The Year Government Lost Its Grip on Information

While the Internet can be regulated, and information can be controlled, it can only be done on an increasingly small margin, and at an increasingly high cost.


Silk Road
Silk Road

Lest you think most columnists are lazy, you should know that most of us have it stipulated in our contracts that our last article of the year must be some kind of retrospective. So, in lieu of an original, forward-thinking piece, I'm duty-bound to share the top-three moments that mark 2013 as the year the state began to lose its grip on control over information.

Snowden Leak

At the top of the list, of course, are Edward Snowden's revelations about the depths of the NSA's unconstitutional surveillance programs. It's at the top not because of the debate and the likely reforms they unleashed, which are momentous, but because of what Snowden's revelations tell us about the state's ability to keep information secret. It increasingly has to operate under the assumption that it cannot keep secrets.

Chelsea Manning's leaks were the first to shed light on the fact that scores of disaffected twenty-somethings have access to the government's top secrets, and that these secrets are stored in digital form and are therefore eminently reproducible. As I wrote in June, "There are also over 4.2 million persons with security clearances, and over a million of those can access top secret documents. Contractors, like Snowden, are an indispensable part of the system, and there are almost 2,000 private companies working for the government on programs related to homeland security and intelligence."

The more all-encompassing a surveillance state is, the more secrets it has to keep, but the more complex it is, the more people it must entrust with those secrets. Analysts, coders, security experts, and system administrators, who tend to be millennials like Snowden and Manning. More than any cohort, millennials embrace the "Anonymous" ideology of radical transparency and freedom of information, and it just takes one to expose what the state most wants kept under wraps.

If the state can't trust the thousands of millennials it needs to keep the gears of surveillance and control turning, then the machine might to slow down or even seize up. As important as the information contained in Snowden's leak, therefore, was the act of leaking itself. It was sand in the gears.

Silk Road

The year 2013 was undoubtedly the year of Bitcoin. Having been at the edges of mainstream awareness since its creation in 2009, the virtual currency exploded into the public consciousness this year, culminating in two days of Senate hearings on its licit and illicit uses (at which yours truly testified). Bitcoin is a revolutionary technology with many far reaching implications, but one of the most important—it's censorship resistance—was on full display in October when federal authorities shut down the anonymous online marketplace Silk Road.

Despite its (temporary) demise, what Silk Road demonstrated is that online transactions can no longer be easily controlled by the state. As Ross Ulbricht, the imprisoned alleged proprietor of the marketplace, can attest, it is certainly still possible for the state to punish you after the fact for your online dealings. But, prior restraint is no longer possible by simply pressuring the handful of online payment processors like PayPal or Visa. Silk Road showed that two consenting parties can now transact online whether the state likes it or not.

The fact that a successor site, Silk Road 2.0, as well as other competitors, have taken the place of Silk Road is a harbinger of the future to come. The state can no longer prevent transactions from taking place; it can only choose to devote ever more resources to deter them. As one marketplace is shuttered, another one will launch because the technological foundation that make them possible—the intersection of Tor and Bitcoin—can't easily be shut down.

Defense Distributed

The final moment of 2013 that highlights the state's declining ability to control information is another government takedown. In May, days after it posted online CAD blueprints that for the first time let anyone with a 3D printer make their own handgun, Defense Distributed was forced to take down the files after receiving a threatening letter from the State Department's arms exports control office. You can see where this is going.

What looks like a victory for the state actually highlights its growing impotence. As Cody Wilson, Defense Distributed's creator, told Betabeat, "I still think we win in the end. The files are all over the Internet, the Pirate Bay has it. To think this can be stopped in any meaningful way is to misunderstand what the future of distributive technologies is about." No court order or raid can put that genie back in the bottle.

In 1996's "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace," John Perry Barlow gave in to utopian overstatement when he wrote of the Internet,

I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Among other things, Barlow claimed that on the Internet "identities have no bodies" so that persons acting there are immune to "physical coercion." More to the point, he wrote, "Cyberspace does not lie within your borders," implying an insurmountable lack of jurisdiction, and thus coercive power.

As Edward Snowden's exile, Ross Ulbricht's arrest, and Defense Distributed's capitulation attest, such a view is just plain wrong. But what 2013 showed us is that as Internet technology advances, the direct and indirect costs that the state must incur to maintain a same level of information control continues to increase. This means that the margin on which information can be effectively controlled is also shrinking continuously.

