On Wednesday, January 18, 2012, Wikipedia initiated a 24-hour blackout of its own site in order to protest and raise awareness about the SOPA and PIPA bills being debated in the US Congress and Senate, respectively. Though they’ve been leading the charge, the Wikipedians haven’t been alone. I visited many of my favorite sites throughout the day only to discover they, too were symbolically self-censoring. Not that I needed the reminder. I’ve lived behind the Great Firewall of China — I know how frustrating it is.
Victory in an ongoing battle
I agree these bills are bad news. But according to my most trusted source on copyright issues, this is only the beginning, not the end. While many of us were enjoying our Christmas holidays, Cory Doctorow was at the 28th Annual Chaos Communications Congress in Berlin, warning of things to come.
For those who don’t know him, Cory is an activist, journalist and socially-conscious science fiction writer. He has spent years working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reporting on copyright, free speech and digital rights issues and writing excellent novels. And in a little less than an hour, he convincingly made the case that SOPA is just the opening skirmish in a much larger war.
If you don’t have an hour to spare, you can pretty much get his whole argument in an analogy he makes about halfway through:
If I turned up and said “well, everyone knows that wheels are good and right, but have you noticed that every single bank robber has four wheels on his car when he drives away from the bank robbery? Can’t we do something about this?”, the answer would of course be “no”. Because we don’t know how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for legitimate wheel applications but useless to bad guys. . . .
But, if I were to show up in that same body to say that I had absolute proof that hands-free phones were making cars dangerous, and I said, “I would like you to pass a law that says it’s illegal to put a hands-free phone in a car”, the regulator might say “Yeah, I’d take your point, we’d do that”. And we might disagree about whether or not this is a good idea, or whether or not my evidence made sense, but very few of us would say “well, once you take the hands-free phones out of the car, they stop being cars”.
The difficulty, he goes on to say, is in applying this same way of thinking to computers and networks. You might think that individual programs on a computer, or individual websites on a network are like hands-free phones. If you have a problem with something, like Napster, IP-blockers, BitTorrent (both the program and the sites), you just get rid of them. But you can’t, not without fundamentally changing your personal computer and the Internet as they currently function to an entirely different form.
Solution too radical
All computers are general-purpose devices. If someone can write some code for something, your computer can run it. If legislators want to prevent you from doing so, they can’t simply order manufacturers to stop attaching file-sharing parts to your computer. There’s no such part. Instead they must install restrictive software to prevent users from seeing what their computer is doing, watch everything they’re doing and interfere when a user-initiated operating command is deemed inappropriate.
In the same way, all computer networks are is the exchange of data. There is no functional difference between legal or illegal, appropriate or immoral data. There’s no way to simply remove fora for illegal data exchange. That would require watching our data and sending in the troops when “distasteful” or “illegal” content appears.
In other words, cripple our computers with malware and strip our networks of privacy.
Privacy v security: not a new issue
Cory’s talk is based on technologies that were not a significant part of our everyday lives a mere two decades ago. Yet the general problem of privacy versus security is not new. Social philosopher Jeremy Bentham imagined a theoretical prison in the 18th century. The design was of a great circular wall enclosing a yard, with a much smaller circular building in the center. The prisoners would spend their time in the yard while the guards would look out from the center building. The guards have a clear view of every part of the prison yard but the prisoners cannot see the guards and don’t know where they’re looking. As a result, a small number of guards can keep a larger number of prisoners in check, since the prisoners have no idea when they are being watched.
Bentham dubbed this prison the panopticon, which means something like “all-seeing”. This was before video surveillance, and certainly before spyware or government firewalls. But the principle is the same. If you want to keep everyone in line, you have to watch everything. London’s extensive public surveillance system must take so many thousands of hours a footage per day, no one could possibly be watching it. But the information is there, if anyone ever needs to check on it.
Whether or not SOPA and PIPA go through, this is the inevitable conclusion if the current way of thinking prevails. At some point, we’ll need to have every email, every site visited, every file accessed on permanent record. Our Internet Providers will be forced to provide the information, or our government-approved malware will do it, but everything will go down in the books.
Maybe no one will ever need to look at these digital records, but if there’s any question, if a spybot sends a signal that we may be up to something, it will all have to come out. Meanwhile, we will always know that we’re potentially being watched. The panopticon, version 3.0.
The privacy aspect has received less focus than the issues of hobbled functionality during this most recent digital media debate, but it’s certainly at least as grim a prospect. You don’t have to be doing something wrong to have a problem with such an invasion. I daresay I’m not alone in preferring my personal computer to remain personal.
Image credit: Jeremy Bentham (1791).