June 13, 2024

Techno-Lockdown Not Likely

Steven Levy, in Newsweek, offers a dystopian vision for the future of the Internet:

Picture, if you will, an information infrastructure that encourages censorship, surveillance and suppression of the creative impulse. Where anonymity is outlawed and every penny spent is accounted for. Where the powers that be can smother subversive (or economically competitive) ideas in the cradle, and no one can publish even a laundry list without the imprimatur of Big Brother. Some prognosticators are saying that such a construct is nearly inevitable. And this infrastructure is none other than the former paradise of rebels and free-speechers: the Internet.

Pretty scary! Fortunately, it’s not gonna happen.

To understand why, let’s rewind, as Levy does, to the early days of Internet mania, when many saw the Net as an anarchist utopia that didn’t have laws, and didn’t need them. A few contrarians like Larry Lessig argued that the Net wasn’t inherently immune from control and regulation, and that society would bring its norms, and government its laws, to the Net. And indeed that is what happened.

This should have been obvious, considering the pervasive connections between our on-line and off-line lives. I write and publish this posting in cyberspace; but at the same time I’m sitting in a chair in Princeton, New Jersey, watching the sun rise out my back window. I have one foot in cyberspace and one foot in meatspace. And how can one foot be bound by laws and the other be immune? The rules of cyberspace and the rules of meatspace will necessarily be similar – any big disparity between them will be resolved by changing the rules on one side or the other.

For the same reason, a locked-down Net can’t really happen, at least not here in the free world. For how can one foot be enslaved while the other is free? To lock down the Internet is to disconnect it from everyday life, from the life where I can send an invitation, or a business memo, or a home movie to anyone at any time, where I can read whatever I like without asking a censor’s permission.
We might go some short distance down the road of control, but ultimately the rules of cyberspace are firmly tethered to the rules of meatspace. And in the rules of meatspace – at least where I’m lucky enough to live – lockdown isn’t allowed.

This isn’t to say that we should ignore the forces of control, or that we should acquiesce in whatever small victories they may be able to win. We need to be vigilant and fight for the right to build and use new technologies. It’s that struggle that keeps the Net connected to the freedoms we enjoy in the real world. It’s that struggle that keeps techno-lockdown in the realm of speculation and not reality.


  1. Consider again the concept that the Trusted Internet will still allow speech as free as it is in the newspaper. You can have spirited political debate (possibly limited by campaign finance laws). You can criticize others (but not libel them). You can publish your own thoughts and ideas (but not material copyrighted by others, without their permission).

    The issue here is whether society would benefit from an institution that allows speech that is “freer than free”: speech without these restrictions. Say whatever you like, unfettered by restrictions and regulations. Share other people’s creations without asking. Create digital cash and stop paying your taxes.

    And more important still is the meta-issue: even if you and I believe in the freer-then-free-net, what about the opinions of the rest of society? If such an institution is really beneficial, then society has the power to allow the Trusted Net to work this way (just as society could repeal laws against libel and eliminate copyright). This, it seems, is Felten’s basis for discounting fears about the Trusted Net; society just wouldn’t let it go that far.

    But for those of us who think society would in fact let it go that far, because it does so in every other institution it has created, we still have a burden. Can we make a case for the truly free net that we (more or less) have today? Can we convince society to let us make an end-run around the restrictions it imposes in its other institutions? And if not, do we have the right to ignore the opinions of other people in terms of how social institutions should work – and if it comes down to that, do we have the raw power to do so?

    I have my own answers to these questions, but they aren’t easy or automatic. It seems to me that if the anarchic net really is an overall benefit for society, it ought to be possible to make a persuasive case for it. That seems worth doing.

  2. Walker’s Trusted Internet enslaves no one. Rather, it provides a tremendously useful and versatile communications medium which would have properties like those I listed above which the average user might well find superior to the spam-filled cesspool of porn and piracy that the current net may seem to be becoming.

    If I can control your behavior for fun and profit, I will. If the government helps me, so much the better. It doesn’t matter if your behavior is legal or illegal. Only that I *can* control it.

    Intimidation is a very usefull tool to control behavior. If the government helps me, so much the better. It doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong. Only that I *can* intimidate.

    Trusted computing enables control through government sponsored intimidation.

  3. What Cypherpunk doesn’t seem to understand is that all those useful things (unauthorized eavesdropping, financial scams, securities frauds, spam, worms and viruses, 100% accurate search engines with no spidering) can be done now without any changes to the Internet by making them voluntary. People could require signed email — this would effectively eliminate spam and wouldn’t cost significantly more to deploy than the Digital Imprimatur system (it probably would cost less).

    (Of course, a nice side effect is that it doesn’t do those things I consider dystopian: e.g. putting an end to child pornography, copyright infringement, and free speech.)

    If users want to join such a gated community, they’re welcome too, and they can do it without eliminating the end-to-end benefits that all of us (and possibly they) enjoy. For example, their email program could require certificates but they could download a file sharing program that didn’t.

  4. Okay, the link is working now and I’ve read Levy’s article. As I anticipated, it is based on Walker’s essay, to which I gave a link above.

    I think you are missing the point by looking at things in a polarized matter. It’s not a matter of slavery vs freedom. Walker’s Trusted Internet enslaves no one. Rather, it provides a tremendously useful and versatile communications medium which would have properties like those I listed above which the average user might well find superior to the spam-filled cesspool of porn and piracy that the current net may seem to be becoming.

