Barely a day goes by when you switch on your computer, plug into the web and come across yet another deranged scheme to restrict freedom in the name of security, safety or morality. RIAA, DMCA, RIPA, Pallidium computing, the list almost seems to grow exponentially. So, some guys got together in a dark room, brainstormed and came up with yet another ruse to curtail access to and use of the internet. Relax, this one won't fly. Trust me. But the sheer audacity of it! Even the bovine docility of Windows users wouldn't stomach this one (or would they?)--and here's the irony. It seems to have been dreamed up by someone at Microsoft but in reality this nonsense has form. The wrap sheet's a long one. Welcome to the world of "Microsoft's Internet license".
Microsoft and internet licencing. Same difference
Users of proprietary operating systems and software are the equivalent of digital couch potatoes. They are essentially passive consumers of high cholesterol product. Digital sludge is their fare. Users and advocates of free and open operating systems and software are active producers. Digital freedom is their food of choice. Lean, mean and low fat. Companies like Microsoft have already larded their customers with a never ending escalator of restrictions, licences and attempts to tie down their very motherboards with intrusive polling to prevent copyright infringement.
Microsoft have already larded their customers with a never ending escalator of restrictions and licences
That the suggestion should come from Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer, at a meeting of the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland shouldn't really come as a surprise. This is the same man who has championed both Trusted Computing and Digital Rights Management (DRM). He not only called for individuals to be licenced to access the internet; much more sinisterly, he called for the United Nations (utterly unelected, unaccountable, corrupt and and composed of some of the most odious dictatorships on the planet) to be given the power to "organize the systematic quarantine of computers without their owner's permission". (That's probably already a reality in some countries.)
This was also the man who, in a speech to the New York University Stern School of Business, asserted that there are those who say, "Shared Source is Microsoft's failed attempt at being an Open Source Company. This could not be a more incorrect statement. Shared Source is Open Source". That's just beyond parody. I'm not even going to try. All I will add is that Mundie went on to claim, without the slightest hint of irony, that, in contrast to Microsoft's "shared source", "the OSS development model leads to a strong possibility of unhealthy "forking" of a code base, resulting in the development of multiple incompatible versions of programs, weakened interoperability, product instability, and hindering businesses ability to strategically plan for the future. Furthermore, it has inherent security risks and can force intellectual property into the public domain". I could go on but anyone who is familiar with Microsoft's FUD will recognize this. That then is the background of the man calling for the internet to be licenced and for more powers for an undemocratic transnational body like the UN.
Don't trust but verify
The licence would be mandatory and authentication would be enforced on three levels: people, devices and applications. Given Mundie's support for DRM and Trusted Computing, that inclusion of device authentication is particularly worrying, given that 95% of computers are using some version of Windows. As usual, the lure is the threat of the dangers of the internet: "People don't understand the scale of criminal activity on the internet. Whether criminal, individual or nation states, the community is growing more sophisticated". There, they're idiots who don't know what they are doing. Test, trust and verify. Or rather, test, distrust and ban.
if people were properly trained in the use of computers they wouldn't knowingly touch the Microsoft OS with the proverbial disinfected barge pole
Mundie also compared computer users on the net to car drivers: "If you want to drive a car you have to have a licence to say that you are capable of driving a car, the car has to pass a test to say it is fit to drive and you have to have insurance". Actually, he is right. Most of them are technically illiterate but if the only people who were allowed to drive were also qualified car mechanics then most drivers would be off the road. What next? Not allowed to switch on your TV without being a qualified electronics engineer? The point has been made before: if people were properly trained in the use of computers they wouldn't knowingly touch the Microsoft OS with the proverbial disinfected barge pole. They'd be using GNU/Linux. Instead, at the same economic forum at Davos, Andre Kudelski of the Kudelski Group actually called for the creation of an new internet where everyone would be forced to own two computers: one for secure internet and one for freedom.
You've really got to wonder what the definition of freedom would look like here. In effect, a two-tier internet and guess who's going to be in the digital underclass? Or rather, guess who will be in the first tier: proprietary Windows code, Windows-controlled hardware and Windows-approved software. Great news if you live in the developing third world. You couldn't afford the first computer or the Windows licence, now you can't afford the second computer even if it was running a GNU/Linux distro --unless of course you've been given a OLPC running Fedora.
It's been tried before
Mundie, like big government, uses security threats to cow people into submission. For example, he pointed out that there were at least ten countries in the world with the capacity and sophistication to wage cyberwar. Doubtless true but he managed to forget the fact that these countries also have seats at the UN and could, if it suited their interests, block or rig access to the internet. Hell, China's already doing it. Hasn't Mundie ever heard of the Great Firewall of China? I'm told you can see it from space. And it would be such countries, including freedom-loving democracies like Iran, who would be extending their internal control of digital media to the global reach facilitated by the UN.
