Tippecanoe and encryption too!

Borrowing a move from politicians, free speech advocates and the cryptography industry have turned the encryption debate on its head.

4 min read
Borrowing a move from politicians, free speech advocates and the cryptography industry have turned the encryption debate on its head. Instead of complaining that the FBI's bid to break the codes that protect private conversations tramples civil rights, the proencryption forces are touting strong encryption as a way to prevent crimes.

Congressman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia voiced the new line to attendees at last week's RSA Data Security conference. He was boosting legislation to make it easier to export products that contain strong encryption, as well as heading off the FBI's attempts to limit domestic use of strong scrambling codes to keep private transactions from electronic eavesdroppers.

"This legislation is an anticrime measure of the first order. Passing it to be sure every American has strong encryption, e-commerce can grow, and the infrastructure of our country is protected from terrorists and hackers is a strong anticrime effort."

Despite his tangled syntax, Goodlatte has spun an old argument in a new direction that could undermine the advantage currently held by law enforcement agencies, like the FBI, and intelligence agencies, such as the NSA (National Security Administration).

The cops-and-spies case has always centered on three oft-repeated tenets: 1) The bad guys will use strong crypto, so we've got to break it. 2) We'd like to tell you more, but it's classified. 3) This is a conflict between narrow commercial interests and the American people's safety from crime and terrorism.

Notice that the law enforcement/spy crowd uses simple, emotional statements, almost political slogans, that are hard to take issue with. Notice too that Goodlatte, a politician, makes an oversimplistic, emotional argument. Notice, finally, that public policy is about politics, which ultimately means reducing complex issues to simple slogans.

"The bad guys already have access to encryption. This legislation is needed to make sure every law-abiding American has access to it too," the Congressman said.

That sounds a lot like the National Rifle Association's rallying cry against gun control: "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

I don't buy the argument that it's every American's Constitutional right to carry a bazooka, but a lot of people do, thanks in great part to this bumper sticker sentiment. I'm also finding that a lot of people in the crypto community see great linkages between the First Amendment, interpreted to mean a right to use strong encryption, and the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. Ergo, some factions of the debate have jokingly--and some not so jokingly--adopted the following slogan: "When encryption is outlawed, only outlaws will have encryption." And Goodlatte's emotional, overly-simplistic, and highly-effective speech supported such sloganeering.

The Congressman's comments got me thinking about how other Internet policy issues might be captured in slogans. After all, slogans, like aphorisms, work because they convey complicated ideas concisely.

Let's start with "No new Net taxes," a popular phrase I hate. Headline writers and manufacturers of bumper stickers love it--so much content in so few letters.

But it's too reactive, too negative. It's not exactly surprising that businesses don't like taxes. That slogan sounds like a petulant child stamping his foot in anger.

First, understand the issue. We need a slogan so Washtenaw County in Michigan doesn't impose a special tax on books its residents buy on the Net. We'd prefer the same rules for Washtenaw County as apply everywhere else.

So try "Don't kill local jobs." Get a linesperson for the local telco to testify at the county hearing that she's working overtime to install all those new lines for Internet access. Then get the receptionist at the local ISP to worry aloud about his fears of job insecurity if his employer is slapped with new taxes.

Or "Treat the Net fairly." Local booksellers will certainly describe how Net bookstores are hurting their business without contributing anything to the local community. That's the argument any campaign--and slogan--to defeat special taxes on the Internet must beat.

The anticensorship faction of the Net is sorely in need of a suitable slogan. "Don't muzzle Net speech" is my first choice, harkening to the"Don't Tread On Me" motto popularized during the 18th Century American Revolutionary War against England.

But a plea to unmuzzle speech won't hold up to the emotional impact of "Protect our children," the thrust of the censors' campaign. Sloganeering must meet the dual test of encapsulating ideas and generating fervor.

For the always-dry topic of intellectual property law, consider "Don't rip off creators." Just try to get a cocktail party conversation going about trademarks, copyrights, and patents. IP law is vitally important and incredibly dull.

"Hands off my personal data" might be a suitable slogan for privacy--almost belligerent, but perhaps a few syllables too long for a bumper sticker, which is how to think of slogans.

And finally, for the policy wonks who revel in the complexity of issues, "Down with sloganeering, the bane of informed discussion of critically important public issues." Not very catchy, but then, grown-up discussion of tough issues never is.

You can hardly blame the proencryption forces for resorting to emotional sound bytes. After all, they're just fighting fire with fire. The FBI started the whole mess with its own overly-simplistic, emotional stance. Still, the more the encryption debate degrades into sloganeering, the less hope we have of resolving this critical issue in a sensible manner.

Tim Clark is a sensible senior writer for NEWS.COM. He addresses e-commerce issues on Mondays in Perspectives.