Attempts to Police the Internet (Print Version)
by Harry Valentine*
Le Québécois Libre, February
15, 2012, No 297.

A few weeks ago, a bill came before the US Congress that proposed to police the Internet. Protests soon followed and the bill was withdrawn. Now Canada proposes to police the Internet, requiring service providers to keep records as to the online activity of their customers. In the past, both police and private investigators have successfully tracked down computer hackers and people who engaged in cyber-bullying. A private “investigator” from the UK tracked down a male nurse in the USA who had encouraged a university student in Ottawa to end her life.

Police departments have regularly identified persons who use the Internet to exchange pornography that involves children. Canada and many other governments claim ownership and authority over the airwaves that carry radio telecommunications. However, the enforcement of such authority has not stopped people at distant locations from communicating with each other. The history of smuggling is littered with examples of how innovative people get around governmental restrictions.

While state drug enforcement agencies claim to be intercepting greater volumes and quantities of illicit drugs, a much greater percentage seems to be getting through to the end user. As police step up their vigilance, the drug trade seems to step up their innovation on getting the produce to market. State attempts to intercept private telecommunications may merely challenge the ingenuity and innovation of people who value their telecommunications privacy.

Government agents have attempted to intercept private telecommunications throughout history, including back to the days of the carrier pigeon. It took little in the way of innovative thinking to bypass spies and agents, by using pigeons that would fly different routes and relay the telecommunications. While the development of the telegraph made it easy to send messages over long distances, it initially made it easy for government agents to discretely eavesdrop on telegraph transmissions.

Sometimes the agents were lucky to eavesdrop on a coded or encrypted message. Except that most such messages got through undetected. There were times when government agents intercepted or eaves dropped on to a transmission, only to unexpectedly go on a wild goose chase, the message having been a decoy. During the days of prohibition in the USA, government agents and police departments tapped the telephone lines and listened in on the conversations. The technique initially proved to be successful, until the underground traders changed their tactics.

After the traders changed their telecommunications tactics, most of the booze arrived at the destinations with a small percentage being intercepted by various police agencies. There were times when police agencies stopped a suspicious vehicle that seemed heavily laden, only to find that it carried something other than the forbidden alcoholic beverage. For the smart traders, police agencies tapping the phone lines was little more than a minor inconvenience that they could occasionally use as a decoy.

During WW2, underground freedom fighters used a variety of methods by which to transmit messages over extended distances, literally undetected. While the combination of a metallic fence and metallic water pipe could carry an electrical signal, an organized group could relay the telecommunication to a location from where a coded version could be sent using short wave radio. The threat of incarceration did little to deter the activities of people who chose to communicate privately over extended distances.

The history of private telecommunication dates back over centuries and state action during earlier times did little to deter such telecommunications, the technology of which has become more sophisticated over the years. Government officials who wish to police the Internet may get the small players while the big players will go undetected. There are a wide range of proven technologies that can transmit messages over considerable distances, independently of copper telephone lines, radio waves and fiber optic lines. 

As of the mid 1960’s, a laser beam shone from a location on the earth could partially illuminate a small region on the moon. Laser beams can travel considerable distances through the atmosphere, to a distant Fresnel lens placed at high elevation and connected to a fiber optic line. Sub-audible low-frequency sound waves can travel over greatly extended distances through the atmosphere, to a well-camouflaged receiver connected to a computer that could interpret the code and reveal the message.

While the ability to transmit private message over extended distances involves a challenge to the ingenuity of an innovative designer, the task of transmitting private messages over short distances within a neighbourhood is much easier. Multiple homes may share a common metallic water pipe, a common electrical ground and common metallic fence. Proven technology exists that can superimpose telecommunications signals on to neighbourhood electrical power cables, while another technology will separate the signal from the electrical power.

A regime of a policed Internet would likely result in the emergence of new kinds of highly localized private (underground) telecommunications systems. Drugs laws have done little to stop the steadily growing illicit drug trade. While the small players get arrested, the big players continue almost uninterrupted. A market would likely emerge for private telecommunications services, or for the technology that would otherwise make such telecommunications available.

The history of smuggling provides a likely scenario for a policed Internet. A portion of the telecommunications activity that presently goes via the Internet and might attract police attention could move off the Internet and on to a private system. While governments may pass laws aimed to curtail private telecommunication, most such activity will likely continue undetected for many years.

* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.