If that dystopian nightmare ever materialised there would be few if any countries left on the planet where dissent and an unlicenced internet and privately owned computers could function. Any such remaining countries would be be classified as rogue states and rapidly attain pariah status in the eyes of the control freaks on the banks of the East River.
If you are a political dissident (even in a notional democracy) under the ominous dispensation of a licenced internet (and the hardware and software used to access it) the tools you use for blogging anonymously to get out stories or whistleblow on governments or corporations could disappear. The imperative to dissent is an elemental force in human nature (as Orwell described it in 1984) and attempts to curtail or deny it leads to dysfunctional behaviour and since that cannot long endure without imploding it would only be a matter of time before the emergence of a kind of "undernet".
What did the geeks do? Walked through the airport with the PGP algorithm printed on teeshirts
Geeks, nerds and technical activists always find a way round. Remember the battle about Philip Zimmerman's PGP? The US government classified it as a weapon and subject to export restrictions. What did the geeks do? Walked through the airport with the PGP algorithm printed on teeshirts. So, if a net licence was based on, say, issuing everyone with a personal encryption key, access could be monitored and controlled but a meta newtwork with anonymous packets encrypted inside real data might subvert that. It would be Samizdat for the digital age. (I'm old enough to remember the era of the Soviet Union during the cold war when Samizdat was the only way dissidents could disseminate information--and ownership of mechanical copying machines was illegal. The Soviet empire collapsed anyway.) That notwithstanding, I'd predict a whole new black economy based on cloned encryption keys. Carbon Emissions Credits, oil for food, card fraud--mere bagatelle.
Flawed analogies and other motives
The internet is a wide area network. It is made up of various protocols, ISPs, operating systems and programming languages. It operates in this heterogeneous environment and it does not have a single "owner". For example, there are thirteen root nameservers which form the backbone of the internet, distributed across the world (mostly in the USA, the rest in the UK, Sweden and Japan) supervised by ICANN. So, who would be issuing licences and on who's behalf? Driving licences are issued as proof of ability to be on a public road and not be a hazard to oneself or other road users. Mundie's licence proposal--a flawed analogy-- pretends to be the same but is in reality an attempt to control the internet and the main beneficiaries would be government and commercial corporations.
What happens if you are known to have just accessed the Wikileaks site, not to whistleblow information but simply to read the files? Will you have your licence revoked or restricted? How could Climategate have happened in the era of total control? (I suspect that the critical role of the blogsphere in this episode has utterly infuriated the one worlders and provoked many of them to ratchet up the control knobs.)
The chances are, if you read websites like this, you already subscribe to the belief that free and open is best. Best both technically and politically. Whilst the idea of an internet driving licence is stupid, unworkable and unenforceable we can predict that if ever such a reality came to pass free and open software would play a crucial role in subverting it. I can also predict that this nonsense is recidivist. It will reoffend. It will come back in some form or another. Unless we have descended into a global totalitarian dictatorship, it won't come to pass.
There are other monsters to slay
So, why bother to discuss it at all? Because the very notion tells you a lot about the mindset of its proposers and backers. All the usual culprits from proprietary software, antivirus companies and governments. They have all been dab hands at creating scares (real or imagined) about safety and security on the internet. Those of us using GNU/Linux are less prone to being unsettled. We are more aware of the threats and many of us jumped off the good ship Microsoft years ago--or never boarded in the first place. We know that the best and cleanest driving licence on the web is free and open software and operating systems. Anything else is just re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
What we should be concentrating on (at least in the UK) is Peter Mandleson's Digital Economy Bill. Now, that's a really nasty piece of work. It's a bill going through the British parliament, not some unfeasible, hair-brained proposal by Mundie. It has substance and if it passes it will allow the government to disconnect persistent file sharers from the internet, pass the cost of notification to ISPs and more importantly it will also allow the government to appoint someone it deems appropriate to take over the allocation and registration of domain names by UK-based registries.
Mr Mundie, take a look closer to home. Try googling "microsoft". There's your problem
This bill is sponsored by Mandleson, an unelected member of the British government who has been forced to resign twice for less than ethical behaviour. Meanwhile, ICANN signed a new agreement with the US Department of Commerce towards the end of last year establishing its independence. It's CEO, Rob Beckstrom, described its motto as One world, one internet, everyone connected — this is our goal at Icann. What a pity Mundie, his fellow travellers and other useful figures haven't adopted this motto. Of course, they could always use a GNU/Linux distro for a while and eventually discover that many of the alleged "problems" which provoked the idea of an internet driving licence in the first instance hardly exists in Unixland. Mr Mundie, take a look closer to home. Try googling "microsoft". There's your problem.