Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is The Internet A Suitable Security Blanket?

Over at ZeroHedge, Tyler Durden (via HuffPo) is carrying allegations that the authorities in Egypt have "shut off the internet" in that country ahead of coming mass protests. Reports by various international news agency personnel on the ground covering these developments also mention a shutting down of text messaging networks and other communication capabilities.

The implication is that this will provide cover for the regime to brutalize and control the populace without word of the atrocities spreading as much or as quickly. It would also impact the protesters and their ability to coordinate their efforts.

This development comes on the heels of numerous central governments around the world pushing private communication and data network providers to filter or otherwise give ultimate control over their content to the central governments in question. Whether it's initially asked for in the name of protecting the public morality (as in Indonesia) or defending the people from the scourge of terrorism, the potential for further abuse during times of social unrest is obvious and being demonstrated right now in Egypt.

Today, Gary North penned a column at LRC in which he opined:
There is no national leader who commands the charisma of a Hitler, a Churchill, or a Roosevelt. The Web makes it unlikely that anyone like those men will appear again. If they do, the Web will take them down several notches. The Web pops messianic bubbles very fast. The economy pops any who survive the Web's assault. This is positive.
Unfortunately for Gary, whose thoughts and writings I otherwise greatly respect and enjoy, his timing couldn't be worse.

What we're seeing in Egypt is that the internet is useless as a deterrent against tyrannical violence when the tyrants in question have the ability to just shut it down when they're ready to start acting ruthlessly. What good is a wireless nation and its mighty internet-wall when, on the eve of the revolution, its tablets and smartphones go blank?

And the flip side of Gary's viewpoint is perhaps even more threatening. I'm not about to lower the credibility of my own analysis by comparing Obama to Hitler, but while he's certainly no Churchill either -- that's not a compliment to any of the parties in question, by the way -- it's a well known fact that Obama hopes to emulate FDR, presidentially and politically, along with his grim fascination with other American stalwart tyrants like Lincoln. Did the internet stop Obama?

Nay, in fact, many claim it was the tool most useful in bringing him to power! The NYTimes claimed that in a JFK-esque fashion, Obama's internet campaign changed politics. The website InformationWeek claims Obama's election ushered in the first internet presidency. The UK's Guardian carried an opinion piece asserting that Obama's triumph was the first election the internet won (whatever the hell that means). And this isn't even a recent phenomenon-- as Wired observed, much of the excitement around Howard Dean had to do with his campaign's ability to harness the power of the internet for fund-raising and community organizing efforts on the campaign trail.

I don't mean to bad-mouth North, but I don't know how he missed this. Politicians control other people for a living. They work hard everyday to find newer, better and more efficient ways to control people. They didn't ignore the gun, the newspaper, the internal combustion engine, the radio, money or any other human technology that was originally developed to make our lives better and they won't and aren't ignoring the internet. Believing that we can all sit back, relax and never have to worry about the rise of tyrants and demagogues because we're in the New Era of the messianic-bubble popping internet is wishful thinking, at best.

And if your response to that is, "This is America, it can't happen here," I hate to be the one to pop your bubble of ignorance (gee, been on the internet lately?) but it already is:
President Obama is planning to hand the U.S. Commerce Department authority over a forthcoming cybersecurity effort to create an Internet ID for Americans, a White House official said, according to CBS News TechTalk.

It's [the Commerce Department] "the absolute perfect spot in the U.S. government" to centralize efforts toward creating an "identity ecosystem" for the Internet, White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt said.

The Obama administration is currently drafting what it's calling the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, which U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said will be released by the president in the next few months.

CBS goes on, "We are not talking about a national ID card," Locke said at the Stanford event. "We are not talking about a government-controlled system. What we are talking about is enhancing online security and privacy and reducing and perhaps even eliminating the need to memorize a dozen passwords, through creation and use of more trusted digital identities."

Don't believe this for a nanosecond.
More from Robert Wenzel on the subject here.

This is a trend, it's developing and it's a big one. You need to be wise to it. You better believe that if and when the revolution cometh, it will not be televised, radioed, YouTube'd, blogged, BlackBerry'd, iPhone'd or in any other way mass communicated without some serious lever-pulling intervention from the authorities along the way.

