Skip to content

Dark days

Last updated on 21 Jun 2018

Wikipedia darkIn case you didn’t notice, just recently a number of web giants, as well as innumerable other websites, went “dark” in protest against the attempts to control the internet by the US government. But the US isn’t the first nation to attempt this. Iran, Turkey, India, China, and to the eternal shame of all Australians, my own nation, have set up, or plan to set up, controls over the internet.

Some of this is part of the encroaching copyright hegemony of Hollywood, and the music industry, or religious and moral concerns. However, the bulk of it is due to a single, simple, fact: governments and their bureaucracies like to acquire control, and once they have it, will not give it up without a fight. Over time, the once-free internet (funded by the US Department of Defence initially) has become hedged in with legal obligations for ISPs and website hoisters that no telephone company or postal service would have endured. Now, the default opinion is that if somebody may use your service to do something illegal, it is no longer the responsibility of the police and courts to find, punish and stop these crimes. It is not the responsibility of the companies and individuals who are thus exploited.

Once upon a time, punishment followed the crime, and the people who committed the criminal acts were held to account. Now, punishment not only can precede the crime, but individuals who happen to be inadvertently involved can also be punished, even if, and this seems to me to undercut the very existence of our code of law, they had no way to prevent themselves being involved in the criminal act!

So if someone happens to use my car for a crime, I can be punished by having my car confiscated, without any proof I was involved or knew of the crime ahead of time, and without any charges being laid and tested in court. This principle of pre-emptive punishment is more than draconian, it is Kafkaesque. It makes no sense, legally. The only justification for it has to be that it means statutory instruments of government can control the situation as they wish, without either having to do due diligence of investigation and evidence gathering, or testing their claims in open court.

We are living, I am afraid to say, in the dawn of the world of totalitarianism. It has been coming for a while. Recently I had occasion to re-read the opening chapter of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, first published in 1964. He was thought by most people at the time to be a red rag communist (and he was certainly a Marxist in that philosophical manner of academics) and so he was ignored by the establishment and féted, to his bemusement, by the radical left of the late 1960s. When I read him, I was put off by the Hegelian language and the fact that he was a “leftist”, but it seems to me that while his prescriptions might be unworkable (if he actually presented any), his analysis was spot on. The opening paragraphs lay it out:

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources.

That this technological order also involves a political and intellectual coordination may be a regrettable and yet promising development. The rights and liberties which were such vital factors in the origins and earlier stages of industrial society yield to a higher stage of this society: they are losing their traditional rationale and content. Freedom of thought, speech, and conscience were – just as free enterprise, which they served to promote and protect – essentially critical ideas, designed to replace an obsolescent material and intellectual culture by a more productive and rational one. Once institutionalized, these rights and liberties shared the fate of the society of which they had become an integral part. The achievement cancels the premises.

To the degree to which freedom from want, the concrete substance of all freedom, is becoming a real possibility, the liberties which pertain to a state of lower productivity are losing their former content. Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasing!y capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organised. [p1]

I could quote much more, but it is clear that Marcuse, along with other critics of the post-war consumer society, recognised that freedom was only permitted so long as it served economic and political needs; when those needs evaporated, the freedoms would also evaporate. And so we see this happening now. The core function of the internet, and indeed all communications technologies today, is to serve “the economy”. Buy and sell on the internet by all means, but do not express yourself outside permitted boundaries.

The encroachment of copyright on older materials that once served to fuel cultural development is a case in point. What is gained by applying copyright protection to works from the pre-war period? Why can’t I put a Mickey Mouse image from the 1920s on my blog without paying a corporation that has way too much wealth as it stands? It is like a large part of my culture, youth and upbringing are censored already. But if the author has died, the investment to that author has been ruled off; and those who benefit are now corporate entities like companies, governments and other institutions.

The control over communication is a crucial element of a totalitarian control by governments, and even when a government is not yet, or likely to be in the future, totalitarian, it can still have unwarrantable control over the lives of people. Given the ratchet effect of gaining but never giving up control over people that governments are subjected to, we should fight hard to both prevent them getting more control, even when it seems like it is necessary, and to remove controls for which there are no good reasons apart from tradition. And in all cases, we should make sure that the claims of those with controlling powers are tested out in the open at every stage.

