THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 535, September 6, 2009
"Void the Bill of Rights, you void the Constitution."
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
The panic press has been bothering some of my friends with claims that "Obama will control the Internet." "The Internet will be shut down."
There are things to be concerned about, especially for prominent individuals who are engaged in actual journalism, or whistle blowing, or innovating. And there are tools these people can use to protect themselves.
But there is no "the Internet" to be shut down. It isn't that simple, and it certainly isn't that centralised. It is not like the electrical power grid for some city that might be shut down by throwing a giant Frankenstein film style blade switch.
What is "the Internet" really? As the name implies, it is an interconnected network of computer networks. It connects hundreds of millions of people, and is capable of being scaled indefinitely to connect billions of people. Or hundreds of billions, if the powers that be don't commit genocide.
Why have computer networks? Very simple. A network makes it easy to share information from one computer to another. So many people can work on the same document, or see the same information, or see copies of the same data. With a computer network it becomes possible to send electronic mail between computers. You can also share resources like printers, including three-dimensional printers.
So why hook computer networks to each other? Again, you can enhance the speed at which information is shared, you can get multiple people contributing to the same document, you can expand the number of contacts you can reach by e-mail, etc. If you go back far enough, to about 1969, you get a very small number of computer networks each with a comparatively small number of computers or work stations (or "terminals" as we used to say) which were first inter-connected.
One of the cool things about the original project was the design requirement that the system be able to route around damaged nodes in the network. So, if a nuclear war were to remove Washington DC there would be a working network to carry on. Even if dozens or hundreds of nodes were destroyed, the remaining nodes could still communicate. And, to some extent, even without telephone lines, communication could continueby satellite, by extremely long wavelength transmission, by radio, even by carrier pigeon.
How could it work? Well, lots of different ways, but the way in which it actually works is that certain rules or protocols have been established. These rules go by different names. The Internet Protocol Suite is one name. TCP/IP or "transmission control protocol, internet protocol" is another name. By whatever name, these rules provide a standard system for representing data, for sending and receiving signals, for authenticating signals to confirm that what was sent got through correctly, and for error detection.
Sounds complicated. And in some ways it is. But like anything people have been doing with computers for more than 25 years, a whole lot of thinking has gone into making it work.
Consider the TCP part of the process. Networks are not always perfect, as anyone who has ever tried network marketing can assure you. The network can get congested, the traffic load can become problematic, things can just be unpredictable. So packets of information may be lost completely, they may be delivered out of order, or they may be received incomplete. TCP is designed to rearrange packets from the order received into the order transmitted. It also detects missing packets, or packets received incomplete, and requests retransmission. Because of the way it is designed, TCP can minimise network congestion and thereby reduce the frequency of these other problems.
By about 1974, with the work of Robert E. Kahn and Vinton Cerf, the differences between computer network systems, software, hardware, and networking protocols were worked around by the development of a common and open architecture set of inter-networking protocols. So when I say we've had more than 25 years of experience with this stuff, I mean that a very small number of people were working on these ideas as far back as 1969-1972. Since then, a whole lot more have gotten involved.
Since then, a lot of people have grown up with computers and learned to use them, even learned how to set up networks in their homes and offices, and never really known anything about the underlying protocols. If you can hook your router to the connection provided by your Internet service provider, a cable or a telephone line, and it works, do you really care about the transmission control protocol? Probably not.
Thing is, the open architecture is widely known. It works in every country. It works on every continent, including Antarctica. It works with commercial networks and private networks and government networks and bad dark secret black operations budgeted military death machine burn before reading networks. And you really cannot have contemporary civilisation without it. The Internet is everywhere.
Business depend on it. Stock markets operate on it. Vendors sell over it. Buyers find products with it. Data is catalogued, information is dispersed, ideas are developed, inventions are heralded, news is transmitted, classes are taught, births are announced, diseases are diagnosed, experts are consulted, products are bought, and, yes, even taxes are collected (e-filing anyone?) over the Internet.
So the image of an Igor character shuffling over to a huge crackling control panel with a giant blade switch and Dr. Frankenstein shouting, "Igor, turn it off!" and the switch being thrown to disconnect the circuit, that image? That image is completely wrong.
The whole point of the system is not to have any one switch that can be thrown to turn it off. A necessary feature of the networking of networks is that it becomes robust. The protocols help with traffic routing, load sharing, data distribution, all the behind the scenes rigmarole, the quotidian aspects that make it go every day. And they obviate the central control concept.
It is exactly not like a factory where you can cut a big thick power cable and the whole plant goes dark. There is no "off" switch for the Internet.
And it is totally out of control. Not only have the decisions about on or off been distributed widely, but the technologies have diversified incredibly. Internet-related data signals are transmitted by wire, by radio, by satellite, by ship, by plane, by signals bounced off the ionisation channel in the atmosphere created by meteors. And packets that go by weird paths or by normal paths are all treated the same. You have no way of knowing whether that megabyte of word processing document arrived in your inbox by any of those channels, or all of them, or some other set entirely. Nor any reason to care.
