Archive for Internet

Net governance is a game – play it to win

by David Solomonoff

While we take the Internet for granted as an essential part of everyday life, decisions are being made behind the scenes that affect its future and the lives of everyone who relies on it. Net users are like players in a game where the rules are unknown and can change at any time.  Decisions are made by technologists, government regulators and legislators, nonprofits and civil society groups — with a great deal of influence by special interests — far from public view or understanding.

The recent announcement by Department of Commerce that the United States would relinquish part of its controlling role in managing the Internet Domain Name System (DNS), although long in the offing, was accelerated by fears of US control of the Net in the wake of recent NSA spying scandals.

The DNS essentially controls real estate in cyberspace by translating a human-understandable domain name like “google.com” to an Internet Protocol (IP) address that computers understand.

In October 2013 leaders of organizations responsible for coordination of the Internet technical infrastructure globally met in Montevideo, Uruguay, to consider current issues affecting the future of the Internet. In the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation they expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance. They also called for accelerating the globalization of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) who manage the DNS, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.

On March 14, 2014 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community. NTIA asked ICANN, as the IANA  functions contractor and the global coordinator for the DNS, to convene a multistakeholder process to develop a proposal for the transition. In addition, NTIA explicitly stated that it would not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.

That fear of repressive government control of the Net also inspired three bills, H.R. 4342  (ih) – Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters Act of 2014, H.R. 4367  (ih) – Internet Stewardship Act of 2014 and H.R. 4398  (ih) – Global Internet Freedom Act of 2014 to be introduced to the US Congress to prevent or delay the transition.

Supporters of the transition say critics betray their lack of understanding of Net governance with the proposed legislation. Several human rights and civil liberties groups supporting the transition wrote a letter arguing that the move would actually be preemptive and would sustain the current multi-stakeholder model.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room is ICANN itself which has been criticized for lacking transparency and accountability. Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project writes:

When the U.S. Commerce Department announced that it would end its control of the domain name system root, it called upon ICANN to “convene the multistakeholder process to develop the transition plan.” Many people worried about ICANN’s ability to run a fair process. As an organization with a huge stake in the outcome, there were fears that it might try to bias the proceedings. ICANN has a very strong interest in getting rid of external oversight and other dependencies on other organizations.

It was in this environment that the Brazilian President  Dilma Rousseff  (who herself was a victim of NSA spying) organized the NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance which was co-sponsored by ICANN. Concurrently with the conference, she signed the Marco Civil da Internet, a bill that sets out new guidelines for freedom of expression, net neutrality and data privacy.

Wired UK compared NETmundial to a game:

To set the scene for a Brazilian meeting over internationalising the internet, we compare the little-known world of internet governance with the greatest spectacle in football

As Brazil gears up to host the 2014 World Cup, another world game is gathering pundits and crowds. Far from the flashy arena, this other contest is over Internet governance. It’s about how, and by whom, the paradigmatically ‘unowned’ internet is managed.

Quietly waged by smooth corporate strategists, diplomats, and tech-geeks, the fight over net governance goes to the heart of global politics and economics. The bets, most curiously, run close to those in football. Brazil and Germany are leading the charge, with several other European and South American teams as potential challengers. The big question is whether they can nudge perennial football underdog and undisputed internet champion, the United States, from the top spot.

The analogy between Internet policy and games is not new or inaccurate – in 2007 Google hired game theorists to assist in their strategy in an FCC auction for wireless spectrum.

Like any other game with winners and losers, there was disappointment in the outcome of NETmundial.

Sara Myers of Global Voices, an Internet freedom group wrote:

Provisions addressing net neutrality and the principle of proportionality were not included in the final version, and a section on intermediary liability lacked safeguards to protect due process and the rights to free expression and privacy.

But the greater problem for Internet governance and Internet freedom is how few Net users even know that the Internet is governed or managed at all. While recent surveys in the US show an alarming decline in understanding of how the US government works, the number of people who even know what ICANN is is probably far smaller.