This means no more closed court cases, orders and laws forbidding people to even let their families and lawyers know they have been charged. It means that we must be free to communicate even when others may think it wrong or leading to a crime. Until a crime has been committed, nobody has a right to block communications. And even then, blocking them must be done out in the open.

When a totalitarian government like the Stalinism of the Soviets or the North Koreans takes hold, people share information in secret, in Samizdat. Governments hate this form of communication and will do everything they can to impede it; this is what we are seeing in the west and developing nations now. Other ways to impede communication include the time honoured technique of making certain kinds of speech defamatory and putting the onus not on those who would claim to have been defamed to prove it, but on those who speak to prove they are not. This has the effect of making free speech only available to those with the money and lawyers to pursue such actions, while it chills everybody else. Copyright and corporate protections like SOPA and PIPA have the same effect. I now can’t quote somebody in a publication for academic publishing, even in the light of “fair use” provisions, without written permission and payment of fees, as I have discovered in several cases. If you think that doesn’t chill my speech, you don’t understand how it all works.

It can only be a matter of time before the Wayback Machine at is served with copyright violations for mirroring what people put out in public. Instead of serving claims against those who first made the material public (often the very people now claiming the violation against them), it is so much easier, and serves so many corporate (that is, commercial, government and institutional) interests, to attack the host service. This has an added bonus of allowing people to control what they are seen to be doing. In the old days, you could go check a newspaper or printed pamphlet in a library; now you can’t. We can rewrite historical evidence at last…

We are in the endarkenment. Where once we thought information would lead us to truth, we now fear that in fact it might just do that, and truth is no longer what we, or our masters who tell us what we must value, desire. We instead have a comfortable unfreedom. Dark days indeed.


  1. Benedict Anderson, in “Imagined Communities”, puts down the claim that it was only thanks to an inferior “political technology” that the west prevailed. The birth of the printing press was so alarming for most rulers, that there was capital punishment for the publication of anything that didn’t get approval by the royal censor. So, in the east (e.g. the Ottoman and Chinese empires) printing was a culture killer because no one could publish books anymore. The same laws were in effect in France, but there the government was too weak to implement the rules.

  2. Some of this is part of the encroaching copyright hegemony of Hollywood, and the music industry, or religious and moral concerns.

    It is the first time I have heard about “moral concerns”. Would you elucidate? Internet is full of porn.
    If your company uses Websense you will be prohibited to watch Christian pages or Discovery institute. Yet the same Websesense will allow you to access any Satanist pages. This is how it works. Satanism and Darwinism is no religion. Feel free to read.
    20 years ago there was no Internet. The whole “war” for freedom on inet is a bubble. I doubt that Russia or China care about any “copyrights”. You don’t need YouTube to be “free” or do you? On the other hand is full of Darwinian craps and if you want to read something valuable by independent biological thinkers – like Adolf Portmann – nothing is available.

    • Matty Matty

      If your company uses Websense you will be prohibited to watch Christian pages or Discovery institute. Yet the same Websesense will allow you to access any Satanist pages.

      Is this true, it seems hard to believe given the relative popularity of Christianity and Satanism that this would be a default in the software?

      • Matty Matty

        Here we are the actual list.

        The first thing to note is that it is very long, filter out everything on there and I doubt you’d have an internet. I suspect that buying companies choose which categories to block.

        Now onto the meat of your claim, the section we are looking for is.

        Parent category that contains the categories:

        Non-Traditional Religions and Occult and Folklore – Sites that provide information about or promote religions not specified in Traditional Religions or other unconventional, cultic, or folkloric beliefs and practices.
        Traditional Religions – Sites that provide information about or promote Bahai, Buddhism, Christian Science, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Shinto, and Sikhism, as well as atheism.

        So assuming Satanism is listed under ‘Non-Traditional Religions and Occult and Folklore’ and that you can selectively block sub categories then yes it would be possible to block Christian pages and not Satanist ones, though who would want to I don’t know.

        Next notice that word at the end of the description on the ‘Traditional Religions’ subcategory? That’s right ‘atheism’, I’m not going to argue that atheism is a religion in any philosophical sense, the point I want to make is that if your websense blocks references to Christianity it also blocks atheism, if it lets atheism through Christianity gets in as well

        Neither ‘Darwin*’ or ‘Discovery*’ appear on the page.

