Thursday, December 22, 2005

Eminent Domain(s)

The erosion of — alternately — "online privacy", "your digital rights", and "the Internet" has been an increasingly recurring theme in writings both technical and political for a few years now. These pieces generally range from reasonable, good-faith doubts about developments in the pol-tech world to worst-case assumptions (like my WGIG reservations) to outright conspiracy lunacy. There's an interesting pattern that I've observed in such articles: as events unfold around the online world, it's become ever harder to tell which is which. What sounded like tinfoil nuttery just five or so years ago is not so far from what's actually happening in the here and now. Recently, any possibility of discerning lines between these three parts of the spectrum ceased to exist for me.

First, a little background on the internet. This may be rote knowledge to many, but it's important that it be understood.

It began life as a research project in military communications. The Pentagon wanted a system that would allow reliable communication from coast to coast that could withstand major damage nationwide. Radio was the medium of choice prior to this, but losing a couple key relay stations - or even several - would effectively cut off communication. The whole system of dividing data into packets and routing them around a distributed network that not only can change, but should be expected to change dramatically, was so that in case of nuclear armageddon they could still reach out and touch someone. You can blow billions of packets to smithereens in the lines they transit, but you can't prevent the protocols from resending them along another route, made up on the spot, to arrive at their destination anyway.

This is the essential characteristic of the internet that made it so desirable to everyone else when it was released for public use. Universities could be linked to one another, even if one -- or many -- of their IT infrastructures were down. Communication was no longer a chain, it was a wide and flexible net, reliable in the extreme. There had been proprietary e-mail services used in private and corporate networks, but there was no communication between them without costly upgrades to explicitly connect one to another. Now it wouldn't matter which network you were on, there was one medium and e-mail standard for all. It was quickly recognized that this reliable, ubiquitous digital communication medium had much to offer commercial interests as well, as it became a 24 hour portal into the homes of consumers nationwide (and eventually world-wide).

All of this is to make the point that a large part of the internet's strength is its broad reach and its inherent ability to deliver information anywhere within that reach, almost no matter what. Furthermore, we're only beginning to tap the power of the possibilities that this ability delivers. News, information, and communication now effortlessly transcends borders. Blogging broke open the domains of news and opinion. Entertainment flew past old limits. Political organization is taking on a new dimension. Almost any manner of education is available if you simply want it. Unbounded communication has been changing our world for years now.

Second, a little contextual color will help to understand the implications of what I'm grinding towards at such a painful pace.

You see, universities and commercial interests weren't the only ones to quickly grasp the sort of potential offered by the internet. Anyone threatened by unbounded, always-available communication was almost instinctively cool towards the idea. Like, say... some oppressive, tyrannical governments that you and I could name. Anyone starved for the ability to freely communicate saw the potential much more quickly than we ourselves probably did. Like, say... the populations of those governments that you and I could name.

The classic example (if such things can exist in such a short span of years) is China. While the internet had enough to offer China's mushrooming, newly-liberalized markets for them to adopt it, it offered just a wee bit more of people being able to freely express themselves than the government was really comfortable with. In response, China has developed some of the most advanced methods for breaking the internet's essential characteristic in existance. You don't read news in your home in China unless it's news that China permits to exist. Dissidents don't blog about their latest governmental gripes - or at least, not after government internet monitors find their blog. And the blogger as well, if they can.

China views the internet as an excercise in separating babies from bathwater, and fortunately this is a task made difficult by the internet's essential design characteristic. Today. China's is an ongoing effort to develop new methods and techniques to filter or eliminate information, but nearly as fast are the efforts of China's legions of hackers, crackers, and black market info brokers. It seems hardly days after China finds a new way to cut off "dangerous" web sites or track down and bust illicit internet cafes than new cafes spring up, or your favorite digital speakeasy is able to get you access to those forbidden news sites again. This battle can remain essentially a stalemate indefinitely - by the nature of the internet, both sides could keep adapting well into the forseeable future. If only the forseeable future didn't seem determined to fundamentally change the environment that the internet operates in.

We're nearly there folks, just a bit more patience. If the topic has enough interest to have dragged you this far, I promise a worthwhile payoff.

You might be wondering "So what? These kinds of filtering and restrictions are hardly surprising from regimes that outlaw any but official information, and their efforts don't affect the rest of the world. Thanks to the way the internet routes around these 'broken' bits, the rest just all keeps functioning like clockwork. Sucks for the Chinese, and others who share their boat, but surely they still have more and better info access than they would have had without the internet (even if it's half propaganda). And as long as there are guys fighting the good fight against that totalitarian control and censorship, and will continue to be, it's a net gain, right?" Glad you asked.

China is not the only player interested in control over internet traffic. It's joined by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iran and France in enthusiastic support of the notion of "internet governance", as embodied by a potential u.n. governing group. The Working Group on Internet Governance has been busily trying to determine how much power it would like to grant itself over the internet for over a year now. I think an argument can be made that if such a fundamentally abhorrent thing as internet governance ever came about, the world's premier body of international corruption is probably not the ideal candidate to do the governing, and the world's most totalitarian governments are probably not the ones you and I would best like to see getting together to do it. Call it intuition.

But information domination is closer to home than you might think (assuming your home is not Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iran etc.). You may have taken notice of "Eurotwinks vs. ICANN"; the little episode where the EU was feeling it's oats for a moment, and tried to fix what isn't broken by issuing a declaration of digital independance (when, in the course of cyber-events...). On the surface, it doesn't sound unfair that countries might come into control of names in their own country's domain space (.uk, .ca, .tw and so on) rather than have that control in the hands of a private non-profit under the thumb of the U.S. Congress.

