Saturday, October 25, 2008

Internet filtering, banned books and the APA

I was thinking again about Internet censorship and its impact on the free (as in, uncluttered and unfettered) transmission of information, and I got to wondering if we're not focusing too much on the media, and forgetting the content. Let's be logical about this: as phenomenal and indispensable as it is, the Internet is only around 15 years old, and if you go back to 1993, you land in the Outer Limits, or the Twilight Zone, of Telnet, BBSs, notice boards, Compuserve, and other subscriber services which were like the WWW but not really the same as what we know today.

(The only services I can think of on today's Net that are similar are the subscription pages where they'll give you the summary of an academic paper, then tell you that you need to pay a whacking great fee to get access to the archive where the material lives ... also, those "friends only" blog pages where you need to be logged in to read more than the first 100 words of the post. In other words, you have to be a member (either for a fee or a registration) to access the content.)

So, as fantastic as the Internet is, it's so recent a medium that getting one's knickers in a twist about censorship of (or on) it is only partially intelligent. It's not the medium we're actually fretting about; it's the information which is transmitted over the web, to which we stand to lose access if they're start in on this Internet filtering stupidity. Right?

Long before the Internet, there was a beast called the Amateur Press. APAs (amateur press associations) flourished back as far as the days of mimeograph machines and staplers; and when photocopying and laser printing came in, they enjoyed a golden age. In the 1970s right through to the 1990s, the APA-sphere went absolutely berserk.

What did they publish? Magazines. Newsletters. Books. Catalogs of the above. Fiction; nonfiction; critical review of anything, anywhere, and everyone. Celebrity watches. Anthologies of short stories; poetry; artwork; photos; full-length novels; book and movie reviews; political commentary...

In fact, everything that would be replaced by wepbages and, in these last years, blogs.

In a worst case scenario, if the Internet ends up crippled, we can always fall back on the APAs. And it will be a worse-case scenario for several reasons. First, we'll have to pay money for photocopying and postage (shock, horror) as we used to 20 and 30 years ago. Secondly, we'll have to wait 2-3 weeks for the post office to deliver (ditto). Aaargh, we'll never survive!

We're used to getting everything NOW, and mostly FREE. That's the real lure of the Internet -- not the fact that it carries materials which you can't get anywhere else (yes, you can), or because it transmits information that's so far out there that there's no other way to get it (yes, there is), but because we want our goodies NOW, and we don't wanna pay.

In other words, we're spoiled rotten. Or are we? Consider this:

Cost of an ordinary PC: $1500. Extra harddrive: $200. Big jumpdrive: $50. Broadband connection: $720/year. Scanner: $100. Garden variety color printer: $100. Spindle of blank DVDs: $60. Box of budget paper for printer: $30. Ink tanks or toner cartridge: $90. Basic color laser printer: $400. Color toner refills: $800.

You're up around an absolute minimum of the three grand marker now ... that's a high price to pay for your "free" feed of censorship-sensitive goodies, guys (say that three times, fast; have three vodkas and try it again).

Way back when -- let's go back to 1988 -- you bought your reading in the form of an APA magazine. It was photocopied onto whatever paper size, and very nicely bound (could be on a coil; could be perfect bound). Big-run magazines had full color covers. Smaller run mags had silk-screened color work, including color interior art. Photos and art were "screened" and printed at quite high quality. Color photos were sometimes shipped separately on a 3.5" floppy disk -- or perhaps a set of 2 or 3 disks which shipped along with the magazine. And this "mag" might be 300pp thick ... more like a massive book than a magazine.

Subject matter? You name it. Anything. Everything. Price tag? Could be $30 + postage -- meaning, maybe $50 to get it delivered to your door. For that, you got up to a half million words to read and scores of photos, illustrations, plus photo disks.

You're going "ouch! Fifty bucks!" Well, you just don't realize you're paying three grand to get your "free" Internet goodies. How many APA mags could you get for that price? You could get about two new ones a month for three years. That's maybe 20,000 pages of ... whatever; as much as twenty million words to read, and dozens of photo disks.

In fact, it probably turns out that your "free" Internet feed is costing you more than the old APA supply, where you'd watch your mailbox and a great big, thick, beautiful book would be delivered with virtually any content you can imagine.

Uncensored. Unfiltered. Uncut. Because you bought direct from the APA, and they printed five or ten as they needed them. Inside these magazines, a contributor would say anything, about anything ... the era of free speech was never so liberated. For example, gay fiction abounded in the APA long before it dared come out significantly in the commercial world. And as for erotica ...! Also politics, pop science, UFOs, climate watch, conspiracy theories, book reviews, anything, everything.

The Internet came along as both a blessing and a curse. In the early days of the changeover, APA publishers used webpages to sell their magazines. Slowly but surely, the magazines went online; some became blogs, others became archives. Newsletters turned into emails. The physical magazines vanished altogether...

Everything became free (or, "click the $2 donation button" to help pay for the costs of website hosting and anti-virus software and graphics ... and you'd be shocked to know how many people are so cheap these days, they won't even click a dollar donation button).

