November 13, 2007 by Siham Kadri
Cory Doctorow is a firm advocate for digital rights and based on his bio, today’s youth can relate to his childhood experience of learning to type even before learning to write. Although, as Doctorow submits, with the advent of technology and especially the world wide web come tools of digital spying and as a result, infringements on our personal freedom. It may be shocking to many of us, who have been using search engines like Google habitually, that our searches are monitored and kept on record.
Doctorow applauds the European Union with inspiring Google’s decision to self-impose a shocking two-year limit on keeping user’s records, yet I find that the olive branch extended by Google is barely enough to give me the confidence to roam the web without feeling like big brother is watching. An argument can be made for the necessity of such a monitoring system in order to track criminal activity on the web, however there are other ways to track offenders and a two year limit seems highly irrational, and most likely for the purposes of Google’s marketing team. Doctorow commends such a move by the EU because it appears to be as liberal as they come, since in the United States they have abstained from intervening in any such policies. Not surprising, since current American foreign policy perpetuating ethnocentricity through its ‘war on terror’, needs to keep tight controls on any ideas that may stray from the Republican conception of American nationalism, imperialism and colonialism.
Intellectual property (IP) rights have become a prominent area of law, while many arguments have been made for and against restricting such rights. Doctorow is an advocate for fewer restrictions on digital rights, and his main arguments seem to be based on that of the public good related to increasing accessibility. Two main features of digital rights support such a position, in particular the non-rivalrous and non-excludable nature of these rights. However, I believe that a problem remains that goes beyond accessibility issues, and has also been articulated by Doctorow, these are the issues associated with the monitoring of this information. The Marxist criticism of IP rights sites this concern as a suspicion of mainstream institutionalized systems that often form the basis of control, and the monitoring of our searches is one example of abuse of power.
Although the EU has been applauded for some liberalization of its digital rights, it has also enacted the “Data Retention Directive,” an initiative highly criticized by Doctorow. The directive instructs European ISPs to keep all communications data, including tracking every website an individual user visits, for at least six months, and this may offer a solution for those who claim that our inability to monitor the web allows for it to be a network of criminal activity. But do the ends justify the means, since data retention, if in the wrong hands can be used to suppress minority groups, and allow for racial profiling. Doctorow sites the U.S.-E.U agreement, which calls for the exchange of airline passenger data and includes details of a traveller’s religion and sexual preference as another troubling example of IP misuse. So data retention should not be a mandatory tactic, unless there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Doctorow also sites concerns of mass databases, which can be used to harass activists or people that are expressing opinions that may strain from the political mainstream school of thought. This particular piece of writing is a practical example of this rationale, since my name will be attached to this piece, any web-based search of my name will reveal it and some may consider my writing to be anti-American. Therefore, any prospective employer or academic institution I may apply to in the future may decide to take into account my political opinions when assessing my applications. In addition, various political groups or institutions may target me as a result of my proclaimed opinions.
The web has been a useful tool of networking for civil society groups and promoting awareness for many suppressed people worldwide. When dictatorships censor media outlets such as television and the web in their own countries, the West is very critical and quick to blame the lack of democracy, yet it seems that they are guilty of the same types of controls, although not as apparent. Therefore IP rights may not be the end all and be all when it comes to dealing with digital rights issues, since they can’t deal with all dilemmas that may arise such as concerns of human rights and defamation.