Online, offline – the same difference?

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8 July 2016 | 0

There’s quite a furore at the moment around government legislation allowing greater powers to law enforcement (that’s the Gardaí mainly) to monitor and intercept electronic communications, or more specifically, social media.

There are many aspects of this which are questionable, and for a very good summation of why all of that may be so, see the ever insightful Karlin Lillington writing in the Irish Times, where she quite rightly describes the legislation as akin to grafting a new arm onto a corpse.

But as many have asked why this might be necessary, I was struck by echoes of several recent discussions around cloud, online and the Internet in general.

We seem to be fascinated in a sometimes unhelpful way by new technology. When the telephone was first deployed in a widespread way, there was a resurgence of old scams whereby people used the new communications medium to perpetrate fraud. These old chestnuts were well known, but there was an incredulousness about it where people thought, ‘how could someone lie on the telephone?’

With the advent of the Internet and email, exactly the same thing happened again. Old scams were taken down, dusted off and issued all over again, from the advanced fees scams to the Nigerian 419 industry and more — almost all hoary old chestnuts that worked over a new medium as people thought, ‘how could someone lie on the Internet/email?’

“The UN Council passed a resolution recognising that human rights exist online in the same manner as they do offline”

Lest we think this is some terrible malaise of Joe and Joan Public, the same seems to happen with techies too.

Our most recent TechFire made concrete the position that when it comes to something that the IT industry has been doing since data could be encoded digitally, namely back-up and recovery supporting high availability, the old rules apply to these practices in the cloud.

It became clear that despite the change in medium — as in the move to a cloud service as opposed to one administered by the end user on-premises — the same wisdom applies under rules developed over generations of good practice, trial and error.

The point was deftly demonstrated by Brian Finnegan of Sungard AS, as he argued both sides of the new axiom: there is no cloud, just someone else’s computer.

But how does this relate to the current legislation which was characterised by legal eagle TJ MacIntyre, speaking to the Irish Examiner, as ‘ready, fire, aim’?

Well, it seems to presume that online communications, such as social media, are somehow different to more traditional media, such as the printed word and postal communications.

There are existing laws to deal with the interception, collection and use of such media as evidence where there is either legitimate suspicion of a crime or an actual investigation of such. Why should new media not be subject to the same rulings?

In fact, the UN has recently come to the same conclusion.

The Register reported that the UN Council passed a resolution recognising that human rights exist online in the same manner as they do offline (despite, it is worth noting, strenuous objections from those bastions of human rights China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar). In the context of countries turning off access to social media platforms, or indeed the Internet as whole, during periods of unrest or criticism of authority, the council has affirmed that rights exist in cyberspace as they do in the ordinary world.

A corollary then would be that existing laws to seize the communications or utterances of individuals or groups either suspected of, or engaged in, criminal activity would apply to the online world as they do that of ink, paper and voice.

It would be naïve to think that no changes are necessary, but this should be a process of refinement and finesse, not a new raft of legislation as if we were dealing with the advent of widespread telepathy — this is still, after all, human communication via recordable, archivable media.

What’s the problem?




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