As a result, while the Internet can, no doubt, be regulated, and information can be controlled, and those who speak and transact can be punished, it can only be done on an increasingly small margin, and at an increasingly high cost. This dynamic is inherent in, and determined by, the nature of the Internet, and it can only get stronger in 2014.

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  1. Information should be free!

  2. What do all of these things have in common? Computers. The government would totally ban private computer ownership if they weren’t also the government’s main source of information on people.

    1. This is certainly the nicest-job I have ever done..I earn up to 500$ per week. Im using an online business opportunity I heard about and I’ve made such great money. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less. I work through this link,

  3. Governments have been losing their grip on information for a long time.

    The printing press opened the flood, and Martin Luther may have been the first huge beneficiary. In my time, getting UHF TV stations and adding cable stations was a disaster for government grip. In my parents’ and grabdparents’ times, power rotary printing presses, railroads, telegraphs, telephones, and radio were the same looseners.

    1. The problem is that government’s solution to losing their grip on info is to vacuum up as much information as possible, leading to the NSA bullshit. Yeah, they’re too incompetent to do anything with such vast information stores, but they’re experts at fucking up innocent people’s lives because their information is full of garbage and mixups. The government response to losing their grip is to flail wildly, crushing innocents in the process.

      1. Not to mention that all that information lets them find bullshit crimes or regulatory violations (which most people probably commit, unknowingly) to pin on people they want to take down. It’s one of the reasons warrants were once required–not just to ensure another branch of government has approved but also to give the target a chance to know the government was after him (that used to be the case, anyway).

      2. It would be helpful if the ONLY informational problem with government is vacuuming up as much as possible.

        The bigger problem is government has increased the amount of fabricated data it spews for public consumption.

        Having access to ALL the information government has would exonerate almost everyone government has entrapped. But government limits access to only the information that makes government look good.

        For me, it’s the sheer amount of redacted information that proves government’s incompetence and illegitimacy.

        1. We see this on a smaller level with prosecutors, who seem to regularly sit on exculpatory evidence, which is a violation of ethics and law. But, at least, they have some real limits on their power, unlike the federal government, which has only nominal limits.

      3. There are two issues with information. The one addressed here is that the government is losing its power to generate the one true narrative, ie it is losing its power to generate and control information.

        You are arguing about harvesting information. That is just a strawman here.

    1. How the hell is “I’m so glad” by Cream the anthem of the “effete elite bicoastal, metrosexual Hollywood/New York entertainment mafia”???

  4. If we lose the Net Neutrality fight to the big ISPs, then this equation will change. They will pinch off the internet at the source: each individuals connection to it. If they profit by throttling certain sites, they now have an incentive to know exactly what sites you are visiting at all times. That will likely lead to attacks against Tor and similar services as breach of contracts. With out neutral ISPs, we don’t have a free internet.

    1. So your solution is to give government the ability to determine “neutrality” and allow it to regulate how the internet is accessed and used? Are you fucking retarded, or unbelievably retarded?

      1. We need more government to limit the government, which we need more of. Why? To limit the government, which can only be limited by government.

        1. I swear, the Net Neutrality people have to be some of the stupidest mother fuckers I have ever seen. Their argument essentially boils down to “Comcast won’t let me torrent the shit out of stuff, or at least makes it harder for me, so let’s allow the government to control access to the internet! Genius! That’ll show Comcast and never be abused, ever!”

          I mean, I fucking hate Comcast with the fury of a 1000 suns, but I’m not stupid enough to think that getting the government involved will solve the monopoly problem granted by the fucking government in the first place.

          The best part is somehow the Net Neutrality subgeniuses think that Hollywood and the recording industry aren’t going to instantaneously push the government into epic, brutal crackdowns on piracy if the government now controls Internet access.

          1. Merely a thousand suns? You must be feeling mellow after Christmas.

            1. I haven’t taken my morning amphetamines yet.

                1. I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, it seems.

                  1. That’s my fault, everyone. In my pharmacological ignorance, I sent Episiarch a case of Elmer’s Glue for Christmas. I mean, it’s glue, right?

                    1. I got sent home early from kindergarten one day because I tried to glue a special needs kid to his chair using Elmer’s Glue. There may have a been a girl involved.

                    2. In Kindergarten, I remember my buddy Luther and I (yes, still in contact) built a fort out of some big blocks. When we were through building it, this repulsive little shit named Greg came over to ask if he could play. When we told him no because he didn’t help us build it, he ran to the teacher crying, whom of course made us play with him. Good lesson to learn at five.

