The Book Club

Cyber-Liberty Depends on the Architecture

Now we’re getting somewhere. Richard asks, How is it that commerce can bring about a change to the liberty of the Net? How is it any different from commerce in real space? We don’t ordinarily–we who are not Reds at least–say that the market in general reduces freedom. So why in cyberspace should it be any different?

The answer is simple: It’s the architecture, um, Richard.

Richard begins his questions with Chapter 7; but I think the answers begin in Chapter 1. For the argument of the first part of my book is not that the presence of commerce on the Net by itself reduces the liberty of the Net. If the architecture of the Net remained as it was in 1995, then it wouldn’t matter who uses the Net for what.

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My argument is that commerce is changing the architecture of the Net, and as a byproduct of that change, the freedoms of the Net will change. Commerce is bringing technologies to the Net that will reduce the initial liberties of the Net–not because commerce is evil. Nor because it is against liberty. But because the architectures that make commerce more efficient can also make control cheaper. The very architectures that make it possible to profit will make it easier to regulate.

Richard pointed to some of these architectures of freedom in his first post. He said that “physical aggression against neighbors is ruled out in part by the anonymous participation that is possible online.” I’m not quite sure what he imagines here, but he is appealing to a feature of the Net to make his argument: anonymity. But “anonymity” is not a natural or necessary feature of the Internet. We could just as well imagine an Internet where transactions left fingerprints. And to the extent that they did, the consequence that Richard points to would change. To the extent the Net were architected to limit, or eliminate anonymity, a certain liberty of the original Net would change as well.

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And this is precisely the kind of change my book describes. There is an increasing push to layer onto the Net architectures that facilitate identification and tracking. The technologies are many. I describe one technology extensively in my book–the emergence of digital certificates that will function as digital IDs. But there are any number of other examples that make very same point: emerging architectures that make tracking and identification easier.

Think about “cookies.” Here’s an architecture (in the sense I mean the term) that was added to the Web by an innovation of Netscape Corporation. That innovation would, Netscape argued, make it easier for servers to track customers. When you contact a site, the site can deposit an entry in your cookie file that will make it possible for that site to gather data about you in the future.

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That change stripped away a certain amount of anonymity on the Net. Now servers could watch where you browse; they could watch pages you skip to; they could know something they didn’t before. And all this because of a change in the architecture.

The point is not that cookies do no good. I love the fact that Amazon knows who I am and can recommend books to me when I come to their home page (they’ve yet to recommend my book to me, but I’m sure they’ll get around to that soon enough). But the point is that the freedom that there was has been changed by a change in the architecture. Sites now get data for free, because the architecture makes it possible.

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But more important changes are just around the corner. For example:

One of the fundamental architectural principles of the original Internet was the principle of “end-to-end.” First described by network architects Jerome Saltzer, David P. Reed, and David Clark, end-to-end means that you keep the network stupid, and build intelligence at the “ends”–in the applications, or the users.

One consequence of this design was that the network could not discriminate: So long as you followed the basic Internet protocols, the network would carry your traffic. And one consequence of this consequence of non-discrimination was that new applications could be brought to the Net, even if they displaced the dominant existing application. No one was in a position to discriminate against a new entrant, because the Net was architected to disable discrimination.

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Enter broadband cable, at least under the architecture initially proposed by AT&T. After acquiring as many cable companies as it could, AT&T and its affiliates are now converting the cable system so that it can carry the Internet. But they are architecting this network very differently from how the original Internet was architected. They are architecting it so that the network owner gets to choose the Internet service provider that you get your broadband Internet service from. And because the architecture allows AT&T to choose, it allows AT&T to control how “its” network gets used. If it doesn’t want you to stream video through your computer (a possible future with broadband) because that competes with streaming video to your television set (the past with cable), it now has the power to discriminate. And it has that power because its network has been architected to give it that power. It has been architected, that is, to be different from the principle of non-discrimination in the original Net.

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Now, these are not issues that ivory-tower libertarians would ignore. Indeed, I can imagine as I write this Richard chafing to intervene and to say that libertarianism has lots to say to these problems. (I was Richard’s colleague for six years, and student for one; I know his chafing very well.) The libertarian would talk about externalities, and about minimum regulation to avoid externalities, and about the value of common carriers, and the like.

But cyber-libertarians say something different. They have been slow to defend the principles of the initial architecture against the changes that commerce would impose on that architecture. They have been slow because they have been slow to see how the Net is changing. And more important, slow to see how much of the freedom they enjoy comes not (just) from the absence of government, but also from a constitution of freedom built into the architecture of the Net.

The argument of my book is that we ought to pay attention to this constitution, and to the freedoms that this initial architecture gave us. And that we ought to pay attention to the influences that are changing this architecture, and therefore changing this freedom.

You wouldn’t disagree with that, would you Richard?

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