Thursday Sep 27, 2007

Roman Canaries

DFIR Meeting

Today I had the privilege of speaking to a large and distinguished international audience in Rome, DFIR, considering the creation of a "Bill of Rights" for the Internet as a part of the ongoing IGF process. Many presenters spoke about privacy, about access to knowledge, about the need to build on the well-established corpus of wisdom in existing statements on human rights. Listening through the morning, it became apparent that most people were taking for granted the technical basis on which the Internet was created.

Thus in my speech I decided to take the opposite approach, taking as given the obvious need to establish human rights of privacy, access, free speech and non-discrimination and look at the technical foundations. The Internet exists because of three realities - informally constituted but still consistently real. We have to remember the heritage of the net if we are to protect higher-order rights for its future. Those are

  • Open Standards - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure interface interoperability within every layer of the Internet's architecture, including the “application layer” and its myriad file formats, protocols, schemas, and application programming interfaces.
  • Open Source - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure that is it legally, technically and practically possible for software applications to be equally available under both open source and propriety source code models.
  • Open Access - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure the ability of any end-point on the network to connect to any other correctly configured end-point is available to every other end-point without unreasonable obstruction.

The Sentinel Principle

Romulus and Remus

And so to canaries. It struck me during this that Free software plays an important role over and above delivering the liberty to use software one can inspect and alter. It also serves as the canary in the coalmine for the word "Open". Standards are truly open when they can be implemented without fear as Free software in an open source community. Open source communities are very sensitive to and wary of aspects of a standard that limit or otherwise harm their freedom. As the case of SenderID proved, they spot things for which others have a blind spot or have been gamed.

Whether or not you use the Free software itself, if it doesn't exist then the standard you're considering may well involve the sort of harmful, invisible agent that canaries were used to detect in an earlier age. I know there's plenty of discussion about the precise definition of "open standard" - maybe the best approach is not to define it but rather identify when it is not present using a sentinel.

I'd not want to confuse "Open Standards" with "Open Source" - their only link is that open standards implemented as open source create optimum freedom - but this additional sentinel role for software freedom just might be the answer to a tricky semantic issue in the current public policy arena.

No canaries were harmed in the preparation of this posting.

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.

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