The Futility of Digital Censorship

A fictional look at governments' desperate efforts to restrict the flow of information on the Internet


The following is an excerpt from Ramez Naam's novel Nexus, dramatizing the futility of government attempts to stop the spread of a new drug once the knowledge of how to make it gets on the Internet. The drug in question allows human beings to link their minds together.

The battle over distribution of the Nexus 5 files lasted just under 31 hours. It began at 2:21 p.m. EST on Sunday, April 29. An anonymous slate connected to an ASIACOM Net access satellite began uploading large compressed packages to file-sharing services around the world, posting them to bulletin boards, distributing links to prominent news sites and scientific paper exchanges worldwide. Automated censor daemons in the United States detected the new files and noted their linkage to terms on the daemons' watch-lists and the speed with which the files were spreading.

They alerted their human operators and instituted temporary blocks of the files at the North American Electronic Shield firewall. Fifteen miles south of Baltimore, at Fort George G. Meade Army Base, National Security Agency on-call supervisors started seeing alerts from their daemons. Someone was distributing files that claimed to show how to synthesize Nexus 3 and how to convert that into Nexus 5. Daemons were instructed to disrupt transfer of the files worldwide. A supervisor flagged the event and forwarded it to the International Clearing House on Global Technological Threats.

Systems in Europe, China, Russia, Japan, India, and 80 other nations received bulletins instantly. Many of them were already aware of the outbreak and had initiated their own measures. Across two-thirds of the Internet nodes on the planet, propagation of the files halted. Supervisors congratulated themselves. Fast action and international cooperation had saved humanity from a posthuman threat once again.

At 3:38 p.m. EST, a teenager in Portland, Oregon—who'd downloaded the files before the interdiction—repackaged and reposted them to a peer-to-peer sharing site with a new name, "Badass Neuro Shit You Should Check Out from Axon and Synapse." The name referred to the credited authors of the neural software contained in several of the files. Other users of the peer-sharing service began downloading it, distributing the files to their computers, which in turn offered it up to others.

At 4:08 p.m. EST, the files were cross-posted to a San Francisco music fanlist with the comment "Is this the same as DJ Axon? Is this really how you make Nexus?" Daemons that had found no new copies of the files in more than an hour took notice of this new distribution.

The daemons logged the new file signatures, used emergency privileges to access the internal systems of every bandwidth provider in the United States, and added the file signatures to the block list. The signatures were broadcast immediately to cooperating agencies worldwide, all of which invoked similar powers. Spread of the data was once again halted. At least 450 computers, slates, and phones around the world had downloaded the files. Supervisors paged managers, picked up the phone to confer with their peers in other countries. Emergency staff were called to the office. Other filtering and blocking priorities were lowered to make room for more CPU cycles and more human eyes on this issue.

Access to neuroscience papers and health articles mentioning the synapses or axons of neurons became spotty. Emails, texts, and online posts mentioning those terms and others began to bounce mysteriously, or disappear silently, never to reach their intended targets.

At 6:11 p.m. EST an adult film star sunning herself in Miami, in the late stages of what had been an epic weekend bender, posted that she'd always wanted to experience what her lovers felt when they fucked her and maybe this would do the trick. She posted a link to the banned files. In the next three minutes, 48,000 of her fans clicked the link, only to find their requests denied.

A few hundred continued to search, found other links to a claimed Nexus 5 download, found that absolutely none of them worked, and began to speculate as to why. Their speculations in turn began to be rejected by their Net providers or to disappear from the Net soon after posting, fueling more and more speculation.

At 9:44 p.m. EST, conspiracy sites hosted in Mexico began to post that U.S. censors were blocking a new set of terms and files on the net. Civil libertarians forwarded the posts aggressively.

By 10:30 p.m. EST, daemons and supervisors at the NSA had identified and put down more than 80 new distributions of the original files, each of them using a new name to describe the contents and changing compression or file length to change the file signatures in an attempt to confuse automated censors. Daemons were given broad discretion to filter first, ask questions later. NSA officials were cautiously optimistic. The files were spreading, but slowly. Nexus 5 had not gone viral. They could contain this.

That optimism lasted nearly nine hours. At 7:28 a.m. EST Monday morning, daemons began reporting dozens of suspected new hits at various confidence levels, then thousands of suspected new hits, each with a different file name and signature.

