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Freedom, technology and the Net

CNET News.com's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh explains why technological mechanisms protecting privacy, anonymity and free speech will always trump the whims of politicians, judges and bureaucrats.

WASHINGTON--These are perilous times for online privacy, free speech and the freedom to tinker with legally purchased hardware and software.

Last week, the House of Representatives approved a constitutionally dubious bill to criminalize domain names that might possibly confuse children, while the movie studios tried to expand the most worrisome parts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) through the simple expedient of lobbying state legislators.

I recently wrote about how even a short war against Iraq could depress tech stocks, and now we know the war will be neither quick nor cheap. And let's not forget Attorney General John Ashcroft's decision last week to revise the rules governing the FBI's massive database, which is choked with information about criminal suspects. Now, Ashcroft says, data no longer has to be verified as accurate and relevant before being added to it.

It's always tempting for columnists to focus on bad news. This week, however, there's something very positive to write about: a conference called Computers, Freedom and Privacy that will take place in New York. CFP is organized under the auspices of the Association for Computing Machinery, the professional association for computer scientists. (Full disclosure: I'm speaking at a luncheon session on Wednesday along with Dan Gillmor of The San Jose Mercury News, Emmanuel Goldstein of 2600 Magazine, and Robert O'Harrow of The Washington Post.)

First held in 1991, CFP is the longest-running gathering of people concerned with topics relating to freedom and technology, and it remains the most interesting. True, there are plenty of cookie-cutter conferences talking about privacy--there were at least two in Washington alone in the last few weeks.

Yet CFP is noteworthy not only for its breadth of participants, but also for its willingness to convene actual debates. Instead of asking attendees to suffer through a torpidity-inducing PowerPoint presentation, CFP organizers do things like organizing a debate on the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness system that includes an analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation and an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union. The Transportation Security Administration's secretive data-mining and passenger-profiling system is another hot topic.

"We're going to take on the issues of the day," said Barry Steinhardt, who is this year's CFP chairman. "We're trying to be as contemporary as possible. We've been amending the conference

As I've said before, technologists should remember to do what comes naturally: Invent technology that outpaces the law and might even make new laws irrelevant.
as we go along to include new people and new issues...We're trying to focus on two things: One is cyberliberties--computers, freedom and privacy--post 9/11. Second, we're trying to add an international component to this. It's quite clear that these issues are not restricted to the U.S. border."

About the only problem with CFP is its near-exclusive focus on legal and political ways to fight back against snooping and surveillance. There's certainly a need for short-term action in this area: I wrote last fall about the ways geeks could mobilize to punish their foes in Congress.

But in the long run, that effort is unlikely to be wildly successful. Congress will remain vulnerable to pressure from special interest groups that are better-organized and more disciplined than the technology community can hope to be.

As I've said before, technologists should remember to do what comes naturally: Invent technology that outpaces the law and might even make new laws irrelevant.

Worried about a newly emboldened FBI that has the power to conduct some kinds of Internet wiretaps without a judge's approval? If you run a mail server, upgrade to Postfix/TLS--or a similar protocol--which transparently encrypts e-mail messages exchanged with another computer that is also upgraded.

Fretting about the Bush administration's attempts to wiretap Internet telephony, as reported by Kevin Poulsen at SecurityFocus.com? Encourage your company to shift to IPv6, which has encryption designed into the protocol specification.

Don't give up on the political fight. Show up at CFP if you can. But remember that technological mechanisms that protect privacy, anonymity and free speech won't change with the whims of politicians, judges and bureaucrats.