Ever since Congress passed Al Gore’s bill, around 1990, setting the Internet free to pervade the world and empower billions, repressive governments have complained, seeing their despotic methods undermined. And yes, democratic governments have often muttered: “Why’d we go and do that?” as their citizens became increasingly rambunctious, knowing and independent-minded!
As we’ll see below, the ruling classes in undemocratic lands have been striving to adapt, and showing real signs of success. So frets Jennifer Granick who was keynote speaker at Black Hat 2015 – a hacker’s conference. “In 20 years, the Web might complete its shift from liberator to oppressor. It’s up to us to prevent that.”
Amen, as far as that goes. I am motivated by the same dream – a mostly-open world, in which most people know most of what’s going on, most of the time, so that light can serve as the great disinfectant of oppression and error. That is the core message of The Transparent Society.
We share the same fear, that elites of one kind or another – governmental, commercial, aristocratic, criminal, international or technological… even AI – might find ways to consolidate or monopolize light, and thus power, returning us to the pyramidal hierarchies that so utterly failed to deliver for our ancestors, providing pain and injustice, never prosperity or freedom or joy.
Ms Granick focused her speech on legal matters in the West, especially the U.S., as was fitting and proper, given her background as an attorney in some of the most important online-rights cases of the last 20 years. Her speech is educational and I urge you to read it.
She is especially incisive about our need to let private parties explore and tinker with proprietary company software that comes in the products we all buy. How else are terrible errors to be discovered and corrections offered before inadvertent errors bring calamity? “Without the Freedom to Tinker, the right to reverse engineer these products, we will be living in a world of opaque black boxes. We don’t know what they do, and you’ll be punished for peeking inside.”
Granick cites a recent book on the subject: “In a Black Box Society, how can we ensure that the outcome is in the public interest? The first step is obviously transparency, but our ability to understand is limited by current law and also by the limits of our human intelligence. The companies that make these products might not necessarily know how their product works either. Without adequate information, how can we democratically influence or oversee these decisions? We are going to have to learn how, or live in a society that is less fair and less free.”
Ironically, the Obama Administration just addressed this issue:
This is, in fact, huge, and I will have more on it, soon. It means we have a right to scrutinize, as consumers and citizens, the algorithms and programs that will increasingly control every aspect of our lives.
(Take the latest example—a ludicrously simple way to hack into a number of the boot processes used to a large extent by Linux distributions, but also potentially even more general: Just tap the backspace key 28 times in a row. A stunningly awful backdoor, especially given the US defense equipment is often Linux-based, under the notion that most bugs—like this one—get discovered by open-source methods. Note that some basic BIOS and Grub precautions can prevent this. Alas, you must be savvy-nerdy to get it just right, but see Comments, below.))
The Administration’s support of this shift to support of Open Source and personal access to our own purchases is just as important as when, two years ago, they declared decisively that we have a right to record our interactions with police. While one might have hoped for a a more full-throated and less tentative (three year) ruling—and we must fight on—you would not get this under any GOP president. Period.
== The Enemies of Openness are cranking up ==
Lest there be any doubt, I am fretful about the same trends that worry Granick and the EFF and other web-liberties activists. Take for example China, which we now know to have about 668 million web users. Google and Facebook would love to operate in China. But China’s all-powerful Internet czar, Lu Wei (Minister of Cyberspace Administration) represents a wholly different fundamental ethos of how human beings can and should oiperate in relation to their states. One that, for centuries, has empowered state authorities to rule on behalf of the people. Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen this week that “freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace.”
“We do not welcome those who make money off China even as they slander China’s people,” Lu has said. “These kinds of websites I definitely will not allow in my house.” That he believes such a comment is somehow meritorious indicates that we are still revolutionaries against a way of thinking that enslaved nearly all our ancestors.
Political leaders in the West, like Hillary Clinton, have said in the past that they want an open house. “Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century,” she said when U.S. Secretary of State.
