The political implications of cyberspace

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The assimilation of computers into mainstream culture is an area where the United States has traditionally led the rest of the world. This is not unreasonable, given that the USA is also the home of most of the important developments in computing since the 1950's. But this effect has some interesting corollaries; that the effects of computerization on the USA can be used as a crystal ball, to predict similar events in the rest of the world a year or two hence. I've been gazing into this crystal ball for a while - and what I can see in it is rather startling.

Gil Scott Heron probably wasn't thinking of computers when he declared, "this time, the revolution will not be televised". But the growth of wide area networks (joined in the amorphous cyberspace of the internet) will have such a profound effect on politics in the West that calling it a revolution may not be an overstatement. In the 'States, it has already begun ...

The late twentieth century may well be remembered as the age of television; a one-to-many broadcast medium, where many people may watch, but few may actually participate in the programming. In contrast, the networked communication systems that have been growing for the past twenty five years are inherently many-to-many systems - that is, the whole point of having electronic mail is to communicate with many people as peers.

This observation is trivial, but it never ceases to amaze people who are new to the e-media. Traditional mechanisms such as TV and radio have imposed a gulf between citizens and their elected representatives. In turn, this tended to induce an apathetic attitude towards politics in those who felt that their voices could never be heard. This gulf is now beginning to collapse ...



Information regarding matters pending before the California
Legislature has been available to the public in printed form
since 1849.  That same information is now available over Internet.
AB 1624 (Chapter 1235/Statutes of 1993), authored by Assembly
Member Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey. required that legislative
information be made available to the public "by way of the
largest nonproprietary, non-profit cooperative public computer
network."  This phrase refers to the computer network known as

The following information will assist the general public in
obtaining legislative information for the State of California from
the public access computer.  A review of this information,
including all the README files, should be completed before
attempting to look at legislative information over Internet.

The hackneyed phrase "information superhighway" sprang to prominence in 1992, when then-Vice Presidential candidate Al Gore began talking in public about the need for the USA to make a giant leap forwards in its communication infrastructure. Much of the chatter about video on demand and manoeuvering between networking companies since then has tended to conceal the fact that what Gore was talking about - and still is talking about - is not simply a better cable TV system; it's a true many-to-many communications network, as fundamentally different from the existing TV systems as the telephone network is from commercial radio.

Politicians have been talking about the "White Heat of Technology" ever since the discovery of fire, but most of the time the talk is empty. So it was with some skepticism that workers at Silicon Graphics, Inc., one of the leading manufacturers of UNIX workstations, greeted a visit by the President and Vice-President on February 22nd, 1993. SGI is a leading-edge company based in Silicon Valley; they build high-performance systems, and the company's been wired into the internet since its' creation.

"We came here today for two reasons ... One reason was to pick this setting to announce the implementation of the technology policy we talked about in the campaign ... The second reason I wanted to come here is, I think the government ought to work like you do. ... you plan your new products knowing they'll be obsolete within 12 to 18 months, and you want to be able to replace them. We live in an era of constant change. And America's biggest problem, if you look at it through that lens, is that for too many people change is an enemy, not a friend."

There's the ideology. Then the President handed over the podium to Al Gore:

"A key component of the President's economic plan is the technology policy that we're announcing here today ... if we're going to compete in the 21st century, we have to invest in a new kind of infrastructure. During the Industrial Revolution, the nations that competed most successfully were often ones that did the best job of building deep-water ports; those that did the best job of putting in good railway systems to carry the coal and the products to the major centers where they were going to be sold and consumed. But now we are seeing a change in the definition of commerce. Technology plays a much more important role. Information plays a much more important role. And one of the things that this plan calls for is the rapid completion of a nationwide network of information super highways."

And that's the practical proposal.

But can a government that up til now has run a country on administrative lines developed during the era of the production line and the steam train build a new information infrastructure without itself being affected?

Reinventing Government

Here's a simple question. When did you last write to your MP or elected representative? If the answer is "never", don't worry -- you're in the majority. Indeed, one of the facts of representative democracy in any country is that those people who seek out interaction with the government are a tiny minority. In the USA, most Congressional offices are quite surprised to get as many as thirty letters from the public about any given piece of legislation: only hot potatos like gun control, a public health system, and the abortion issue attract public lobbying (as opposed to professional lobbying organizations).

Part of the problem is that it takes effort to sit down and write a letter, then post it. Another part of the problem is that it takes much more effort to do the background research first - to hear a news item, become concerned, look into it, read the legislation, and compose a sensible letter is more than most people are willing to bother with. But if the information was on-line, available at the push of a button, and if the legislator's office was also on-line ...

