Sterling's "The Ecuadorian Library" vs civil liberties groups



Extra credit, of course, should be awarded for starting an essay that contains that paragraph with a picture of Richard Stallman, who has only been tirelessly (and, generally, correctly) telling a mostly hostile audience that technology they don’t control will control them since, oh, 1984 or so…

Now, it is true that Snowden provided one piece that the EFF/ACLU/etc. effort has been without until now: standing, and a potential end-run around ‘state secrets’ shutdowns. Almost without exception, all the various cases involving surveillance have hit the wall of either “Well, you don’t have standing unless you can prove that you were a surveilled party, and whatever surveillance isn’t happening is secret, so you can’t prove it.” or “Regardless of the merit of any claims in this case, zOMG STATE SECRETS!”

With fairly conclusive evidence that everyone, more or less, has standing, and that the secrets are…um…less secret than they might be… the bullshit that the courts have been feeding them for years might now become untenable.

(Edit: one arguable point of naivete; but not surveillance-related, is among the cypherpunks and crypto-utopians who didn’t see locked bootloaders, application signing, and ‘Trusted Computing’ on the horizon…)


Kill yr idols

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You go Cory! Thank You!


Thank you, Cory.

“The Internet was popularized by starry-eyed utopians who thought that
technology would only liberate and never enslave. These people never
anticipated that some day, governments and crooks would seize control
of the network and use it to spy upon, compromise and prey upon the
powerless at unimaginable scale. Today, as governments and criminals
converge on the Internet as a convenient way of watching everyone all
the time, it’s time to realize that these cyber-utopians were naive
fools, who should never have been given a hearing.”

One thing that troubles me: using a technological determinist stance in such an absolute and unbalanced way. For example, while I think it is technologically determined that there are going to be problems selling content digitally - it’s an analog business model predicated on the reproduction of noise - it is not impossible. It’s not absolutely determined. We do sell content. We have a culture of paid content.

Similarly, the transparency the digital network brings is not absolute, and ultimately, the degree of transparency is a social and political issue, not a technological one. We could create a world where people had a high degree of privacy and institutions like government were much more transparent. This is the democratic option. Or we can negotiate a world where governments and multinational corporations demand privacy (secrecy) and citizen-consumers are entirely transparent (surveillance). The technology determines both scenarios partially and equally. There is nothing absolute or inevitable about it.


I would argue that the “innocence” of the initial Internet/ARPAnet developers was fundamentally intact until the appearance of the Morris worm in 1988. That was, IMHO, the event that made the quantum leap from boys-will-be-boys practical jokes with ‘finger’ to malicious attacks on otherwise anonymous and unremarkable systems. It was, in a sense, a right of passage from school-boy pranks to young hoodlum violence.

We (I was already 15 years into a computing career) were unprepared conceptually for that event, in spite of the cautionary tales provided by speculative fiction since at least the 1960s. In 1988, there was no concern about NSA “spying” on U.S. network activity, there wasn’t enough of that to be concerned about and we didn’t have the hardware, software, or theoretical basis for dealing with even that modest information flow. The “Rainbow Series” was the state-of-the-art in computer security research. The last thing we, as early-80s techno-nerds , were concerned about was the philosophical implications of data mining, when the concept itself didn’t even yet exist.

Stallman has certainly been an advocate of open software since that time, but I would appreciate, if only to round out my education, links or citations to works concerning U.S. govt. presence in a surveillance role over the Internet. And in response to the observation “one arguable point of naivete; but not surveillance-related, is among the cypherpunks and crypto-utopians who didn’t see locked bootloaders, application signing, and ‘Trusted Computing’ on the horizon…”, I will note that Vernor Vinge, in the 1981 novella “True Names” (arguably the great grand daddy of cyberpunk and the concept of virtual reality), expressed a very real warning about the problems inherent in ubiquitous govt. surveillance of activity on “The Other Plane”.

Having been weaned on “The Federalist Papers” and “Common Sense”, I have long maintained a deep skepticism of government intrusion into personal life, but I cannot fault our Cold War indoctrination that technology would provide the answer to all our sociological problems. It was what it was, but it does not prevent us from moving beyond it to a more holistic view of our world.

Geek points for the first person who can provide a contextual citation for “notched electrons” as an information storage mechanism.

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When Bruce Sterling talks about the naivete of the creators of the net, technology utopians, etc. he’s just projecting. Back in 2008 he was talking up the idea of putting RFIDs into all our products – ALL OF THEM. When asked about the danger of the RFIDs being used for nefarious purposes, he responded that it wasn’t a problem because we live in a democracy and we can keep the government from tracking us. He doesn’t deny that there is a huge threat, but he just acts as if it isn’t a problem.

I can’t remember the original video with Bruce Sterling that I was responding to, and YouTube has taken down the links that said “this video is in response to” since then. There are a lot of videos of him talking about how great “spimes” are. Here’s one from around that time:

And here is my response to him then:


Regarding the question of earlier statements in the press and on the Internet about the government spying on the Internet in general, yes, I do remember quite a bit of that being discussed. It was an issue that we discussed in the Poli-Sci: Internet and Government class I TA’d in 1995, for heaven’s sake! Mind you, at that point there weren’t many people ON the Internet, but it was generally considered a pretty good probability that any International traffic on the 'Net was being monitored even back then.

