Re: George Orwell marries Ayn Rand

Date: Thu Feb 08 2001 - 14:04:54 MST

Robin writes, regarding the cypherpunk concept of undermining
the state via online communications:
> I don't think this will work. See:
> Whether physical control is extended into the virtual world seems a tossup.

I need to give credit to Robin for discussing this collision between
less privacy in the physical world and potentially more privacy online,
long before my article. I think I was unconsciously borrowing from his
analysis when I wrote mine.

Robin is pessimistic about the more extreme variants on the cypherpunk
model, as where someone works online in virtual reality but maintains
anonymity via technical means (filters to change appearance and
mannerisms, cryptography and mixes to hide message paths). He points out
the many subtle ways in which information can leak between virtual and
physical identities, and also notes that the technology for anonymous
online communication depends ultimately on equipment in the physical
world, where it can be restricted.

I don't know how far it will go, but I think we will begin to see
movement towards online anonymity (of which there has been little so
far). One motivation will be the new online file sharing technologies
like Napster. Napster users have been identified and sanctioned (so
far just by being banned, but in principle they could be prosecuted).
Future systems are attempting to build in more privacy so that people
can participate anonymously. We also have had a number of cases in
which people got in trouble for bulletin board postings, and it may be
that people will learn that you should never post anything on a system
where your identity can be tracked, if you don't want to be sued.
These factors will provide gentle social pressure to push us towards
adoption of anonymity technologies.

However it is a long way from that to a cypherpunk-style collapse of
governments. Still I think it will be important for there to be continued
social acceptance and recognition of the value of anonymity and privacy.

Freedom of communications is crucially important in a world where
physical privacy is greatly reduced. We have seen many times that
control of the press and of the flow of information is a necessary part
of a despotic state. With an unfettered internet free of state control
there is no way that an unpopular government can retain legitimacy.
(This is why China is so threatened by the net, and I believe that this
technology will ultimately play an important role in changing China over
the next couple of decades.)

So what I expect is that we will continue to have democratic governments
much as we have today, implementing degrees of restrictiveness that match
majority desires. The cameras aren't going to go away, but we won't
see an Orwellian dictatorship. We will have public monitoring, but it
will be used to enforce laws which are supported by a populace which is
fully informed of their effects and engages in vigorous public debate.

We will have strong and effective laws against violent crime. Whether
victimless crimes like prostitution and drug use are enforced will
depend on the majority views. As evidence is gathered and digested,
the public will come to adopt informed opinions on whether criminalizing
these practices does harm or good.

In the online world, I believe that the use of anonymity and pseudonyms
will become commonplace and accepted. Few will attempt to reach
cypherpunk levels of paranoia, and most people will be comfortable with
their real-life friends learning their online identities (most of them
anyway...). Rather than destroying governments as in the cypherpunk
model, I see the net as exerting a moderating influence. As long as
people are able to talk freely and know what is going on in the world
around them, they will be able to keep control over the state.


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