Cyber-libertarianism vs. Rousseau’s Social Contract in cyberspace

In this post, I argue that the cyberlibertarian belief that we can individually protect our rights in cyberspace is incorrect, as it is impossible for an individual to provide him/herself meaningful assurance from hardware fabrication and assembly undetectable backdooring – even if supported by informal digital communities of trust. As for offline freedom, world citizens need to build international social contracts for cyberspace by deliberately and carefully building organizations to whom they will delegate part of the freedoms, in order to receive in return both protection of both their online civil liberties and their physical safety.

In its 1762 “Social Contract” (pdf) Rousseau wrote:

“‘Find a form of association that will bring the whole common force to bear on defending and protecting each associate’s person and goods, doing this in such a way that each of them, while uniting himself with all, still obeys only himself and remains as free as before.” There’s the basic problem that is solved by the social contract”.

Flash forward 250 years later and half our time is spent in cyberspace, where virtually all citizens have NO access to end-user devices nor cloud services with meaningful assurance that their privacy, identity and security is not completely and continuously compromised at extremely low marginal cost.

In fact, adequate protection is not required by the state – as it does for nuclear weapons, air planes or housing standards – nor is it offered by companies or traditional social organizations. Citizens are left alone to protect themselves.

In cyberspace, would citizens be better able to protect themselves alone or through adequate joint associations? Should we let users alone to protect themselves or is there a need for some forms of cyberspace social contracts? Would delegating part of one’s control of its computing to jointly-managed organizations produce more or less freedom overall?

Rousseau wen ton saying: “Each man in giving himself to everyone gives himself to no-one; and the right over himself that the others get is matched by the right that he gets over each of them. So he gains as much as he loses, and also gains extra force for the preservation of what he has“.

The current mainstream answer is that we can and should do it alone. Cyber-libertarianism has completely prevailed globally among activists and IT experts dedicated to freedom, democracy and human rights in and through cyberspace (arguably because of the nature of anarcho-libertarian geek political culture of the US west coast, especially north west).

But achieving meaningful protection is completely impossible by an individual – even if supported by informal digital communities of trust, shared values and joint action, more or less hidden in cyberspace.

In fact, achieving meaningful assurance of one’s computing device requires meaningful trustworthiness of the oversight processes of fabrication and assembly of critical hardware components that can completely compromised such devices.  So therefore, even for a pure P2P solution we need anyway those in-person processes for the fabrication and assembly. Until a user will be able to 3D print a device in its basement, there will be a need for such geolocated complex organizational process, with which the NSA and others can completely compromise surreptitiously or outlaw it.

The necessity of such oversight organizational processes can be desumed from this 3 minute video except in which Bruce Schneier clearly explains how we must assume CPUs as untrustworthy and therefore we may need to develop intrinsically trustworthy organizational processes, similar to those that guarantee the integrity of election ballot boxes. (As we at UVST apply to the CivicRoom and the CivicFab).

In fact, since NSA and similar, after the 90s popularisation of high-grade software encryption and after the Clipper Chip failed, they were at risk of loosing their (legal sanctioned and constitutionally) authority of intercept, search and seizure. They therefore have had the excuse (and reason) to break all end-points at birth, surreptitiously or not, all the way down to the assembly or at the CPU or SoC foundry. They succeeded wildly and, even more importantly, succeeded in letting most criminals and dissenters think that some crytpo software or device where safe enough to share critical information. Recent Snowden tight-lipped revelations about intrusion NSA in Korean and China IT companies, show that things have not changed since 1969 when most governments of the world were using Swiss Crypto AG equipment thinking it secure, while they were undetectably spied upon by NSA.

Therefore, we must have some form of social contracts to have any chance of gaining and retaining any freedom in cyberspace.

The great news is that those social contracts – and related socio-technical systems – can be enacted among relatively-small number of individuals that share values, aims and trust, rather than the some territory, and they can be changed at will by the user, enabling much more decentralized and democratically resilient forms of democratic association.

Since we must have such social contracts in place for each such communities of trust to handle the oversight processes, we may as well extend those, in (redundant pairs of) democratic countries, to provide in-person processes controlled by effective citizen-jury-based processes to allow constitutional – no more no less – access to intercept, search and seizure, to discourage its use by criminals and avoid giving a reason & excuse for the state to outlaw it, or surreptitiously break it.

A sort of social contract for cyberspace was enacted in 2004 by the founders of the Debian GNU/Linux operating systems, through the Debian Social Contract. It eventually became a huge adoption success, as it developed the world leading free software OS, and originated much of the tech leaders of the leading free software privacy tools. But ultimately it did not deliver trustworthy computing, even to its most developers, no matter how much convenience and user-friendliness was sacrificed.

In addition to poor technical architecture choices – such as the belief in their ability to make huge software stacks adequately secure with limited resources – what ultimately caused their failure by the fact that the contract was for the users but not by the users, i.e. the users were not substantially involved in its governance. For this reason, it’s priorities were those of geek developers, i.e. the freedom of hack around and share, through barely functioning code, as opposed to freedom from abuse of core civil rights – through extreme engineering and auditing intensity relative to resources, extreme minimization, trustworthy critical hardware life-cycle and compartmentation, in order to deliver minimal functionality but meaningful assurance that your device is your instrument and not someone else’s.

The User Verified Social Telematics project proposes to extend on the organizational and technical, to enable effective autonomous cyberspace social contracts of the users, by the users and for the users.

UPDATED Nov 24th: Added an abstract.

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