                    3. Oh, Jesus, Pro Lib, is it your 2014 resolution to be worse than Nikki?

                    4. Look, I’m not a glue expert.

      2. Woosh.

        The point is not allowing ISPs to artificially induce scarcity by stifling competition through force or fraud, thereby making the internet less free and mutilating the free market.

        If you want to be an anarchist, just say so, but I think what Bing is talking about would fall neatly into the realm of the purpose of government for most libertarians.

        1. Net neutrality is not a libertarian solution.

          1. What is the libertarian solution, then? Care to expand on your single sentence that adds absolutely zero to the conversation?

            1. Allow anyone to set up an ISP and run cable to your house/beam a wireless signal.

            2. Well, to begin with, don’t grant government monopolies to providers. Certainly, don’t ask the government to fix problems it largely created.

            3. No, no, Paul. I actually agree with you. The government must ensure net neutrality and to do so it must set up packet sniffers at every hub possible. In fact, we must legislate that manufacturers like Linksys and Motorola must install them in every router. Of course, the government agency set up to monitor free and equitable access to bandwidth would resist the attempt to sneak a peek at those juicy packets of data, and this government agency would never, ever share this data with other government agencies, just as the Intelligence Community or law enforcement.

              Clearly, net neutrality by legislative fiat is the most libertarian solution.

              1. Hey, can we bring back the Clipper Chip?

                1. Well, if it ensures net neutrality, of course.

                  1. Net neutrality, income inequality. . .we need more itties.

                    1. we need more itties.

                      Yes. Yes we do.

                    2. Put em on the glass, on the glass
                      Put them itties on the glass

        2. 1) I am an anarchist.

          2) The reason the ISPs can stifle competition in the first fucking place is that they have government-granted monopolies. That’s what mutilated the free market. The idea that more government will fix the problem of already too much government is so ludicrously moronic that you should seriously go in for a test to see if you have an extra chromosome.

          It’s such a counterproductive solution that I have to wonder what other psychological shit is going on with the people who push for this. It just doesn’t make sense on any level, yet they want it so badly.

          1. I agree, however, lets be realistic. We take your approach by “fixing” the secondary problem before fixing the primary problem, and what do we get?

            A much shittier solution.

            You now have government induced monopolies that are free to stifle the free market as they choose. Awesome, at least you’re still an idealist, though!

            1. I am so tired of government wrecking and massively distorting the market for something–healthcare, education, housing, spaceflight, cable, etc.–then positing itself as a solution. Which new solution never seems to solve anything except the problem of how to get money to certain politicians and/or valued constituents.

            2. How would getting rid of government granted monopolies result in government induced monopolies?

              1. Not what I was trying to say, I was trying to say the idea of allowing ISPs to stifle the free market, because in the ideal libertarian world we could switch ISPs and be done with them is idiotic.

                We do not live in that world, currently.

                Allowing ISPs to do such, on the basis of being libertarian in ideals, while they make a mockery of libertarianism with their government granted or induced monopolies is completely and utterly asinine.

            3. Uh…your solution is to put the government in control of the internet. You think it will ever give that up? How the fuck are you being realistic? The government induced monopolies already stifle the free market, and you want to turn it into one ultimate monopoly, the government? I have to ask again if you’re retarded, because you can’t have a normal IQ.

              If we wait it out a bit, we should soon have much faster completely wireless connectivity solutions, thereby eliminating (for the most part) the “laid cable” monopolies of the current ISPs. Instead, you want to jump the gun and put the government in control forever? And that’s your “free market” solution?

              Seriously, go get the chromosome check. Do you wear a hat and have a job and bring home the bacon? But no one knew?

              1. We need some some unregistered, un-government-controlled satellites. By some, I mean thousands.

              2. I never said that, episiarch. I find it amusing that you must question my intelligence by building straw men and knocking them down. Real intellectual heavyweight.

                And waiting it out, what do you mean by such? There is limited bandwidth available for wireless transmission, and guess who owns the bandwidth? Of course there is some new technology that allows basically the twisting of the signals to allow more information transfer, but I highly doubt that is sufficient for the world’s data needs. Perhaps this super wifi will be promising, but it is still a ways off.

                Anyway. I’m not saying the government needs to regulate the crap out of the internet, I’m saying that government’s purpose is to ensure our rights and freedoms from certain things. Allowing ISPs who currently monopolize the means to access the information to actually monopolize the information is, again, asinine. Please come up with a solution that is not all unicorns and rainbows. I am willing to admit that net neutrality is not perfect.

                1. Allowing ISPs who currently monopolize the means to access the information to actually monopolize the information is, again, asinine.