And then we started to realize that there were strings attached -- but in the early days the strings were long and loose, and there weren't too many. I recall a time when there was no advertising on the web. None. The first strings to be attached to the Net were the ads -- suddenly you had to endure the fluttering, flickering, dancing animated GIFs that made pages take an hour to load over slow connections...

But behind the scenes the software routines were being written to target ads, set cookies, handle sales, record customers, block IP numbers, track searches ... and report.

Report what, and to whom? Essentially, to report everything; and it's neither a secret nor a joke that Google answers to security services such as the CIA and FBI. The argument is that Google is used to plan terrorist campaigns.

It's a good argument, almost certainly true; but the use to which the argument is being put is not so cool. Search Engines record the IP address (which is the unique ID of your computer) behind every search, everywhere, all the time.

So, if you think there are no strings attached when you go online and search for pages about [fill in the blank] which are perhaps a little naughty, think again. Google knows which computer originated the search. What Ma Goog knows, the US government knows. It's dead easy to track an IP address down to a street address ... your ISP knows where you live, because you use a credit card to pay your account.

The strings attached to your "free" information are getting shorter all the time. Now, for myself, I don't have a problem ... I don't surf the "mature content" sites, and the only interest I have in terrorist activities is a morbid fascination which I share with all other humans. Also, as a writer, I need to know a bit about them, otherwise I can't characterize them believably...

What troubles me, personally, about Internet censorship is that it will inevitably be widened to include subjects like politics, religious freedom, sexual preference, euthanasia. Say, you're a gay pagan who's just been diagnosed with a terminal disease. You're going to score highly in all four categories: you're politically marginalized everywhere you turn ... and just looking for a way to safely and painlessly get the hell out of this life before the end turns too ugly.

In a censored world, where Big Brother is not only recording your web searches but (and it's the next step) filtering the content you need to see to make your death as pleasant, as spiritual, as tranquil, as painless, as possible ... you're screwed. You'll land on a respirator in a geriatric ward with a homophobic nurse and a Christian chaplain reading Bible-babble to you, as you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Not good enough, is it?

This is the price of "free goodies" in medium that's widely thought of as being free ... and in fact, isn't. The WWW is bloody expensive, and the strings which are attached to everything we do online are getting terribly short -- they're just shortening and tightening invisibly.

Governments like those in America and Australia are playing with fire, though they don't yet know it. Censorship of the Internet will -- in the honest opinion of Nostrakeeganus! -- usher back in a new version of the old APA era. When you drive freedom of speech underground, it bears fruit ... with bigger, juicier, sweeter crops than ever. Think about this:

You want your stuff (paganism, euthanasia info, erotica, gay stuff, whatever). You visit a webpage you've read about in an email attachment on a newsletter, or more likely on the grapevine. The attachment was zip file for which you need a password; the password is given in a second, GIF attachment. Inside the zip file is a directory of what's in 1,257 other zip files, all accessible from a plain page. You read your catalog, decide what you want, download the zip archive of your fancy ... enjoy ... and for godsakes have the decency to click the $2 donation button and help cover the costs of this setup. Also, tell your friends. The grapevine rules. The more the merrier. Searchbots cannot read passwords given as GIFs, and they cannot open ZIP archives.

The age of the APA could easily be reborn. Of course, the government is going to know full well what's going on, because pages will be popping up everywhere with thousands of ZIPs linked to them, and healthy -- bland -- email newsletters going out, all with these two attached files, the ZIP and the GIF.

Push will quickly come to shove ... you know the people responsible for Internet censorship and filtering, and search engine monitoring, will get into the eAPA archives and look for ways to shut them down. And yes, they'll find ways. What's next?

Let me put it like this: desktop printed magazines are really, really pretty ... guys who refill toner cartridges are going to start getting rich, and the post office will start making a fortune. And unless Uncle Sam and the dickheads in Canberra fancy opening every parcel heading into any country carrying a label saying, "Contents: 1 Book," you'll get the stuff you want exactly the way it was delivered as long ago as (!) 1965.

And here we begin to slither into a whole new area: banned books. You can bet your bottom dollar there will be banned APA books, the same way books are still being banned right now, today. What kind of books? At the moment it's less about sex than about information:

For example, euthanasia is a topic some governments (Australia's) don't want you to know about, no matter how sick you are, how much it hurts, and how much you believe in life after death. If they can find the book with the real data, they'll ban it. But copies will slither through and, hey, we all know how to work xerox machines. Even beyond the APA was 'circulation" ... features articles, stories, even whole novels carrying the "print me, pass me on" label.

You won't be able to buy the books you want at, and you certainly won't be able to download them. But you can be on a grapevine that'll tell you where to go to download a ZIP file, and then you print out the PDF and ... done. Pass it on, pass it on. Remember what I said a moment ago about driving freedom of speech underground?

Freedom of speech might have to find a way to hang on by its fingernails, until the current age of rabid irrationality and Big Brother wannabe governments passes by. But that's what photocopy machines were invented for. You could be printing things like this (and no one would know about it, which is a far cry from anything that happens online these days):

With the forward race of technology, liberty finds itself in jeopardy and doubles back to old solutions ... before the dark times, before the empire. (Thank you, Obiwan Kenobi; who also said, "You must do what you feel is right, of course.")


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