EXCLUSIVE: Eben Moglen says freedom depends on the Net

Beware of even democratic regimes which want to wiretap

By Eben Moglen
Published: Tuesday 15 March 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Eben Moglen says freedom depends on the Net

Our world is increasingly held together by the network of digital communications networks we call the Internet. Business, government, politics, science and the arts have all been fundamentally transformed by the fact that everyone’s connected to everyone else, everywhere, and no one needs to get permission to collaborate, trade, or create.

imageUsed at its best, in freedom, the Net can abolish ignorance and free the full power of human creativity and genius. Used at its worst, under forms of state control that well-intentioned public officials around the world are calling for, it can eradicate the very possibility of human freedom. What happens will depend entirely on what the citizens of democracies like India demand.

Governments are threatened, both rightly and wrongly, by what happens when everyone’s connected to everybody else. Rightly, because dangerous people will conspire, and anti-social and destructive acts will be undertaken that might otherwise be impossible to accomplish. Wrongly, because political dissent and legitimate movements for social change are enabled by the Net, like all other valuable forms of social expression, and governments will inevitably try to control such movements in ways that amount to tyranny.

Today, all around the world, governments are using their legitimate concerns about terrorism and crime as an excuse to control the Net. States as different as the US, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UK, France, as well as India, are trying to exercise unprecedented levels of power over the Net. They want to be able to conduct comprehensive surveillance of every packet passing through the Net, within or even outside their borders. That means the equivalent of listening to every telephone call, reading every email and SMS and recording every transfer of money or business transaction. But given the way we use the Net, it also means the equivalent of monitoring everyone’s television to see what they are watching at all times, as well as spying on everyone while they are reading every newspaper, magazine or book, noting every page they read and how long they spend reading it. Soon, as every mobile device has GPS inside, it will mean tracking every human being’s movements, too.

No government has ever had such control over the lives of its subjects in the history of the world. But every government that is currently seeking to be able to “wiretap” the Net is actually asking for technical facilities to be created, for ‘backdoors’ and holes to be opened in the facilities that make the Net, so as to permit all this monitoring, surveillance and control to be exercised anywhere, throughout society, at any time.

  If Net is state controlled, society risks conversion to totalitarianism if wrong forces gain power  
The way we secure privacy in the Net is to use “encryption”, which means to employ mathematical transformations to data that constitute emails, voice conversations, video streams and monetary transfers so that they can only be understood by their intended recipients.

All the governments that are now claiming, as the Government of India is claiming, the right to force breakage of encryption, so as, for example, to see the email and messages exchanged by corporate BlackBerry users, are literally demanding that nothing ever be private in the Net again. That no one will ever do anything anonymously, including read, speak or spend money. That there never will be secrets anymore.

And when government demands that encryption schemes be deliberately compromised, to facilitate government listening, it also means weaknesses are created that can be exploited by terrorists and hostile governments. In the end, government controls designed to fight terrorism, crime and international aggression will wind up furthering those evils as well as impeding them. Nothing will have changed. Except that freedom will be actually, or potentially, extinct.

We believe in the rule of law because it makes tyranny so much harder to achieve. Creeping despotism can be resisted, and even a state ruled by an unaccountable military can be forced to acknowledge the power of an independent judiciary. But once the Net is controlled, even by a legitimate democratic government, society risks an instantaneous conversion to totalitarianism if wrong forces gain power. It is useless for good governments to ask us for power to control the Net, promising us they will never misuse the power. Once gained, the power can be misused throughout society so terribly, and to such effect that the resulting despotism will be impossible to dislodge.

Rulers like the Chinese Communist Party, that unapologetically seek to ensure themselves a permanent monopoly of power, see clearly that they must control the Net. Citizens of every free society must just as clearly learn the opposite lesson: even if you approve of your present government, you must not give it control of the Net, because somewhere in the inevitable future a bad government will use the Net to destroy freedom in your society.

Eben Moglen is professor of law at Columbia University and chairperson of Software Freedom Law Center


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