Haystack: Resistance Technology Without Borders

One of the recurring themes in my column is the war for digital freedom.  The bad guys, of course, are the forces I like to call the Copyright Nazis:  the RIAA, MPAA, ASCAP, NewsCorp, Microsoft — pretty much the entire proprietary content industry.  And of course those guys wouldn’t be much of an enemy if it weren’t for legislation like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the WIPO Copyright Treaty, the Uruguay Round TRIPS Accord, and the increasingly authoritarian surveillance state required to enforce such legislation.  Together, the proprietary content industries and the surveillance state constitute one of those much-vaunted “complexes,” like the paradigmatic “Military-Industrial Complex” to which all others are compared.

But my focus here is on the good guys — the guys in the opposite corner, in the white trunks, who play Roadrunner to the proprietary content industries’ Wile E. Coyote.

Past heroes singled out for praise include The Pirate Bay, the most successful file-sharing operation to date.  Some reflected glory also belongs to assorted Pirate Parties around the world, to the extent that they run political interference for the free culture movement and raise public awarness about just how despicable the Copyright Nazis really are.  (I really should mention the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is at the forefront of groups performing the latter function).

The Falun Gong also deserves high praise for its efforts in developing proxy server technologies for combatting the Chinese surveillance state, and generally staying ahead of the Chinese government in an offensive-defensive arms race against Internet censorship.   The Falun Gong has been very generous in sharing its technical know-how with other dissident groups around the world.

The bar was recently raised for any future competition by the heroic efforts of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, in the Wikileaks story (which some of you may have read about).  Assange has set up a high-volume website for government and corporate whistleblowers worldwide to publish leaked documents — and since it relies on an international server network, it is beyond the power of any government to shut down.  Manning leaked the biggest cache of classified documents since the Pentagon Papers, subsequently published on said Wikileaks, which has resulted in an amusing impromptu dance in recent weeks by assorted members of the Obama administration’s national security apparatus.

And now there’s Haystack  It doesn’t exactly top Wikileaks, but it still ranks pretty high up there.  Haystack is the baby of Austin Heap, a 20-something hacker who decided — after witnessing the turmoil in Iran following the disputed election — to put his geek skills to work on behalf of that country’s dissident community.  Heap was helped enormously in the effort by a disgruntled Iranian government official, who provided considerable technical detail on the functioning of the government’s filtering software.  Heap wound up developing desktop software — Haystack — which not only encrypts but disguises connections and outgoing data, so to the government it looks like someone surfing a revolutionary website is visiting some other popular site like The Weather Channel.

Haystack is distributed on the same invitation-only, friend-of-a-friend model originally used by Gmail.  That reflects Heap’s vision of steady, organic growth, rather than a rapid expansion of “low-value demand.”  He specifically says he’d prefer it be used by freedom activists rather than file-sharers.  But we all know how this is gonna turn out.  Now that the genie’s out of the bottle, it will wind up in the hands of file-sharers sooner rather than later.  (Anyway, I thought file-sharers WERE freedom activists).

And the beauty of it is, the Copyright Nazis’ own authoritarian state is helping to distribute the rope  to hang itself.  Heap has talks scheduled with John McCain, and the State Department is on board with his project.

The U.S. government is so gung-ho about the immediate appeal of helping dissidents undermine the system of power in an official enemy state, it’s lost sight of an important consideration:  the technology of resistance has no borders.  For the Obama administration to help Heap spread this technology to Iranian dissidents is the equivalent of attacking Iran with a virulently contagious biological weapon for which the United States has developed no vaccine.  But there’s one big difference:  this virus only kills THEM.

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