Recently the Governance Lab at New York University developed a series of proposals to make ICANN more “effective, legitimate and evolving”. The most interesting was Enhance Learning by Encouraging Games:

ICANN must take seriously its commitment to engage its global stakeholder base in decision-making, especially those who are ultimately impacted by those decisions …. ICANN could make the complexities of Internet governance and ICANN’s work more open, accessible and interesting to people with games and activities aimed at the next generation … The use of game mechanics in decision-making contexts can bolster ease and equitability of participation (enhancing legitimacy); produce incentive structures to target expertise (enhancing efficiency); and mitigate complexity through simple rules (enhancing adaptability and the ability to evolve).

While the Gov Lab has not yet begun development of such games, another group has. Media artist Josephine Dorado and game developer Jeremy Pesner, working with the Internet Society (disclaimer: as President of New York Chapter of Internet Society I am also involved in development) are modifying reACTor, their online game to promote social activism, to specifically address issues involving Internet governance and Internet freedom.

Several years ago the Internet Society explored several alternate scenarios for the evolution of the Internet in a series of animated videos. These videos are a model for the type of scenarios the game will explore. Combined with feeds from news media, activist organizations and the Internet Society’s extensive documentation on Internet governance and policy, the game will award points and prizes to players who most effectively work for an open Internet.

To integrate the game with real-world action, POPVOX, a non-partisan platform which facilitates constituents contacting US legislators and regulators, will be used. Net governance organizations like ICANN could also be integrated.

reACTor re-envisions news engagement, online activism and mobile gaming. It connects news with augmented activism: calls to action inspired by news and sustained by gameplay.

Online activist movements have previously been organized by different actors, around different issues and on different platforms. reACTor is the unified platform that activist organizations as well as game players can easily add new actions to.

reACTor brings news and activism into the 21st century by closing the gap between becoming informed and becoming involved.

Let the game begin!

 

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Secure Cloud Computing: Virtualizing the FreedomBox

by David Solomonoff

In 2010 I asked Professor Eben Moglen to speak to the Internet Society of New York about software freedom, privacy and security in the context of cloud computing and social media. In his Freedom in the Cloud talk, he proposed the FreedomBox as a solution: a small inexpensive computer which would provide secure encrypted communications in a decentralized way to defeat data mining and surveillance by governments and large corporations. Having physical control and isolating the hardware can be crucial to maintaining computer security which is why data centers are kept under lock and key. Each FreedomBox user would physically possess their own machine.

The U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing (PDF with full definition) as “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

Cloud computing, for all its advantages in terms of flexibility and scalability, has been fundamentally insecure. While the technology exists to secure information while it is being stored and while it is in transit, computers must process information in an unencrypted form. This means that a rogue systems administrator, malicious hacker or government can extract information from the system while it is being processed.

Adoption of cloud computing services by large enterprises has been hindered by this except when they maintain a private cloud in their own facilities.

Homomorphic encryption allows data to be processed in an encrypted form so that only the end user can access it in a readable form. So far it has been too demanding for normal computers to handle. In 2012 I invited Shai Halevi, a cryptography researcher at IBM, to discuss work he was doing in this area. He was able to execute some basic functions slowly with specialized hardware but the technology was not ready for general use.

Recently researchers at MIT have made breakthroughs that promise to bring homomorphic encryption to the mainstream, finally making secure cloud computing possible.

Mylar is a platform for building secure web applications.

Mylar stores only encrypted data on the server, and decrypts data only in users’ browsers. Beyond just encrypting each user’s data with a user key, Mylar addresses three other security issues:

  • It is a secure multi-user system – it can perform keyword search over encrypted documents, even if the documents are encrypted with different keys owned by different users

  • Mylar allows users to share keys and data securely in the presence of an active adversary

  • Mylar ensures that client-side application code is authentic, even if the server is malicious

Results with a prototype of Mylar built on top of the Meteor framework are promising: porting 6 applications required changing just 35 lines of code on average, and the performance overheads are modest, amounting to a 17% throughput loss and a 50 msec latency increase for sending a message in a chat application.

