Bruce Schneier On The Feudal Internet And How To Fight It

from the what-went-wrong? dept

There aren't many upsides to Snowden's revelations that NSA is essentially spying on the entire Internet, all the time, but if one good thing has already come out of that sorry state of affairs it's the emergence of security expert Bruce Schneier as a mainstream commentator on the digital world. That's largely because his core expertise has been shoved into the very center of our concerns, making his thoughts on what's going on particularly valuable.

One fruitful theme that he has been developing recently is the idea of feudal computing (I imagine it could well turn out to be the subject of his next book.) Schneier first wrote about this even before the NSA story broke, back in November last year. He then revisited the idea shortly after the first Snowden story appeared, and has now returned to the theme again, in what is perhaps his best essay on the subject so far. It's called "Power in the Age of the Feudal Internet," and explores some of the implications of our new digital dystopia -- and what we can do about it. It begins by describing how things were supposed to be:

In its early days, there was a lot of talk about the "natural laws of the Internet" and how it would empower the masses, upend traditional power blocks, and spread freedom throughout the world. The international nature of the Internet made a mockery of national laws. Anonymity was easy. Censorship was impossible. Police were clueless about cybercrime. And bigger changes were inevitable. Digital cash would undermine national sovereignty. Citizen journalism would undermine the media, corporate PR, and political parties. Easy copying would destroy the traditional movie and music industries. Web marketing would allow even the smallest companies to compete against corporate giants. It really would be a new world order.
Unfortunately, as we know, that's not how it worked out. Instead, we have seen the rise of the feudal Internet:
Feudal security consolidates power in the hands of the few. These companies [like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook etc.] act in their own self-interest. They use their relationship with us to increase their profits, sometimes at our expense. They act arbitrarily. They make mistakes. They're deliberately changing social norms. Medieval feudalism gave the lords vast powers over the landless peasants; we’re seeing the same thing on the Internet.
More recently, we have witnessed the dangerous alignment of private and governmental interests and power:
Both corporations and governments want ubiquitous surveillance, and the NSA is using Google, Facebook, Verizon, and others to get access to data it couldn't otherwise. The entertainment industry is looking to governments to enforce their antiquated business models.
A key question is: how did this happen? How did things go so wrong when they seemed to start off so well? Schneier has a good answer:
The truth is that technology magnifies power in general, but the rates of adoption are different. The unorganized, the distributed, the marginal, the dissidents, the powerless, the criminal: they can make use of new technologies faster. And when those groups discovered the Internet, suddenly they had power. But when the already powerful big institutions finally figured out how to harness the Internet for their needs, they had more power to magnify. That's the difference: the distributed were more nimble and were quicker to make use of their new power, while the institutional were slower but were able to use their power more effectively.
And that's where we are today, at a point where the big institutions -- governments above all -- have finally overcome their initial cluelessness, and worked out that as well as being a threat to their power, the Internet could also be a means for them to consolidate it. Fortunately, Schneier has some practical suggestions about what we need to do now in order to tip the balance back towards the people:
In the short term, we need more transparency and oversight. The more we know of what institutional powers are doing, the more we can trust that they are not abusing their authority. We have long known this to be true in government, but we have increasingly ignored it in our fear of terrorism and other modern threats. This is also true for corporate power. Unfortunately, market dynamics will not necessarily force corporations to be transparent; we need laws to do that. The same is true for decentralized power; transparency is how we will differentiate political dissidents from criminal organizations.

Oversight is also critically important, and is another long-understood mechanism for checking power. This can be a combination of things: courts that act as third-party advocates for the rule of law rather than rubber-stamp organizations, legislatures that understand the technologies and how they affect power balances, and vibrant public-sector press and watchdog groups that analyze and debate the actions of those wielding power.

Transparency and oversight give us the confidence to trust institutional powers to fight the bad side of distributed power, while still allowing the good side to flourish. For if we are going to entrust our security to institutional powers, we need to know they will act in our interests and not abuse that power. Otherwise, democracy fails.
There's much more in Schneier's essay, including thoughts on the "security gap", and why the longer-term solution is to reduce power differences by opening up data. It's a really important piece that pulls together many of the big issues that Snowden's leaks have raised. Unusually, it not only offers a compelling analysis of what's wrong, but also some sensible, if broad-brush, thoughts on how to put it right.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:13pm

    Hold on a second

    You're telling me Bruce Schneier was NOT a mainstream commenter on the digital world beforehand?

