[Politech] Autodesk's John Walker on the demise of the open Internet [fs]

From: Declan McCullagh (declan@private)
Date: Tue Oct 28 2003 - 06:16:42 PST

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    [Thanks to Lee Tien for a pointer to this. I'm back from a week in 
    Stockholm and catching up on email. I spoke on Monday and took a few days 
    vacation, and enjoyed terrific hospitality while I was there. --Declan]
    How big brother and big media can put the Internet genie back in the bottle.
    by John Walker
    September 13th, 2003
    Revision 3 -- October 9th, 2003
    Over the last two years I have become deeply and increasingly pessimistic 
    about the future of liberty and freedom of speech, particularly in regard 
    to the Internet. This is a complete reversal of the almost unbounded 
    optimism I felt during the 1994-1999 period when public access to the 
    Internet burgeoned and innovative new forms of communication appeared in 
    rapid succession. In that epoch I was firmly convinced that universal 
    access to the Internet would provide a countervailing force against the 
    centralisation and concentration in government and the mass media which act 
    to constrain freedom of expression and unrestricted access to information. 
    Further, the Internet, properly used, could actually roll back government 
    and corporate encroachment on individual freedom by allowing information to 
    flow past the barriers erected by totalitarian or authoritarian governments 
    and around the gatekeepers of the mainstream media.
    So convinced was I of the potential of the Internet as a means of global 
    unregulated person-to-person communication that I spent the better part of 
    three years developing Speak Freely for Unix and Windows, a free (public 
    domain) Internet telephone with military-grade encryption. Why did I do it? 
    Because I believed that a world in which anybody with Internet access could 
    talk to anybody else so equipped in total privacy and at a fraction of the 
    cost of a telephone call would be a better place to live than a world 
    without such communication.
    Computers and the Internet, like all technologies, are a double-edged 
    sword: whether they improve or degrade the human condition depends on who 
    controls them and how they're used. A large majority of computer-related 
    science fiction from the 1950's through the dawn of the personal computer 
    in the 1970's focused on the potential for centralised 
    computer-administered societies to manifest forms of tyranny worse than any 
    in human history, and the risk that computers and centralised databases, 
    adopted with the best of intentions, might inadvertently lead to the 
    emergence of just such a dystopia.
    The advent of the personal computer turned these dark scenarios inside-out. 
    With the relentless progression of Moore's Law doubling the power of 
    computers at constant cost every two years or so, in a matter of a few 
    years the vast majority of the computer power on Earth was in the hands of 
    individuals. Indeed, the large organisations which previously had a near 
    monopoly on computers often found themselves using antiquated equipment 
    inferior in performance to systems used by teenagers to play games. In less 
    than five years, computers became as decentralised as television sets.
    But there's a big difference between a computer and a television set--the 
    television can receive only what broadcasters choose to air, but the 
    computer can be used to create content--programs, documents, images--media 
    of any kind, which can be exchanged (once issues of file compatibility are 
    sorted out, perhaps sometime in the next fifty centuries) with any other 
    computer user, anywhere.
    Personal computers, originally isolated, almost immediately began to 
    self-organise into means of communication as well as computation--indeed it 
    is the former, rather than the latter, which is their principal destiny. 
    Online services such as CompuServe and GEnie provided archives of files, 
    access to data, and discussion fora where personal computer users with a 
    subscription and modem could meet, communicate, and exchange files. 
    Computer bulletin board systems, FidoNet, and UUCP/USENET store and forward 
    mail and news systems decentralised communication among personal computer 
    users, culminating in the explosive growth of individual Internet access in 
    the latter part of the 1990's.
    Finally the dream had become reality. Individuals, all over the globe, were 
    empowered to create and exchange information of all kinds, spontaneously 
    form virtual communities, and do so in a totally decentralised manner, free 
    of any kind of restrictions or regulations (other than already-defined 
    criminal activity, which is governed by the same laws whether committed 
    with or without the aid of a computer). Indeed, the very design of the 
    Internet seemed technologically proof against attempts to put the genie 
    back in the bottle. "The Internet treats censorship like damage and routes 
    around it." (This observation is variously attributed to John Gilmore and 
    John Nagle; I don't want to get into that debate here.) Certainly, 
    authoritarian societies fearful of losing control over information reaching 
    their populations could restrict or attempt to filter Internet access, but 
    in doing so they would render themselves less competitive against open 
    societies with unrestricted access to all the world's knowledge. In any 
    case, the Internet, like banned books, videos, and satellite dishes, has a 
    way of seeping into even the most repressive societies, at least at the top.
    Without any doubt this explosive technological and social phenomenon 
    discomfited many institutions who quite correctly saw it as reducing their 
    existing control over the flow of information and the means of interaction 
    among people. Suddenly freedom of the press wasn't just something which 
    applied to those who owned one, but was now near-universal: media and 
    messages which previously could be diffused only to a limited audience at 
    great difficulty and expense could now be made available around the world 
    at almost no cost, bypassing not only the mass media but also crossing 
    borders without customs, censorship, or regulation.
    To be sure, there were attempts by "the people in charge" to recover some 
    of the authority they had so suddenly lost: attempts to restrict the 
    distribution and/or use of encryption, key escrow and the Clipper chip 
    fiasco, content regulation such as the Computer Decency Act, and the 
    successful legal assault on Napster, but most of these initiatives either 
    failed or proved ineffective because the Internet "routed around 
    them"--found other means of accomplishing the same thing. Finally, the 
    emergence of viable international OpenSource alternatives to commercial 
    software seemed to guarantee that control over computers and Internet was 
    beyond the reach of any government or software vendor--any attempt to 
    mandate restrictions in commercial software would only make OpenSource 
    alternatives more compelling and accelerate their general adoption.
    This is how I saw things at the euphoric peak of my recent optimism. Like 
    the transition between expansion and contraction in a universe with O 
    greater than 1, evidence that the Big Bang was turning the corner toward a 
    Big Crunch was slow to develop, but increasingly compelling as events 
    played out. Earlier I believed there was no way to put the Internet genie 
    back into the bottle. In this document I will provide a road map of 
    precisely how I believe that could be done, potentially setting the stage 
    for an authoritarian political and intellectual dark age global in scope 
    and self-perpetuating, a disempowerment of the individual which 
    extinguishes the very innovation and diversity of thought which have 
    brought down so many tyrannies in the past.
    One note as to the style of this document: as in my earlier Unicard paper, 
    I will present many of the arguments using the same catch phrases, facile 
    reasoning, and short-circuits to considered judgment which proponents of 
    these schemes will undoubtedly use to peddle them to policy makers and the 
    public. I use this language solely to demonstrate how compelling the 
    arguments can be made for each individual piece of the puzzle as it is put 
    in place, without ever revealing the ultimate picture. As with Unicard, I 
    will doubtless be attacked by prognathous pithecanthropoid knuckle-typers 
    who snatch sentences out of context. So be it.
    [remainder of a long document snipped]
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