To further secure a web app in the cloud, an encrypted distributed filesystem such as Tahoe-LAFS can be used. It distributes data across multiple servers so that even if some of the servers fail or are taken over by an attacker, the entire filesystem continues to function correctly, preserving privacy and security.

By combining these two technologies, data can be encrypted at every point until it is accessed by its legitimate owner, combining privacy and security with the flexibility and scalability of cloud computing.

No longer confined behind a locked down private data center or hidden under the end user’s bed, a virtual FreedomBox can finally escape to the clouds.

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Heartbleed bug not a technical problem – it’s an awareness and support problem

by David Solomonoff

While free/open source software (FOSS) may be a better development model and Richard Stallman argues, an ethical one, it doesn’t guarantee good software by itself. Software development, like any other human endeavor, depends on the skills, resources and motivations of the people doing it.

FOSS advocates argue that the inner workings of technology should be open to inspection and modification by their users.

While the Heartbleed bug was a technical problem that is being fixed, the real problem is the lack of awareness or interest in of back-end technologies that we rely on.

Encryption used on the Internet is now critical infrastructure and unfortunately with OpenSSL, has not been allocated the needed resources. That two thirds of websites relied on security tools developed and maintained by four people, only one of them a paid full time employee, is clearly a formula for disaster.

However the prospect of having a government maintain this type of infrastructure in the wake of the NSA spying scandals (as well as allegations that they were aware of the bug and exploited it) is not likely to gain a lot of traction.

FOSS uses a variety of business models but the reliance on volunteers for critical infrastructure may have hit its limit.

In the end the solution to security problems like Heartbleed may be one of funding and awareness rather fixing a specific programming error.

All too often there has been confusion as to whether the “free” in FOSS refers to “free” speech or to “free beer”.

It looks like the bar tab has come due.

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Envisioning Occupy Wall Street as software, service

by David Solomonoff

The impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement goes far beyond a traditional protest around specific issues. The ability to rapidly respond to changing situations, a horizontal rather than vertical structure and an open source approach to developing news tools and strategies will be as significant in the long term – perhaps more so. The medium is definitely the message here.

 

In Forbes, E. D. Kain writes about how Occupy Wall Street protesters are engaging in a roll-reversal where the surveilled are surveilling the surveillers:

If the pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis had happened before smart phones and video phones, it would have been the word of the protesters against the word of the police. If this had all happened before the internet and blogs and social media, it would have taken ages before the old media apparatus would have found the wherewithal to track down the truth and then disseminate that information.
Now the incident goes viral … Strangely, though, the police act as though these new realities don’t exist or don’t matter.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/11/19/maybe-its-time-to-occupy-the-police-state/

 

In The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal suggests one their biggest accomplishments has been to facilitate other protests in the same way a software interface allows programmers to access and re-purpose data on the Internet:

Metastatic, the protests have an organizational coherence that’s surprising for a movement with few actual leaders and almost no official institutions. Much of that can be traced to how Occupy Wall Street has functioned in catalyzing other protests. Local organizers can choose from the menu of options modeled in Zuccotti, and adapt them for local use. Occupy Wall Street was designed to be mined and recombined, not simply copied.
This idea crystallized for me yesterday when Jonathan Glick, a long-time digital journalist, tweeted, “I think #OWS was working better as an API than a destination site anyway.”
API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface.

What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Twitter.com. Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don’t have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).

The metaphor turns out to reveal a useful way of thinking about the components that have gone into the protest.

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/print/2011/11/a-guide-to-the-occupy-wall-street-api-or-why-the-nerdiest-way-to-think-about-ows-is-so-useful/248562/

John Robb examines their progress from the perspective of military strategist John Boyd:

The dynamic of Boyd’s strategy is to isolate your enemy across three essential vectors (physical, mental, and moral), while at the same time improving your connectivity across those same vectors. It’s very network centric for a pre-Internet theoretician.