    He was the first person that everyone seemed to run to when a security vulnerability was made public or a major hack was made. I've heard/read his thoughts on radio, television, news articles, blogs more than any other security expert I can think of.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    saulgoode (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:34pm

    A blast from the past...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:37pm

    the distributed were more nimble and were quicker to make use of their new power, while the institutional were slower but were able to use their power more effectively.

    Perhaps the institutional simply had all the money and used it to hire the distributed, who used their power mainly to land good paying jobs. I suspect it began when companies started hiring "webmasters".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:47pm

    What I been sayin'! Teh Internets is for spyin'.

    Anyone who bought into the notion of it liberating the masses through information didn't at all get the point of Orwell's "1984". The Internet IS the telescreen system, watching your every move -- and it's even worse than Orwell imagined because the monitoring and collating is done with computers.

    Google and Facebook are the biggest SPIES around. Even if they weren't directly connected to NSA, makes no difference.

    But there's no big mystery about the way to end this digital feudalism: we must pull down those at the top.

    It being late, and this item sure to raise little interest, and it being far too great an effort to try and get you kids to UN-learn the lies you've been fed about "capitalism" and the Internet, or to get you away from the pirated movies and games that have warped your mind, I'll just conclude with a couple tag lines:

    Spying is the main 'business model' of the internet, especially for Google and Facebook.

    Google's ability to target you for advertising is EXACTLY what NSA needs to target you as political dissident, NOT coincidentally.

    So long as "The Market" (if not NSA directly) rewards Google for spying, do you expect it to do LESS of it?

    Google wants you to know you're under our ever improving state-of-the-art personalized surveillance! We learn your interests, habits, and associations! All "free", courtesy of other corporations!

    The Google-Borg. Assimilating your privacy since 1998.

    15:46:09[q-117-0]

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 9:26pm

    Neither is correct:

    interesting story although both those scenarios are incorrect, yes there was (almost none actually) in the beginning about "natural laws of the internet" and some sort of Net Utopia, but that is not how it is, nor was it ever going to be like that.

    It is also not a 'feudal', what it is, and what it was always expected to be, is national, that is, regardless of being "on the internet" or NOT, you are bound by the laws of the country you are in.

    The internet does not make a "mockery" of the laws, or allows you to disregard those laws.

    market dynamics will not necessarily force corporations to be transparent; we need laws to do that.

    So he is advocating MORE LAWS !!!! great just what you always wanted RIGHT ???

    So he's details what the Internet IS NOT, then tried to explain how to make it what it already IS, and what is already happening now !!! Amazing.

    The entertainment industry is looking to governments to enforce their antiquated business models.

    No, the Entertainment industry is looking to the Government to RIGHTLY enforce the laws of the country that they are responsible for the laws thereof.

    Their "business model" is based on the laws of the country and international laws.

    A business model without a basis in law is a criminal organization.

    The laws may or may not be 'antiquated' that is a matter of opinion, not a matter of law.

    Because laws are well entrenched in history, and have proven relevant throughout history, does not make them any less (or more) significant, useful, effective and appropriate to model a business on !

    These companies [like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook etc.] act in their own self-interest. and here I was thinking these companies are bound by the same rules and laws as the author of this paper, and who DOES NOT act in their own self interest ?

    So Google for example, only acts in its own 'self interest' they do not provide services and function in the interest of others as well ?? and profit from the provision of those services and functions ?

    Google does not act in the interest of other companies, in promoting that other company so they can provide services and products for others ?

    So Google is operating outside of the law ? Do they make up their own rules ? Are they NOT bound by the laws and rules of the Countries they operate in ?

    You have detailed two possible ways the Internet "COULD BE" neither of which is correct.

    Technology is NOT POWER, technology is neutral, it is benign in nature, it is neither 'good' or 'evil' its just technology.

    Technology is a tool, not a weapon, but even tools can be used as weapons, but that is the result of an entity (person or group) seeking power through force, not the technology.

    Nor is 'technology' apart from the law, because you employ technology does not mean your intent is the gain advantage or immunity from the law.

    It would be nice for the good writers here at TechDirt to be able to understand that when they sit down at their computers somewhere in the US, that they are not automatically transported to some "other place" where laws and rules do not exist.