Look just a shade deeper at how that situation looks now, and how it would likely look post-separation; today, ICANN distributes domain names to all comers under fair rules. They're cheap, and freely available. For $10 on the barrelhead, any one of us can pick up the domain name of our choice at Tomorrow, domain names might go only to those that governments approve of. Someone might be still able to get their domain name at - if they've paid the requisite bribes to become properly licensed to have one, give GoDaddy their $10, and add a $300 surcharge for the government in question. Suddenly, it's a new way to put a stranglehold on the source of information.

So, what else happened recently that so completely changed my outlook on the internet's future? Two articles posted back-to-back at Slashdot, the tech world's mightiest blog. Articles predicting the doom of our online privacy/digital rights/the internet are regular fare there, but these two are not merely one big straw on this camel's back. Each on it's own would be genuinely alarming, but combined they're outright chilling.

Ask Slashdot: It's "1984" in Europe, What About Your Country?
An anonymous reader asks: "A few hours ago, the European parliament accepted a proposal '...on the retention of data processed in connection with the provision of public electronic communication services...'. Summarized: any data (internet connections, traffic, email, file sharing, SMS, phone calls) of 450 billion people of Europe has to be collected by telcos, to be used by governments in their fight against 'crime and terrorism' ... oh, and child porn, of course. In Germany, over-the-sea reports are limited and usually do not include the latest developments in law and order, but since Slashdot has readers all over the world, I would like to ask: how is the status of YOUR country in terms of anti-terrorism-laws, observations and such? Any recommendations where one can still live free and unobserved in a non-nanny state?"

Your Rights Online: No More Internet Anonymity
inkhaton writes "This Article tells of an Orwellian chip that, once installed in your computer (and not by your choice), will allow any website you visit to "read" your identity. The article goes on to describe how many benefits there are for using this to facilitate online business and even suggests some negative points. It ends with "Ultimately the TPM itself isn't inherently evil or good. It will depend entirely on how it's used, and in that sphere, market and political forces will be more important than technology." ... ugh. Well we all know what that means."

"Oh no," you groan as you begin to roll your eyes, "Not more hackneyed 1984 references." Not so fast. That you should smile for the camera as you move about London is a fact of daily life. There are thousands of government cameras everywhere. They're watching your public transit, your shopping, your travel in the city. They read and record your license plate number to make sure you've paid for the privelege of driving within the city (and to fine or bill you if you haven't). They will now be tracking your vehicular movement all over Britain, and storing a record of your movements for two years (only two years, we're assured - for now). There are many places this is not looked upon with horror, but admiration. And yes, these places have seats in the u.n's general assembly and security council.

Filtering of information in France is so commonplace as to draw no notice. During the recent riots in France, several web sites disappeared almost unremarked. No, not the Islamist sites urging muslims to riot, orchestrating when and where they should, and directing them to envelop all of France - but French nationalist sites, outraged by the torching of cars accompanied by shouts of 'allahu akbar!' Allegations have circulated that France had activated an "Emeraude device", which reportedly routes internet traffic through military servers which filter and block traffic. The blocking was noticed to have taken various forms, depending on the ISP it came through - from not routing the IP address, to not resolving the DNS name, to filtering the HTTP traffic itself.

All of this drew little notice from anyone but the sites' regular visitors. It certainly was not decried by very many free-speech proponents on discussion panels.

Nor was the government the only information filter; self-filtering in France is a highly developed social phenomenon. When reader comments at TF1 went overwhelmingly against the rioters, TF1 shut them off. An LCI executive openly admitted that riot coverage was downplayed because he felt French politics were 'moving to the right', and he was afraid that more coverage would hasten the process. Canal+ captioned rioters' chants of "Sarkozy, dirty Jew!" as a more politically-correct "Sarkozy, fascist!" It seems as though this sort of political self-filtering is so expected that one simply does it and goes on with one's business - it's completely unexceptional. Like filing to the memory hole. (several hat tips to Joe N. of No-Pasaran)

We're done with France, but still not done with 1984. Consider the sheer number of things that you've probably heard referred to as having gone "down the memory hole" (Jimmy Carter's entire presidency, for example). Information considered unpalatable (or unfashionable) to the elite routinely does this, regardless of who the elite may be. In Syria it may be the information ministry, in the U.S. it may be the editing desk, but the net result is the same - those who can control information will. The only chance of objectively knowing reality beyond the reach of your own five senses lies in the hope of uncontrollable information. Trying to know it by anything less than an uncontrolled flow makes you an extension of the biases of whoever controls your information.

That was the important bit. If you've been skimming, you're forgiven, but please go back and re-read that.

The internet then is an opportunity to never again make people subject to the limitations and shaping forces of what they're permitted to know. If kept properly, there could never be another chance for an entity like "the party" to dictate what you should know and, as a result, believe. It's the chance to be certain that you, your children, and your scions henceforth can be the product of your own minds. What greater freedom can there be?

In China, where people are jailed, beaten, and even killed for practicing the rough equivalent of yoga with a code of ethics, making the individual computers that access a given web site uniquely identifiable marks the beginning of the end of "fighting the good fight". If web sites can harvest that information, then the government's routers can too. It would be a trivial matter to index the unique ID's requesting the home page of with the ID's of all the computers made in or imported into China. Institute a program of computer registration, and every number can now just as easily be paired with a name.

I don't doubt that a way to disable the chip, emulate one with false numbers, or some other means of defeating it will come to pass, but this is still a measure that would shrink the playing field from 100 yards to just 10. However, combine this with developing the ability to go back through years of someone's life — to see what they wrote, what they read, where they went, and who they encountered — and even at this minute, the world is crossing the threshold of digital tyranny.

Hey - how 'bout some cats? Friday Thursday Frickin' Cat Blogging!
(no, I'm not very, very late - I'm a day early!*)

* denotes crossed fingers