A previously unknown hacker named Mutat0r had taken the original package and mutated it into a plethora of new variants; adding new and irrelevant files; reordering the existing files; padding out the beginning or end with texts from the Bible, the Congressional Register, random sites on the Web; and recompressing the package using thousands of different combinations of parameters.

Each member of the new generation had a new name, sometimes nonsensical, often misspelled, with new characters inserted, characters deleted, synonyms and slang and numbers substituted for original terms, words reordered. Each had a new file signature.

Tens of thousands of compromised machines began to spew the files out, emitting more than a million unique packages. They hit peer-sharing sites, media sites, news sites, scientific paper repositories; sent emails to anyone who'd posted on various science or drug related sites; and more. Filter daemons caught well over 90 percent of them. Tens of thousands still got through.

Each downloaded package unleashed a new generation of distribution packages upon opening. The Net was soon awash in new mutants descended from the variants that made it past the filter daemons. Some variants prompted the users who'd downloaded the package to enter new filenames to add to the next generation. Evolution and human cleverness were cast against filter daemon cleverness. Bit by bit, crowdsourced evolution pulled ahead.

 NSA agents were slow to grasp the enormousness of the new outbreak. When they did, they pulled the plug on all peer-sharing traffic within the United States, started to systematically sandbox any computer identified as a source of the new infection, and used backdoors in email systems to try to filter out new generations of the files.

It was too late. By then the files and the code to make new pseudo-randomized generations had reached more than 30,000 systems, worldwide. Within the United States the NSA's efforts barely held back the wave of propagation. In Mexico, in Uzbekistan, in Brazil, in Algeria, in Turkey, in Croatia, in Kenya, in Indonesia, in South Africa, in Vietnam, in dozens of other countries, Nexus 5 spread like wildfire.

American, Chinese, European, and Indian authorities waged a coordinated fight against the outbreak for another 14 hours. They used previously hidden backdoors in foreign systems to install filters against the files, deployed massive botnets to take down servers hosting the files, yanked Internet address allocations from particularly troublesome regions, sent whole parts of the global net dark for hours.

Businesses stalled. Stock markets crashed. Traffic jams erupted as smart routing turned dumb. Power grids went haywire. Automated factories and trains shut themselves down. Pilots took manual control of errant aircraft, swamping the few human air traffic controllers with the flood of requests for instructions. It wasn't enough. Every hour more variants of the package appeared, mutated, replicated.

At 9:08 p.m. EST on Monday, the NSA declared failure to control the propagation of the files outside the United States, sending home the exhausted staff who'd been fighting the infestation for nearly 31 hours. Around the world, tens of thousands of people wondered about this new thing called Nexus 5. Within days, hundreds of them had tried it.  

NEXT: Andrew Napolitano Asks: What if Thanksgiving Exposes the Government?

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  1. “Yo, here’s one digit you *didn’t* censor!”

    1. The reality is that while *something* always gets through, in most cases censorship, particularly when applied under the best legal pretexts, is an extremely effective way of suppressing the free flow of information that is inappropriately embarrassing to well-connected members of the community.

      For an excellent illustration of how this works in the United States, consider the wonderful success that prosecutors have had in their efforts to criminalize ill-conceived satire, whether it takes place in the “street” or on the Internet. This is the way it goes in Mississippi, where police are hunting for the author of “parody” tweets inappropriately mocking a politician, and in New York, where they recently hunted down and arrested an artist named Essam Attia, who created fake “NYPD drone” ads, an inappropriate act of political satire. NYC prosecutors have also instigated ongoing proceedings against an academic whistle-blower who sent out “Gmail confessions” inappropriately mocking a well-connected university department chairman. For documentation, see:

    2. Google is paying 75$/hour! Just work for few hours & spend more time with friends and family. On sunday I bought themselves a Alfa Romeo from having made $5637 this month. its the best-job Ive ever had.It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out

  2. Obama uses the G-word in Thanksgiving proclamation – “we rise or fall as one Nation, under God.”…..g-day-2013

    1. Of course, by “God”, he was just translating, in his head, into English, “Allah, ar-Rachman, ar-Ramin, al-Malik, +97 more

      1. [offensive comment deleted]

      2. No, he mentally translated it as “The President.”

  3. There are so many real stories of this to choose from, why go into fiction?

    1. Why not go into fiction? Narratives help us to understand reality. They are useful even in the hardest of hard sciences to make the point clear.

      I can show an example how story-telling is the only way those of us who are not hyper literate in mathematics can grasp the contradictions of modern physics. Here’s an excerpt from the recent film A Serious Man, one of the better efforts of the Coen brothers.