    You seem to think because you are logged onto the Internet, that somehow you are no longer sitting in some State of America and therefore are no longer bound by the rules and laws that Govern you the minute you logoff !! That is just bizarre!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      any moose cow word, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:49pm

      Re: Neither is correct:

      The entertainment industry is looking to governments to enforce their antiquated business models.

      No, the Entertainment industry is looking to the Government to RIGHTLY enforce the laws of the country that they are responsible for the laws thereof.

      Their "business model" is based on the laws of the country and international laws.

      A business model without a basis in law is a criminal organization.

      Then what do you call those who buy laws to favor their own business model, even against the wishes of the people?

      Sorry, but even ardent media customers don't support copyright that last 70 years after the creator's death, and they do not support the continued expansions that are being forced upon them by publishers who are looking to grant themselves more privileges at the expense of everyone else!


      Because laws are well entrenched in history, and have proven relevant throughout history, does not make them any less (or more) significant, useful, effective and appropriate to model a business on !

      Yes, publishers have used various forms of copyright to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else for centuries. But just because the laws are "well entrenched in history" does not always make them just or sustainable, and does mean that technological and social advances cannot challenge their effectiveness or relevance. Slavery was "well entrenched" for millennia, and the very same argument was used to support it as well.

      In the modern digital age, what relevance does a "publisher" have when digital media can be copied almost instantly, indefinitely, and freely by anyone? It's definitely not to pay the creators, because most are hardly getting paid as it is, and the small cost of digital distribution does not justify the big cut the publishers take anymore.


      Technology is a tool, not a weapon, but even tools can be used as weapons, but that is the result of an entity (person or group) seeking power through force, not the technology.

      Agreed, which is why it should not automatically be assumed that any technology that can be used to copy files are solely used for copyright infringement.


      Nor is 'technology' apart from the law, because you employ technology does not mean your intent is the gain advantage or immunity from the law.

      Yet, ignorant law makers think those who employ technology are trying to gain advantage or immunity from the law. If something should be illegal, it doesn't need the additional charge of doing it "on a computer" to make it more illegal.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        icon
        That One Guy (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 11:27pm

        Re: Re: Neither is correct:

        In the modern digital age, what relevance does a "publisher" have when digital media can be copied almost instantly, indefinitely, and freely by anyone?

        In their old role as gatekeepers, where they decided who would be published, who would get promoted, and who would languish in the wayside, ignored by them, and therefor the public, their place, assuming they cannot adapt, is right alongside the dodo and dinosaurs, dead and gone.

        For those that can adapt though, publishers can still be useful to creators, by acting as middlemen, helping a creator with distribution(though not control) of their works, advertising, and some of the PR(the creator has to help out on this one too for it to work).

        The reason so many of the old gatekeepers are fighting tooth and nail to avoid becoming 'merely' middlemen however, is because as gatekeepers, they have the power, they control the artist. As middlemen however, it's the other way around, and they are absolutely loathe to give up that power and control.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          any moose cow word, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 7:26am

          Re: Re: Re: Neither is correct:

          Sure, traditional publishers filled other roles too. An important one you missed is "accounting". My point is that publishing is what defines a "publisher". Now that role is largely obsolete, the ones who somehow manage to actually adapt--rather than contorting reality to suit themselves--have to be called something else. Distribution can still have power, but the Internet has effectively collapsed the traditional roles of "publisher" and "distributor" into a single act that anyone can do.

          What we do have now are effectively "aggregators" and retailers. They don't necessarily have anything to do with the creation of works, but rather bring them together in large quantities, catalog and categorize them to make them easier to find. Sure, Google sort of does that too, but being more specialized for a particular medium or target audience is by far more useful. These are things that anyone can do as well, but every few actually do it very well, which makes this skill valuable.

          So now, it's the forward facing entities, the ones who actually interact with the users, are the ones who are the most valuable. The problem for the traditionally publishers is that is a role they had no part of. Another role they had that is also still very important is financing, there is still the financial hurtle in completing the original work. This is where publishers are trying to expert the most control over creators, but their traditionally abusive terms are going to be harder to enforce without their other roles to keep them in power. This is why they hate companies such as Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, and even Mega, those started allowing creators to come directly them. Once creators find new revenue streams to support themselves, the traditional publishers won't have a leg to stand on.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 12:43am

      Re: Neither is correct:

      You seem to think because you are logged onto the Internet, that somehow you are no longer sitting in some State of America and therefore are no longer bound by the rules and laws that Govern you the minute you logoff !! That is just bizarre!!