Physical. No isolation was achieved. The physical connections of police forces remained intact. However, these incidents provided confirmation to protesters that physical filming/imaging of the protests is valuable. Given how compelling this media is, it will radically increase the professional media’s coverage of events AND increase the number of protesters recording incidents.

Mental. These incidents will cause confusion within police forces. If leaders (Mayors and college administrators) back down or vacillate over these tactics due to media pressure, it will confuse policemen in the field. In short, it will create uncertainty and doubt over what the rules of engagement actually are. IN contrast, these media events have clarified how to turn police violence into useful tools for Occupy protesters.

Moral. This is the area of connection that was damaged the most. Most people watching these videos feel that this violence is both a) illegitimate and b) excessive.

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2011/11/occupy-note-112011-boyd-pepper-spray-and-tools-of-compliance-ows.html

Following on Robb’s point, the videos also increase the moral liability of journalists and politicians who attack and denounce the movement.

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Mexican Authorities Bust Communication Tower Used by Cartel

by David Solomonoff

Another case where non-traditional players are providing services and infrastructure that previously only government and government-approved monopolies could:
> The Mexican government busted a narco-communications system just > across the border in Reynosa.
>
> Pictures taken by Mexican soldiers detail the level of sophistication. > They’re narco-towers, communication equipment set up by the cartel and > busted by the Mexican government in Reynosa.
>
> It’s proof that the cartels’ pockets run deep. A total of nine > antennas were busted by Mexican officials during last week’s > operation. Experts believe the cartel is having to create its own > network because the government controls much of Mexico’s infrastructure. http://www.krgv.com/news/local/story/Mexican-Authorities-Bust-Communication-T…

via Global Guerillas, http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com

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Internet Pioneers Berners-Lee, Cerf, Strickling ask: “What Kind of Net Do You Want?”

by David Solomonoff

When the first message on the ARPANET (the predecessor of today’s Internet) was sent by UCLA programmer Charley Kline, on October 29, 1969, the message text was the word “login”; the letters “l” and the “o” were transmitted, then the system crashed.

Forty two years later, the Internet is everywhere and rapidly becoming embedded in every device. Kevin Kelly sees the Net as evolving into a single “planetary computer” with “all the many gadgets we possess” as “windows into its core.” The Internet Society’s slogan is “The Internet is for everyone,” but Vint Cerf (who co-developed the TCP/IP network protocol that connects everything on the Net today) now prefers “The Internet is for everything”.

The world-wide adoption of a decentralized network that connects everything creates continuous technical, social and policy challenges that no one could have foreseen in 1969. Even as we take the Net for granted, the way we do the air that we breathe, decisions are being made by policy-makers, technologists and end-users that shape its future.

The success of the Internet has had a great deal to do with the development of open standards – often by volunteers – in groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Decisions in Working Groups (WG) of the IETF are reached by consensus on the group mailing list so that anyone active on that list can be part of the process.

The need to add capacity is a constant challenge. What balance of public and private funding, regulation or deregulation are appropriate, and which types of infrastructure (centralized vs. decentralized; fiber, cable, wireless) warrant investment are subject to ongoing debate.

The Net has provided a platform for incredible innovation and economic growth. How to reward innovation and creativity while encouraging the widest dissemination of new content and technologies? How to encourage disruptive technologies while mitigating their potentially negative impacts?

Does there have to be a conflict between freedom and privacy on one hand and security on the other? How can users safely share personal information using social media which rely on the sale of their personal data as a business model? What legal and technical protections are necessary for businesses to securely move into the cloud?

Internet users have continuously influenced key technology innovations and policy decisions. But keeping them in the decision-making loop as they increasingly take the Net for granted presents an ongoing challenge.

On June 14, Internet pioneers Vint Cerf, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), will address these questions as keynote speakers for the INET Conference in New York City, sponsored by the Internet Society and the Internet Society of New York. [Disclaimer: As President of the Internet Society of New York I will deliver opening remarks.]

There will also be panels featuring industry leaders, members of civil society organizations, open source software advocates and government officials. The conference is open to the public although advance registration is required. It will also be streamed live.