      Clive is a foreign student from Korea, failing in physics.
      Dr. Gopnik is his teacher, the serious man.

      Gopnik: Oh, Clive, come in.
      So, what can I do for you?

      Clive: Dr Gopnik, I believe the results
      of the physics midterm
      were unjust.

      Gopnik: Uh-huh? How so?

      Clive: I received
      unsatisfactory grade.
      In fact, F,
      the failing grade.

      Gopnik: Yes. You failed the midterm.
      That’s accurate.

      Clive: Yes, but that is not just.
      I was unaware to be
      examined on the mathematics.

      Gopnik: Well, you can’t do physics without
      mathematics, really, can you?

      Clive: If I receive the failing
      grade, I lose my scholarship,
      and I feel shame.
      I understand the physics.
      I understand the dead cat.

      Gopnik: But you can’t really
      understand the physics
      without understanding
      the math.
      The math tells how it really
      works That’s the real thing.
      The stories I give you in
      class are just illustrative.
      They’re like fables, say,
      to help give you a picture.
      I mean…
      Even I don’t understand
      the dead cat.
      The math is how
      it really works.

      1. All of which can be done in non-fiction.

        1. You mean Shrodinger’s cat was a real, non-fiction cat? Learn something new…

          Why risk the life of a real non-fiction cat when a fictitious cat will do just as nicely? What exactly are you objecting to?

  4. Viral marketing for nexus tablets, isn’t it?

    More seriously, though, an enjoyable read.

    1. Do the Nexus tablets really even need to be marketed?

    2. Tablets? I thought it was for an old Goldberg/McDowell Star Trek movie.

  5. The drug in question allows human beings to link their minds together.

    aka twitter

  6. Dear Interwebz,

    Okay. That’s it! I’m fucking done!

    I support free market capitalism. I am more than happy allowing advertisements to exist on the websites I visit. It’s my payment for viewing the content.

    BUT, when you interrupt my online experience with blinking ads, ads that pop up covering my content, ads scrolling across my screen, YOU HAVE GONE TOO FUCKING FAR!

    I’ve got a Ford ad blocking my Reasonable ‘most recent comments’ box every time I reload.

    So fuck you intertubez, you have no one to blame but yourself. AdBlock is going on all my devices this afternoon!


    (PS Can anyone recommend anything better than AdBlock?)

    1. Browse this site with the Opera browser and their pop-up blocker in settings [Do not allow any site to show pop-ups (recommended)]. For more severe ad blocking, I don’t know what the bleeding edge is now.

      1. This is:


          1. Are you suggesting EvH’s comment is too fulla shit to quit?

      2. Opera 12, not the new Opera, which is Chrome-based. Unfortunately, all the antisocial networking shit H&R uses really slows the browser down. And the add-ons like Ad Block slow the browser down even more.

        1. I’m using Opera 18. It runs at ludicrous speed, usually.

        2. If something is slowing your browser down, it’s not AdBlock.

          Anyway, I use AdBlock and Stylish – which blocks all the social crap.

    2. I use AdBlock and NoScript

      1. Oops, didn’t see the Reasonable part, so I guess you’re using Opera or Chrome (not sure which one it’s for). NoScript is great for Firefox, though.

    3. I’m running Ghostery with Firefox, and not having any of your problems.

  7. Im being thankful.. Google is paying 75$/hour! Just work for few hours & spend more time with friends and family. On sunday I bought themselves a Alfa Romeo from having made $5637 this month. its the best-job Ive ever had.It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out

  8. Digital Censorship? No…

  9. I didn’t have my ducks in a row and missed out on the Bitcoin bubble. I could have paid my house off. Now I’m trying to buy litecoin. The experience has shown me how big and bad our Banking regs are. I can’t find a way to fund any litecoin exchange. I also discovered a bank that allows you to make purchases with crypto and real currencies. And then I discovered once again, that Americans can’t have this. Nor can I find a web based funding site that Americans can be a part of. This and the end of intrade is making me think that it is only going to get worse for any investments not approved by our overlords in Washington.

  10. until I looked at the check which was of $4814, I be certain that…my… mom in-law could actually bringing home money in there spare time on-line.. there aunt started doing this for under 20 months and at present cleared the debts on their appartment and got a top of the range Ford Mustang. why not try this out


  11. Thank you very much

  12. dramatizing the futility of government attempts to stop the spread of a new drug once the knowledge

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