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Jeanette Kozlowski

Q.& A. | Michael Rotert, V.P., EuroISPA

16 March 2009

Known for being the first to connect Germany to a primitive version of the Internet, Michael Rotert has a vast understanding of how this “series of tubes” works.

He owned an Internet service provider before the World Wide Web was even fully established. Now as the vice president of EuroISPA, the world's largest association of I.S.P.s, and the president of the German I.S.P. association, Mr. Rotert consults governments about and lobbies against blocking or filtering anything and everything online.

However, it’s not because he likes or even agrees with some of the things distributed online -- he just views it as a pointless struggle. “Blocking is not destroying anything at the source,” he said during a telephone interview. “It is just making it invisible for a few seconds.”

In your opinion, what’s something that gambling operators or e-commerce businesses overlook when they get started in online business?

    That it's a global business. That's an important factor for the gambling and gaming industry, of course. For them, it is to work on a global scale from the beginning without having to look at sales forces and companies in the various countries. Once you are on the Net, you are global.

    This makes it difficult for newcomers. I wouldn't call it a hostile environment, but it's an environment where you really have to be very careful on what you are doing because everything is seen on a worldwide basis. Especially when you start a new e-commerce business, and you make the wrong advertising. You immediately hear from lawyers, and you might even get fined.

    The biggest hurdle was how the payment was to take place. It started with credit cards, and then very soon the crime came up with people stealing credit card numbers. And then a lot of mechanisms came out where you could pay very small amounts, and you can transfer the money online. These days, this problem has been nearly solved even to a point where the criminals find ways to transfer money online without being seen by law enforcement.

What is a common misunderstanding that governments have about I.S.P. or payment blocking?

    Governments are influenced by the telecom industry. And most of the telecom industry is thinking in lines, which means they have a connection from A to B. That is a dedicated line where you can hook on and see what is going over this line, and you know who exactly is talking to whom. These days, governments are thinking mostly that the Internet works the same way because at least it runs over lines. But the mechanism, of course, is totally different.

    If you have used the Internet to contact me, different parts of what we are exchanging may go different ways. It is very hard to track the full conversation as long as you are not very close to one person or the other to pick up the full conversation.

    To understand this, you have to think of data as packets and not in direct connections, especially for payments. You cannot track it simply. And how can you stop a process if you have no idea if you have the full knowledge about what is going on or the full control over the process? If you can't do it, it's useless to try and discuss stopping or controlling these things like payments.

    That makes it very difficult for governments. If they say “We want to have blocking of payment” or “We want to have blocking of child pornography,” well, where do you want to block? On a national border on the global Net where things are coming from other legislations where it might not be illegal? This is what most of the politicians have not understood yet -- at least in Europe. And I doubt it in America. (Laughs.)

What will the future of online blocking look like?

    Well, it depends on what you are blocking. If we talk about illegal material, blocking does not help. For me, it is rather an expression of the helplessness of the authorities. As long as there is no global jurisdiction on certain crime issues, you won't be able to track these crime issues over the Net. You don't have any cooperation or nearly any cooperation. You have no common understanding on how to track it to get down to the source. And if you find the source, it may be in a country where it's not a crime.

What’s your role in payment and I.S.P. blocking?

    It's not that much in the payment blocking on I.S.P.s because I.S.P.s don't think about payment blocking -- it's blocking in general. For instance, in Germany they tried to block sites who offer gambling from other countries on the German border, even from other European countries. Even blocking illegal material does not help because as I said before, blocking is not destroying anything at the source. It is just making it invisible for a few seconds on the Net.

    This is also true for payment blocking. If you try to block payments, the Net will immediately heal itself and move the money stream differently. Blocking doesn't help anymore. My involvement is rather the general mechanism of blocking. Payment blocking these days is discussed at a banking level, at least in Europe -- not on the Net.

I read that your work in the 1980's helped establish the first Internet connection in Germany. Can you tell me a little about this?

    At that time, I worked with a university, and I could manage to get a connection to the CSNET (Computer Science NETwork) in the early 80's. They sent me the software and connected me to the Net. It was only later on that it was a real I.P. connection to the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) -- that is what the Internet was called in the 80's.