        • Jeb Jeb

          “On the other hand is full of Darwinian craps”

 is also full of a range of highly interesting material from the 19th century written by evangelical thinkers who are literate in science, history and philosophy and can engage in critical thought and present a coherent argument.

          When you contrast it to debate today in evangelical fundamentalist communities you do notice some stark differences.

          I would certainly recommend archive org. to anyone no matter what position they take on scientific issues. Sources from both sides of the debate are easily accessible. It’s an educating experience.

  3. Over time, the once-free internet

    The internet I remember started off with Prodigy and Compuserve. Then there was BITNET at university, which was free so long as you didn’t annoy the sysadmin and could wheedle an account. BBSes gave you the freedom to interact with dozens of like-minded people. When high-speed internet arrived there wasn’t any freedom to host servers. Now you can host (pretty much) whatever content you like in several countries for the cost of a virtual server (less than what I pay in Diet Coke a month…. ummm…. week).

    As far a free speech goes, I’ve have greater latitude and can reach a larger audience year on year since… 1983? Sure, big media companies are trying to restrict this. But so far the result is that I have more choices now of what to read, watch and listen to than I did five years ago, and more choices then than five years before that.

    This doesn’t make for as good of a rant, of course…..

    legal obligations for ISPs and website hoisters that no telephone company or postal service would have endured.

    The ‘merikan experience was a little bit different (Canadian as well, IIRC). The postal service took the lead — well beyond any legislative mandate — in uncovering obscene, indecent and politically unfashionable material. They would regularly bring charges that wouldn’t stick, but lives would be ruined in the process, which was the goal. They were really quite proud of themselves, outing perverts and commies and such. (My partner was just reading up on this a couple of weeks ago — let me know if you’d like a cite.)

    I now can’t quote somebody in a publication for academic publishing, even in the light of “fair use” provisions, without written permission and payment of fees, as I have discovered in several cases. If you think that doesn’t chill my speech, you don’t understand how it all works.

    Well, it doesn’t only chill speech, it also chills citation counts. If I have to jump through any paywall hoops to get to a paper I generally won’t cite it. Enough of my colleagues feels the same way that nearly every CS paper from the past 20 years is available, absolutely free, on somebody’s web page (and Google and Citeseer do a good job indexing them). Yes, Springer/Elsivier/IEEE/ACM nominally hold the copyright to the “final” version of the paper, but they know who there customers are and have so far declined to send out takedown notices. If they did, I expect we’d move to a PLoS model in a matter of weeks.

    So, want to start PLoS-ish Philosophy of Science journal? I’ll be your sysadmin, if you like.

    Yes, I’m serious.

    • I saw and used none of those. The internet cost money, but it wasn’t moderated for content in any period I recall – and I go back to some of the bulletin boards of the early 80s. My first internet connection was in 1983.

      • John Vreeland John Vreeland

        1982 for me, but it wasn’t called the Internet until much later. Also, we didn’t have big fancy email readers like Yahoo or pine. And everybody believed that the network would interpret censorship as damage and route around it.

        • We called it AARNet: The Australian Academic Research Network…

          It was connected to ARPANET, and hence to other universities (contrary to Wikipedia, I was using it in 1983 or so). That was when I first met Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and David Hull.

  4. Raving Raving

    Why no Micky Mouse? Philosophers have failed us and nobody else has saved us

    Biological information is a ‘sort of’ emergent commodity. It’s role is that of inexpensive replication, easy distribution and configured integration … sort of.

    Intellectual property is weird stuff.
    Take the BBC for example … Large money can be spent to produce each program but giving it away to a big captive market of TV license holders who accept and watch the costly program means that the outlay per individual end user is very small

    The worth of the intellectual property is in reproducing and distributing it for miniscule cost. The worth of the ‘template’ increases by more replication, more distribution and more integration to more end targets.

    Charging per unit copy of something which *now* costs nothing to replicate and distribute. The internet is provided by the government+ The substantiation of the information template is undertaken by the end recipient who stores prints or watches the ‘manufactured’ product from the template instructions.

    The original purpose of ‘copyright’ wasn’t to protect the author, nor inventor of the ‘item’. Rather the copyright protected the considerable investment and gamble by the publisher/franchisee/manufacturer who converted the information template into a material item.

