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Digital Imprimatur in a Nutshell

April 7, 2004

Via Howard Rheingold comes David Weinberger's NPR talk on emerging technologies that could significantly limit our ability to use and create with digital content -- the "triple threat" of content lockdown: Digital Rights Management (DRM), digital identity and trusted computing.

Rheingold observes that "This talk should recall [John] Walker's Digital Imprimatur paper." Indeed. That paper, which spawned a much-discussed Steven Levy piece, builds on the same insight (and pessimism) made famous by EFF board member Larry Lessig in his Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace -- "Hey, you Internet pioneers, your Internet isn't intrinsically free -- it's already proven quite regulable and we're headed toward more regulation. Wake up!" Lessig went on to divide the "levers" of regulation into four categories -- code; law; markets; norms.

What Digital Imprimatur does is add granularity to the "code" category -- a specific laundry list of technologies that have the potential to transform the Internet from open to closed. EFF's Fred von Lohmann read the paper; below, he provides a digest -- Digital Imprimatur in a Nutshell -- as well as his own list of countervailing technologies.

Writes Fred:

"Walker's list:

1. The Firewalled Consumer: NAT ascendant! Connections controlled upstream.
2. Certificates: Everything gets a cryptographically unique identity assigned by a central authority.
3. Trusted Computing: Walker may not fully understand TCG, but he's right to point it out.
4. Certified Micropayments: In the glare of e-commerce, no one notices the death of anonymity, free linking, free networking, free Internet.
5. DRM: 'Nuff said.
6. Trusted Internet Traffic: Only 'certified' packets get carried.

These technologies together create a strong current toward the creation of the Secure Internet -- 'No ID, No IP' -- only certified packets, payments, programs and data are allowed. Mainstream computers ignore, or are cut off from, all traffic not on the Secure Internet. Not because Big Brother/Big Content has a grand conspiracy but, rather, because well-intentioned policy-makers and techies want to stop worms, spam, porn, fraud, terrorists and all manner of other ills.

As a side-effect, however, the open Internet becomes a thing of the past.

Chilling. Yet familiar. EFF is working on (or at least aware of) every technology Walker cites, and most of the policy issues he identifies. But it's a darn good roadmap.

My list of countervailing technologies to watch:

1. Low cost meshing wireless networks. Small-world Darknets.
2. Inexpensive, high-density unrestricted storage devices. Darknet over sneaker-net.
3. Open source software, if it's a real alternative computing environment for regular people.
4. Distributed anonymizing proxy networks."

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