Will Publius do for net censorship what it did for the federalist fathers?

Published July 1st, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Internet activist and Electronic Frontier Foundation member John Gilmore's famous statement that "the Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it" though an online cliché, has become a tad unfashionable. So has the statement that "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Both are dangerously false in today's online world where anything as simple as a script running on a server somewhere can trace everything from your IP number to your online habits. The lack of anonymity and availability of censorship has since dampened the internet's Wild West spirit. 

"People are so used to thinking of the Net as ephemeral, anonymous and unchanging that they forget the one thing computers are really good at is remembering things and searching for them," Michael Godwin, author of 'Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age,' told the Washington Post. 

But that hasn't put a halt to attempts to let the Net live up to its reputation. On Friday, researchers at AT&T Labs announced the creation of Publius, a new system that could go a long way toward eliminating online censorship, The Associated Press reported. Publius could bring the full promise -- and, critics warn, the perils -- of unfettered speech to the global medium. 

"It seems like more and more, technologies are being introduced that limit the freedom of individuals -- especially in repressive administrations" around the world, said Aviel D. Rubin, who developed Publius with AT&T colleague Lorrie F. Cranor and graduate student Marc Waldman. 

Rubin said that he and Cranor saw the ideal user of Publius as "a person in China observing abuses, on a day-to-day basis," of human rights. In nations where freedom of speech is severely limited and people might suffer great hardship for speaking out, Publius could be an instrument of social change. "That's what motivates Lorrie and me," Rubin said. "That's why we were interested in this project." 

"We are hoping that by providing some tools to help the individual, we can help offset this trend a little bit." 

The researchers chose their system's name carefully: "Publius" was one of the pen names used by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison to anonymously publish the Federalist Papers, when America was under British colonial rule. 

Publius works by encrypting files -- from text to pictures and music -- and dividing them into fragments like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to be distributed over a number of servers used to store and distribute information on the World Wide Web. 

Someone wanting to receive materials from the Publius network would look through a directory of offerings on a Publius-affiliated Web site; the network itself would do the work of reassembling the pieces of the requested file. 

Because Publius puts documents on a number of servers, any effort to censor is greatly hindered. The Publius network would make it hard to trace the original transaction, and files placed on the network could not be removed without the direct action of the owners of the participating servers. The sender can decide into how many pieces to break the file and how many owners of servers would have to act together to eliminate it. 

Internet experts who have learned about Publius say they are impressed. "This is a unique approach and it is well executed," Edward Felten, an associate professor of computer science at Princeton University told the Washington Post. "We think it's a pretty cool system," said Adam Shostak of Toronto-based Zero Knowledge Systems, which sells software for anonymous Internet use. 

Not everyone is pleased, however. Bruce Taylor, an anti-pornography activist with the National Law Center for Children and Families, told the Washington Post, "it's nice to be anonymous, but who wants to be more anonymous than criminals, terrorists, child molesters, child pornographers, hackers and e-mail virus punks?" 

Taylor said the researchers might be motivated by good intentions, but the uses to which Publius is put won't always be for the best. "That doesn't mean they shouldn't do it, just because somebody might abuse it, but it does raise questions." 

So far, AT&T Labs' corporate parent has allowed the project to continue. 

"The truth is that researchers at AT&T Labs have quite a free rein to pick topics for their work," Rubin said. "The culture at the labs here is that we are scientists, and we are expected to solve forward-looking problems that contribute to basic knowledge." 

AT&T Labs spokesman Michael Dickman acknowledged that internal memos from corporate officers raised the possibility that the system could be used to disseminate child pornography and other undesirable content. 

He said the company is unlikely to follow the course of American Online, which canceled work on Gnutella, a technology for distributing music over the Internet that was criticized as a potential boost to copyright piracy. 

"It is only a research project at this point in time," Dickman said, and part of the trial is intended to see whether the system will be abused. 

Among the solutions that Rubin proposed to prevent abuse are that administrators of the Publius computers band together to remove content that they collectively find abhorrent, and he believes child pornography would certainly fall under that category. 

But, Rubin defended Publius against potential abuses saying, "there's always historically been a fear of new technologies. When cars were introduced, there were fears that they would help bad guys get away." 

"We just hope that the good uses outweigh the bad," he said. 

Meanwhile, another factor in favor of Publius is the 100 kilobytes file size limitation.  

Although that file is by design small enough to preclude pirated audio, video and high-quality images, critics say Publius could be used to hide child pornography files, bomb-making recipes and shared information by malicious hackers.  

Nevertheless, Taylor countered "the criminals are going to love this. It's going to be used a lot less for Alexander Hamiltonian kind of calls to freedom than it will for illegal means."  

David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said the benefits of online anonymity far outweigh potential disadvantages.  

"This is really a technology that is seeking to provide more protection than a particular legal system might provide," Sobel said.  

The researchers' announcement on Friday will lead to a two-month trial of the technology with a limited number of servers. If that works, they plan to create a permanent version of the system. The Publius site received more than 2,000 hits on Friday and offers from more than a dozen servers to store information. 

After a two-month trial, a more refined version of the software will likely be released, Rubin said. Two years ago, Rubin developed a similar service called Crowds that allows for anonymous Web surfing and has been downloaded 3,000 times. 

"With Publius, it's protecting somebody who wants to share information," Rubin said. "Crowds is protecting people who want to see information." Publius is not a commercial product; the researchers will give the software away. They have published a full description of Publius and the technology behind it at www.cs.nyu.edu/waldman/publius

Other programs, including a Canadian company called Zero Knowledge Systems, sell software for anonymous Internet use -- (Various Sources)

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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