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Re: The Esther Dyson Flap

At 12:59 AM 9/3/96, Chuck Thompson wrote:
>I don't quite understand the position taken by Mr. Assange and Mr. Unicorn
>regarding recent statements attributed to Ms. Dyson.  I would appreciate
>some additional insight.
>It appears as though they are both critical of statements (taken out of
>context according to Dyson) because of her position with the EFF.  It
>appears that they both believe that she has no right to her opinion if it is
>contradictory to the policy of the EFF.

Certainly no one is suggesting she should have her right of free speech
taken away from her, as a citizen.

Rather, these are precarious times for the future of the Net, with actions
in many countries, including the U.S. to restrict the Net in various ways.
Esther Dyson is in an influential postition, not just because of her new
role as Chairman of the EFF. Anytime a person of her influence is seen to
be supporting limitations on what private citizens can communicate to
others or to the public at large, this is cause for worry.

(As both John Gilmore and Stanton McCandlish have noted, anonymity has a
long history in the United States. From the Federalist Papers, to anonymous
leafletting (upheld by the Supreme Court), to anonymous letters to the
editor, to the basic architecture of the Postal System and the phone
system, anonymity has been with us for a long time.

Esther Dyson says that anonymity on the Net can do more damage than
anonymity in other forums, and thus may need to be regulated and restricted
in various ways. I disagree, as "the Net of a Million Lies" (to use Vinge's
term) has grown up with anonymity, and few people take the anonymous (or
not) rants and charges made in the millions per day with the same degree of
certainty they take print comments. Put another way, there is no clear and
present danger.

And the Net makes for effective counterspeech. As free speech advocates
note, the proper remedy for bad speech is more speech. (The links between
"free speech" and "anonymity" are fairly obvious, and curtailing one
curtails the other. "Congress shall make no law restricting speech" says
nothing about anonymous speech being subject to regulation.)

Further, the computerized nature of Net speech makes other remedies
available as well. For example, reputation-ratings services. And digital
signatures (to preclude forged comments).

Speech on the Net closely resembles idiots, scholars, dweebs, and
scoundrels ranting in public parks. Sometimes they accuse the mayor of
adultery, sometimes they rant about UFOs, sometimes they merely utter
obscenities. All are potentially dangerous, potentially ignorable,
potentially humorous. And yet in none of these cases is there a demand that
identification be produced, that one's papers be in order, that a "free
speech license" be produced upon demand by the authorities.

(Some might say that the physical personna of the speaker means that a
means of last resort--apprehending the person--exists to track down a
speaker of illegal thoughts, and that this is the kind of last resort that
is currently lacking for Net speech. Perhaps. But this very same lack is
evidenced with anonymous pamphlets, with anonymous pieces written for
newsletters (where even an editor may not know the author), and with phone
calls, say, to radio call-in programs. Clearly someone calling "The Howard
Stern Show" and making a preposterous, or even illegal, claim is reaching
many more people than is some anonymous message to a Usenet newsgroup.
Again, where is the clear and present danger with anonymous Net speech that
would justify (putatively) greater restrictions on Net speech than other
speech channels have?)

>Pouncing on someone, without knowing all the facts, who is vulnerable
>because of their position smacks of dirty politics - it is distasteful.  Why
>not ask for the facts from the source?  Then state your opinions or make
>your threats about not contributing financially.

Well, many of us did not pounce. Speaking for myself, I strongly suspected
that the newspaper article had summarized a more-nuanced point and had
effectively taken just a convenient sound bite.

(Also, I'd heard Dyson speak on anonymity issues before, and knew her to
have some doubts about full-blown crypto anarchy.)

Now that she has somewhat clarified what it was she actually said, more
issues have been raised.

I believe she does not understand the problems implicit in trying to
provide "accountability" for online speech. What if, for example, I offer
to forward things I receive to various online forums? Am I then violating a
law by "anonymizing" a message? Am I supposed to check identities? (How?)

Are remailers to be declared illegal? If not, all other "accountability"
laws go out the window.

This is the "knife edge," or "fork in the road," I've long talked about. If
anonymity is outlawed, it will take draconian measures to enforce
it--citizen-unit ID cards, officially issued encryption keys, escrow,
monitoring of communications, massive penalties to deter illegal use of
encryption, and other police state measures.

On the other hand, if enough degrees of freedom are left untouched, the
result is a growing, expanding crypto anarchy. Government will find itself
powerless to control commerce (handled via encrypted channels), will find
it doesn't know the True Names of various Net entities, and will end up
being chased into an enclave of things it _can_ control.

My strong hunch is that no stable solutions lie between these two extremes.
This is one of those "decision points" for modern society, with attractors
pulling the solution to one side or another.

We know which side we stand on. It's possible that Esther Dyson is finding
herself on the other side, alongside Dorothy Denning, Louis Freeh, Donn
Parker, and the other advocates of "responsible freedom."

(Anytime you hear someone speaking of "responsible freedom," look out.)

I don't call her our enemy. Perhaps she just hasn't thought things through
as deeply as many of us have.

Given that I think EFF has pretty much lost any role it may have once had,
for a variety of reasons we're probably all tired of hearing about, I'm not
too worried about what the EFF says or does on this issue. I'm more
worried, to be honest, that a person as influential _for other reasons_ as
Esther Dyson is talking about responsible freedom and the need to limit
certain forms of speech.

--Tim May

We got computers, we're tapping phone lines, I know that that ain't allowed.
Timothy C. May              | Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money,
[email protected]  408-728-0152 | anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero
W.A.S.T.E.: Corralitos, CA  | knowledge, reputations, information markets,
Licensed Ontologist         | black markets, collapse of governments.
"National borders aren't even speed bumps on the information superhighway."