Does that mean that censorship is dead? In many ways, yes. Information cannot be permanently forbidden once it reaches the public domain simply because there are so many copies. In other ways, no.
It may be impossible to track down all the available and possible copies of a song or idea or fact or photograph of the imperial leader being corn holed by the prime minister, but the people involved in gathering this information or making use of it can often be identified, tracked, targeted, tortured, or disappeared into Obama's permanent detention without trial. And since seeing those people tortured to death on state television may have a chilling effect on others, it becomes significant how such attacks are experienced by individuals.
Happily, there are solutions. One of them is a virtual privacy network. Another is a proxy server, though this can be fraught with peril.
In each case, instead of connecting directly to the rest of the Internet, you connect to a particular server. In the case of the virtual privacy network, a whole bunch of things are arranged behind the scenes so that your connection does not appear unusual, so that your visits to other sites work consistently, and so forth. In the case of a proxy server, you can get the same results, but if the server is run by the bad guys, you can also be vulnerable without knowing it.
So it may become important to you to know how you connect to the Internet. That's particularly true if you are a reporter, an aid worker, a blogger on controversial topics, a whistle blower, an informant, or someone who wants to be left alone to live your life without being spied upon. A virtual privacy network can help you with all that.
It develops that we live in a very exciting time when it is possible to have all kinds of communication and also maintain considerable privacy. It also develops that, just as the open architecture for the Internet was being developed and published, the concept of open source cryptography became interesting.
You may not realise it, but every time you connect to a "secure site" or using an "SSL" connectionin short every time you see https in the location window of your web browseryou are using encryption. And not just any encryption, but open source encryption.
Well, why would that matter? Wouldn't it be better to keep the encryption protocol secret? It turns out that the answer is no.
And that was a surprise to many people. For the longest time, the secret to secret writing (crypto-graphy) was to keep the method a secret. If "the enemy" didn't know how you were writing secretly, they would have that much more difficulty figuring out that you were writing secretly.
It sounds good. It seems logical that you could, say, invent a special ink that was invisible under normal conditions. Write with normal ink but leave space between each line. Then go back and write in the special ink. And when your letter gets to your friend, he uses the special elixir to reveal the secret writing.
But even elementary traffic analysiswhere the letters come from and go tocan reveal that there is a hidden channel of information. The letter makes no mention of a new address, but the recipient somehow knows to send the next letter to a different country. And so the secret channel is detected even before it is understood.
The same thing began happening with codes after World War One. Mechanical systems were used to apply mathematical ciphers to create "unbreakable" codes. But in reality, the codes were vulnerable to all kinds of code breaking, eventually by digital computers. And the really interesting thing was, it became possible to develop mathematical ciphers that could not be broken at all.
It turns out that we live in a universe where it is possible to encode enormous amounts of information into very small data packets. Consider the 23 chromosome pairs in each cell nucleus in your body. You, a very complex organism with trillions of cells, can be specified, at least in the rudimentary shape in which you arrive into the world, with the four characters (AGCT) of the proteins that form the DNA in your chromosomes. Pretty cool.
When the mathematical cipher is broken, however, it is actually a bad thing if you don't find out right away. That's why open source cryptography became the way to go. Don't hide the algorithm, publish it. Then all the best minds in the world can attack it and find ways to break it. And once it is broken, you can discard it. So you are much better off not keeping the method secret.
Now we have a distributed, decentralised, robust, protocol-driven, technology transparent system of inter-connecting computer networks based on an open architecture. Everyone uses the same rules and gets great results. And, now, we also have open source cryptography so that systems of keeping information private are widely understood and constantly under attack by the mathematically inclined, so that the tools we use for encryption (public key cryptography, quantum cryptography) can really keep our private information secret.
The upshot is, the end of this road has no functioning mechanisms for coercion. Right now, today, it is possible to have economic transactions between two people that are entirely private. The communications are private, the digital representations of value are private, the negotiation of price is private, and the actual exchange of value cannot be detected. Even where the actual people are in the physical world may be hidden from each other, as well as from everyone else.
Economic transactions that are completely private cannot be detected, taxed, regulated, prohibited. The parasites go away.
And, of course, that upsets them. So they accelerate their pace of unreasonable new rules and laws and "programs." They attempt to infest ever more of the economy with legions of officers and bureau-rats to eat out our existence. Those in power become more bold and more corrupt, more openly willing to spend trillions to bail out their cronies in the banking gangster industry and openly sneering at a cost of living adjustment for the elderly.
It won't do any good. It only makes them look more stupid. And the end result is the same. There won't be anyone to rule you without your consent. They won't be able to force you to give them money. Money won't even be something they can detect in many cases.
The endless universe of possibility and cornucopia awaits. It gets ever so much better from here.