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.