Ethan Heilman

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Defending an Unowned Internet: Dissecting the Question of the Social Good of Communication Security

02-05-2014 4:29PM (ET)

As today is a snow day I've decided to write up a thought I had from the recent discussion at the Berkman Center about "Defending an Unowned Internet". A good summary of the discussion can be found at "#recap: Defending an Unowned Internet". A video of the event will be posted in the next few days here.

I will be focusing on a question that the moderator, Johnathan Zittrain, asked:

If an engineer were to burst into your office smiling and announce that they had invented a communication technology in which any number of parties could communicate secretly; that no third party other than the communicating parties could see or interfere with the communication. Would you be happy? Do you think this would be a good thing? 1

The panelists took this question to mean, if the internet was unpolicable or ungovernable would that be a good thing or a bad thing.

Bruce Schneier took the position that it wouldn't be that bad, and that we know what such a scenario would look like because it was the scenario we had in the early days of the internet before the government got savvy. He used the example of the Secret Service raiding Steve Jackson Games because the Secret Service couldn't tell the difference between games about hacking and actual crimes that involved hacking.

The other panelists generally argued points along a continuum of shades of grey. That you'd never want a perfectly secure communication medium because there is value to policing, governance and authority.

Benjamin Wittes took the most authority friendly position5. He made the distinction between governance and authority and argued that he didn't just want governance but a strong state that can actively punish people2. Ebele Okobi, brought up issues of corporate responsibility, human rights, and harassment. Yochai Benkler represented a balance of power position, neither perfect privacy nor perfect surveillance/enforcement. A sort of "Concert of routers" argument 4.

I would like to go in a different direction and amend Jonathan Zittrain question3. I would like to dissect Zittrain's magical communication technology into two technologies:

  1. The VFP (the Very Free Press): An anonymous uncensorable publication medium. Anyone can publish anything anonymously and it is visible to everyone who wishes to look. The VFP is very much what the panelists were imagining when thinking about the internet as an ungoverned space.

  2. Ansible: A secure and private communications system. Any two parties can communicate, such that the contents of the communication are not readable by anyone other than the two parties, and that the fact that the two parties are communicating is known only to the two parties. The Ansible is actually much more in line with Zittrain's question.

The VFP has many of the downsides that Ebele Okobi brought up such as harassment, child pornography, and violations of human rights. It would also be the most likely to have direct impacts on social movements as the VFP would allow people to express themselves via broadcast to many people they do not directly know. The effect would probably be to reduce the overall privacy of the world, since once private data was published to the VFP it would be impossible to censor7.

The second technology is unlikely to result in an increase in harassment, as communicating parties can configure their client to drop communications from unknown identities or from identities that refuse to identify themselves8. Many social networks already offer this a feature6. Some harassment would occur but it would be no worse than email is today. The Ansible would likely increase the overall privacy of the world, producing a safe space for individuals to communicate. A potential source of harm would be that governments, criminals, terrorists and militaries could use it to issue secret orders which could later be denied. For instance Serbian war criminals were often presented with communication intercepts showing that they issued orders to commit atrocities, such evidence would become much more difficult to collect. Technologies with similar capabilities already exist in the form of burst transmitted encrypted messages and to a lesser extent encrypted instant messages.

If you had a wish granting school bus, which of these technologies would you ask for? One, both, neither? @Ethan_Heilman

  1. As a video of the event has not yet been posted, this quote and all further quotes will be from memory, notes and tweets. 

  2. Throughout the talk he waved the flag of Thomas Hobbes including beginning his remarks with the statement ""Let me speak on behalf of the Leviathan ...". 

  3. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Jonathan Zittrain was the best moderator I've ever seen. Even if you have no interest in the issues under discussion, the event was an example of a great moderator can offer to a discussion. 



  6. Which is not to say they have fixed the problem. Much more work needs to be done. 

  7. We already see this happening with private data being posted to pastebin or cryptome as happened with the Guccifer archives. 

  8. One could imagine stretching a reputation system or web of trust over the Ansible network. People could always communicate anonymously ala chatroulette. but for most communications people want authentication and identification from the sending party. 

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