September 21, 2009

Freedom in the Age of Technological Contraband: A SentDev Classic

Regulating potentially dangerous technologies is one thing, but stifling research and innovation will lead to a dystopic future we're trying to avoid.

[Note: This article was originally published on May 12, 2003]

Strange. As I held the new Cisco router in my hands -- a simple piece of networking equipment for the office -- it didn't feel like a weapon. But the fine print on the bill sure made it seem that way.

Because the router was exported to Canada, it fell under US export regulations. The invoice warned: "Diversion contrary to US law prohibited." Specifically, US law prohibits the "distribution of such technologies without prior authorization to Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, or Sudan" and using the router for the design, development, production or stockpiling of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

In other words, if you're an IT guy somewhere in the Axis of Evildom who needs gear, you may be out of luck. Your friendly neighborhood reseller is unlikely to carry top-of-the-line IT products soon, and you're likely going to be replacing your networking TCP/IP protocol with cups and string. And if you're in Iran holding the Koran in one hand and encryption software in the other, you might as well be holding a Kalashnikov rifle.

There are those in the US and elsewhere who fear that certain technologies, in the hands of misguided rogue nations or nonstate actors, might be used in the development of weapons of mass destruction, or at the very least weapons of mass disruption.

So trade embargoes are no longer limited to conventional weapons and peripheral military devices; they now extend to broader categories of technology, including information technology -- even the type you find at your work or home.

There's also growing fear that enemies exist not just abroad but also within. Some worry that emerging empowering technologies are, well, a little too empowering.

And perhaps worst of all, there is burgeoning sentiment against the perceived root of the problem: Scientific progress and technological innovation itself. As a result, the work of scientists and engineers has been put into question, and in many ways progress itself.

But stopping progress and hoisting the veils of ignorance -- in effect stopping history -- is a sweeping and dangerous proposition. Instead, we must stop fixating on the technologies and consider the best ways to regulate and monitor their use without impinging everyone's right to benefit from scientific and technological advancement.

Killing technology

Our post 9/11 sensibilities have forced a reevaluation of where technology has brought us and where it is leading us. While we still worry about the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, we are now also more concerned with less-sophisticated and more-commonplace technologies that can be easily converted into weapons.

We've seen airplanes turned into cruise missiles, and we now speculate about scenarios of cyber warfare in which combatant hackers turn off power grids and open dam floodgates.

This concern is now being translated into legislation, and much of it for the worse.

Currently in the Middle East, a mobile phone with an attached digital camera is considered technological contraband by the US military. (But for some strange reason, only if the camera is physically attached, as if it would be fine to hold an unloaded gun in one hand while carrying a loaded clip in the other.)

While I sympathize with the military's concern about potential surveillance and espionage tools, most tech contraband rules are less justified. Jumpy legislators -- often guided by industries that can't keep pace with new realities -- are passing questionable laws affecting everyone's use of everyday products.

Take Greece, for example (of all places). Last July, the Greek parliament enacted Greek Law 3037/2002, effectively banning electronic games across the country, including home console systems and portable gaming devices such as Game Boy. Explicitly, the law forbids electronic games with "electronic mechanisms and software" from both public and private places. Failure to adhere could earn you a fine from US$5,000 to US$75,000 and up to a year in jail.

According to a report in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, the law was introduced to prevent illegal gambling. "The blanket ban was decided in February after the government admitted it was incapable of distinguishing innocuous video games from illegal gambling machines," the report said.

Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

And don't go getting smug, North Americans.

For those of you in Michigan, reconsider setting up that virtual private network. In an effort to protect service providers from such things as cable theft, the state passed a law earlier this year making it illegal to possess or use "any communication device to receive...any communication service without the express consent or express authorization of the communication service provider" or "to conceal...from any communication service provider...the existence or place of origin or destination of any communication."

Such restrictions effectively prohibit security measures that people use to protect private communication through networks such as VPNs.

More severe limitations exist in China. Like most things these days, even the Great Wall of China is susceptible to digital conversion. The Chinese government has constructed its very own Not So World Wide Web, isolating citizens from sites it deems offensive or politically incorrect. Banned content includes dissenting political opinions, sexually suggestive material and gambling.

