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Barlow, Schiller Grateful for Privacy in Cyberspace


Jiri Schindler - The Tech
Jeffrey I. Schiller '79 listens to John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for The Grateful Dead, as Barlow describes how the government is ignorant of technological issues in front of a packed 6-120 audience on Tuesday.

By Jennifer Lane
Contributing Editor

An eclectic crowd, cryptography hacker and societal critic alike, gathered in 6-120 Tuesday night to discuss security on the Internet with John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and Jerry I. Schiller '79, network manager for Information Systems.

Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Ronald L. Rivest moderated the discussion entitled, "Internet Rights Versus Internet Security," sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT.

Rivest first remarked that he would have preferred the discussion to be entitled Internet rights and Internet security. Indeed, Barlow and Schiller would speak little of trading rights for security, but rather of how to integrate the two.

Schiller spoke first and drew on experiences with e-mail he regularly receives at postmaster@mit.edu, the address to reach e-mail system administrators, to entertain the audience and supplement his more serious qualifications such as manager of MIT's campus computer network and author of MIT's Kerberos authentication system.

Schiller emphasizes security

Ultimately, Schiller said, it is "important that we have a way to protect our privacy from those who would think otherwise." But, "would you tear out all the pay phones in the world just to make sure people cannot make anonymous phone calls?"

The Internet has some important evolutionary steps to overcome before it is treated like other media, he said. "We're in a funny state of the evolution of the Internet. It has gone from the communication media of computers to the communication media of people, but socially and politically, we haven't gotten there yet."

Defining free speech is a whole separate issue. The Internet needs to evolve into "a communications medium where if someone says something you don't like, it's either illegal and the authorities are contacted, or it's not illegal and life is just tough."

The key party that has been left out of the Internet explosion is the government, Schiller said. With their interest in a key escrow system whereby the government would have the ability to break any encrypted message, the "United States government has completely discredited itself," Schiller said.

While almost everyone is interested in security, they expect it is something that can just be tacked on to a project, he said. No one is willing "to sacrifice whiz-bang to get safe," he said.

It is here that the government could take an active role in enforcing security standards for public safety, much like seat belts in automobiles. "Without the government to set the rules, we have the market. The market is clueless," Schiller said.

Barlow fields audience questions

Schiller then yielded the floor to Barlow, a former Wyoming cattle rancher, who spent the entire evening clad in purple sunglasses. Barlow promptly declared himself "dedicated to the elimination of broadcast media"and solicited questions from the audience.

Initial questions focused on the government's role in Internet security.

The U.S. government poses little practical threat to Internet communications, Barlow said. "They are so completely anti-clueful. They are not able to do very much."

Barlow contended that the government, through key escrow, wanted nothing more than the power they have in a conventional telephone wiretap. Government officials, however, did not know the difference between a wiretap and the proposed centralized access to any cyberspace communication at any time, Barlow said. They are "so technologically incompetent that they are innocent of the evils they propose."

Besides, "in an anti-sovereign environment like cyberspace, you must recognize that the technical architecture is politics," he said. "The Internet treats censorship as a malfunction and routes around it."

As the Internet grows, all of our notions of privacy, government, communication, and life in general are about to significantly change, he said. "Ithink that we are at the precipice of a completely different kind of human,"Barlow said.

Although he acknowledged that society was a long way from reaching the goal, he remarked briefly on the concept of people connected directly though neural synapses. "The very nature of privacy could change dramatically," he said.

Barlow advocates frontier society

Barlow grew up in rural Wyoming, where "everyone knows everything about everyone, even things that aren't true,"he said. Inquiring about Barlow at the Wrangler Cafe would probably result in a stream of information, much of which Barlow wasn't even aware of, he said.

However, there is a built-in mechanism in the community for placing his actions in context. People won't be as alarmed by his actions as they would be of a stranger's. "Imay be a weirdo, but I'm their weirdo."

On the Internet, people leave a data trail that can reveal a lot about them. We're "going to have to get used to an environment where people are going to know a lot more than they do now,"Barlow said.

What Barlow proceeded to advocate was a frontier system where people can rely on ethics and culture to be their common police: a society where people work their differences out one-on-one. This is exactly what is happening on the Internet, and it has been able to sustain magnanimous growth, he said.

Not only must we address the questions of how much security we want, how we want to get it, and who we want to be secure against, but we must be ready to adapt to rapidly changing institutions, he said

Large institutions will collapse

"We are at the end of an economic era and at the beginning of a time when everything you know is wrong and many current institutions no longer make sense," Barlow said.

Customs and trade, for instance, are still measured by things that the customs department can place a stamp on. It is no wonder, then, that the United States will begin to fall short in trade, Barlow said. "We are not in the stuff business any more."

Big companies will also be forced to change dramatically, Barlow said.

"The multinational corporation is as doomed as the nation-state," he said. Basically, it does not pay to be a large company unless you are producing goods, Barlow said. Large size is a disadvantage to an information organization, the wave of the future, he said.

Large corporations often fail to understand the Internet concept, he said. The EFFwas working a few years ago to stop the widespread use of the buzzword phrase "information superhighway."

However, Barlow soon realized that this was a fruitless endeavor. The outcome did not matter, as large corporations would soon be unable to productively use the Internet. "If you hear someone using the term information superhighway,' you can be certain he's a part of some large, doomed organization," he said.

Federal government will fall

In response to a question over whether the government will forever remain too incompetent to interfere in Internet communications, Barlow admitted he did not think that government was going to simply vanish.

Rather, only the federal government was doomed, Barlow said. There will "always be local government, because that is where the body lives." Streets need to be plowed and tarred, and water still needs to flow through the pipes, he said. Additionally, local government is funded through easily-defined means of sales or property tax.

The federal government, on the other hand, is dependent on income taxes which are harder to track, Barlow said. Banks, once the trusted third party used to keep records of income, may fall by the wayside. At that point, income tax may become voluntary, he said.

"Boundaries on the map are increasingly irrelevant,"Barlow said. "Now the body can be easily divorced from an offensive action." This will pose a serious jurisdiction problem for governments, because the authorities "don't know where the body is or even if there is one."

When asked if the government may have any legitimate concerns in regulating cyberspace, Schiller said, "As soon as you buy the argument that there is a legitimate interest, you have lost."

Barlow agreed, contending that the government was overcompensating for a danger that is not present. They are "trying to prevent any possible bad thing that might happen,"he said. They begin to "advocate a balance that would skew things toward totalitarian control,"he said.

Barlow on spam, PGP, and Emacs

In reference to a conversation Schiller began earlier, a question was posed to Barlow over spamming, the practice of sending large amounts of unwanted e-mail, often to attempt to sell or solicit something.

Barlow's response came quickly. "Spamming is like heavy cocaine use. It's self-regulating. When you do it enough, you realize it isn't very good." Once spammers see that their returns are not very high, the practice will cease to be lucrative, Barlow said. "The market will take care of spammers."

When asked why Pretty Good Privacy, a public/private key security system developed by Phil Zimmerman, was not in more widespread use, Barlow noted that user-friendly mail systems like Eudora still do not interface well with PGP. "Everyone who put together a user interface for PGPis a complete nerd,"he said.

Later, Patrick J. Lopresti G, pointed out that users who utilize Emacs to read and send mail can take advantage of an "excellent"user interface to PGP that he developed. Barlow's response was that "anyone who uses Emacs has a completely different idea of an excellent user interface."