Most people seem to take someone saying “Information wants to be free” as some sort of nerd joke, or as a justification for piracy, theft of trade secrets or some other dubious or illegal activity. The point it entirely missed there: Information not only wants to be free, it makes itself free… or rather, it’s made free by the process of technological innovation. Information wants to be free just like water wants to run downhill… of course you can lift it in a bucket, but it’ll flow downhill again as soon as the bucket is knocked over.
Consider what happened when Napster was put under legal pressure and the system failed? Napster was immediately replaced by newer, distributed systems. Technology leaped to meet this new challenge, and we got Direct Connect and eventually BitTorrent. The only way to get at these technologies was to adopt a broader strategy to prevent people from doing things they want to do… which means new laws, letting just about anyone monitor private communications to find when you’re doing something “wrong” (under their own definition of “wrong”).
Does it sound outrageous? Like something out of 1984? Well, it’s already happening. In Sweden, from the 1st of January 2009 (also known as tomorrow) a new law is in effect that lets the government monitor and save any traffic that passes the border of the country (which, to be honest, is basically every single Internet access). Technology will find a way around this. The law, supposedly in place to hunt terrorists, will fail in every way to catch those intended as targets, since these people will simply encrypt their communications with a protocol resistant to man in the middle attacks.
So will the law not have any effect at all then? Of course it’ll have an effect — it can be used against people who don’t bother to encrypt their transmissions because they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. Like people who don’t agree with the authorities about new laws, maybe. Or maybe people who want to organize to have other less abusive politicians elected the next time around? Anyway, I digress.
It gets even better than that. Another law is now being mashed through the “democratic” system (all major parties support it, so the poor citisens have nothing to vote for if they dislike it). This new law will let anyone with slight suspicions about copyright infringement request your personal information from your ISP if they have your IP, and without further proof they’ll be able to issue what in essence is a privately issued fine.
I believe again that technology will find ways around this. Let me give you an outline of such a scheme… everyone interested runs a local proxy. The proxy is connected to a p2p network of available clients. Each time an web access is done through the proxy, it’ll select a random client and use it to bounce the connection out onto the internet. The connection between clients can be public key-encrypted, which means all traffic essentially becomes random, and it’ll be impossible to track a session to a single client. I know there’s a bunch of problems with that, but a dedicated group of hackers could surely make it work.
So again the people who end up in trouble are not the high-volume culprits, the people who make money off of piracy… but rather the single moms who just wanted to see the end of that episode they missed when the baby started crying.
As coders, our work tends to be rather shallow on the grand scheme of things. I make games for people’s amusement, others make accounting systems or social websites. But maybe, maybe, just as BitTorrent and Napster are so accesible technologies that everyone can use them, maybe we can make new technologies to protect users’ privacy that are available to everyone in the same way. In a way, this is our big chance as software engineers and hackers to stand up for democracy, to fuel the internet revolution, and to actually make a difference in society with what we do. To make sure information stays free.
The only way to get around that would be to outlaw the use of the technology itself. Just like China.