      Is the true though.

      Doubt?

      Have laws stopped software hackers from hacking things?
      Nope.
      Have laws stopped piracy?
      Nope.
      Have laws stopped people that believe in something from speaking out?
      Nope
      Have laws stopped tax evasion?
      Nope
      Have laws stopped drug trafficking?
      Nope

      Laws only function properly with public support, laws against violent crimes work because everyone is on it and help law enforcement to catch the bad guys.

      Is not that laws stop meaning something on the internet, is that on the internet when people chose to ignore some stupid law everyone can see it.

      Nobody respects copyright and they prove it everyday and different from others times, now people can actually do it for themselves.

      Technology is the power to do it, and I don't think you appreciate how powerful that is, technology is what allowed the creation of the first laws on this earth, without technology there would be no written laws.

      But laws are not absolute, they can be ignored sometimes, they can be broken, changed or vanquished, laws are rules intended to serve as guide.

      Laws are not the word of God, despite what you may think other can chose to follow it or not, if enough people chose not to, you the defender of the law is the one with a problem not the others.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Robert, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:01pm

    Content Theft

    If you stop and think about it, this is all about copyright theft.
    Basically the incumbents are saying your content is great and a lot of people are downloading, so I am going steal your content and charge you for it, when other people try to download it, either directly or indirectly by charging your customers.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    any moose cow word, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:53pm

    Transparency is how we will differentiate political dissidents from criminal organizations.

    The current administration with its secret laws and trade agreements certainly fits the bill.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 1:47am

    Disperse the Underlying Power

    Bruce Schneier misses the important point. The unspoken primal idea of Jeffersonian democracy was that each man would have a little farm, say thirty to fifty acres, which would provide the family with all they needed in the way of raw materials, which they would then make into whatever they needed. The Minuteman was clad in wool clothing spun and woven from the fleece of his own sheep, and shod in leather shoes which were an incidental byproduct of supplying himself with ham and bacon. His house was built out of stone and lumber which were incidental byproducts of clearing land for farming, and fuel came from his own woodlot. Civic virtue was an incidental byproduct of economic independence. The most fundamental point was that a free man didn't have to ask anyone for the means of subsistence.

    Now, as applied to the internet, the lowest layer of the internet is telecommunications. If you want to make the internet more democratic, you must make telecommunications more democratic. That means that every house should have a suitable piece of telecommunications equipment. Specifically, I mean a wireless transceiver/router, mounted on the roof, capable of operating as part of a mesh network. This transceiver/router should further be of a phased-array design, capable of electronically aiming itself to an accuracy of a degree or so. The optimum frequency is about twenty gigahertz, though the device should also be able to pick up satellite signals at about twelve gigahertz, as well as all the various frequencies which may come to be incorporated in WiFi. Lots of houses have satellite dishes, but the problem is that these are merely passive devices. Well let's replace them with active devices.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      Lennie (profile), Oct 26th, 2013 @ 4:39am

      Re: Disperse the Underlying Power

      What you should do is lookup Freedomboxfoundation and lookup talks by Eben Moglen on YouTube.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      any moose cow word, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 8:27am

      Re: Disperse the Underlying Power

      A huge problem with this utopian idea is latency. It takes a certain amount of time to forward data packets between nodes. It may be small, but it is NOT instantaneous, and your design would require a LOT more nodes on the network. The more hops you add to a route on a network, the longer it takes to actually deliver the packets. Latency sensitive applications such as video and voice chat will be problematic, and gaming would be impossible. Other forms of video streaming would become unreliable as well, as packets would have to be constantly rerouted and rebroadcast to compensate for nodes that go offline or become saturated. Yes, internet protocols were written to allow for such issues, but adding a thousandfold nodes would amplify these issues exponentially.

      Protocols also have what's called a "timeout". They only wait so long for an acknowledgement that the packets were received before it's assumed they were lost and rebroadcast. If the latency gets too high, packets will be constantly retransmitted, clogging the bandwidth of the entire network!

