Jailbreaking the Internet: For freedom's sake

With so many threats to a free and open Internet, sooner or later, people will need to arm themselves for the fight

Last week, I talked a bit about the history of the Internet and its original goal of enabling the free flow of information. I also talked about the fact that moneyed interests the world over are scrambling to turn the Internet into something closer to cable TV than the open network we currently enjoy.

The past few weeks have shown that public outcry can still somehow influence legislation: SOPA and PIPA are down, if not quite out. Yet the ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is coming on fast. Plus, who knows what the next year will bring in the form of odious legislation intended to collapse the free and open Internet while masquerading as some pious "save the children" nonsense? The battle may have been won for the moment, but this is going to be a never-ending war.

[ Read the prequel to this post, "Building the next Internet." | Find out why Paul Venezia thinks politicians should never make laws about technology. | Also see Paul's recent investigative project, "Fundamental Oracle flaw revealed." ]

In my last post, I also talked about the next Internet. Not necessarily in terms of a separate, new network -- that's not possible at this point -- but a new Internet that would continue to promote the free exchange of ideas and information without the shackles of corporate control. It's a network that already exists and has for some time, but the vast majority of Internet users don't know about it and have never needed to know about it until now.

If the baboons succeed in constraining speech and information flow on the broader Internet, the new Internet will emerge quickly. For an analogy, consider the iPhone and the efforts of a few smart hackers who have allowed anyone to jailbreak an iPhone with only a small downloaded app and a few minutes. Though these apps couldn't be simpler to use, their easy and colorful UIs mask a massive quantity of research and reverse-engineering by a group of determined software and hardware geeks. It's all wrapped up in a nice, accessible package, but the underlying concepts are well beyond what 99 percent of those who jailbreak their phones can truly understand.

So it will be with the jailbroken Internet. In a world where corporations can force just about anyone "off" the Internet by leveraging proposed laws like SOPA and causing ISPs to break DNS, there needs to be a way to maintain connectivity to those sites and that information. If Large Corporation A doesn't like what Average Guy B is saying about it in his blog, it could effectively muzzle that voice with a takedown notice that adheres to the letter of the law, yet crushes our concepts of free speech and the open Internet. While protecting copyright is clearly an important endeavor, these proposed methods are execrable. However, if a significant number of people aren't using those DNS servers, if they aren't using the standard Internet pathways, that voice will still be heard, those sites will still be available.

All that scenario would require would be a way to wrap up existing technologies into a nice, easily-installed package available through any number of methods. Picture the harrowing future described above, and then picture a single installer that runs under Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux that installs tor, tools to leverage alternative DNS servers, anonymizing proxies, and even private VPN services. A few clicks of the mouse, and suddenly that machine would be able to access sites "banned" through general means.

This is precisely what technophobic and myopic legislators simply do not understand: You cannot censor the Internet. As John Gilmore famously said, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." So it has been and so it will be.

This workaround solution will be technically deficient, but it will be functional. A technically valid solution already exists --the Internet in its current form -- but if that gets mangled, plan B may be one of the only ways through those troubled times.

Make no mistake, these tools and services are readily available now --and have been for quite some time. Tools like Vidalia for Mac OS X wrap up technologies like tor quite well, but tor itself isn't the whole solution. If the day comes when true censorship enfolds to the Internet, deep geeks who have been using these tools for years will start showing their friends how to use them. Then the aforementioned "jailbreaking" apps will appear, and sooner rather than later, those who don't use them will fall into the category we reserve for people who still use AOL today. The rest of us will still be able to access sites and services the world over through alternative means, at least until the baboons figure it out and pay for more legislation crafted to crack down on those methods. Then those methods will change again and the game will continue.

The fact that we may have to play this game is in itself a disgrace. No, this is a sad game, an amoral game, a farce and a crime. The Internet is an engineering marvel that has contributed more to the open exchange of information than anything in history. Seeing it crippled by greed and ignorance is like watching the burning of the Library of Alexandria. To paraphrase one of the most famous fictional computers in history, in the coming contest between those who would control the infrastructure and those who use it, the only way to win is not to play. Unfortunately, those battle lines are being drawn whether we like it or not. So play we must. Play we will.

This story, "Jailbreaking the Internet: For freedom's sake" was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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