In 1993, a couple of students and would-be lobbyists hooked their internet-connected PC up to a fax machine in Washington, DC. They e-mailed the internet, announcing the availability of an e-mail to fax gateway, and disclosing the (public) fax numbers of some congressional representatives. Activists on (home of discussions about the US space program, among other things) picked up on a threat to the funding of a favoured project and mailed out draft e-mail lobbying letters. Within two days the fac gateway was off the net - following complaints from the offices of the congressmen in question that their fax machines had run out of paper repeatedly while fielding messages at a rate of hundreds per day.

In early 1994, the President acquired an e-mail address. Bill Clinton doesn't answer his correspondence in person, and you can't hack into the White House computers by pretending to be (mail goes to a different office, and is delivered daily on magnetic tape), but in the first three months over three hundred thousand messages were received. This deluge of mail virtually swamped the office usually assigned to respond to mail from constituents - no feudal monarch holding open court would ever expect to deal with three thousand members of the public per day - and demonstrated a fundamental principle:

If you make the government look accessible, even previously passive members of the public will try to access it.

Now this leads to a number of interesting possibilities. Given that far more people will use electronic media to contact their representatives than will set pen to paper the old-fashioned way, it might be that at first the e-mail channels will have a disproportionate impact on legislators; that any trivial issue that generates a net-based lobbying group will suddenly turn into a political hot potato. Alternatively, the noise level may get so high that the legislators begin to ignore electronic solicitations - simply because it's so easy to create one that a high proportion amount to junk mail. It's hard to predict at this stage, because the exposure of legislators to an environment where they are suddenly bombarded with messages from their electorate is unprecedented.

For example, take the case of Bill Gates. Bill is not a politician (though he's richer than Ross Perot). He's certainly a public figure, though. Last year, The New Yorker ran an interview with Bill Gates, conducted via email by a well-known author who was himself new to the internet and to electronic media in general. By some oversight, Bill's email address was leaked. The poor billionaire came in to work one morning and discovered not the usual hundred messages in his inbox - but rather nearer to ten thousand. Most of them were just from people who felt the urge to say "hi" to the mightly - but it was enough to force him to set up a mail filter and get an administrative assistant in to help cover his personal correspondence. Thus, before the fateful article was published anyone with a good enough reason might get to the very top of Microsoft for an audience; but thereafter, it became a lot harder.

It appears likely that as the e-media spreads, legislators (who, like Bill Gates, have limited time to deal with their correspondence) will retreat behind a screen of increasingly sophisticated software agents, designed to filter out unimportant messages while ensuring that critical information is not lost. Along the way, there will be some rather odd dislocations, as both the representatives and the represented adapt to the new environment.

Then there are the management implications.

Electronic communications have a very interesting effect on organizations; they make it possible for groups of people who have never met face-to-face to cooperate on a project. Most conventional managers are wary of leaving employees to get on with the job at a distance; it takes time for them to get to grips with the idea of being able to supervise people who they can't see or who may even be working in another country. But, using email, it's possible to coordinate with people in a paper-based manner, at a distance, without having to worry about delayed communications via the post office.

This makes it possible to set up ad-hoc working groups very easily. For example, Vice-President Gore is putting his weight behind a program to create informal working groups within the US Government, aimed at increasing efficiency by pin-pointing the weak spots of the existing, hierarchical, bureaucratic government. By joining in and setting up an e-mail based working group, workers in very different areas can put together a coherent picture of their concerns and come up with proposals that a normal committee, imposed through a top-down management hierarchy, just wouldn't be able to produce. (Or that's the theory, anyway.)

Whether the US Government reinvents itself or not, one thing is for sure; lobbyists will be able to operate in new, unusual ways. The current centralized system of government has given rise to lobbyists who perforce head for the Washington heart-land, in order that their voices can be heard. It's a rather bureaucratic system that currently works from the top-down; if you don't wear a suit and walk the halls of Congress, the Representatives don't even know you exist. For just that reason, the Electronic Frontier Foundation moved to Washington in 1992, cutting free from their grass roots to turn into a political lobbying machine. To some extent they succeeded - Mitch Kapor's vision of an information superhighway turned into a Vice-Presidential ticket and a firm committment to the tune of several billion dollars - but in doing so they alienated a lot of their original supporters.

But this system will not survive the transition to a fully wired government that is in the offing. Electronic communications permit the formation of ad-hoc groups that link people who are geographically isolated into a community of interest. Even groups with very few members - people who in isolation might be considered freaks - have a lot of clout when all their members get together in one small corner of cyberspace and start campaigning.

