May 21, 2007
From Sweden, New Passports for Computers With ‘Country Shifting,’ a Chance to Fight National Walls That Restrict Use of the Internet
By Doreen Carvajal
Relakks, a tiny Web company based on the southern tip of Sweden, prides itself on its official "pirate" endorsements and its swashbuckling circumvention of online barriers erected by governments and corporations. Not quite the stuff of Pirates of the Baltic Sea, perhaps, but the company has been a forceful proponent of a free and open Internet community. Relakks is planning its next move with a service - now in beta testing - that would allow computer users to shop online for national identity codes in a process known as "country shifting."
Relakks and other companies are part of a struggle pitting "hacktivists" against corporate interests that wall off Web sites to control territorial rights. These walls are meant to block people in Europe from downloading television fare from U.S. sites, for example, or bar Americans from viewing programs on sites in Europe.
This struggle is intensifying even as some get-tough European legislation - with the rather unglamorous name of the Second Intellectual Property Enforcement Directive - is winding its way through Brussels. If adopted, the measure would criminalize the violation of copyrights "on a commercial scale" as well as "inciting such infringements." Violators would face fines of as much as 300,000, or $405,000, and maximum jails sentences of four years.
Tech-savvy government censors are also aggressively trying to stamp out so-called "anonymizers" that provide Web users with the tools to circumvent state-imposed Internet controls. The OpenNet Initiative, a consortium of four universities including Harvard and Oxford, issued an academic survey of 40 countries Friday that described an expanding global phenomenon with more than 25 governments filtering forbidden themes from politics and human rights to sexuality and religion.
For now, Jonas Birgersson, the chief executive of Relakks in Lund, Sweden, is taking a relaxed view of legislation and government restrictions. Sometime this month, he said, the company will start offering "country shifting" capabilities in a monthly subscription service that will cost about 4.
Country shifting allows an Internet user to effectively change a computer's "passport" and surf the Web under a new national identity, unrestricted by specific territorial barriers. Relakks plans to start its subscription service by employing American and Swedish codes. The addition of new country codes, Birgersson said, would be based on demand.
"Country shifting is not a proxy," Birgersson said. "It's an Internet connection on your Internet connection through an encrypted tunnel."
Relakks has earned the support of the Pirate Party, which fielded candidates in local legislative elections in Sweden last September under a banner of copyright reform. Although the party likes to promote the efforts made by Relakks, it has not invested in the company, according to Rickard Falkvinge, who founded the political party last year.
"We like it from a political standpoint," Falkvinge said. "Relakks is definitely cutting edge. But what's new about picking your ISP country is the simplicity of it. A lot of technology is taking shape for mass encryption for the masses, and Relakks is one such service. Some of these things are easy on a small scale, but what's hard to do is to create a mass product."
Until now, "there have been a lot of nerd-to-nerd solutions," Birgersson said.
The early waves of publicity for Relakks's debut last August were so successful that its system could not support the traffic of about 20 subscribers per minute, according to Birgersson, who said that those technical problems were overcome and that the company now has more than 50,000 subscribers. The Pirate Party endorsed Relakks's first effort to offer a commercial "darknet" service that permitted users to send and receive files through a heavily encrypted connection.
Birgersson declined to say whether he was a member of the Pirate Party, but he has clearly benefited from its support. The party has spread beyond Sweden's borders, and the various national chapters plan to hold their first international summit in Vienna next month, drawing participants from 16 countries including Sweden, Germany, France, Spain and the United States.
Andreas Leo Findeisen, an Austrian academic who describes himself as a media theoretician, is helping to organize the event. One aim of the conference is to develop a strategy to field Pirate Party candidates in the 2009 elections for the European Parliament.
Findeisen said that most of those who planned to attend the conference work in academic fields and share concerns about growing restrictions on the Web.
"Lobby interests are mostly reactive, and the community energy and resistance tends to die out after one or two weeks," he said. "We have this new phenomenon of lots of people swarming together, but it's very unstable. So we're trying to make a party out of MySpace members."
The Pirate Party attracted almost 35,000 votes in Sweden's last general election, emerging as the 10th-largest party in the country, although it failed to win enough votes to qualify for a seat in the Parliament.
Birgersson said opposition to increasing restrictions on the Internet would not go away.
"We've had a lot of people trying to get more control of the Internet, mostly coming from commercial interests and corporate lobbies or religious countries like Iran," he said. "They think they can take control of the Internet, but there's a lot of smart people out there that you don't want to have against you."
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