The Thinker

The libertarianism in the Internet

It can be dangerous when politicians open their mouths. In the case of Donald Trump, it’s because he spews hatred and racism and has gathered support from a lot of dittoheads for doing so. But in one way both he and Hillary Clinton have something in common: they don’t really understand the Internet. It would have been wise to defer saying anything at all when you really don’t know what you are talking about.

Trump’s mistake was saying that he was open to closing parts of the Internet as part of the war on the Islamic State, a war that has never been officially declared. I can give Trump only half a demerit because he was prompted by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s question, which asked if he would do this, and it’s really a trick question. If Trump knew what he was talking about he’d have said, “Well, of course that’s not possible.” Hillary Clinton opened her mouth a bit too wide in last Saturday’s debate she said that some sort of Manhattan-like project could allow the government to decrypt messages while ensuring everyone’s privacy. But at least she said, “I don’t know enough about the technology”. So a point to her for honesty.

If you want to kill the Internet, kill all the people. Even that won’t work immediately. All those routers would still be moving data around, but no one would be around to read any of it so it would effectively be dead. Why is this? It’s because the Internet was designed to be resilient and effectively unstoppable. What secret communist organization was responsible for such a nefarious deed? Why, that would be the United States Department of Defense. More specifically, it was DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known back in the 1960s when it was creating the Internet as ARPA.

And it made sense. At that time, the Internet was not envisioned to be a global network for just anyone, but it was designed to make sure that defense establishments and universities doing defense work could chat with each other electronically and move files around this way. The architecture that was designed ensured that if one path between sender and receiver was down or slow, some other path would be chosen instead. The message had to get through. On the plus side, at least in its initial phases, the Internet was all plain text. Encryption was not a worry because it was not a classified network, but where it was a worry secure lines were leased from the telephone company.

Today’s Internet is basically the old ARPANet’s infrastructure from the 1970s open to everyone. Everyone used it because it was the only model out there but also because it was noncommercial and standards-based. Some private networks from the distant past you may remember tried to do something similar: Compuserve and AOL were two that discovered it could not compete with the awesomeness of the real Internet, once people could access it.

We can’t shut down the Internet on the Islamic State. We can certainly make it more difficult but alas, as the Internet has evolved, so too have the ways to transmit and receive signals. In the old ARPA days I’m pretty sure the only way was to lease lines from AT&T. Today the Internet goes across virtually all data networks. Shut down the Islamic State’s landlines and they will use cell towers. Take down cell towers and maybe they will use microwave relays or satellite dishes. Take down the dishes and they can use portable satellite phones. In any event there are plenty of IS-related terrorists not actually in the Islamic state and they can chat between themselves, it’s just that they will have an easier time of it than those in the Islamic State.

Those of you out there wondering what a libertarian world might look like can see it in the Internet. The Internet excels at fast and disparate information sharing. It also excels in being able to get its messages through come hell, high water or terrorists. No one back in the 1960s could project what the Internet would morph into, but it was all based on protocols that from day one were open and designed to move data quickly. These protocols can be changed, but only in an evolutionary manner if they become a consensus adaptation. Even so, the old protocols will continue to traverse the Internet and all that is needed is the software to send or receive Internet Protocol (for packets) and Transmission Control Protocol (for a message made up of packets). And TCP/IP protocol is built into virtually every computer that communicates with another computer, not to mention all the switches and routers between sender and receiver.

Obviously this architecture has some problems, which are not problems if you are a libertarian. You want the free flow of information and you don’t want government controlling or monitoring it. The good part is the enormous amount of information sharing that occurs that makes our lives such much more interesting and rewarding. The bad side is it empowers terrorists, child pornographers and general criminals to do the same thing.

As for encryption, this is not something where you can have your cake and eat it too. The NSA cleverly put in encryption backdoors into products sold by most of these encryption devices. The encryption industry is now onto this. Tech savvy criminals have already found solutions like OpenPGP, which can likely keep the NSA from eavesdropping, at least in real-time. The government is getting better and faster at decrypting messages by throwing massive parallel computers to decrypt them. Moore’s Law is making it possible to decrypt almost any message without waiting for days, months or years for an answer. Obviously the NSA needs to be pretty selective when they throw these sorts of resources onto decrypting a message.

There is no “let’s have our cake and eat it too” solution to decrypting intercepted messages in real-time. The NSA with its private-key backdoors already tried it, but that’s not an issue if you use devices that don’t have these backdoors. Like it or not, the Internet is must-have technology and it will be used for purposes both good and bad. There is no tech fix to these problems.

However, a social strategy will help somewhat. Encouraging good citizens to rat on their fellow citizens they suspect of illegal use of the Internet is probably the only pragmatic way to address this issue. In that sense, the libertarians, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, have already won.


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