    A publisher would set up the press and print a book which proved itself to be a popular sale item. Without copyright protection another publisher could wait to see which books were desirable sales and set up printing and binding with assurance that they would make money. Same thing happens with manufacturing under license and providing distribution franchises.

    Now the internet provides the distribution service. The end user pays the cost of constituting the tangible product
    Loading the value on the intellectual property owner is stupid. Some reasons …

    – The collection of audio/visual titles accumulates. Not just movies in current release but also all movies and TV shows going back 90+ years. Any one of those items can be delivered to your home in a few minutes with the click of a few keys. Some title holders will charge $10 per single use viewing. Soon enough there will be a wide selection of slightly less desirable titles for 10 cents at unlimited use viewing.

    – With so many possible titles available, people will not be able to decide what to watch. The industry will implode to a small actively advertised catalog of mediocre crude which they will charge $10 per viewing with commercial noise sprayed all over it.

    – There is only so many movies songs and pages of text that a person can consume in a day. Before this madness people collected these things. Given the unlimited availability and instant access to the totality of collectible which no longer has any tangible component, there is utterly no incentive to collect.

    When people purchase only what they intend to consume immediately, it makes for a very small consumer market.

  5. Jeb Jeb

    The latest protection of commercial interest case in the U.K is the use of the brand name of a well known sporting event.

    The O word is protected under U.K copy write law as is London and it would appear this years date 2012. The words are trademarks, and our great leaders have after careful consideration decided that it would be disproportion to take action against people using the words Olympic, London or 2012, it would seem but they are fully backed by law to do so. Its always nice to know you can say this years date or the name of a well known capital city without fear of prosecution. They have been sending out e-mails asking one writer not to use the O word in a book title as it may give the impression its an officially licensed product.

  6. A. Clausen A. Clausen

    I don’t know if things are quite that bleak, John, or at least I’m not quite ready to give up hope yet. There’s talk of a distributed DNS system, and the likelihood that a parallel Internet will be developed soon enough. The encroachment of copyright is certainly an enormous problem, but to some extent I think what’s happening is inevitable. Of course the large corporate interests in the entertainment industry are going to use their clout to fight back, but they’re on the losing end of the proposition. The technology, whether they like it or not, has moved past them. Maybe they will buy themselves a decade or so of extra life, but at the end of the day these companies, as they stand at least, will die off or be radically altered.

    As to government, yes it is the nature of bureaucracies to grab power and hold it as long as they can. That is a universal truth. But to some extent we the people (as they say) are to blame. In one respect, we want larger governments; health care and other aspects of the so-called social safety nets require much larger bureaucracies. On the other hand we want them out of our personal lives and as much as possible out of the ordinary affairs of commerce and interpersonal relations. So to some extent it’s our own conflicting demands that have created this tension. In effect, we want to have our cake and eat it too.

    As we’ve seen from the backdown on SOPA and PIPA in the United States, when enough citizens and interests (yes, even commercial interests) raise a ruckus, the politicians wake up, because they too, sadly, sleepwalk through these things. And therein lies the greatest problem, and that is getting the average person to become reattached to their voice, to call their political representatives, to make their voice heard. If everyone always kicked up a stink every time some level of government was overstepping the bounds, we would all be better served.

      • Having read the article, instead of silently, universally removing illegal content they’re now going to do this on a country-by-country bases with no pre-publication censorship, allow the material to continue to be viewed in countries where it’s legal, note something has been blocked in countries where it isn’t, and post censorship requests to Chilling Effects.

        I think that’s about as good as you’re going to get for a centralized, offshore, for-profit communication paradigm.

        What I find to be more interesting is that 700,000 android devices are being activated per day. These aren’t tied to twitter or gmail, or to a single application provider or even network technology. If local censorship becomes sufficiently annoying (and bless twitter for giving folks an imperfect method of measuring this annoyance) then folks have the technology in hand to create something better. (Git-based twitter, anyone?) [Yes, that was a joke. Really.]

  7. A. Clausen A. Clausen

    Matty: Is this true,it seems hard to believe given the relative popularity of Christianity and Satanism that this would be a default in the software?

    Perhaps you need to play it backwards first.

  8. Raving Raving

    Now, punishment not only can precede the crime, …

    Care for some unclean thoughts?

Comments are closed.