Also, who else remembers the news back in 2007 or 2008 about some company owned by the CIA purchasing some minority stake in Facebook. 2008, I think it was. I remember reading about it while sitting at my desk at work, possibly right here on BoingBoing, but I’m not certain of that. And in 2009, Wired ran this article about the CIA buying a stake in In-Q-Tel for social media spying purposes.

So, yeah, the idea that the government really is looking over our shoulder is not new, and was not confined to the conspiracy theorists even before the recent leaks.

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But the reality is that the world of civil libertarians and
cyber-activists has been defined, since its very earliest days, by the
fear that technology would be used for authoritarian purposes and
crime. The crypto wars – EFF’s origin story – were all about
that fear.

The EFF was founded by Mitch Kapor, John Perry Barlow, and John Gilmore in 1990 in response to concerns raised by Kapor and Barlow being visited (independently and separately) by FBI agents investigating the purported theft of Apple computer ROM code. They became concerned by the investigating agents’ ignorance of computer and communications technology and believed that there was a threat to civil liberties in the nascent internet. The EFF’s first major campaign was related to the Secret Service raid on the offices Steve Jackson Games and Operation Sundevil (and other state and federal raids on suspected ‘hackers’ which were the subject of Stirling’s 1992 book “The Hacker Crackdown”). The Bernstein case was EFF’s second major case.

Organizations like EFF and FSF, publications like 2600, and numerous individual writers, activists, and private citizens have raised the specter of government overreach and intrusion into the private lives of individuals time and again for many years. But for long periods of time in the past decade these concerns have been overshadowed by concerns over ‘Net Neutrality’, copyright and patent law, privacy abuses by commercial organizations, and many other issues which have taken the spotlight away from the issue of government surveillance. While Stirling’s words are, perhaps, over broad and leave out many of the surveillance related incidents (all too often buried by news of the latest Facebook/Google/Microsoft/Apple product or announcement) the general point is fairly accurate: for the past several years the issue of pervasive surveillance of the people by the government has been forgotten or lost in the fervor of issues central to speech, copyright and patent law, and Net Neutrality.

So who ever said it was impossible? A lot of us say things like, “It’s impossible to stop people who don’t want to pay from getting it for free, so you should focus on carrots (better fidelity, more friendly offers) not sticks (DRM).” I don’t know anyone who says it’s impossible to sell digital goods in the 21st century. Such a statement would be obvious nonsense.


“What about those truly ferocious coders who wrote Stuxnet, burned up Iranian atomic factories with raw malware, and who have never been glimpsed since? They’re a hundred times scarier than the kindly and gentlemanly NSA.”

Sterling also appears not to have noticed Snowden’s (fairly credible) claim that Stuxnet was, in part, written by NSA employees. It’s pretty writing, but he really needed to do some more research.

Sorry - to clarify. No one says it’s impossible. Most people think selling digital content is a natural progression from selling analog content: nothing changes, the only problem is cultural (piracy) and the solutions are legislation and hobbling hardware. I’m saying this is wrong. Digital technology doesn’t naturally lend itself to selling content like analog media did because computers copy to function, and a digital copy is really a clone, ie. there is no reproduction loss. As you say, the approach must change.

I brought this up as an example of something that is technologically determined - in contrast to surveillance, which is only as technologically determined as transparent government and institutions are. I did this because I’m concerned we don’t start thinking surveillance represents some kind of essential aspect to the internet that only smart and cynical NSA types can see clearly. That’s bullshit. Turning the surveillance around on government institutions is just as technologically determined. The end of secrets is just as likely as the end of privacy.

The reason I talk about technological determinism is it clarifies the essential differences between analog and digital media. I constantly encounter clients who are encouraged by marketing institutions to think mass media rules apply to the internet, ie. whoever has the most money buys the most attention. It makes thinking very confused and counter-productive.

Well Sterling’s essay is as entertaining and well-written as one would expect, but what his argument basically boils down to is this: We’re already living in a totalitarian science-fiction dystopia, a surveillance state where venal, but essentially powerless, politicians are bought and sold by the super-rich and the mulitnationals and the people are kept quiet on bread, circuses, and the illusion of democracy. Meanwhile, the only opposition to this state of affairs is being run by ineffectual nerdy weirdos like Stallman and Assange (and Cory and the EFF …), and anyone who gets close to causing damage to the Surveillance State can expect to be ruthlessly crushed. So we might as well all laugh at the absurdity of it all, like they do in Russia, and go back to our 24/7-piped-porn.

Boiled down to its essence, Sterling’s argument is a manifesto for self-congratulatory cynicism. The reality, however, is much more nuanced. Democracy is weakened, but not dead. The cyberworld is infected, but not controlled. Dissent is marginalised, but still possible. In other words, things aren’t yet so bad that we have an excuse for doing nothing.


sorry guys. much as i hate to take sides when one of my top ten all time authors criticizes another in the top ten, the fact is Cory attacked a strawman. it’s not that EFF is not active, but they are active in a world where the odds are stacked against them. Sterling’s main point was Wikileaks helped Snowden in a practical way where EFF (and many many many others) were not able to. Best line in the piece, was about Assange staking out the high ground ten years ago. Now look around at the fallout of the Obama/NSA crew flailing about- evacuating embassies, killing a bunch of Yemenia losers, announcing today a new policy to be sure citizens are protected (so obviously they weren’t before). They are behind the curve and they know it.

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