Utopia Found; Utopia Lost

Sometime in the 1990’s I used a 2400-baud modem and connected to the internet for the first time; I found a new world, a better world. A world where ideas and intellect set people apart, not skin color, or political affiliation, of even the pseudo-scandal of the day (which is probably just a disguise for ignorance and intolerance).

It was a time of invention, in a world where everything was new and the potential was unlimited. It was magic – not the fake Hollywood magic, but real, life changing, nothing can hold you back magic. The only real restriction was your own mind (and maybe your long-distance bill).

Before too long I ran across a short essay that reinforced my view of the internet, and my philosophy towards people in general – The Conscience of a Hacker. While it resonated with me at the time, as it reflected my life so well, it was one small passage that really mattered to me:

We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. – Loyd Blankenship, The Conscience of a Hacker

One simple line, yet such a profound statement. The internet I grew to love was a different world — national borders meant nothing, the freedom to speak your mind was simply assumed for all without question. Governments didn’t understand it well enough to care, and so it was ignored. A different kind of society was allowed to evolve — a society that valued people and intelligence greater than political or religious affiliation. A society where anyone, even a poor kid from the middle of nowhere could have a real impact on the world.

There was of course conflict, and egos, and the ever-increasing encroachment of money that would change everything; but in general, it was good — better than any nation I was aware of.

Utopia Lost

Today, Solar Designer was commenting on Intel shutting down certain Russian-language content due to a rather horrible Russian law:

Most people and most countries are their own worst enemies… – Solar Designer

From the early, government ignored days of the internet, certain rights were assumed for all users — it was never written, but at the time it seemed that the internet was beyond any one government. It belonged to humanity, it was for the people. Of course, looking at the history of the internet, this is somewhat amusing, but it’s the way many felt, and it seems many still do.

Freedom of speech, freedom to speak anonymously, and so many others were granted by the internet to people who in the past had never had them. This great invention, this great network of people, had become the greatest tool of equality ever. Such things seem doomed.

As Solar pointed out – countries are their own worst enemies – in this case a horrible law is not only impacting the freedom of speech, but also to avoid the complications it introduces (and other similar laws recently enacted), companies are pulling out of Russia or disabling functionality for Russian users. So the Russian people lose, the economy is impacted, everybody loses something when such mistakes are made.

Of course, this is far from a unique case — the old internet, the free, open, good for humanity internet is all but dead. It’s been a long time since governments discovered what they had ignored for so long, and that an international bastion of freedom had formed under their noses.

Censorship becomes more pervasive every day, the monitoring by the FIVE EYES countries – and who knows who else – is so pervasive that one has to now assume that anything not (securely) encrypted is being seen and analyzed by many. Malware vendors grow rich, by leveraging the greatest invention in human history as a tool for repression and even death. In Russia, exercising an innate human right can send you to prison, in Syria, it can get you killed.

Complacency, subterfuge, infighting, and carelessness have allowed those with power and money to take more control than they ever should have. Groups like the MPAA are still busy pushing bad laws, trade treaty negotiations continue to risk further censorship, and anti-terror laws are increasingly being aimed at online speech instead of legitimate threats.

The internet I fell in love with was a bastion of freedom. May it long be defended, even if all that’s left is the memory, and the idea of what it could again become.