      Then there's also the fact that internet protocols have what's called "time to live" (TTL) to control network congestion.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_to_live] For instance, each internet packet has a counter, and every node that retransmits it reduces this counter by one. Once the counter drops to zero, the packet is discarded. This is necessary to prevent packets that couldn't be delivered from propagating for eternity and eventually clogging the entire network. Another problem with adding so many hops to network routes is that many protocols have a set TTL, which is often hard coded in applications and hardware. Most packets would expire before they even reach their destination!

      The only way to fix the timeout and TTL issues would be to upgrade or replace each app and network device--times a billion. Your design is interesting, but would essentially require an overhaul of the entire internet.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Andrew D. Todd, Oct 27th, 2013 @ 2:32am

        Re: Re: Disperse the Underlying Power

        The short answer is that this is below the level of the internet, and it doesn't have to use packets. Packets are superimposed at a higher level on something much more basic, like a wire. We are talking (pseudo) Level 1, not Level 3. A device such as I have postulated would have to have enough parallelism in its control circuits that it would not have to store-and-forward. If expedient, it could switch channels instead of packets. The internet architecture is not the underlying physics.

        Of course the system would have to be backwards-compatible with all kind of existing systems such as Wi-Fi, but it would have a separate section to handle those, and pass traffic through to its own protocols. Once you develop a workable process for printing antennas on a circuit board, you can easily incorporate all kinds of different antennas, wired up into different subsystems of the same unit.

        Phased array means that you don't have to make too many hops. If you can go a mile or two at each hop, a distance of several miles is probably enough to reach a point where there is brutally competitive land-line access. The telecommunications companies' effective monopolies are in the last mile, or even in the last five hundred feet.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          any moose cow word, Oct 27th, 2013 @ 9:40pm

          Re: Re: Re: Disperse the Underlying Power

          Oh, you meant that to be a "last mile" solution. The way you worded it before sounded like you had something more expansive in mind. In that light, your idea makes a lot more sense.


          The short answer is that this is below the level of the internet, and it doesn't have to use packets. Packets are superimposed at a higher level on something much more basic, like a wire.

          Yes, I'm families with the OSI model. I forgot that you hardware guys call them "frames". I was a bit confused when you mixed terms like transceiver and router. Routers deal with IP packets, and those other issues, where as a mere transceiver doesn't.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          •  
            identicon
            Andrew D. Todd, Oct 28th, 2013 @ 5:53am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Disperse the Underlying Power

            Actually, I'm not what you probably think of as a "hardware guy." I'm a mechanical engineer by training, and I tend to reserve my precision of language for thermodynamics. Similarly, in this situation, my over-riding thought is about the phenomena of wave interference, and how big does a phased-array antennae have to be to get a given angular resolution at a given frequency, and what are the attenuation properties of given frequencies when traveling through atmosphere. The switch is basically a kind of software, which happens to be expressed in transistors rather than bits.

             

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Wolfy, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 3:32am

    Don't feed the troll.

    He only exists to de-rail constructive discussion.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    PopeRatzo (profile), Oct 26th, 2013 @ 7:16am

    Of course I agree with Schneier, but "oversight" is not enough if it's government and corporations defining the term and setting the parameters.

    I'm afraid it's too late to say to government and corporations, "OK, now please give back that power and let us have it," because they simply laugh that off. Government is no longer fulfilling its function as the counterbalance to corporate power. They're working together and sharing power. You can see that in everything from arbitration clauses to corporate sovereignty.

    The only way to balance the playing field is to get the means to defeat their surveillance and control into the hands of as many people as possible. Everyone needs to encrypt. Everyone needs to Tor. Everyone needs to protect every bit of ground we still have at all times.

    Plus, hackers need to hack, leakers need to leak, whistlblowers need to pucker up and make as loud a noise as possible. Don't listen to the naysayers, you will become heroes. Edward Snowden has become a hero. There needs to be thousands of Edward Snowdens and they have to come forward NOW.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      any moose cow word, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 8:36am

      Re:

      People have to wake up and unplug from the nonsense fed to them by corporate media. Unfortunately, some of those "news" products are so addictive that they can't tell up from down at times. They also must let go of their sense of self preservation a bit in order to fight for the common good, become solders and rebels. How many in a coddled and deluded populous would be willing to do that?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This