                  I know. I once tried to walk into a library, and these red-shirted goons from Comcast beat the shit out of me.

                2. Your projection and stupidity is amazing.

                  Please come up with a solution that is not all unicorns and rainbows.

                  You mean a unicorn and rainbow solution like “let the government regulate the internet”? Other than the asinine Net Neutrality “solution”, the simplest thing is to let competitors enter the market and attempt to get around the monopoly, like DirecTV or Dish or Google Fiber or cell phone carrier hot spots. At tougher solution would be to try and eliminate the local monopolies.

                  Again, think of the idiocy of your proposal, which I and many people here have pointed out again and again: your solution is to put regional government granted monopolies under one grand government monopoly. How is this solution anything but retarded?

                  How was the AT&T monopoly? Would you put all cell phone service under a government monopoly? How does government health care monopoly work out in Canada? Are you really this stupid?

                  1. I did some research (because of the then-new E-Rate) on the origins of the Ma Bell monopoly and the justifications of it for the goal of universal service. Turns out it was bullshit at the very beginning, as rural co-ops were kicking ass at getting service to people outside of the easier to manage cities.

                  2. What they want Epi, is free and fast, they do not want to pay for the speed. I live in rural OK, and my home ISP provides about 5mbs. I worked in Home Health the owner ran out of ranch was getting speeds of 100mbs.

            4. We take your approach by “fixing” the secondary problem before fixing the primary problem, and what do we get?

              The primary problem is government-granted monopolies, not the subsequent abuse of that monopoly by the monopolists.

              We take your approach, and we get government-granted monopolies and an extra helping of government. I guess so power can be abused by the real professionals.

              1. And how do you suppose we can get rid of these monopolies in the FIRST place?

                Most are based upon local franchising laws. Not the federal government. I dealt with this when wanting to switch to FIOS. The town I lived in would not allow Verizon to stream any videos

                1. And you think when the federal government takes over, they’re not going to crawl up your ass and block traffic at the behest of the entertainment companies, who have already gotten Congress to pass completely insane laws regarding piracy and the like? And moving won’t even help you, because it will be national.

                  Once again, you Net Neutrality people are so stupidly short-sighted that not being able to stream a video causes you to want to let the federal fucking government completely take over how you get to access ISPs. It’s insane, but you still propose it.

                  1. Reminds me of the people who think more regulations are the solution to corporations cooperating with the NSA. Because once corporations cooperate with the government they will stop cooperating with the government when it does bad things.

                    I recall an article by a pro-media regulation group in the UK which used a Telegraph (I think?) attack on Greenwald as proof of the need for more press regulation. Because the government needs to regulate the media more to ensure it will report on the bad things the government is doing!

                  2. Again, I never claimed I wanted the federal government to take over. This is your way of demeaning any reasoning that is not idealistic idiocy like your own.

                    is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.

                    So horrible that the government should make a law like that! Jeez, perhaps murder should be out of government’s jurisdiction! We wouldn’t want them getting in the way of my justice!

                    1. Paul sweetie,

                      How exactly is this neutrality going to be enforced? Unicorns magically will ensure the traffic isn’t throttled? Is there pixie dust involved? Will the invisible hand of Adam Smith make an appearance magically ushering the packets on their rounds?

                    2. Did…did you just equate letting ISPs control data flow on their own networks with murder?


                      If the government specifies that ISPs can’t charge different prices, you just set price controls for an entire industry.

                      You just proved without a doubt how utterly fucking stupid and deluded you are.

                    3. Murder should be out of the governments jurisdiction, some mother fuckers need the killing

                2. And how do you suppose we can get rid of these monopolies in the FIRST place?

                  By exercising the Commerce Clause and the anti-trust laws, would be my vote.

                  And, yes, I think its perfectly libertarian for the federal government to step in to stop abuses of power by local authorities.

            5. What economic incentive do they have to stifle the free market? these are businesses in the long run to make the most money they can not guberment goons trying to interfere with your life

        3. Just wait until Google fiber comes to town near you. I believe, it will be game changer.

          1. I hope so because Comcast and Verizon can both suck my asshairs.

  5. The latest on the NSA is that they have been inserting malware, and even hardware, into computers to give them undetectable, unerasable access.

    I would say that our government has more access to our information than it ever had in the past. Which, to me, does not exactly mean that they are losing control.

    Your only protection is the vast quantity of data, and the hope that your name will not come to the attention of the NSA, as once it does they can mine some unknown but (too-)large sample of your computer activities.

