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Frank Remarks: Information Just Wants to Be Free!

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Point by point, Frank Fiore refutes a recent Technology Review article that purports to debunk three "myths" held by the free Net camp, who believe that the Internet can't be controlled.
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If you've been following my musings here on InformIT for the last several weeks, you know that I'm a firm believer in a decentralized, free Net. In fact, I've been beating this particular drum—that the World Wide Web as we know it today will go the way of the carrier pigeon—for years, based solely on my intuitive opinion.

How I do love to pontificate!

Since 1998, this idea has been championed by the creators of Napster, Gnutella, and recently Morpheus, LimeWire, and BearShare. To add insult to injury, these applications, which give anyone the ability to trade material (copyrighted or otherwise) over the Net, are themselves free to download and use.

The free Net camp declares that today's digital technology sweeps aside any attempts to regulate it. And that, gentle reader, is the beauty for those who believe in a free Net—and the problem for those wanting to control it.

Writing in the September issue of Technology Review, Charles Mann fired a volley across the free Net movement's bow by arguing—and quite well—that the Net is controllable and governable, and information can be blocked. He took issue with free Netheads (like myself) by debunking the following "myths":

  • The Internet is too internationalized to be controlled.

  • The Internet is too interconnected to be controlled.

  • The Internet is too filled with hackers to be controlled.

I give Mr. Mann credit for a well-written and lucid argument—but he's wrong. So I turned to my esteemed colleague Jean François at MagnusNet for his take on Mann's position and, with his help, here's what we arrived at.

The Internet Is Too Internationalized to Be Controlled

Mann claims that information carried on the Net can be filtered and blocked by countries. That's not entirely true. If the country wants to do any e-commerce at all, it must keep open at least one port—port 443. This is the port that SSL (secure socket layer) uses for e-commerce on the web. The data going through this port is encrypted. That means that any data—e-commerce related or otherwise—can be sent through this port. If it were encrypted, the controlling country wouldn't know whether the data was an e-commerce packet or some other form of information—even information that goes against the party line.

In addition, POP and IMAP ports used for email can also be SSL-enabled, so unwanted information can be sent through these ports and right under the noses of the controlling bureaucracy. They could close these ports, but that would cut them off from email and the e-commerce world—for all practical purposes, turning them into an intranet.

That's called cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Mann also argues that offshore havens for computers serving illegal information to the information-starved masses in tightly controlled countries such as China or those in the Middle East will eventually fail for simple bandwidth reasons. Basically, the small offshore countries where these servers can be set up cannot handle the increasing traffic as the site becomes more and more popular. Sooner or later, they have to move their servers to or at least near a Net backbone (for example, somewhere in North America or Europe), and that backbone would be in a country where the illegal servers can be discovered and controlled. But using mirror sites—even low-bandwidth sites—solves the clogged bandwidth problem by spreading the load between multiple hosts. And even if the illegal servers exist in a controlled or controllable county, information can be passed to others in ways that are almost impossible to trace.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is one such way. Using an IRC channel, multiple servers can be used as distributed nodes. A dynamic dialup ISP, where an IP address changes each time you log onto the Net, would be extremely difficult to block. Here's an example. A user enters an IRC channel and says that he has files for downloading at a certain server. He gives the IP address of the server and says that the files will be available only for a brief time. Users can then go to that IP address and download the information. If a controlling party attempts to track its source and filter that IP address, the offending party can use a dialup ISP that assigns a new IP address every time a person logs on.

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