Terror in Paris must not lead to Internet clampdowns

Commentary: Heavy-handed attempts at government control will surely backfire, hobbling today's dynamic, unfettered communication and commerce far more than they hinder evil acts.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
The Eiffel Tower in French flag colors after the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015
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The Eiffel Tower in French flag colors after the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015

The Eiffel Tower is bathed in the colors of the French flag, following the terrorist attacks of November 13.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

On a Friday night in November, 130 people died in terrorist attacks in Paris, where I live. A month later, I'm less worried about terrorists with a medieval worldview than I am about politicians of Western democracies.

Don't get me wrong. The November 13 attacks were barbaric, and I don't mean to minimize them or the suffering of those affected. But when it comes to harming communication, commerce, culture and civilization in general, the attacks are just a dent. The more lasting damage could be the effect those attacks have on the future of the Internet.

I visited several of the attack sites on a cold December afternoon. Flowers are still laid in tribute around the closed doors of the Bataclan theater, where the worst of the attacks took place. Somber passersby stop to light candles and read tributes to those killed. But business is ticking along at nearby pharmacies, toy stores and clothing retailers. Café Bonne Bière, another target of the terrorists, reopened earlier this month. I watched the cafe's customers, spotlighted by a beam of afternoon sun, sipping champagne a few feet away from hundreds of flower bouquets left in memorial.

Even on the weekend of the attack, Parisians embraced the idea of continuing with life as usual as a statement of defiance. Many headed to cafes; my family took one of our customary weekly hikes in French villages and the countryside. How strange it was that walking through the forest west of Fontainebleau and looking at art galleries in Barbizon, the home of painter Jean-François Millet 150 years ago, really did feel like an act of political solidarity.

"If you're in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good...luck," comedian John Oliver said on a segment of HBO's "Last Week Tonight."

Political pressure

But it's the job of politicians to keep us safe, and with scores dead, the political pressure to do something is strong. After the attacks, President François Hollande declared a state of emergency, which the French legislature then extended for three months. This includes an updated law that grants the state not only powers for warrantless searches and house arrests, but also for conducting electronic searches and blocking some websites and online communications.

Paris perseveres despite terror attacks (pictures)

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The first of the country's three ideals that have persisted here since the French Revolution of 1789 -- liberté, fraternité, egalité -- is taking a beating. The idea of liberty seems to be holding up better than Emma Lazarus' immigrant-friendly words at the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." But it is under threat.

Government efforts to disrupt terrorist operations are more likely to hurt the legitimate privacy of ordinary citizens. "Privacy is a basic human need," and seeking privacy doesn't always mean we're trying to hide wicked behavior, computer security expert Bruce Schneier argued in a 2006 post that's still relevant today.

The risk is that attempts to bring the Internet under the government's control will backfire. Instead of hurting terrorists, they will hurt the technology that underpins today's dynamic, unfettered communication and commerce.

Attack on encryption

In December, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that the French Ministry of the Interior was considering proposals to block free public Wi-Fi and use of the Tor network for anonymous Internet use. Prime Minister Manuel Valls soon rejected the idea, but US political powers seem to be picking up where France left off.

After the Paris attacks, FBI Director James Comey and CIA Director John Brennan renewed efforts to get Apple and Google to scrap the encryption technology that keeps communications and data files private from authorities. Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, believes the "Achilles heel in the Internet is encryption" -- notwithstanding that it lets political dissidents communicate and makes e-commerce possible. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump says he can shut down the parts of "our Internet" that terrorists use.

In practical terms, the Internet couldn't be partially shut down even if the US still exercised the control it yielded years ago. Terrorists and criminals cannot be denied encryption because many freely available programs enable it, even if Google and Apple were to reclaim keys over devices and Facebook were to back off from WhatsApp's secured communications.

More feasible are actions like Facebook and Twitter shutting down accounts at authorities' request, which doesn't require wholesale changes to the Internet itself.

Feinstein and Trump didn't respond to requests for comment. The FBI didn't comment beyond reiterating concerns raised about communications channels "going dark." The CIA declined to comment.

Authorities' anti-encryption efforts awaited an opportune moment like the Paris attacks. "The legislative environment is very hostile today," Robert Litt, the top lawyer for the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote in an August email obtained by The Washington Post. But that hostility "could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement."

The Internet is mainstream

As an English-speaking technology journalist living in France, the Internet is an inextricable part of my life. I'm an early adopter, though, not an anomaly. I embraced email, the Web, e-commerce, maps, translation tools, smartphones and social networks before most people, but they're all mainstream now.

The Paris attacks show how central the Internet is to modern life. My first alert about the November attacks came through an email from a friend in New Jersey. I used Facebook to tell people our family was safe. I stayed online until 3 a.m. following events and talking to friends and family all over the world. The attacks were almost as immediate to my friends online as they were to me. With 900 million searches, the Paris terror attacks rose to be 2015's most-searched event on Google.

The Internet, with its global reach and unparalleled ability to connect people, is the best tool we've invented so far for learning to live with our differences. Let's build it up, not tear it down, as a tool of international communications.

Watch this: What the FCC Net neutrality rules will mean for Internet users