    1. It would be nice if Congress would do something about these flagrantly extraconstitutional activities. When do they plan to get around to doing that?

      1. You mean strengthening their ability to gather data and making unconstitutional acts the appearance of legality? Congress plans to get around to that tout de suite.

        1. Messes were made. Cleanups are needed. Facades must be erected.

    2. I would say that our government has more access to our information than it ever had in the past. Which, to me, does not exactly mean that they are losing control.

      But they are. The article demonstrates that. The government has lots of access and less and less control.

  6. Is this the most horrendous Slate comment ever? From an article on France’s 75% millionaire tax:

    Not unreasonably high tax rates. Check history of US tax rates when they were truly progressive. No person or family or corporation needs to hold more than 50% of net earnings. If the US had a progressive tax on corporations today, those US based corporations holding billions of dollars of “reserves” would be putting their money to work rather than squirreling it away.

    It is long past time to restore the pre-Reagan, Bush and Clinton tax cuts to restore fiscal equity in the America. We should start with the “Robin Hood Tax” promoted by Progressives and many others on both the left and right.

    And this is, ultimately, what progressives actually believe: all your earnings belong to the State.

    1. So EBT slugs need to return 50 percent of the welfare loot they receive?


    2. Nonsense. That commenter is looking out for corporations. Devaluation/inflation will kill the value of earnings that are held and not immediately spent. Discouraging wealthy corporate “persons” from having those earnings is just common sense.

    3. Nothing is more breathtakingly arrogant than statements that “nobody needs more than X amount of their own money”. It’s in statements like this that you realize you’re dealing with sociopaths. You are not a person to them, you are a cog in the machine and can be stolen from or replaced or whatever as they see fit.

      And I would love to see one of these people win the lottery. I’d be very curious how much they then think should be taken from their winnings.

    4. Speaking of France, a restaurant was recently fined 9,000 euros for “using unsourced labor” because a customer brought his empty glasses back to the bar instead of waiting for staff to pick them up.

      In another recent case, 2 bloggers were fined for “having spread inexact information about the level of indebtedness” of one France’s largest banks, simply because they wrote posts that disagreed with the bank’s conclusions in its financial statements.

      That’s progtopia for you.

        1. Yep.

          “Around half-past midnight, a customer returned a drinks tray. She passed by the bar to go to the toilets. That was when it all kicked off. My husband was pinned against the glass by a man. A woman leapt on me, showing her ID card and that’s when I realised it was a URSSAF check. They told me I had been caught using undeclared labour,” owner Markya Le Floch told Le T?l?gramme.

          “It is a scam. We haven’t committed any wrong doing,” she added.

          The authorities initially fined the pub owners ?7,900 and briefly placed them in police custody. Customers vouched for the owners and they escaped charges, but URSSAF are still pursuing a social case and are now seeking ?9,000 due to non-payment of the original fine. A URSSAF spokesperson told France Bleu they refute the owners’ account of the incident.

          1. Customers vouched for the owners and they escaped charges, but URSSAF are still pursuing a social case and are now seeking ?9,000 due to non-payment of the original fine.

            If they weren’t charged, what is the “original fine” for, exactly?

    5. No person or family or corporation needs to hold more than 50% of net earnings.

      How is this not an argument for a 50% income tax across the board?

        1. I am an American woman, now.

          1. What have you done for me lately?

    6. Unsurprisingly I did not get an answer to this question: if having 75% of your earnings confiscated isn’t theft, then at what percentage would it become theft? 90%? 95%? 99%?

      1. Dude, you must have dealt with such people before. For so many people, they will not accept the unarguable premise that taxation is theft. You can connect the dots for them–that if you don’t give them their money, men with guns will come for you and your stuff–and they just don’t care. You can see their eyes glaze over. Because in my opinion, a lot of the human race is mildly sociopathic, and while they would scream bloody murder if you took 75% of their shit, they can’t empathize with the “rich person” and are perfectly fine with them being stolen from. They don’t see other people (outside of their families and friends) as anything other than revenue generators.

    7. don’t save for the future or we’ll come and getcha

  7. OT: Good to see they finally ejected that MTSU player. Blunt was taking cheap shots the whole game.

  8. and at an increasingly high cost.

    “…and we pass the savings on to you!”

  9. The state bears no costs, so “the cost to the state” is nothing. The cost is to you and I and every other taxpayer.

  10. Sounds like some serious business to me man.

  11. my roomate’s half-sister makes 74 dollars an hour on the laptop. She has been without a job for 7 months but last month her check was 19922 dollars just working on the laptop for a few hours. published here

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