The wild west of cyberspace
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #19

"In cyberspace, nobody knows you're a dog," says one canine to another in a popular cartoon exemplifying the indirect nature of electronic contact. Nobody knows you're a dog, or a man or woman or Martian or stockbroker. Nobody has any reason to believe what you say you are, and nobody has any way of holding you responsible for your actions without your cooperation. In this wild world of digital pulses cybernauts of assorted political and social hues are developing the tools and procedures that may totally change the way governments and businesses work. They are using new technologies to return power to the individual.

In the real world of bricks and tarmac people are constantly exposed. They have little privacy and are open to attack and analysis of their appearance, voice, handwriting, body language -- disclosing much more of themselves than intended in the printed proposals before them.

In the increasingly equally real world of electrons and optical fibre there is an inherent limit to communication, an indirectness that compresses an entire personality into a stream of bits and nothing more. And that stream of bits is entirely within the control of the person behind it.

Boundaries erected by nations or companies may work to hinder the physical flow of material, but to the free flow of information these boundaries are artificial. From the early broadcasts of Radio Free Russia to the Internet dispatches out of Chiapas in Mexico this January, information always gets past barriers. Since such information may not be to the liking of repressive governments -- or even large companies, which are growing more like governments every day -- what holds back this flood of freedom is the risk of action against those who speak out. Political dissidents can be shot, employees with a conscience can be fired, and neither are likely to enjoy the process.

What changes this situation is the spread of awareness about privacy and anonymity tools available on the Net. Remailers -- automatons that receive electronic mail and resend them after removing all traces of their original source -- are proliferating and growing easier to use. Encryption and other security technologies are widely available and have received a flurry of media coverage, in response to various government anti-privacy measures. Above all, the Internet spirit, so against restrictive commercialization, makes people ensure the free flow of information.

A typical case that got a lot of media coverage is to do with the Teale-Homolka trial. Last year a Canadian judge put a press ban on a sensational murder and rape trial of Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Teale. News of the trial and the crime was widely distributed on Internet news groups. When some law-abiding administrators banned the obvious groups such as, the discussion migrated to others such as alt.censorship and alt.true-crime. It was impossible to monitor all traffic, and regular reports and 'inside stories' were posted. An anonymous remailer in Finland was used extensively, being out of Canadian jurisdiction. The government was helpless at this demonstration of information wanting to be free, and was reduced to absurdities like banning the issue of Wired magazine that discussed this use of cyberspace.

The support for anonymity systems is widespread. Those with more extreme views predict a global breakdown of governments and corporate bureaucracies, unable to control the information that makes them powerful. Some see cyberspace as the ultimate tax haven, with anonymity and digital cash allowing black markets without any traces. And others just hope for a freer world, devoid of repression, respecting the privacy and rights of individuals.

  • Electric Dreams Index
  • Homepage