April 20, 2014

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A Free Internet, If We Can Keep It

“We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. ”

These two sentences, from Secretary of State Clinton’s groundbreaking speech on Internet freedom, sum up beautifully the challenge facing our Internet policy. An open Internet can advance our values and support our interests; but we will only get there if we make some difficult choices now.

One of these choices relates to anonymity. Will it be easy to speak anonymously on the Internet, or not? This was the subject of the first question in the post-speech Q&A:

QUESTION: You talked about anonymity on line and how we have to prevent that. But you also talk about censorship by governments. And I’m struck by – having a veil of anonymity in certain situations is actually quite beneficial. So are you looking to strike a balance between that and this emphasis on censorship?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Absolutely. I mean, this is one of the challenges we face. On the one hand, anonymity protects the exploitation of children. And on the other hand, anonymity protects the free expression of opposition to repressive governments. Anonymity allows the theft of intellectual property, but anonymity also permits people to come together in settings that gives them some basis for free expression without identifying themselves.

None of this will be easy. I think that’s a fair statement. I think, as I said, we all have varying needs and rights and responsibilities. But I think these overriding principles should be our guiding light. We should err on the side of openness and do everything possible to create that, recognizing, as with any rule or any statement of principle, there are going to be exceptions.

So how we go after this, I think, is now what we’re requesting many of you who are experts in this area to lend your help to us in doing. We need the guidance of technology experts. In my experience, most of them are younger than 40, but not all are younger than 40. And we need the companies that do this, and we need the dissident voices who have actually lived on the front lines so that we can try to work through the best way to make that balance you referred to.

Secretary Clinton’s answer is trying to balance competing interests, which is what good politicians do. If we want A, and we want B, and A is in tension with B, can we have some A and some B together? Is there some way to give up a little A in exchange for a lot of B? That’s a useful way to start the discussion.

But sometimes you have to choose — sometimes A and B are profoundly incompatible. That seems to be the case here. Consider the position of a repressive government that wants to spy on a citizen’s political speech, as compared to the position of the U.S. government when it wants to eavesdrop on a suspect’s conversations under a valid search warrant. The two positions are very different morally, but they are pretty much the same technologically. Which means that either both governments can eavesdrop, or neither can. We have to choose.

Secretary Clinton saw this tension, and, being a lawyer, she saw that law could not resolve it. So she expressed the hope that technology, the aspect she understood least, would offer a solution. This is a common pattern: Given a difficult technology policy problem, lawyers will tend to seek technology solutions and technologists will tend to seek legal solutions. (Paul Ohm calls this “Felten’s Third Law”.) It’s easy to reject non-solutions in your own area because you have the knowledge to recognize why they will fail; but there must be a solution lurking somewhere in the unexplored wilderness of the other area.

If we’re forced to choose — and we will be — what kind of Internet will we have? In Secretary Clinton’s words, “the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.” We’ll have a free Internet, if we can keep it.

Comments

  1. tz says:

    Or in this case “hackers”. Fearing those who can do things we don’t understand.

    The problem is technology will always have ways around it. There is already the tension in DMCA “circumvention”. Big brother might get a search warrant, but little brother might install a trojan. And most of it is knowledge. Can we ban people who know how to exploit flaws in programs from using computers?

    Identity theft is already a problem – but people will steal identities to express dissent. And consider where these might merge – a battered woman’s or someone in witness protection’s identity is used to commit serious crimes – and the police arrest the wrong person and expose them…

  2. Seth Finkelstein says:

    I would say the problem is even worse. Even if Clinton knows, absolutely, herself, that the problem is technologically insoluble, it is not good politics to say that, because of all the other less informed people who will believe that there must be a solution.

    I mean, for more than a decade now, I’ve been saying with regard to censorware that there’s a similar technological problem with governments who want to control what citizens read and parents who want to control what their offspring read. And there’s many people at higher policy levels who know that. But it’s not politic to say it – it’s an invitation to be attacked by someone looking for a cheap shot opportunity. At the level of someone like Clinton, what she said is virtually the outer bound of permissible response.