Civil Liberties

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.