    As you may know, the Internet was a military development that started in 1969. At that time it was very hard to get connected to the Internet because the Iron Curtain still existed until 1989. And until that time, the Internet was purely dedicated to scientific use or military use. So, I needed a contract to use it, and I somehow got one in 1984.

When you were working on that project, did you have any idea what the Internet would become?

    Yes, definitely. I was looking in the States to get connected to my colleagues. Further on, we got a lot of requests from German research labs who wanted to connect to the Internet through us. That gave me in the very early stage the impression that it might be useful for computer scientist but also for all the other scientific people.

    The commercialization started once the Iron Curtain went down in 1989. And then it became commodity. Before that time, it was hard to get a connection because all those military sites were connected to the Net, and they had the fear that there was an intrusion from spies from the Eastern block. That's why once I was connected to the network, I also had restrictions on traveling around the world -- not getting too close to the Eastern bloc. And that disappeared totally when the Iron Curtain fell.

How effective do you think the UIGEA in regards to payment blocking?

    I.S.P.s in the States are much more willing to help the authorities on a voluntary scale than in Europe. In Europe, I.S.P.s wouldn't do anything voluntary as long as there is no law. Because anytime you do something voluntary, you might hurt a national law, even though you are trying to support the authorities. Also, the high level of data protection you have in most parts of Europe where you are not allowed to pass data along to the authorities unless they have a signature from a judge.

    I think it's only the tip of the iceberg, and you don't see what's underneath the surface. You don't see how much money is going different ways. The U.S. seems to be more effective on a national basis but not internationally.

Where have you seen blocking work, and where have you seen it not work?

    Well, it doesn't work at all in the area of child pornography. And it depends on what mechanisms you are using for blocking. If you are blocking I.P. addresses, it is very hard to block that way. You can do a lot of damage to businesses that you didn't want to block but have the same I.P. address.

    So, it comes down to name blocking or D.N.S. (Domain Name System) blocking. D.N.S. blocking means that whenever you type in a name, and it is on a blacklist or is blocked, then you are led to a different page that says something like “stop.” But this relies on the mechanism of domain system within the Internet, and it is very simple for me just to choose another name server or another telephone book to look at it. You can compare it to an I.S.P. tearing out one page of a telephone book to keep me from calling two people on that page. So, what do you do? You just get another telephone book where this page is still in. It works the same on the Internet when talking about D.N.S. blocking.

    In Europe, we're facing three waves of blocking: One is the blocking of child pornography; another blocking initiative is for the gambling industry. For that, I.S.P.s say "Send us a signature from a judge on every type of blocking for a certain period -- otherwise we don't do anything." The third type of blocking request is for the file sharing of music and video downloads.

    No one talks on the I.S.P. level, at least in Europe, about payment blocking because that wouldn't work. If normal blocking doesn't work, then payment blocking doesn't work. And sometimes you even can't even control transactions from a banking perspective, not on a European or a worldwide perspective.

If blocking doesn't work, then why do governments keep requesting it?

    (Laughs.) Well, someone told them that they only have to block the communication, and then the weird things of this world will disappear. And people are believing it. Because whenever you do the blocking, there is no one who gives the proof as to whether the blocking is really effective or how many consumers circumvented this blocking. When I talk about blocking, I still have in my mind the pictures of the three monkeys: one closes his eyes, one closes his mouth and the other closes his (ears). Just closing the eyes -- that's what blocking is. If you open them, the world is just as ugly or nice as it was before.

    Someone told people that blocking would help. And blocking would help if the Internet really consisted of dedicated lines -- but then the Internet wouldn’t work if it was that way. It's just like trying to block information in newspapers: It will get through somehow. You learn things from people who have tried to block their private life, but then you get pictures of them and everything. So, if blocking doesn't work in the real world, it definitely won’t work on the virtual world of the Internet.

Q.& A. | Michael Rotert, V.P., EuroISPA is republished from
Jeanette Kozlowski
Jeanette Kozlowski