So earlier this week I posted about the Stop Online Piracy Act, on why it won’t work to stop piracy (you can circumvent it in about 5 minutes), and why the technical requirements it’s demanding are bad for the security of the Internet.
A friend of mine has been enjoying the dinner-table-politicking that everyone tells you you’re supposed to avoid that you wind up doing anyway (Happy Chanukah!) and a family member of his made the statement during such an argument that filtering the Internet, in general, is a good idea. In talking about this with him, the wheels started turning in my head about what context this non-technical relative was probably missing before making that statement. I’m not going to argue with the statement that filtering the Internet is or isn’t a good idea, but I want to provide a little bit more context to what that means in a technical sense and provide a reason that this is a hard decision that most non-geeks probably haven’t considered.
So, for this thought experiment, let’s say that the US government passes SOPA2, a bill that allows the government to filter the Internet effectively (which, as I pointed out last week, SOPA doesn’t do). In this imaginary world, the US government has a full on government filtering policy, a la the Great Firewall of China or many of these countries. And, of course, our filter is only used to block things like pirated content or child pornography, but not to block things like search queries for “Tiananmen Square.”
As part of SOPA2, US citizens are banned from trying to circumvent the filtering mechanisms - it only makes sense, right? Not only do we have barbed wire fences to stop people crossing borders illegally, we also tell the citizens that it’s illegal to try to climb them. So the law is a combination of technical mechanism (a fence or filter) + public policy (that you’re not allowed to try to get around it). [*]
Here’s the wrench in that story that you might not have known about, though. For over the last ten years, the United States Navy has invested in anti-Internet filtering technology called Tor. Tor is commonly used by dissidents in some of the world’s most free-speech-oppressive countries to anonymously browse the Internet and circumvent national filters. Tor volunteers give workshops to journalists and political activists heading in to wiretapping, filtering countries (think China, Iran, and some of the US’s other best pals).
And here’s the tough choice I think everyone should think about: Tor (and other technologies) can be used to circumvent filters in other countries, including our imaginary SOPA2 United States which only filters pirated content and child porn, but doesn’t suppress free speech otherwise. The technology is agnostic to what you use it for. It gets around Internet filters, but whether you’re looking for documents on the UN Declaration of Human Rights (banned in your country) or pirated media (banned in your country), the technology can’t tell the difference. It will help you do either. All such technology will fundamentally suffer from this downfall.
So, you have two options on your hands:
- Continue to invest in and allow Americans to build anti-circumvention technology, knowing that to do so puts tools in to the hands of thieves, child pornographers, and the like to commit theft and abuse over the Internet.
- Cease to invest in anti-circumvention technology and ban American’s from contributing to it, knowing that to do so removes a valuable tool from the hands of the oppressed to exercise their free speech, leaving them once again vulnerable to imprisonment, torture, etc for speaking their minds.
I’m not going to argue what you should choose, but know that you are making this choice and that there’s no way around it.