Guest Post: The Emperor’s New Modem

Dan Nolan, one of the brilliant bloggers from Ultimate Science Team, and previous ALS guest blogger, has provided us with his libertarian perspective on online activism, triggered by the “anonymous” campaign. I should note that my posting of this guest blog in no way means I endorse, support, or agree with, any of the points made within. So with that out of the way, read on:

In March 2007 in Thailand a Swiss man named Oliver Jufer, was convicted of the crime of lese majeste. He had drunkenly spray-painted over posters of the king in Chiang Mai. Lese Majeste is the crime of insulting the sovereign of a nation, and the mere existence of this crime is an offense to those who support free speech in all of its forms. One month later, on the 4th of April 2007, Thailand blocked the popular internet video website YouTube for hosting a video of the king having spraypaint put on his face. Within hours the internet exploded, as thousands of people uploaded their own videos mocking King Adulyadej of Thailand in response to the Thais’ ridiculous attempt to censor free speech.

This is another variation of the Streisand effect (named for Barbara Streisand) which is a massive internet backlash in response to perceived attempts of censorship. The effect was named for Streisand after she attempted to have aerial photos of her house removed from a popular photo sharing website by filing a suit against the site and its proprietor. Streisand had attempted to stop people from viewing the photo but ended up motivating an incredible amount of traffic due to the publicity of her lawsuit. The Streisand effect is one of those beautiful phenomenas that brings together thousands of disparate individuals in support of free speech.

The Thai example was particularly interesting because it wasn’t just the normal instantiation of the Streisand effect. Normally in a Streisand situation individuals just help to disseminate or republish material that individuals, corporations or governments want quashed. An example that I can speak to from personal experience was the leaking of the ACMA Blacklist earlier this year. Senator Conroy and ACMA went on the record to say that those found republishing or disseminating the list could be fined or imprisoned, whilst, oddly enough, denying that the list was the actual blacklist. I, like thousands of others, republished the list which I obtained from wikileaks onto my blog UltimateScienceTeam a few minutes after I was alerted to it being released. This is how the Streisand effect works, it distributes the information to so many sources that it becomes an impossibility for normal legal channels to be used to quash the information and punish people. An element of the ACMA blacklist section that was particularly heart-warming and wonderful was the threat of the Wikileaks to Conroy who outlined that if he attempted to track down and punish the individual who leaked the information to Wikileaks, he would be in violation of Swedish law and they would refer it to the Swedish Constitutional Police (I know, I squeed) to have him extradited and tried.The reason the Thai situation was so anomalous was that it didn’t just involve people saving and reuploading copies of the original video, but it involved people actually making their own videos undermining the king and uploading them. It required people to not just passively forward on the information, but actively respond to it. This is one of the main examples of something that gives me great hope for the spirit of free speech in society. People were so compelled by this obvious violation of natural rights that they went out of their way to make a point about it. The Thai situation was the tipping point for this new method of online activism. Now not only was it important that the information was spread, but that comment and criticism was also passed on the information.

In February this year Ben Goldacre put up a segment from Jeni Barnett’s radio show on LBC on his blog – under the playful title ‘bad science bingo’. He meant this title to poke fun at the utter idiocy the Barnett woman was spouting about the MMR vaccines in Britain. The joke outlined that if you were playing bingo with every canard promoted by anti-vaxxers you would easily win by listening to this broadcast. Two days after this submission, Goldacre was hit with a cease and desist for disseminating the copywritten material of the radio station, LBC. He was threatened with a lawsuit if he didn’t remove the MP3 immediately and cease discussion on it. LBC was obviously trying to back away from the fact that one of their presenters was a quack with such a stunning ignorance of medical science by attempting to scare Goldacre into silence. His response is definitely worth a read.

The internet went absolutely insane with people looking into every legal avenue that they could to reproduce the recording within the limitations of British copyright law. People cut the audio into segments and provided transcripts and criticism of individual elements, blog sites came online overnight to host individual sections or the whole MP3. Even Stephen Fry, God of Twitter came to his defense ( ). In short, the Streisand effect was back in action and the attempt at censorship failed.