Just as a democracy is never the rule of the people, but rather the people who participate in the process, the Internet has evolved through the efforts of technologists and activists – many who have volunteered their time to develop open standards, open source software and to advocate for an open Internet. It’s your call: What kind of Internet do you want?

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Hackers fight for freedom with Net tech; ignore politics, psychology at their peril

by David Solomonoff

The temporary shutdown in Egypt of Internet and other telecommunication services, as well as similar interruptions in other Middle East countries experiencing large-scale protests and rebellions, has galvanized hackers and human rights activists as well as U.S. foreign policy makers. The consequences may be not be what anyone expected.

The technologies for secure, private, fault tolerant communication via the Internet exist but have not yet been widely implemented or bundled together in a single, user-friendly system.

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf was asked in a recent interview whether there was technical solution to a government shutdown of the Net. The Internet “is controllable by the government, [so] it’s possible to turn off the Internet,” he said. The solution, mesh networking “can be done without benefit of things like routers provided by Internet Service providers.”

Mesh networking makes each device on a network capable of routing data to any other device, with the ability to rapidly change paths in the event of an interruption or blockage.

A current project of Cerf’s, the Interplanetary Internet, designed to overcome the delays and interruptions to communications during space exploration, could also be adapted to handle a partial shutdown of Net communications by an authoritarian government during a political crisis.

Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor and software freedom advocate, first proposed the Freedom Box – a tiny device that could provide private, secure, fault-tolerant Internet access using mesh networking – at an Internet Society of New York event in February 2010. He has since founded the Freedom Box Foundation, has some early prototype software and expects to have a fully working device available for under $100 in twelve months. Another project, diaspora, was inspired by Moglen’s proposal and is developing a more privacy-friendly alternative to Facebook. The Freedom Box and diaspora both use a decentralized, peer-to peer model for improved security and to give the user more control.

On February 15, Hillary Clinton’s gave her second annual Net Freedom Speech, which denounced the Egyptian government for it’s Net shutdown. The State Department now has a number of initiatives and grants for the development of Internet censorship circumvention technologies.

But governments often have different agendas and policies for different situations. Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarek was viewed as a “force of moderation” before he became a “dictator” when the geopolitical winds shifted. As Clinton was making her speech, Wired reported that the FBI Pushes for Surveillance Backdoors in Web 2.0 Tools and an antiwar protestor in Clinton’s audience was roughed up when he turned his back to her. Would he have been unscathed if he had tweeted his protest?

Even with the best intentions, high-profile Internet freedom initiatives by nation-states can have unexpected consequences. Evgeny Morozov says of Clinton’s speeches:

Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don’t talk about promoting Internet freedom.

The state of web freedom in countries like China, Iran, and Russia was far from perfect before Clinton’s initiative, but at least it was an issue independent of those countries’ fraught relations with the United States.

 

Today, foreign governments … are now seeking “information sovereignty” from American companies … Internet search, social networking, and even email are increasingly seen as strategic industries that need to be protected from foreign control.

The U.S military has developed open source software for secure, private communication on the Internet, however. The Tor project, which develops Tor, a tool for private, encrypted communication on the Internet, is used by many dissidents in authoritarian countries, as well as by Wikileaks, and was originally sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

But not every such project has been as successful. The Haystack program, designed to help Iranian dissidents, actually endangered them because it was easily intercepted by the Iranian authorities due to flaws in its design. It received a huge amount of hype but the developer, Austin Heap, refused to allow security experts to examine it. Nonetheless, the U.S. Treasury Department granted Heap an Office of Foreign Assets Control license to export the software to Iran, in effect endorsing it. By the time it the software bugs became publicly known, the damage had been done.

Open source software advocate and cyberliberties activist Eric Raymond was also helping Iranian dissidents connect to the outside world at that time. He reflects:

… to protect your network, and yourself, you have to accept that you are going to have relatively little information about what your network partners are doing and what their capabilities are …. my rationally-chosen ignorance left me unable to form judgments about whether people in my network were lying to me. More subtly … it left me unable to form judgments about whether they were lying to themselves.

