They Call THIS the “Nuclear Option”?

The Laotian immigrants that I work with were streaming hip-hop songs from their native country today. Every so often a few recognizable syllables would sometimes rush past my ear in the torrent of Lao. It was a slang word popular with American rappers that begins with the letter “N”.

The significance of this story is that people will find unexpected uses for technology if there is some sort of reward. The Internet was originally intended for the fast transfer of data between scientists and engineers, yesterday it was used by my coworkers to stream crappy popular music from a dirt poor Communist state. If they decide to buy the CD, then both a Laotian rap group and the country’s economy will benefit from the influx of hard American dollars.

There is an anecdote about the beginnings of photography in the 1830’s. The story goes that the assistant of Louis Daguerre was caught by the police on a Paris street when he offered to sell naughty pictures to men passing by. The picture, so it is said, was of a woman making love to a horse.

The story above is very unlikely, not least because it would take about 30 minutes to gain an image on an exposed plate. (It’s almost impossible to get a horse to stand still that long even if there isn’t a crack whore in the stable with him.) But it does illustrate that humankind’s baser nature and inventive mind will immediately rush to find unforseen uses for new technology. It would be expected instead of surprising if I had said that the assistant was peddling nude pictures of prostitutes. The only reason why we scoff at the story above is due to the horse.

The reward that I want to talk about is filthy lucre. Daguerre’s mythical assistant wanted some immediate pocket change, but his boss made a mint taking photographs of well-to-do Parisans instead of draft animals. It took longer for the profits to come rolling in off of Internet use, and the results are more diffuse. This is to be expected since the World Wide Web was a cooperative effort involving many individuals and organizations, but most of the people who had a major hand in shaping the technology reaped a benefit.

Many countries are upset about how the United States dominates the Internet. They want us to give them some control, maybe even allow an international body decide on standards and practices. So far the US has stood firm, and rightly so. The big fear is that the greatest of our freedoms, particularly freedom of speech, will be compromised. There are already signs that the European Union is moving in a direction that many Americans would find repugnant in the extreme, and it’s important that control be denied to foreign bureacrats.

There has been some speculation that the Internet might become Balkanized. Different countries might create their own systems which would be incompatible with each other, isolating online users from the outside world. Most people see this in a negative light, referring to this outcome as the “nuclear option”.

I don’t know about that. Technology is driven by many factors, but an application leaps ahead of all rivals when there is money to be made. The flow of cash is going to be seriously hindered if people have limited options on the goods and services they can pay for, and if they realize that the government has a record of every purchase and keystroke. Since the EU has spent years working on censoring content and gathering data about every online page viewed, I think it’s obvious that their system will drag to a crawl in short order.

So if it comes down to them against us, I know which horse I’m going to bet on.

(I originally posted this on my own blog, but decided to reproduce it here in order to hear what all of you technical and financial whiz kids thought of my conclusions.)

5 thoughts on “They Call <i>THIS</i> the “Nuclear Option”?”

  1. I absolutely agree that it is by no means obvious that a single, internationalized compromise internet would be superior to a “balkanized” internet. And while I suspect the recent clash over ICANN and domain directories is a tempest in a teapot, it seems obvious to me that governments DO control the internet to the extent that they have legal authority over the routers and servers in their sovereign territory. Our uncensored cooperative internet has arisen because everybody is buying switches from the same vendors that play by the same v1.0 rules, and that is bound to change as governments become aware of the power and control possibilities.

    When Phil Zimmermann developed his PGP encryption software, he envisioned the routine use of encryption on all e-mail, not just “sensitive” messages. If all people are sending post cards, then the guy who uses an envelope stands out; but if many people use an envelope, then all benefit from safety in numbers.

    I know I’m late to the cryto-party, but it strikes me that routine, ubiquitous encryption is the single best hope of mitigating the coming threats to freedom on the internet. If a large portion of internet traffic is encrypted and otherwise anonymized with address indirection etc…, then incremental censoring and snooping methods will be more difficult. If the more free countries are generating large volumes of encrypted, white noise-like internet traffic, then the less free countries will have to make all-or-nothing decisions and reject large domain swathes in order to block “illicit” material. This would alter the calculus of packet sniffing and data-logging, unless the freer countries caved and agreed to odious countervailing legislation, such as are certain to be instigated by any international internet governance body.

    It seems like a grass-roots movement to encrypt everyday web traffic would be a great step in this direction. Would existing security protocols like SSL even begin to serve this purpose? Are there blogging tools that can incorporate SSL?

  2. If I can’t get to websites in Zimbabwe or Myanmar, I guess I can get by. If they can’t get to US websites, well, that sounds like it’s more of a problem for them than it is for me.

    Imagine that some country decided that they will release no more DVDs and that all their
    videos will appear in Betamax format. Furthermore, all DVDs and DVD players will be banned and they will allow only Betamax VCRs in their country. This is a problem for whom?

    Guess what will be smuggled into that country.

  3. WSJ had an interesting article Friday how our big boys and slowing down file swapping and net phone calls.

    Well, interesting to me since I’m not in the biz.

  4. I’ve never felt there was much to argue on this issue. If anyone, including the USA, wants to ban bomb-making or assination or terrorist supporting websites, I really have no problem with that. That is not, however, what this argument is about. One needs only to look at the China example to see where many governments (including some in the EU, I suspect) wish to go with their “controls”.

    This argument is not about national security. It’s about free speech. Many governments don’t want their citizens seeing certain statistics, hearing certain ideas, exposed to unfiltered news. It’s that simple. If Europe or Syria or Zimbabwe wish to disconnect themselves for the US internet, let them. But I’ll be damned if I’ll agree to giving them an up or down vote on what will be allowed to be published or discussed in the US of A.

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