North's "have no fear" reasoning is unsound. His ultimate conclusion is not and I certainly think it's worth heeding:
Get out your map. Get out a pencil and a sheet of paper. Go through the exercise of Map-n-Go.


  1. I think this quote captures it all, and is accurate:

    "The Web pops messianic bubbles very fast. The economy pops any who survive the Web's assault."

    Yes, Dean and Obama harnessed the interweb, or so says the NYT. I think BHO's victory by a large margin had more to do with disgust over the previous regime. The birther movement would not have gained traction pre-internet. The populist anger at wall street would have been quelled already. Who benefited the most from the internet in the last election? I would say Ron Paul, and the libertarian movement in general.

    The problem is the internet kill switch/regulation. North's second sentence quoted above addresses this, but the problem is the economic benefits that favor internet-free economies taking over internet-censored economies can take many painful years to come about. Note, he does not use the word "quickly" in the second sentence. If the US does not "overdo" it with respect to internet censorship, it might not be enough of a productivity drain to incite populist anger and force change for years.

    The solution is a completely decentralized ad hoc wireless internet, which will be possible in as few as ten years. It would be subject to disruption, but it would be much more difficult than simply shutting off a switch, which is the case with a wired internet.

  2. BobE,

    I appreciate the comments. I don't think I articulated this well in my post but the "internet will protect us from tyrants" argument underestimates the role human psychology plays in politics. New developments in technology do not coincide with nor do they lead to new developments in human psychology, which is essentially a constant throughout history.

    I can't say I fully accept the mainstream line that the Obama is the first internet president or anything like that. It's probably closer to wishful thinking than anything else. I shared those viewpoints simply to point out that it's not so simple as the internet being a tyrant deterrent and nothing more. The elites can and will use technology like the internet to try to control the message and thereby control people.

    Desperate times call for desperate measures. The world's great political villains all come to power during times of great hardship and social strife. Despite what we've seen over the last couple of years, at least in the US we're nowhere near "tough times" and so I think it's a bit premature to claim that the internet will ensure we don't have to worry about the rise of charismatic dictators via the ebullient, deluded masses.

    I don't want to get into conspiracy theory here, by the way, but in most countries, including the US, the elites push for greater "access" to the internet for everybody, not less. There's probably more to that push than simply trying to win a few quick, cheap "underserved" votes.

  3. If your comment about human psychology being constant throughout history refers to the fact that the human brain has physiologically changed little over the last 5,000 or so years, I would largely agree, with the caveat that the opportunity to acquire knowledge at an early age (now, much more pervasive than prior) through observation and reading can change the physiological development of the brain. The "lizard brain" has not changed, however, and I suspect this is what you're referring to.

    People do not remain in extreme states of psychological distress (or euphoria, for that matter), and the ability for cognitive decision-making eventually returns after the brain adjusts to a "new normal". Not that people will thereafter make the decisions that best provide for their long term happiness, but that is the key difference with the internet. It largely removes the ability of the state to continuously rewrite history and bury stories, as a critical margin of people are not fooled by its antics and are there to remind everyone else of the "truth", even if this reminder is necessarily delayed.

    Even if every state on earth colluded to shut down the internet and erase the content from every web server, it would eventually be rebuilt and restored from private archives. I don't think this is a likely scenario.

    More likely is a licensing scheme, such as the national ID, that has a chilling effect, with an attempt to demonize any sites like EPJ and LRC after a false flag attack. As you point out, the state is pushing for universal internet access, which should be viewed with suspicion. It's MO is to give something out for "free" to encourage dependence and then be able to regulate and control it. Ultimately, though, unless control is absolute, it will not work, as the infrastructure of the internet does not allow for absolute control, even if the state controls the pipes (see Rise of the Stupid Network). The Chinese have tried this for years, and a critical margin still retains the ability to access the full internet.

    In the end, I don't see any of these methods succeeding for the state, though there is potential, and even likelihood of great pain for
    a few years in the US.

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