This is the point that has to be stressed over and over again, we live in an incredible age. No longer are we beholden to corporations or individuals who use unjust laws to quash free speech. Fascist states are no longer able to hide the grotesque atrocities they commit within their borders because of the increasing ubiquity of the internet. Information by its very nature yearns to be free, and the age of digital technology has provided unparalleled levels of free speech to individuals. As that beautiful tagline to the movie Serenity stated “You can’t stop the signal.” Once that signal is created, once those bits are formed on networks the speech is unstoppable, but the most important thing we can do as lovers of free speech is understand and support technologies that undermine dictatorships and allow those bits to be formed.

I’d posit that most of you reading this are Australians, and as you have a passion for the concepts of liberty you’re probably aware of the Rudd Labor Government’s plans to censor the internet for our own protection. You’ll also certainly be aware that were their plans to go through it would mean our country would join the ranks of Libya, Saudi Arabia, China, Venezuela and Burma in regards to access to information. Of course they have consistently said that this system will only be targeted towards child pornography and the like, and that those who oppose it are extremist cyber libertarians, but we all know what happens when the government is given absolute control of an entity. It gets drunk, rip roaringly drunk. I am going to outline to you, therefore, how to support those who want to avoid censorship and how to avoid censorship yourself online.

The most popular system used to help those in blocked countries get onto the internet is the massive routing system known as “The Onion Router”. TOR as it is commonly known allows people to create ‘nodes’ in a network that are encrypted from end to end. Say, for example, our wonderful dissident in China wishes to find out information regarding Tiananmen Square. They fire up Torpark (A modified version of Firefox with TOR built in) and do a google search for Tiananmen square. That packet for the search is forwarded through an encrypted tunnel to someone in say, Brussels, who then forwards it to someone in Nairobi who forwards the packet to someone in Sydney who then forwards it to the exit node run by someone in Missouri who returns, through that chain, the information they are looking for.

As TOR works in the exact same way that the internet does (routing through great networks) but provides an end-to-end encrypted service, it means that our wonderful dissident sitting in Beijing reading up on the atrocities of the Chinese is safe from the secret police. At the moment it’s quite a complex process to set up a tor node, but those wonderful fellows at Hackers without Borders are working on creating software that can be easily installed which will allow you to use any computer you have access to as a tor node. The more tor nodes the more traffic that can be routed and the greater the overall security of the network.

A quote that is commonly used by those that find the concept of internet censorship abhorrent is one from John Gilmore, that wonderful Libertarian, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. This is true not only due to how packet switched networks work but also due to the mindset encompassed by those who work as computer scientists or who are avid computer users. If you want to find the largest cluster of Libertarians and Anarchists, you’ll find them in the computer science faculties of every university in the world. We’ve glimpsed the future of technology and information and we’ve seen the direction that Liberty can go in if it is given a bit of help. Thesis and Doctoral projects to provide a secure method of connecting to the internet or bypassing internet censorship are supported substantially by Computer Science faculties because it is a concept that is universally revered.

In the field of encryption the encryption methods that tend to become considered ‘unbreakable’ are those for which there is an open and honest discussion. Just because you can’t break your own encryption doesn’t mean no one can. This same concept applies to fascist states trying to quash freedom of speech. They may have some of the brightest minds on their side, but they’ll never be the smartest guys in the room. There is always going to be someone out there just a little bit smarter who will figure out how to bypass their censorship. This is the great white hope of computing and computer science. For those of you reading this, who feel compelled to help, please donate to, please donate to the tor project. Whatever money you can invest will further the cause of liberty and free speech far more than any you invest in individual politicians or parties.

I feel it is only fitting to end this with an excerpt from “The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” written by John Perry Barlow of the EFF:

“We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. 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.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.

You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract . This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.”

18 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Emperor’s New Modem

  1. small correction – wasn’t it the Swedish police, not the Swiss, that threatedned to go after Conroy?

    Wikileaks is hosted in Sweden. For all their big nanny government, they’ve got some awesome free speech laws.