The Clipper Effect

Normally, when a multibillion dollar bureaucracy puts its weight behind a proposal, it gets what it wants.

The National Security Agency (NSA) is a big organization. In fact, it's more than twice the size of the CIA. Like the rest of the US intelligence community, the NSA has been looking for a new role since the end of the cold war brought that particular gravy train to an end.

About a year ago, the NSA floated a proposal for a set of public standards that would end years of obscurity and frustration over the legality of encryption. The NSA standard, an algorithm called Skipjack (which would be implemented in a chip called Clipper, for voice communications, and in a smart-card called Tessera, for data security on personal computers) would provide secure encryption to the public - except that there was a back door. With the aid of not one but two keys, held by separate "escrow" agencies, any law enforcement officer (who could present a valid warrent to the escrow agencies) could crack a Skipjack-encrypted message.

This went down like a lead baloon in the computer user community, for various reasons. The civil libertarians hated it, asserting that giving the government the keys to every safe was not a sensible move (given that even though the government might be trustworthy today, there is no guarantee that tomorrow's government will be equally benign). The encryption industry hated it, because the logical question was: if there is a form of encryption that is legally mandated, does this not imply that all other forms of encryption are tainted with the brush of criminality - potential or actual? (They viewed it, in other words, as a preparatory measure for the criminalization of non-approved encryption technologies). And the users didn't want it.

Skipjack was blown out of the water in 1994 when a researcher at Bellcore proved that with a bit of effort you could jam the keyhole used by the law-enforcement key, thus preventing the government from cracking your Skipjack-encrypted data after all. But even before that, it was obvious that a chip that would add $30 to the cost of a telephone was not going to go down too well in public. (The fact that, for an extra $30, all you got would be a phone that was extra-easy for the government to tap, made matters even worse. Many Americans view their government with deep mistrust ...) In retrospect, the most peculiar thing about the whole Clipper affair was that the directors of the NSA were naive enough to think that the public would accept their proposal. And that there would be no coherent opposition to it ...

In point of fact, Clipper provided a nucleus for the first coherent political campaign on the internet. It aggregated like a snowflake - or perhaps like a pearl growing around a grain of irritant sand inside an oyster. The first indication that Clipper would turn into a hot potato arrived when every electronic civil liberties watchdog in the USA turned round and denounced it - from the EFF to CPSR. Then there were the letter-writing campaigns and the petitions. A petition that can muster two thousand signatures a day in a population of perhaps two million concerned people is something to watch out for. Clipper posed a clear and obvious danger to the online community in that it threatened people's privacy. As such, it politicized the formerly anarchic denizens of cyberspace, making them aware of a very fundamental issue; that their continuing freedom to make use of this medium relied on certain rights that would have to be fought for.

So where does this leave us?

Well, we have several things:

It's all a bit of a mess.

One thing is for sure; nobody can put the clock back. Another thing is less sure, but on the basis of past events should be considered likely; that what is happening to politics in the USA will happen here, maybe two years later. Two years ago, the words 'information superhighway' would have raised a blank stare from the President or Congress. Today they're everywhere, and dangerous revolutionaries are using them as a lever to upset any number of applecarts. That phrase has now crossed the Atlantic, and has even been uttered in the House of Commons.

As yet there is no major electronic lobbying organization in the UK. In Italy, it took Hardware One to catalyse the formation of a version of the EFF. The EFF itself was formed in the US in the wake of Operation SunDevil. In both these cases, law enforcement officers acted with excessive zeal to clamp down on computer users who, until that moment, had not even suspected that what they were doing might be seen as a problem in some quarters. (In Hardware One, there may also be political overtones to the raids - insofar as the operation was carried out under the aegis of a right-wing government and directed exclusively at bulletin boards used by left-wing political groups, rather than software pirates.)

However, all the preconditions exist in the UK for a law enforcement disaster on the same scale as the US Secret Service raids of 1990, or the Italian police raids of 1994. We have a state of rapid growth in the use of online media, coupled with a low public profile, unclear laws passed by legislators who are unclear on the issues, and police services who are struggling to keep up with developments. To make matters worse, the press and broadcast media are not above promulgating moral panics about issues like "playground porn" or "hacker pirates" if it serves to increase their sales; and we have politicians who are not sanguine about anarchic environments in which freedom of expression and diversity of opinion are encouraged (as witness the clamp-down on travellers).

Over the next year, expect the information superhighway to loom larger in political discourse at home, and to begin to make in-roads on the very structure of politics abroad. But don't be surprised if events take a turn for the chaotic. We live in interesting times, and it remains to be seen whether they will be remembered for better or for worse.

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