Where ignorance is blitz

How your civil liberties are trampled on by computer illiterate staff.
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SOME DAYS it's a bad hair day, other days you see the suite of Western values since the Enlightenment quashed in an instant by a single, soulless, civil servant. Here's what happened Friday before last when I arrived in London from Paris on the Eurostar.

As I walked through UK immigration, two guys pulled me aside, flashed badges and said: "UK Customs. Come with us." They walked me behind a wall where they handed me off to one of a fleet of waiting agents.

A customs officer told me to lay my computer bag on the table, and inspected my ticket and passport. After learning I was a reporter, she demanded to see my press card (issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and asked about where I was going in London, why, and for how long.

"Do you know there are things that are illegal to bring into the UK?" she asked.

"Uh, yeah... There are many things that are illegal to bring across borders - do you have in mind anything in particular?" I said.

"Illegal drugs, firearms, bomb-making materials, lewd and obscene pornographic material..."

I felt a rush of relief. I was late and now was assured I could get on with my journey. "I am carrying none of that," I replied, staring directly at her, with a tone of earnest seriousness.

"Is that a computer in your bag?"


"Does it have Internet on it?"

Here, I confess, I really didn't know how to answer. What does one say to a question like that? I was struck dumb. "I use the computer to access the Internet, yes," I said, rather proud of myself for my accuracy.

"Is there any pornography on it?" she said, stoically.

Here, I figured out what's going on. But I'm mentally paralysed from all the synapses sparkling all at once in my head: does she not understand that Internet content is distributed around the world? That I'm just dialing a local number, be it in France or the UK, and that whether I cross a border is moot to what I'm able to access?

"There is no pornography stored on the hard drive," I said.

"Do you mind if I check?" she says, rather than asks, and begins to take the computer out of the bag. "I'm just going to hook it up over there and scan the hard drive..." And then her face turns dour. "Oh! It's an Apple," she says, dejectedly. "Our scanner doesn't work on Apples."

At this point, it's all a little bit too much, too fast, for me to handle. From seeing my personal privacy ripped out from under me with a computer- enema to an immediate about-face and witnessing my oppressors flounder in the pap of their own incompetence was just too much to bear.

Then, of course, I sort of relished the irony of it all. I swung into naive mode.

"Oh. Oh well," I said and began packing up. "Why not?"

"I dunno - it just doesn't," she said.

"Is this a common thing that you do? Scan PCs?"

"It happens quite often," she said. "Do you catch a lot?"

"Sometimes," she says, cautiously.

"What's the fine? The penalty?" I asked.

She started to become uncomfortable and tried to move me along. "It depends. Every case is different. It depends what they have."

"What about if I had encryption - do you check for that, too?" I said, disdaining the risk that she might want to check the computer "by hand" since I'd mentioned the dreaded C-word...

"Huh?! I don't know about that..."

"You don't know what cryptography is?" I asked.

"No. Thank you, you can go now," she said.

And thus ended my experience with HM Customs.

Of course, I was burning up. Lots of thoughts raced through me.

For example, would I have really let her inspect my hard drive, even knowing I was "innocent"? That, of course, was entirely irrelevant to me - it's about a principle.

I thought of my editor - or ex-editor - if I didn't make the daylong meeting. And I immediately thought of John Gilmore, founder of Electronic Frontiers Foundation (http://www.eff.org) and online liberties activist, and how much I respected him when he refused to board a flight a few years ago when the airline demanded he present a form of identification. Had I acquiesced to their mental thuggery?

As soon as I realised I was "safe" from being scanned, I was tempted to pull out my notepad, go into reporter mode, and make a small scene getting names and superiors and formal writs of whatever... but suspected it would only get me locked in a room for a full day.

Then I thought of how, despite in their Kafakaesque zeal to abuse my privacy, they couldn't even get that right. Not only did they not have a clue what the Internet is, they confirmed their ignorance by not even being able to pat me down digitally. Insult to injury!

It brought back something John Perry Barlow, also an EFF founder and board member and former songwriter for the Grateful Dead, once told me about why he doesn't fear US intelligence agencies. "I've seen them from the inside," he said, "they will suffer under the weight of their own ineptitude."

What's at the heart of this is "thought crime"; and scanning one's computer is paramount to search and seizure of one's intellectual activity. What if they found subversive literature about the proper role of government authority in civil society? Would that have gotten me busted? And do they store what they scan? Are business executives with marketing plans willing to have their data inspected under the umbrella of public safety from porn?

Just the night before I read in the memoirs of William Shirer, who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, about how he was blacklisted for a decade after his name was cited in Red Currents, a magazine that destroyed hundreds of careers during the McCarthy era. He was powerless to defend himself.

I see parallels: We are approaching the point where we are incapable of reasonable discourse on Internet content. Refuse to boot up for inspection means you've got something to hide.

To defend civil liberties of the accused means you condone guilty acts. Question the nature of the censorious policies in the first place means you are filthy, and as unhealthy as the wily-eyed porn devourer...

State the obvious: that a large part of the drive for Net content regulation is driven by hucksters seeking recognition, and that it is taken to idiotic extremes by a mass movement of simpletons ignorant of the history of hysteria in the US, and, well, you're just a typical lawless cyberlibertarian. Finally, it dawned in me. This wasn't an aberration at all, but part of a much deeper trend. It's a British thing, really.

"As might be supposed, I have not had the time, nor, may I add, the inclination to read through this book," wrote Sir Archibald Bodkin, the then-Director of Public Prosecutions, on 29 December 1922.

"I have, however, read pages 690 to 732... written as they are, as if composed by a more or less illiterate vulgar woman... There is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity."

And so James Joyce's Ulysses was banned in Britain for 15 years. Interesting, that. The policy was made by a chap who didn't actually read the work he felt justified in prohibiting others from reading.

Wonder if the fellows who implemented Britain's scan-for-skin policy actually use the Net themselves?

Kenneth Neil Cukier (100736.3602@ compuserve.com) is a senior editor and Paris correspondent for CommunicationsWeek International. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared as a posting on Dave Farber's "IP List".