As battles over internet censorship and control of content heat up two questions come to the fore: How can I watch porn without being caught at work and how can I download porn for free?
Porn may be the point of the internet for many, but questions of downloading content do focus on more important questions. Who has control of artistic creations and who should be able to access them? Who controls artistic history?
“The internet has increased access to content,” says Jane Bailey, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa who specializes in the connections between evolving technology and equity. “To the extent you believe access to what has gone before is crucial to creativity, then it’s crucial.
“If a cost is required to access content then those who can bear the cost will fare better.”
With a visit to a movie costing $13, with cable costs rising constantly, with music companies raking in the profits again, accessing culture has become virtually impossible for many. The solution has been to download it for free via the internet.
Governments and corporations are cracking down hard however. The Tories are expected to re-introduce a bill to change Canada’s Copyright Act, a bill that died with the last parliament. The bill called for a draconian crackdown on supposed copyright violations, potentially making it illegal to even download your own CDs to an iPod or to record TV shows.
When it comes to internet downloading some of those proposals may be tested before a new bill is passed. Gary Fung, the owner of Isohunt.com — one of the largest BitTorrent search engines on the web, providing links to movies, video games and music — is asking the BC Supreme Court to rule on whether his site violates Canadian copyright law.
Thepiratebay.org, a similar Swedish site that is one of the net’s 100 most popular sites according to internet tracker Alexa, consistently gives the finger to corporations demanding the removal of their content. The site claims its activities are legal under Swedish law.
A typical example of the site’s responses is its answer to Dreamworks, which demanded the removal of a link to download Shrek 2.
“As you may or may not be aware Sweden is not a state in the United States of America,” reads The Pirate Bay reply. “Sweden is a country in northern Europe. Unless you figured it out by now, US law does not apply here. For your information, no Swedish law is being violated.
“Please be assured that any further contact with us, regardless of medium, will result in a) a suit being filed for harassment; b) a formal complaint lodged with the bar of your legal counsel for sending frivolous legal threats.
“It is the opinion of us and our lawyers that you are… morons and that you should please go sodomize yourself with retractable batons…. Go fuck yourself.”
So far nobody has felt secure enough under Canadian law to take such a defiant stand.
For many illegal downloaders not leaving a trail is crucial. For many web users in the world though, questions of privacy are even more serious, perhaps even matters of life and death.
There are a number of methods to circumvent the filtering of websites and to prevent your visit from being traced back to you. These methods will allow you, for example, to visit gay and lesbian sites that commercial filtering software — the kind used so commonly by dictatorships, businesses, parents and our own Western governments — often blocks.
A guide put out by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab — which has done work with Chinese bloggers and dissidents on how to avoid internet censorship and detection — offers ways to surf sites without being caught.
The guide — found at Citizenlab.org/Circ_guide.pdf — runs through the methods and software available to users. The guide explores options for surfing from public computers or for surfing from your home computer.
The guide suggests simple possibilities like Googling the desired site, then clicking on the “cached” version offered in the search. But it also points to proxy sites like Proxify.com or Stupidcensorship.com which allow users to access blocked sites by going to the proxy site and entering the site to be visited. The proxy site then brings up the banned page without triggering the censoring software.
These sites, though, can be blocked fairly easily themselves and most do not offer anonymity.
The guide also offers options for users dealing with more serious issues, like a government that might imprison them for accessing the wrong site. Psiphon is a proxy site developed by the Citizen Lab which requires a trusted user in an unfiltered country.
“The idea is to get them to install this on their computer and then deliver the location of that circumventor to people in filtered countries by the means they know to be the most secure,” the Lab’s Nart Villeneuve told the BBC. “What we’re trying to build is a network of trust among people who know each other.”
Tunnelling software and anonymous communications systems are two other options.
Tunnelling allows a user in a country with filtering to send web requests through an unfiltered computer in another country. This can be done either privately or through commercial software.
Anonymous communications systems conceal the surfer’s IP address and the destination site. The best known is Tor (Torproject.org), a free program developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Tor is used by surfers in both dictatorships and in countries like Canada to conceal the nature of their surfing. The developers say the program is also used by police and military to conceal web activity.
“The Tor project is based on the belief that anonymity is not just a good idea some of the time — it is a requirement for a free and functioning society,” states the Tor website.