I’ve spent the last two days at the Madrid conference on Democracy, Terrorism and Security, colloquially known as the “Safe Democracy” conference. Joi Ito invited far-flung members of his posse to participate in a conversation about the Internet and its role in “fighting” terrorism. We’re an odd little group at this conference – organized by Martín Varsavsky and Club de Madrid – which is otherwise populated by former heads of state and lots of super-important individuals.
Joi and Martín were concerned that a conversation about the Internet and terrorism would end up becoming a discussion of ways to “fix” the internet so that it’s less useful to terrorists for secure communications. By inviting a bunch of geeks and alpha-bloggers, we ran the risk of giving the standard “keep your hands off my internet” response, a stance that was unlikely to go over with many of the conference attendees.
We ended up spending hours focused on two main issues: anonymity and transferability of laws. (You can see the discussion on the IRC transcript – I did my best SJ impression and attempted to transcribe the main points of the conversation.)
Net people tend to support anonymity as a fundamental principle of what’s great about the net – it’s a feature. To security people and police, it’s a profound bug. With a few alpha geeks around the table, we found ourselves shooting down a range of strategies that would attempt to eliminate anonymity from the net. We ended up arguing that we couldn’t see a strategy that would prevent a truly determined terrorist from hiding his or her identity… but we could see lots of strategies that would make it very hard for activists and dissidents to gain anonymity. Understanding that it’s not something that makes security people happy, we ended up arguing that anonymity is technically impossible, and therefore we argue for the promotion of anonymity, not the contraction of it.
We ended up arguing – up until the point we had to give a public presentation of the document we were working on – about a phrase Martín suggested: “What’s illegal off the internet is illegal on the internet.” The phrase was intended to reassure security forces and police that we didn’t think the Internet was above or beyond the law. But while it sounds good on the surface, I find the phrase very troubling. There are large parts of the world where basic acts of communication are illegal – the Internet allows this communication even when it’s illegal. I think it’s critical that these laws don’t impinge on freedoms of communication the Internet makes possible. The phrase we ended up posting on the wiki makes me a bit happier, but still doesn’t quite address my concerns: “The Internet is neither above nor below the law. The same legal principles that apply in the physical world also apply to human activities conducted over the Internet.”
We’ve posted a draft of a joint recommendation on a wiki – please take a look and feel free to make changes and suggestions.
Despite spending twelve hours at a stretch in a session, my crazy, geeky peers do manage to have a good time. Once my digital camera came out at dinner last night, everyone felt compelled to video each other, which led to this odd pass de deux (QT video) by Joi Ito and Dan Gillmor, narrated by myself and David Weinberger…