Yet, authors like Ms. Granick have a well-justified—if very western—reflex to see plots against such freedom looming in all directions. Even those that deem themselves to be protectors of liberty.
Is that reflex wrong? Of course not! I share it. But, as we’ll see, she and a vast majority of would be civil liberties defenders get it all wrong, when it comes to how.
== More warnings… without any useful guidance ==
Ms. Granick then goes on to discuss where even worse dangers lie: “Globalization means more governments are getting into the Internet regulation mix. They want to both protect and to regulate their citizens. And remember, the next billion Internet users are going to come from countries without a First Amendment, without a Bill of Rights, maybe even without due process or the rule of law. So these limitations won’t necessarily be informed by what we in the U.S. consider basic civil liberties.”
Nice, words or warning. Alas, without a scintilla of suggestion how to respond to the volcanic determination of undemocratic nations to use the Internet as a vehicle of public control. We need democratic governments to be fiercely assertive in this matter, assisting those companies who are about to offer end-run technologies like new satellite systems that could let oppressed populations bypass state control.
The ironies in that sentence are profound. Granick does not deal with them, because it would entail viewing our own government as having a white hat role to play. Something difficult for her adversarial reflexes to grok.
Alas, things get less cogent when she discusses emails and the 4th Amendment, hailing a court decision that puts emails under that protection, while ignoring the fact that technology moves on and is more powerful than even law. And while such protections are, indeed, meaningful over the short term, they simply will not stand up to tech&time. (Show me a secret corner of the web that has ever been reliably and uniformly secure? Ever. Even one.) Indeed, the 2013 lesson was that hiding is futile…
...and that our militance should be focused instead on stripping shadows and shrouds away from the world’s elites. That can work. Ah, but try to follow this logic:
“Surveillance couldn’t get much worse, but in the next 20 years, it actually will. Now we have networked devices, the so-called Internet of Things, that will keep track of our home heating, and how much food we take out of our refrigerator, and our exercise, sleep, heartbeat, and more. These things are taking our off-line physical lives and making them digital and networked, in other words, surveillable.
“To have any hope of attaining the Dream of Internet Freedom, we have to implement legal reforms to stop suspicion-less spying. We have to protect email and our physical location from warrantless searches. We have to stop overriding the few privacy laws we have to gain with a false sense of online security. We have to utterly reject secret surveillance laws, if only because secret law is an abomination in a democracy.”
== What? But… but you just said, just one paragraph earlier…. ==
In the end, for all her cogency and passion and determination to protect freedom and justice and all good things,Granick falls for the same zero sum thinking that dominates the Age of Sanctimony.
That we must choosebetween safety and freedom, between security and liberty, between a skilled caste of civil-servant protectors and a citizenry that can go about their lives unhampered and unafraid.
This fundamental flaw – zero sum thinking – will undermine and demolish everything Ms. Granick claims to stand for. As I showed in The Transparent Society – especially on the creepy-prescient page 206 – any future calamity will cause a panicked public to ratchet back any and every restriction that you now place on those protectors’ power to surveil. Notice how Edward Snowden has faded from view and conversation, in the wake of recent terror incidents? The Ratchet-Effect is very real, predictable, and it is just plain dumb to oppose it head-on, like an indignant sumo wrestler confronting a train.
You are erecting safety barriers made of smoke. Just smoke.
There is a way to aggressively and assertively protect freedom, with the equivalent of Judo. It can be done by putting choke chains not so much on what any caste of elites – from government protectors to corporations to foreign rulers can see as on what they can do to us. And the best way to stop them from doing bad things is to see them.
History supports that method. It has already proved vastly more effective than hiding… which is (make no mistake) the prescription of most activists, from Edward Snowden on down the line… and which is cowardly, in any event.
In fact though, Ms. Granick shows her own depth—or lack of it—when she openly avows that she no longer blogs, but only posts on Facebook. Enough said.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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