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New software makes it nearly impossible to remove illegal material from the Web -- or to find out who put it there

Source: Scientific American

Posted on September 25, 2000

      In the centuries-long struggle to decide what people may say without fear of prosecution, almost all the big decisions have been made by constitution writers, judges and politicians. When things work properly, these players balance one another out and change the limits of free speech only slowly and after much debate. Inventors have played an occasional starring role, too, Gutenberg being the archetype. But with the rise of the Internet, a certain class of inventors--computer scientists--has asserted its own special power to determine the boundaries of permissible speech. Unlike the leaders of governments, programmers release the new methods that they devise for sharing information globally, quickly and often with little thought to the consequences.

      Consider Publius, a censor-resistant Web publishing system described in mid-August at a computer security conference in Denver. Engineers at the conference greeted the invention warmly, presenting to its creators -- Marc E. Waldman, a Ph.D. student at New York University, and Aviel D. Rubin and Lorrie F. Cranor of AT&T Labs-Research -- the award for best paper. Publius is indeed an impressive technical achievement: a tiny little program that, once widely installed, allows almost any computer user to publish a document on the Web in such a way that for all practical purposes it cannot be altered or removed without the author's consent, even by an incensed government. In fact, authors can post files to Publius that even they themselves cannot delete. Yet it is quite simple for any Web surfer anywhere to view files published this way.

      The details of its design give Publius another important property. If publishers use an inexpensive anonymizing service (such as, or or a public Internet terminal to cover any tracks, then they can upload computer files--not just Web pages but also software and digital recordings--irremovably and with almost no risk of identification. The Federal Bureau of Investigation would not comment on how it might track down those who use Publius to put illegal material on-line.

      Publius thus appears to allow speech without accountability, and that is something fundamentally new. Deep Throat was anonymous, for example, but the Washington Post still had to defend its Watergate story in court. When antiabortionists made up a list of doctors who performed abortions and posted it on-line, striking through the names of those physicians who had been murdered, they were hauled before a jury, which fined them $109 million in civil damages.

      Every nation outlaws some kinds of communications: libel, piracy, conspiracy, treason. Some nations go much further, of course. "Governments are working on international moral censorship schemes," observes Michael Sims of the Censorware Project. "Companies are working on international economic censorship schemes." Publius, Sims says, is a response to this trend. "Many, many people don't want the Internet to end up looking like TV. When the censorship crosses their individual moral thresholds, some of them start to act in response."

      But is it an appropriate response for a small number of computer scientists to create software that subverts the efforts of governments, who must answer to citizens, and of companies, who must answer to both governments and customers? Publius has many obviously good uses, Rubin argues. "A whistle-blower could use it to expose illegal dumping by his employer. You could set up a Web site supporting a political candidate that your boss hates. Or companies may want to back up their sensitive data--encrypted--on Publius so that it isn't destroyed in a disaster."

      All true. But "there are much more direct ways to protect whistle-blowers, using laws instead of technology," says Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. The same is true for anonymous political Web sites and sensitive corporate data--and even for that list of abortion providers, which the judge did not pull from the Net. (The Supreme Court has ruled that threats are protected speech unless they are likely to cause "imminent lawless action.") If Publius is used to commit crimes with impunity, governments may try to ban the system. Indeed, encryption laws in the U.K. already appear to forbid its installation there. Courts may uphold a ban, Bertin suggests, unless Publius clearly enables legal speech that cannot be protected in a more innocuous way. In any case, so long as Publius servers are running anywhere on the Internet and U.S. citizens can surf anonymously, any ban would have little effect.

      Appropriate or not, Publius is now a part of the Internet. Even before he presented his paper in Denver, Waldman posted the source code to the program on his Web site, so that other experts can check it for holes. Within a week almost 40 servers in five countries (including the U.K.) were running the system. "But we haven't had any responses yet from countries under authoritarian regimes," Rubin says. Testing is expected to continue through October. Ironically, Publius may be ineffective in the very places where censorship is most oppressive. Bennett Haselton of the Censorware Project points out that "it only protects against censorship on the publishing end. In a country like China, where the main problem is censorship on the receiving end (all inbound traffic is filtered through the ‘Great Firewall of China'), it is trivial for the censors to detect when someone is accessing a Publius document." So Publius seems to work only for those who are already guaranteed a right to speak anonymously and read what they like. To them, it extends the ability, if not the right, to disregard what the politicians, judges and constitution writers have decided is out of bounds.

by W. Wayt Gibbs

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