I don’t mean to excuse whatever lies Austin Heap may have told, but I do mean to suggest he may well have been his own first victim.

Open source software, where the inner workings of a program are available for public scrutiny, is essential when developing tools for secure communication in a highly insecure environment.

But open source is not a panacea. Take the case of  OpenBSD, an open source operating system bundled with thousands of applications, which has been optimized for security by a team of the world’s best security experts. OpenBSD is sponsored by a nonprofit foundation and many of the programmers volunteer their time.

At one point the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) gave OpenBSD a grant, then rescinded it when OpenBSD project leader Theo de Raadt made remarks critical of the Iraq war.

In December 2010, de Raadt received an email alleging the FBI had paid some OpenBSD ex-developers to insert backdoors into the software. He was skeptical but immediately made the email public and invited an independent review of the relevant program code. A few bugs were fixed but no evidence of a backdoor was found. So even though the allegations turned out to be false, they succeeded anyway – as a act of psychological warfare – by destroying trust in the OpenBSD project.

George Orwell said

… ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance …. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon–so long as there is no answer to it– gives claws to the weak.

At first it would seem that a social networking service like twitter, recently used by many protesters in the Middle East, would fit Orwell’s definition of a “simple weapon” that “gives claws to the weak”. But in fact the situation is much more ambiguous. Twitter is a for-profit corporation which must maintain large data centers and a complex infrastructure. And they are subject to many financial, legal and political pressures.

Internet freedom initiatives must be independent of political connotations, run on a decentralized infrastructure, and use technology that is subject to public review by security experts. Most importantly, users must have complete trust in the skills and integrity of the people providing those tools and services.

If they don’t the cure could prove worse than the disease.

Note: Wikipedia has a good list of other anti-censorship software.

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Mideast protesters reject repressive regimes; remain tethered to tech they can’t control

by David Solomonoff

Protesters fed up with political repression, corruption and poverty (particularly recent food price inflation)  toppled the government of Tunisia. They threaten to do the same in other countries throughout the Mideast as pundits hail the “Twitter and Facebook revolution”. But repressive governments have as much compunction about shutting down communication services as they do about torturing dissidents.

Egypt has cut all Internet access and most mobile phone service as huge protests threaten to topple that government. For a while the ISP Noor remained online – largely because it connects the country’s Stock Exchange and many offices of foreign companies to the outside world. Noor has now been cut off as well.

Interestingly, Egypt and Tunisia have some of the largest percentages of the population online in Africa. Egypt’s Communications Minister, Tarek Kamel, was secretary and co-founder of the global Internet Society’s Egyptian Chapter (which is no longer active). He is still listed as a member of the Board of Trustees on the Internet Society’s website. The Internet Society has strongly denounced the Internet shutdown.

Kamel is widely recognized as the person who brought the Internet to Egypt. He has publicly supported the open development of the Internet. His bio on the Internet Society’s website states that in the early years of the development of the Internet in Egypt, “Kamel’s work extended into liberalization issues such as a tax reduction for ISPs as well as a government/private sector partnership to serve the Egyptian Internet community. He has actively participated in the establishment of community centers in remote areas to bring the Internet to the have-nots.” His role in the shutdown is unknown, although he wasn’t among the cabinet members removed in the shakeup of the Egyptian government in the wake of the protests.

Cutting off most communication with the outside world for an extended period would be economic suicide for any modern, developed country, but temporary interruption – long enough to kill or imprison a large number of protesters without too much visibility for squeamish foreign allies – is viable for a poor country ruled by an elite supported by gifts of military technology from wealthier countries.

The protesters vulnerability is relying on highly centralized communication networks and services while fighting an overly centralized political system. The younger ones probably don’t have any memory of being without mobile phones and the Internet and may have taken them for granted.

To succeed in the face of violent repression and the shutdown of Internet and phone service, they must quickly develop low-tech strategies that are as fast and flexible as the ones that have been lost.

