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 ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is sticking her SSL into your port right now.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the April 17-23, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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