Are we risking an Internet arms race?

As speculation mounts that executives from Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) are talking about leaving China over hacking allegations and censorship, some Canadian experts are concerned Internet freedom may be taking a back seat to security.

“There is really this vast underbelly of malware and espionage that started out very much criminal in nature, is now morphing into political espionage,” said Ronald Deibert, a political science professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies. “I believe that there’s a very dangerous arms race in cyberspace today.”

Deibert made his remarks Tuesday during a panel discussion, dubbed the Role of Internet Giants in Totalitarian States, at York University‘s Toronto-based Schulich School of Business.

The panel was part of the Workshop on Media Suppression organized by Osgoode Hall, York University’s law school.

Panelists discussed a number of issues involving censorship and Internet security, including the attacks on Google earlier this year and the Australian government’s proposal to force Internet service providers to filter offensive Web sites.

In December, Google learned hackers tried to get information from both the search engine giant and at least 20 other large firms. At the time, a Google lawyer said the company had evidence suggesting the hackers were trying to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

At the time, Google also said it was reconsidering its willingness to censor search results of users in China as required by the government.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the Chinese government has begun informing news Web sites in that country that Google’s Chinese site is likely to close soon.

Google has since been negotiating with the Chinese government to find a way to continue operating in the country. Google did not respond Monday to requests for comment from Computerworld magazine on the state of the negotiations with China.

But China is an important market for Google because its local revenue there is US$600 million a year, said University of Montreal criminology professor Stephane Leman-Langlois, who also spoke at the panel at York University. Leman-Langlois is also Canada Research chair in Surveillance and the Social Construction of Risk, at the University of Laval.

Controlling Internet traffic too tightly could actually “close” the Internet, Leman-Langlois warned.

“The United States pretty much controls the Internet,” he said. “This idea that we would lose a cyber war — what they’re thinking of is people hacking into (supervisory control and data acquisition systems) and messing up critical infrastructure, this idea that this could be done is actually the source of a kind of cyber security that closes the Internet, makes it lose its flexibility, makes it single use, makes it an appliance.”

“It will look like a television with cable except you can buy stuff using your credit card,” he said.

He added the most powerful forces today are not necessarily nation states, but corporations and organizations that operate in different countries with little or no regulation.

Deibert said most of cyberspace is owned and operated by private companies operating in multiple countries.

“Internet giants will be drawn into security issues, like data retention and lawful access,” he said.

But he pointed to two examples where Internet firms apparently co-operated with Chinese authorities. In the first instance, he said, a Chinese version of Skype filtered certain key words.

“Unbeknownst to the user, every time you entered banned key words, a connection would be made to an ISP in mainland China,” he said.

His organization was able to find an ISP with subdirectories and a decryption key, and it turned out this was a surveillance effort on someone’s part to find Skype users trying to contact members of China’s Communist party, asking them to quit the party.

“We had more than four million (instances of) personal communications being uploaded to this server in China over several months.”

The second instance he cited involved politics but was not about dissent.

“Google executives were told they must remove a Youtube video within 20 minutes because it showed the niece of a (communist) party official doing something embarrassing,” Deibert said.

Deibert referred to that instance when asked later about Australia’s proposal to have an independent agency compile a list of Web sites – including child pornography and those encouraging crime or drug use – which Australian ISPs would be required to block.

He said child pornography should be tacked not by filtering URLs but by having international agreements that would give police more power to track down people who upload child pornography.

Deibert dismissed suggestions such a plan would be too difficult to implement between different jurisdictions.

“It’s amazing how quickly a video will be removed if it’s an issue of copyright,” he said, suggesting law enforcement agencies and Internet providers could co-operate in a similar manner to deal with child abuse.

Deibert cited some other countries where Internet freedom is curtailed.

“In Iran, new regulations have been passed in which a 12-member team reporting to the chief prosecutor will scour web sites in order to prosecute those judged to be ‘spreading lies and insults against the Islamic system,” he said. “Members will include police and personnel from other specified parts of Iran’s security apparatus.”

In Kazakhstan, he said, some Web sites have been suspended for providing links to publications about corruption among senior officials.

— With files from Robert McMillan, Sharon Gaudin and Darren Pauli

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