February 01, 2010

Microsoft's Police State Vision? Exec Calls for Internet "Driver's Licenses"

Greetings. About a week ago, in Google and the Battle for the Soul of the Internet, I noted that:

Even here in the U.S., one of the most common Internet-related questions that I receive is also one of the most deeply disturbing: Why can't the U.S. require an Internet "driver's license" so that there would be no way (ostensibly) to do anything anonymously on the Net?

After I patiently explain why that would be a horrendous idea, based on basic principles of free speech as applied to the reality of the Internet -- most people who approached me with the "driver's license" concept seem satisfied with my take on the topic, but the fact that the question keeps coming up so frequently shows the depth of misplaced fears driven, ironically, by disinformation and the lack of accurate information.

So when someone who really should know better starts to push this sort of incredibly dangerous concept, it's time to bump up to orange alert at a minimum, and the trigger is no less than Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer for Microsoft.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos two days ago, Mundie explicitly called for an "Internet Driver's License": "If you want to drive a car you have to have a license to say that you are capable of driving a car, the car has to pass a test to say it is fit to drive and you have to have insurance."

When applied to the Internet, this is the kind of logic that must gladden the heart of China's rulers, where Microsoft has already announced their continuing, happy compliance with the country's human-rights-abusive censorship regime.

Dictators present and past would all appreciate the value of such a license -- let's call it an "IDL" -- by its ability to potentially provide all manner of benefits to current or would-be police states.

After all, a license implies a goal of absolute identification and zero anonymity -- extremely valuable when trying to track down undesirable political and other free speech uttering undesirables. And while the reality of Internet technology suggests that such identity regimes would be vulnerable to technological bypass and fascinating "joe job" identity-diversion schemes, criminal penalties for their use could be kept sufficiently draconian to assure that most of the population will be kowtowing compliantly.

I used the term "police state" in the text and title above, and I don't throw this concept around loosely.

The Internet has become integral to the most private and personal aspects of our lives -- health, commerce, and entertainment to name just a few on an ever expanding list. While there are clearly situations on the Internet where we want and/or need to be appropriately identified, there are many more where identification is not only unnecessary but could be incredibly intrusive and subject to enormous abuse.

And I might add, it is also inevitable that serious crooks would find ways around any Internet identification systems -- one obvious technique would be to divert blame to innocent parties through manipulation and theft of associated IDL identification credentials.

It was perhaps inevitable that the same "Hide! Here come the terrorists!" scare tactics used to promote easily thwarted naked airport scanners and domestic wiretapping operations, not to mention other PATRIOT and Homeland Security abuses, are now being repurposed in furtherance of gaining an iron grip on the communications technology -- the Internet -- that enables the truly free speech so terrifying to various governments around the world.

It's true that some persons advocating police state IDL concepts are not themselves in any way inherently evil -- they can for example be well-meaning but incredibly short-sighted.

However, I would be less than candid if I didn't admit that I'm disappointed, though not terribly surprised -- especially in light of Microsoft's explicit continuing support of Chinese censorship against human rights -- to hear a top Microsoft executive pushing a concept that is basic to making the Internet Police State a reality.

In the final analysis, evil is as evil does.


Posted by Lauren at February 1, 2010 03:57 PM | Permalink
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