Another approach is to build communication services that cannot be intercepted or shut down. Human rights activists and hackers are already starting to do it with combination of low-cost commodity hardware and free open source software:

  • Landlines still work in Egypt and a French ISP FDN offers free dialup Internet to Egyptians. Instructions to connect to foreign ISP’s via dialup with a mobile phone are also being circulated for those who can use them.
  • For Egyptians who are still able to use their mobile phones, there is Sukey, “a security-conscious news, communications and logistics support service principally for use by demonstrators during demonstrations.”
  • Tech entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar put a call out on Twitter for volunteers to help construct self-configuring unblockable mobile ad hoc networks to prevent government caused blackouts during future protests worldwide
  • We Rebuild, a Europe-based group working for free speech and an open Internet is developing non-Internet modes of communication, including amateur, shortwave and pirate radio as well as a fax gateway, to assist protesters and humanitarian relief efforts. Information on these efforts can be found on their Telecomix news site.
  • Remaining Internet activity is certainly being monitored. The Tor network of anonymous, encrypted proxies has seen a huge increase in Egyptian traffic.

Efforts like these could be the tipping point for the uprisings. In 1989 Czech student protesters received a gift of then state of the art 2400 baud modems from a mysterious man who may have been from the covert-operations wing of the Japanese embassy. Modems were illegal but most Czech police didn’t even know what they were. The students set up BBS systems to coordinate actions throughout the country and successfully overthrew the Soviet communist backed dictatorship.

If you think the problems people in Egypt have could never happen here, you might want to think again. In the U.S. the “Internet kill switch” bill in Congress would allow interruption of Internet services in a “national cyberemergency.” Senator Joe Lieberman, who introduced the bill in the Senate, has described the Internet as a “dangerous place” and promised the bill would protect against  “cyber terrorists”.

Some of our current political leaders, hanging on every word of their consultants and pollsters, and terrified of harsh criticism, might consider hostile online commentary more of an “emergency” than something trivial like say, a collision with an asteroid.

General Douglas MacArthur said, “No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” Today that vigilance means learning to build and modify the technology that we use rather than being passive consumers of it.

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The Future is where we’re all going to live: Cargo Cults and Ghosts in the Machine

by David Solomonoff

Recently I participated in a panel sponsored by the y+30 meetup group which is a “forum for discussing what the world might look like in +30 years.” Moderated by Jeremy Pesner, the topic for the panel was the “Future of Digital Communication.” Because of time constraints for the very broad topic, Jeremy and I agreed to sponsor some more events, to be cosponsored by the Internet Society of New York.

This post will be the first in a series looking through my crystal ball at possible directions and challenges society will face as a result of the accelerating pace of technology in the next thirty years. Because the breakthroughs in digital communication, specifically the impact of the Internet, are the glue that ties and transforms every other aspect of technology and society, that will be my main focus.

Predicting the future is a tricky business but something everyone likes to try. My favorite futurist is the Amazing Criswell, a psychic known for wildly inaccurate predictions, who said “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Often futurists and science-fiction writers describe a “future” that is already occurring. Former cyberpunk William Gibson said “The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.” Then he gave up writing novels about the future. He now writes fiction about the present where new technologies play a part.

Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” True now more than ever before because information technology, specifically software, has more in common with magical invocation and prayer than it does with earlier mechanical technologies like steam power or internal combustion. We tell machines what to do and hope they’ll do it rather than shoveling the coal, turning the crank, or opening a valve.

We think we are superior to people in less technologically advanced societies, but few people understand how technologies they use actually work.

Carl Sagan said “We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology.” This makes us vulnerable both to accidents and acts of malice we cannot comprehend. Are we destined to devolve into a cargo cult or to struggle against malevolent ghosts in our machines?

Part of the problem may be that technological skills and intellectual property are seen as commodities to be outsourced, bought and sold, rather than shared. But as an evangelist for open source everything, I think this is only part of the problem.

To be continued …

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