The internet is made up revolutionary technologies, but isn’t revolutionary

My latest Locus Magazine column is What the Internet Is For: it describes the revolutionary principle (end-to-end communications) and technologies (general purpose computers, strong cryptography) that undergird the net, but also cautions that these are, themselves, not sufficient to revolutionize the world.

All these tools are available to establishments just as much as they are available to insurgents: and given time, these technologies will eventually add to the advantage the establishment has over those who would change the established order.

But that doesn’t mean the internet is useless: because crypto, computers and communications can give us a private space where we can — at least temporarily — talk amongst ourselves, it is a tool that can be used to organize revolutions.

We can’t use the internet to walkaway from the world: but we can use it to organize a world where we want to stay. And that’s why we need to defend the net: not because it is a parallel virtual place where we are free from surveillance and oppression, but because it is vital to creating real, physical places where we are free.

If you live in a repressive, corrupt state where the reins of power are in the hands of ruthless, greedy elites, the mere use of the internet is insufficient to keep you safe from oppression and retaliation. Even if you escape and go into exile, the internet will not keep your family and friends safe as you communicate with them.

You can’t use the internet to obviate the need to effect political change.

But the internet can be used by revolutionaries.

There is no substitute for living in a democratic, legitimate, responsive state that uses best evidence and honest debate to arrive at policy, where officials are accountable and the rule of law is intact.

The internet – a universal network with universal computing endpoints that can send and receive secure messages – is a tool that can crack open a space in even the most totalitarian of regimes, a place where reformers and revolutionaries can organize, mobilize, and fight back. It’s a forum for whispering dissidence in secret and for blasting the shameful secrets of the powerful at full volume.

What the Internet Is For [Cory Doctorow/Locus]

(Image: Mohri United Nations University, CC-BY)