Law in the Internet Society


-- By MattConroy - 01 Nov 2017

Cyber-peace is not about building a world with no hostility in the network. To attempt to do so is an Utopian dream doomed to failure. Instead, cyber-peace entails building a world where all acts of hostility in the network can be healed.

It would probably be worthwhile to define hostility. On one hand, a precise definition has the potential to be dangerous because giving solid boundaries to hostility imbues it with the power to go beyond those boundaries. On the other hand, no definition at all is also dangerous because what I see as hostile and what Uncle Xi sees as hostile are quite different. As a first-order approximation, let us say that hostility is the ability to use the network to control or ruin the lives of other people.

Social Networking

My roommate is one of my best friends and in the over five years we have known each other our computers have never had any direct communication. This is not to say they have never communicated, just that there has always been a man in the middle, often named Mark or Eric or Vladimir or Edward. At one level this is merely an observation that I am too lazy to configure batman-adv. But at a broader level I think it bodes poorly for how human relationships are developing. If two friends are in close proximity and yet will only talk with each other through an intermediary it usually means the friendship is on the rocks. This is the world that we have built for ourselves in the early 21st century. One where human relationships are on the rocks. Silicon Valley likes to think of itself as bringing the world closer together. This is not quite right. What the internet has done is to make the entire world equally far apart and then put a man in the middle of every single conversation. What if we changed that? What if our computers could organically talk to each other and build a community from the ground up instead of imposed from the top down by Google or Facebook?

This is not necessarily a novel idea. At the application level it feels very similar to something like Diaspora. However the physiology of the network does not seem to lend itself to Diaspora succeeding. The physiology needs to be a mesh instead of a tree. Having a mesh at the physical layer allows my Diaspora pod to connect with other Diaspora pods in close proximity by basically saying "Hi, I am new in school, can I sit at your table?" Then because our pods are sitting at the same table, the people are too and it allows community to flourish that way.

The ability to connect is only part of building community. You also have to have the ability to build trust. Trust involves repeated beneficial interactions and remembering them. This is where a distributed file system like IPFS can come in handy because part of the protocol is a blockchain which keeps track of how helpful each node has been on the network. This could be reconfigured to also keep track of how much to trust each node.

What Happened to Cyber-peace?

Community is the most effective way to provide healing after hostility. If someone tries to restrict my packets, I can send them through my neighbor. If I am hacked, my community can vouch for my identity as I try to put my life back together. If I am a minority and the government wants to crush me, my community can rally around me and force them to crush all of us.

This last one is I think the most powerful benefit of building an enmeshed and federated network. I have the enormous privilege of knowing that they will never come for me. This should not be a comfort. It should be a call to action. We can build a world where those of us with this privilege can use it to protect those who do not have it. As long as we stick together we have the ability to heal anything.

Crooked Timber of Humanity

WPA2 is insecure, and with it most of the wireless infrastructure. All defenses will eventually fall given enough time for hostility to operate. The problem then seems to be not that it is insecure, but that the infrastructure is ossified such that much of it cannot be changed or patched. Because of this,healing also requires the ability to evolve. There is not going to be a perfect mesh, nor will there be a perfect distributed file system. Indeed the combination of these innovations is not a panacea because they may not be able to respond to network hostility of which I cannot conceive.

In the struggle for the freedom of thought there will never be a moment where we have won. But with some clever engineering, we can reach a point where we have the ability to keep winning forever. It is true that out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever built. But beavers build effective structures out of crooked timber all of the time.


In Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder makes the provocative claim that the ultimate power of Hitler and Stalin was the ability to turn people into numbers, and that if we as historians cannot turn the numbers back into people then we have allowed them to define our humanity. Hostility on the network has not quite the same power, but the same sort of power. The methods are different. Network hostility cannot destroy life, but it can destroy everything that makes life worth living. We will always need to be able to turn the numbers back into people. This is a task that a computer cannot do. The computer can help, but at the end of the day it must be done by human beings. There must be a community to provide the healing.

This is an excellent essay for you to write for me, with no other reader and no one in the middle, commenting deeply and allusively on a conversation almost no one else is in, yet. You begin with what cyberpeace isn't, for example, which only helps the roughly six people on earth who have ever thought before about what it is, or might be.

As thinking rather than explaining, dialogue with me based on what you've been reading and how it added to what you already know---learning, in other words---it is awfully good.

So there are two different ways to make this better. You can decide to turn thinking into teaching: revise so that it is simpler, begins at the beginning, offers a reader who is new in school a way to sit at your table. Or you can commit further to the directness of the communication: you are writing only to those who want to follow your thinking, granting your premises and understanding your references, from batman to Berlin, from turning numbers into people to using blockchains to score helpfulness. That's not only me, but it's a small minority they're not yet coming for, to be sure.

In the second case, I would remove those several dozen words that such readers don't need in order to understand you, in order to have more space in which to push your "conclusion" closer to the exposition. What, to be precise, is "healing"? Is it possible that some middlethings are less harmful than others, because their functional goal is actually to connect people, rather than to collect behavior exhibited by connected people? Is our goal to prevent the numbering of the people in the first place, as King David the sexual harasser learned from his vindictive god? Does peace therefore lie in the direction of unmediated highly encrypted communication, stealth against the machine? Or is it possible to make the world "more open and connected" without enabling and encouraging hostility: is our present mess more a case of bad boys with bad business models? Might we be able to heal the Net without changing peoples' fundamental perception of "convenience" if we swapped out the Viet Cong and their investees for some other bunch of people moving less fast and breaking fewer things?



Webs Webs

r2 - 03 Dec 2017 - 16:04:40 - EbenMoglen
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