In addition, the Chinese government has blocked users from accessing the Google search engine, and its version of Yahoo! excludes links to an array of content, including content relating to the spiritual movement Falun Gong.

Innovation brings freedom

The Chinese government, thankfully, may be in for a surprise. Crafty Chinese hackers will eventually find weak points in the neo-Great Wall; it's not like it was in the old days of Communism when information could be easily controlled. Maintaining a totalitarian grip in the Age of Information is becoming exceedingly onerous.

Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland and an anti-communist agitator, believes there is a strong correlation between technological progress and human freedom. "Communism is a monopolistic system, economically and politically," says Walesa. "The system suppresses individual initiative, and the 21st century is all about individualism and freedom."

Walesa believes that technological development undermines restrictive governments. "When I was fighting communism, there was rapid development of satellite television and cell phones, and communism, to survive, would have to block all these information devices," he says.

To control the free flow of information, says Walesa, Communist governments would have needed to increase secret police forces by a factor of four. "Technology," he asserts, "helped end communism by bringing in information from the outside."

Defending the freedom to innovate

Discussing totalitarian regimes while addressing scientific inquiry and technological advancement is par for the course; suppressing progress and innovation would by necessity require a monolithic authoritarian superstructure -- especially considering today's highly advanced communication technologies.

This was recently addressed at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara last month. Keynote speaker Howard Rheingold, author of Virtual Reality and Smart Mobs, acknowledged that our "freedom to innovate is not necessarily going to be as free as it was in the pre-Internet era."

Rheingold -- correctly, in my opinion -- believes that we are at a "pivotal point in the history of technology and a lot of assumptions should be questioned." Today's technologies, he argues, convert passive consumers into active users who both create and consume content.

But Rheingold also notes that industries and governments have started clamping down politically and economically to protect their interests, including using legislative and technological barriers to innovation such as the broadcast flag, trustworthy computing (or as Rheingold quips, the "don't trust the user" approach) and tight control of the radio spectrum by telecommunication companies.

Concerned about this trend, Rheingold wants people to lobby for their right to innovate, and to conceive of novel ways to navigate political and legislative barriers. "Defend your freedom to innovate," he declares. "An era is coming to an end. Geeks and consumers are under assault. We really have to organize to protect our rights."

Cory Doctorow, a sci-fi writer and Boing-Boing blogger who helped organize the event, agrees that there is a problem and that activism is the key. "You can't change the law unless you participate in the lawmaking process," he says. "Technology is relentlessly lowering the barrier to entry in that process." Specifically, Doctorow looks to the power of text messaging and blogs to politicize the populace.

Rational regulation

We're not about to turn from the benefits brought by technology, be it anesthetics or airplanes. Nor are we about to abort the projects of increasing human understanding and freedom, projects in which science and technology play an essential role.

But only the most naive observer would advocate a laissez-faire approach to monitoring and regulating new technologies.

Rather, we need to consider how new technologies can be misused and act by managing their proliferation. We already have precedents in such things as gun control and licensed gambling casinos. And of course, we have trade embargos to prevent whack-jobs such as North Korea's Kim Jong Il from obtaining potentially dangerous devices (at least more than he already has). We must continue to ensure that new and potentially dangerous tools are used for humanity's benefit and not to its detriment.

But at the same time we must ensure that we don't terrorize ourselves with foolish and unnecessarily restrictive prohibitions against truly harmless technologies. And we must remember that inhibiting scientific and technological progress to prevent disaster will lead directly to a dystopic future that we have long tried to avoid.

One thing is clear: Our freedom to innovate is inexorably tied to all the other freedoms we value.

Originally published on May 12, 2003.

1 comment:

Strling Westrup said...

Having worked in the IT industry my entire life and having talked to many American techies, I can say that the US is extremely leaky when it comes to these technologies. Be assured that any company with any resources at all, anywhere in the world, can get a hold of the requisite technologies as there are any number of American firms with overseas offices willing to work as go-betweens in order to make a profit, export laws be-damned.

The only ones affected by these laws are the regular consumers in these blacklisted countries.