  2. Tim, another correction, major- Free speech means you don’t need a licence from the government to express yourself. It has never meant that you will never suffer if you make false statements about someone! If you express opinions as solid facts, and can’t prove them in a court of law, shouldn’t you pay? Or should anyone be free to make up and broadcast anything about anyone, and be free from persecution? Whilst we should all have equal rights, so a law about the monarch seems unfair, even the Monarch should be able to clear his name (though in a court of law!)

  3. well you could argue from a libertarian perspective that slander and libel can severely detract from someone’s individual liberty – e.g. falsely accusing someone of being a paedophile.

    Free speech is a natural right, but with it comes being responsible for the consequences.

  4. I don’t find defamation laws that compelling. They assume that you own your reputation. Which implies you own what others think of you. Which implies you own the minds of others.

  5. I think there is a place for defamation laws.

    Suppose that the opinion that people choose to have of you is based on a ‘market of ideas’.

    In a regular market, someone deliberately spreading false and malicious rumours about a product, service or company is effectively be an act of violence, harming the capacity of a person or company to conduct legitimate business. Real harm is done to those who prodcue and supply those products and services. Consumers choose not to consume certain things, based on false information.

    Malicious and false rumourmongering is a manipulation of the ‘market of ideas’, leading people to form false opinions of you, and creating a false reputation. Reputation, while intangible, has value, and can be devalued. It affects your freedom of association, it affects your capacity to find work, and it affects the price you can command for your labour.

    Two examples: suppose you are a member of a charitable organisation and decide to run for treasurer. A rumour is started that you are a thief, and hence you are both not elected to the position, and drummed out of the organisation entirely. Real, although incalculable, harm has been done to you, through defamatory information. The market of ideas has decided against you based on false information. If this were to occur in the stock market, we would call it manipulation.

    Second example: suppose you run a childcare business, and a competitor starts a rumor you are a pedophile. A rumour like this would very quickly ruin your reputation, and subsequently your business and livelihood. In this instance, your reputation has a real value, both intangible and economic, which is only harmed by spreading false and malicious information in the market of ideas.

    In an ‘open’ market, people may think of you as they please, based on them having the capacity to be ‘informed’ of the facts, if they so choose. Defamation is a deliberate attempt to distort this ‘market of ideas’, and hence bears costs and benefits, just like regular market manipulation.

  6. I agree with Walter Block on slander and libel laws. Were we to remove them we would ask people to prove their allegations and by our own nature would mistrust things said about people until proven.

  7. I also think slander and libel are counted under free speech. I was amazed that Glenn Beck (all his shows are on YouTube by the way :D) brought slander charges against the people who registered, which just started as a joke on Fark. He defends the US constitution to a large extent, but he’s driven to a law suit because of these laws that are unconstitutional anyway :/

  8. I’m all for using dumb laws to protect yourself. You may as well. That’s not the same as defending the laws.

    Todd – if you are accused of defaming somebody you are guilty unless you prove that the allegations are true. That’s nuts. Your examples also miss the fact that those that spread false rumours threaten their own reputation.

  9. Cory Doctorow’s new(ish) book, Little Brother (which won Libertarian book of the Year) is a rather interesting look at how individuals can use technology to stand up to tyranny. Geared for young adults as it may be, and a bit overly-simplistic at times (with faaaar too much EFF promotion), I think it’s something that we all should read. And you can download it for free! 🙂

  10. “Your examples also miss the fact that those that spread false rumours threaten their own reputation.”

    …when they get proven untrue in court.

    Defamation etc. in tort law is very established in common law and seminal documents like the bill of rights never meant to extinguish the concept.

    The harm is often real. It is for the court decide if it is frivolous or vexatious litigation.

  11. TorPark isn’t tor, it’s some black ops govt conspiracy company giving out fake tor. If you don’t get the zero install tor from, or at least verify pgp signatures, you may be compromised.

  12. Michael – EFF is great, but when you take random breaks from the plot to explain in great detail exactly why EFF is great, and do it repeatedly, it detracts from the overall book somewhat.

  13. And another point- what about the owner of the property that was graffitied on? Shouldn’t the owner be able to force the graffiti-ist to clean up the property? Displaying your own message is one thing, but destroying other people’s property is morally degenerative!

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