    We’re not talking jack-booted thugs or Big Brother censors here. You’ll still be able to publish anything you could in a newspaper. But you won’t be able to give away other people’s music any more than you could stand on a street corner and distribute pirated CDs.

    The biggest practical (as opposed to philosophical) problem I see with the Trusted Net is its slowness to accept and incorporate new technology. It would seem that any new application is going to have to prove that it is legal and contains appropiate information-tracking and protection features before it is allowed to run and connect to other systems on the net. This will be a great barrier to innovation and will require some kind of bureaucratic body to review the software and issue a seal of approval.

    Will this be enough to convince users that they should put up with the dynamic and uncensorable internet, full of outlaws and innovators? Or will they accept some slowdown of the rate of change in exchange for eliminating the worst abuses? It’s not a foregone conclusion, by any means.

  5. Internet lock-down will most likely occur because there is an overly seductive financial incentive to lock-it down. The notion that one should be paid for whatever one’s capable of “putting out there” is just to seductive. It’s better than sex. That it’s not worth a flip or its use doesn’t significantly contribute seems immaterial.

    Another alluring aspect of this approach is that in a locked-down system two otherwise independent works can too easily be made to seem as though one was somehow derived from the other. Take for example the “My Sweet Lord”/ “He’s So Fine,” controversy. In another example, two identical three word lines in two otherwise different poems could conceivably be actionable.

    The government, as manifested in the DMCA, seems a bit too indifferent to the social cost of sorting these issues out. Perhaps it believes I stand a great chance of selling my tripe or standing up to the RIAA and MPAA.

  6. Hamish MacEwan says

    You extrapolate your meatspace freedom to suggest that your on-line leg cannot be manacled. Perhaps, but from what I’ve observed, your real-world freedoms are being assaulted as vigorously as those on-line.

  7. In response to the previous two comments, let me clarify:

    Yes, there are levers that the government can use (perhaps at the behest of certain lobbyists) to try to control the Net. In the same way, government has levers of control in meatspace. But in meatspace, if the government pulls those levers too hard or for too long, it provokes a reaction: the sleeping giant of public opinion awakes and pushes back — very hard. Because cyberspace is connected so richly to meatspace, overuse of the control levers in cyberspace will provoke the same strong political reaction in meatspace.

    This check on government power does not work always and everywhere, but it is a powerful force in 2003 America. I, for one, trust that even if we are somewhat less free than we ought to be, my fellow citizens will stand up and say “no” if our central freedoms are put at risk.

  8. Your link to Levy’s article isn’t working for me, but I assume he is talking about the essay by John Walker (of Autodesk fame), The Digital Imprimatur, http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/digital-imprimatur/ . Walker sees the advent of Trusted Computing as leading to a Secure Internet, one where you need a license to connect and only Trusted machines can participate. Such a network would have enormous benefits, including putting an end to copyright violation, unauthorized eavesdropping, financial scams, securities frauds, spam, worms and viruses. The Secure Internet also supports 100% accurate search engines with no spidering and low overheads. It limits child pornography (and children’s access to adult porn), hate speech, employee internet abuse and tax evasion. It inherently supports DRM, satisfying the concerns of content providers and providing a foundation for wide-scale distribution of digital content.

    We gain all of these benefits only at the cost of giving up the decentralized and anarchic nature of the net, allowing centralized control of what information is allowed to flow. This is the dystopia which Walker fears, and it’s not easy to dismiss out of hand. Already, the spam scourge is leading even online rights activists to tentative support for “internet driver’s licenses” and such. The average guy doesn’t care that much about freedom of speech, he wants a net which is safe and which works. Walker’s vision of a locked-down internet may well be preferred by most users to the fragmented and dynamic net you and I would like to see.

    Walker has a discussion board for the topic set up at http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/digital-imprimatur/ but there isn’t much traffic.

  9. I don’t get it. Yes, in the cypherpunk days we believed the net might be an anarchist utopia, but we quickly learned otherwise *because* it was connected to meat-space.


    | Consider the following mechanisms of cyberspace regulation:
    | * direct: threat of violence, monetary penalties, and
    | imprisonment by a centralized authority. Applies if you
    | have a locatable physical presence or assets.
    | * indirect: direct methods are applied to third parties to
    | create incentives or disincentives against the governed.
    | (My ontology is similar to but differs from
    | Reidenberg’s [Reid97, 588])
    | 1. link: associate the resolution of a contentious
    | proposal to one for which there is greater support.
    | The US Government’s Clipper III proposal linked the
    | government’s contested desire to access citizens’
    | private encryption keys to the government’s ability
    | to grant much needed legal legitimacy to digital
    | signatures.
    | 2. choke: regulate those that are easy to go after.
    | Bavarian authorities prosecuted the head of the
    | German Compuserve division for providing access to
    | Internet materials including pornography and games
    | that were violent or had Nazi imagery.
    | 3. gouge:regulate those that have deep pockets, often
    | used with choke. A US Government copyright proposal
    | criminalized the contributory infringement of
    | copyright and made Internet Service Providers
    | fiscally liable for the actions of their users.
    | 4. browbeat: threaten further regulatory action. US
    | privacy policy has to date been predicated on the –
    | rather weak – threat that if the “industry” doesn’t
    | self regulate, the government will get involved.
    | 5. herd: selectively place and remove liability to
    | channel policy towards a goal without overtly
    | setting the direction. “Mandatory self regulation”
    | and safe harbor provisions are frequently proposed
    | solutions to Internet issues.

    Saying one can *never completely* control the Net is besides the point.