This whole brouhaha over Wikileaks has got me to thinking about just how free the internet really is. Let’s say a person has some important information to share with the world, but fears retribution from either a government directly or those lobbyists and corporations that hold sway over a government. Where can one disseminate that information if the technology infrastructure used is operated within the influence of the feared government?
Here’s a checklist of what I think someone should think on when considering technology placement to host information that might run the risk of being attacked by a government:
- Most obviously, the hardware should not be within the borders of the feared country (this includes supporting infrastructure like DNS – Thanks Jeff!).
- The hardware should not be within a country that is over-friendly with the feared country. You should take a close look at extradition and data-sharing laws between the two countries.
- The company you use to host the hardware should not be headquartered in the feared country. For example, your hardware could be hosted in the Netherlands, but what if the company is headquartered in Canada?
- Blending the above two points, you need to pay close attention to the company you use in case they are headquartered in a country that has a history of extradition and cooperation with the country you fear. For example, if you fear Australia and host your data on servers in Sweden, but the company you use is headquartered in the United States, you might have a problem.
- Try to use a company that has absolutely no presence whatsoever in the feared country. The country you fear could potentially put pressure on the branch of the company that exists within its borders. If your hosting company is in Luxemburg but has a major presence in the USA, you could have a problem.
- Look at the hosting country’s laws concerning wiretapping, data retention, internet log keeping and many other factors. Even if the hosting company has good privacy measures, the data still has to traverse national lines to get there.
- Use the same precautions listed above when selecting your bandwidth provider.
My first thoughts for someone who wants to keep data in a neutral country went to Sweden (unless Sweden is your feared country). However, a Twitter user named Ulf Månsson sent me a link showing how Sweden might not be the best option after all.
Apparently, while the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt talks a good game about Internet freedom, his country is practicing behavior that is rather contradictory to that ideal. It was so troubling that Google declared it would no longer place any servers on Swedish soil.
While the company that currently hosts Wikileaks, PRQ, brags that it is a “no questions asked” service and that they maintain few, if any, of their own logs (although the ambiguity of that phrase worries me; Which is it? Few or none?) all traffic that comes into or goes out of Sweden is apparently subject to government surveillance.
Again, Ulf Månsson gave me some information. This time about Iceland. Apparently Iceland is an international transparency haven as a result of a July 16th passage of the IMMI proposal. You can read more about it at Reporters without Borders. The legislation was born out of a frustration with the secrecy that ultimately led to the collapse of Iceland’s financial market as well as being galvanized by the whole Wikileaks controversy. I’ve looked for a downside to Iceland but can’t yet find anything specific. Hey, they’ve considered banning MasterCard and Visa as a result of stonewalling WikiLeaks donations, so I’m still in luff with them at the moment.
A good site that disseminates news concerning internet censorship among many other things is the aptly named Index on Censorship organization. Another good gauge of a country’s willingness to censor free speech on the internet is the Reporter’s Without Borders reports on “Internet Enemies”. Here’s the latest report on internet enemies from March of 2010. At the bottom of the page you can search a list of “Internet Enemies” and “Countries Under Surveillance”.
In researching this topic, so far I have only found a few countries that would seem to be safe for a whistleblower to host their information. Iceland stands out head and shoulders above the rest of the world. It entices me to move there… except I hate cold weather with the burning contempt of ten million cranky supernovas. Why do the most awesome countries have to be so close to the Arctic Circle?
The relatively small amount of internet havens seriously depressed me. Is the Internet already past its freedom-loving prime? Is the Internet not anonymous enough for Freedom to thrive? While I think that the problem with censorship and retribution for well-doing is less a problem with a lack of freedom and more a problem of greed and human selfishness at its worst, we still need strong anonymity to help stave of totalitarianism. Just as running from a fire does not squelch it, hiding from overbearing governments does not solve the ultimate problem. However, one needs a safe haven to fight the fire from and in the same way, we need a safe place to disseminate information.
Perhaps the popular internet has outgrown freedom of information and speech. I’m beginning to think that decentralized, peer-to-peer data havens such as Freenet might be what whistleblowers will be forced to rely on. How sad that those who wish to expose evil are forced to share the same quarters that are also used frequently by those who disseminate it (child porn, pirated materials, etc.).
If you had a virtual whistle to blow, and were worried about a government’s retribution, which country would you choose to locate your “whistle” in? What internet providers would you rely on?