“The Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it” was a very motivating tagline during my early forays into the internet. Having grown up in Apartheid-era South Africa, where government control suppressed the free flow of ideas and information, I was inspired by the idea of connecting with people all over the world to explore the cutting edge of science and technology. Today, people connect with peers and fellow explorers all over the world not just for science but also for arts, culture, friendship, relationships and more. The Internet is the glue that is turning us into a super-organism, for better or worse. And yes, there are dark sides to that easy exchange – internet comments alone will make you cry. But we should remember that the brain is smart even if individual brain cells are dumb, and negative, nasty elements on the Internet are just part of a healthy whole. There’s no Department of Morals I would trust to weed ’em out or protect me or mine from them.
Today, the pendulum is swinging back to government control of speech, most notably on the net. First, it became clear that total surveillance is the norm even amongst Western democratic governments (the “total information act” reborn). Now we hear the UK government wants to be able to ban organisations without any evidence of involvement in illegal activities because they might “poison young minds”. Well, nonsense. Frustrated young minds will go off to Syria precisely BECAUSE they feel their avenues for discourse and debate are being shut down by an unfair and unrepresentative government – you couldn’t ask for a more compelling motivation for the next generation of home-grown anti-Western jihadists than to clamp down on discussion without recourse to due process. And yet, at the same time this is happening in the UK, protesters in Hong Kong are moving to peer-to-peer mechanisms to organise their protests precisely because of central control of the flow of information.
One of the reasons I picked the certificate and security business back in the 1990’s was because I wanted to be part of letting people communicate privately and securely, for business and pleasure. I’m saddened now at the extent to which the promise of that security has been undermined by state pressure and bad actors in the business of trust.
So I think it’s time that those of us who invest time, effort and money in the underpinnings of technology focus attention on the defensibility of the core freedoms at the heart of the internet.
There are many efforts to fix this under way. The IETF is slowly become more conscious of the ways in which ideals can be undermined and the central role it can play in setting standards which are robust in the face of such inevitable pressure. But we can do more, and I’m writing now to invite applications for Fellowships at the Shuttleworth Foundation by leaders that are focused on these problems. TSF already has Fellows working on privacy in personal communications; we are interested in generalising that to the foundations of all communications. We already have a range of applications in this regard, I would welcome more. And I’d like to call attention to the Edgenet effort (distributing network capabilities, based on zero-mq) which is holding a sprint in Brussels October 30-31.
20 years ago, “Clipper” (a proposed mandatory US government back door, supported by the NSA) died on the vine thanks to a concerted effort by industry to show the risks inherent to such schemes. For two decades we’ve had the tide on the side of those who believe it’s more important for individuals and companies to be able to protect information than it is for security agencies to be able to monitor it. I’m glad that today, you are more likely to get into trouble if you don’t encrypt sensitive information in transit on your laptop than if you do. I believe that’s the right side to fight for and the right side for all of our security in the long term, too. But with mandatory back doors back on the table we can take nothing for granted – regulatory regimes can and do change, as often for the worse as for the better. If you care about these issues, please take action of one form or another.
Law enforcement is important. There are huge dividends to a society in which people to make long term plans, which depends on their confidence in security and safety as much as their confidence in economic fairness and opportunity. But the agencies in whom we place this authority are human and tend over time, like any institution, to be more forceful in defending their own existence and privileges than they are in providing for the needs of others. There has never been an institution in history which has managed to avoid this cycle. For that reason, it’s important to ensure that law enforcement is done by due process; there are no short cuts which will not be abused sooner rather than later. Checks and balances are more important than knee-jerk responses to the last attack. Every society, even today’s modern Western society, is prone to abusive governance. We should fear our own darknesses more than we fear others.
A fair society is one where laws are clear and crimes are punished in a way that is deemed fair. It is not one where thinking about crime is criminal, or one where talking about things that are unpalatable is criminal, or one where everybody is notionally protected from the arbitrary and the capricious. Over the past 20 years life has become safer, not more risky, for people living in an Internet-connected West. That’s no thanks to the listeners; it’s thanks to living in a period when the youth (the source of most trouble in the world) feel they have access to opportunity and ideas on a world-wide basis. We are pretty much certain to have hard challenges ahead in that regard. So for all the scaremongering about Chinese cyber-espionage and Russian cyber-warfare and criminal activity in darknets, we are better off keeping the Internet as a free-flowing and confidential medium than we are entrusting an agency with the job of monitoring us for inappropriate and dangerous ideas. And that’s something we’ll have to work for.