Book Review – Access Controlled : the shaping of power, rights and rule in cyberspace

On: September 20, 2010
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About Elias van Hees
Elias van Hees is currently a MA student of New Media, he studied at the University of Rotterdam and received his Bachelor Degree in Information Technology and Communication (2009). Elias is a self-employed web strategist, more information is available on www.eliasvanhees.nl. Interests: social media, research, politics, music, webdevelopment, seo, branding, concepting, user experience and usability.

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Access Controlled reports on the new normative terrain of internet filtering, censorship of Web content, and online surveillance. The preface and foreword are clear about what the reader can expect per chapter and also give a quick overview of the content. Access Controlled offers six substantial chapters that analyze internet control in both Western and Eastern Europe, like the EU as a whole and Russia as well. The book is the latest report of a recent project by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) and describes how the original character of the global cyberspace is being influenced and changed by mainly recent forms of online control. The different authors all work in the research field of digital media as investigator or professor which empowers them to give an introduction on recent developments concerning online- control and surveillance. Beside the theory an analysis the literature contains country profiles and regional overviews with further background, historical facts and detailed statistics per country. These country profiles are also suited with the results of the ONI testing program followed by a conclusion that is related to that specific country. The research of online- surveillance and control is popular and relevant because of, for example, China’s censure on Google in the past and attempts nowadays by different governments elsewhere to control the World Wide Web. Access Controlled describes how other countries and regions are influenced and the trends and recent developments in “internet censorship”.

According to the book ” the logic of security dilemmas can easily overwhelm and entrap rational decision-making processes” (p. 12). Governments are responding to possible threats by endorsing new techniques of offensive operations and not by pursuing norms of mutual restraint. Recognized trends may supersede first-generation filtering techniques and that will result in next-generation controls that are more subtle and fluid and deeply integrated into social relations rather than fixed at specific choke points. The book deals with preconceptions concerning internet censure. The Russian cyberspace applies different ways of filtering then the by most journalists expected and predicted first-generation option for control: denying access to a specific internet resource. Simply blocking content has been replaced by a focus on competing threats through effective counter information and changes the way we should analyze the contemporary controls.

The European computer is turned into a constant battleground of surveillance, any client-side program has the potential to access every sort of data that resides or passes through the computer. Routers are vulnerable though because any actor in the network may have access to the data and can in fact use rerouting methods to avoid monitoring, with all the possible consequences. ISPs implement directives issued by government authorities and block connections to selected Web addresses for all actors of the network. The book also shows the lack of ‘dynamic cooperation’ between different governments and institutions when it comes to worldwide issues like child protection online. This contributes to a better understanding of the complex challenges facing the international community in the 21st century beside the surveillance technique itself.

In the 2nd part of the book there is for example a Europe overview where a lot of issues are stated, for example: illegal file sharing, the role of the European Union and the Intellectual property debate. Google’s fair use problems in the past few years when it comes to copyright in European nations are also explained. Today, Internet content in Europe is controlled by three groups of factors: region-wide organizations (the EU, individual countries, and companies (e.g., ISPs, search engines’. Governments have pressured companies to voluntarily self-regulate content, like pornography, hate speech or content that infringes upon copyrights. The text gives a clear perspective on the different areas of internet regulation through these concrete examples and diverse sources. This makes the book a necessary reference work for someone who wants to investigate and individual country like Germany, France and the UK, but also Burma, Saudi Arabia and China.

Access Controlled also describes the limitations and difficulties that the governments and organizations are facing today. However: there is no concrete alternative given at all for the criticized surveillance in the book itself, except the adjuration for more transparency and trust. Transparency and trust only will not give the user his privacy back and on the other hand, there has to be control in some way. In my opinion it is legal to restrict someone’s privacy when the goal is to protect the privacy of someone else. Because the web is young and is drastically being shaped right now this maybe a difficult point for the short-term. There is no clear vision about where the surveillance stops and online freedom (of speech) ends. A completely open web like in the beginning again will not be the solution, because the problem of child pornography needs to be solved. Immediately, right now!

This book, Access Controlled (the continuator of Access Denied) exceeded my expectations because it gives such an overview about the control vs. privacy debate in a practical and specific way. It does not just describe a global wave of surveillance but states which applications of surveillance are used in a certain area supported by local technical and political arguments. The trends and findings analyzed reveal a rapidly emerging normative terrain that should be of concern to policymakers, advocacy and right networks, and academics. The different types of controls are a “must-know” for anyone who wants to be involved in digital media research or is interested in online privacy issues and politics:

“If the trends identified in Access Controlled are accurate, then these first-generation filtering techniques may be gradually superseded by a variety of next-generation controls that are more subtle and fluid and deeply integrated into social relations rather than fixed at specific choke points.” (p. 12)

Control changes rapidly and this effects change the World Wide Web as a whole and the way people are able to use the web. This research gives a clear view in the recent changes and shows the changes in the field of cyberspace content controls and probably also the changes to come.

More info:

Edited by Ronald J. Deibert, John G. Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski and Jonathan Zittrain; foreword by Miklos Haraszti
Report from the OpenNet Initiative, 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press
ISBN 978-0-262-01434-2 (617 pages)

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