Yesterday at #28c3 Roger Dingledine and Jacob Applebaum gave an entertaining and informative overview of how Governements have tried to suppress use of the Tor system in their countries.
Tor is a system intended to improve privacy and security on the Internet, giving it’s users greater anonymity online. World governments increasingly implement censorship and monitoring systems to control their citizens use of the Internet. Tor helps users circumvent such control. In response, Governments try to block, monitor or otherwise suppress usage of Tor.
Simular to what was discussed in Evgeny Morozov’s talk, often the technology being used to suppress Tor is made by Western states, driven by demand from western markets. Smartfilter by Blue Coat being a popular choice of net censors world wide.
In a particularly poignant moment Roger Dingledine told a story of a recommendation he received on how to combat or somehow punish western states who manufacture and promote technology for censorship and surveillance of online activity. The idea was you make two lists, list B, which contains all the technology companies complicit with censorship and surveillance, list A, all the companies that are not. Then, publicize the lists!
Certainly the freedom-loving free markets will punish peddlers of tyranny and domination! No doubt ethically minded investors will move their investments to the virtuous firms of list A, leaving the B listers starved of Capital. Justice conscious consumers will immediately dump B’s products and take up the A list! Politicians, eager to please their constituents, will kick the B listers to the curb and shower the A listers with all the lucrative governments lucre. The sinister B-list companies will collapse and the bold and brave A listers will take their market share and refuse to implement censorious or freedom-denying features into their products, and certainly not enable sinister foreign powers to oppresses their people. Cackling foreign despots and their bumbling mad scientists are now foiled for good by the freedom loving actors on the glorious free market system!
Now, regardless of how you feel about such a prognosis, Dingledine killed this idea dead in its tracks with one simple fact: There is no A list.
As it turns out, all the significant manufacturers of communications technology are on list B. Every single one.
I guess if you subscribe to the free market fable entertained above, you might say this was a market failure. If there are freedom loving consumers, then certainly the market must make freedom loving corporations and politicians available to them?
Is that the case? Is this simply a matter of information symmetry or a lack of competition preventing freedom enabling communications technology companies from existing on any significant scale? No doubt, partially. However there is a more fundamental problem here, giving freedom is less profitable than restricting freedom. The logic of capitalism is the logic of capture.
Capitalist investors do no look at consumer demand alone when choosing investments, they look at the potential for return on their investments, and this most often attracts them to investments that attempt to create captured markets and captured consumers. In other words capitalist investment will always have a bias towards control, and not freedom. That is why there is no shortage of investment in surveillance and monitoring technology, no shortage of investment to help web2.0 era centralized and proprietary social platforms replace free and peer to peer classic internet platforms, and no shortage of investment for the war against general computing that Cory Doctorow talked about, pushing users to centrally controlled locked down platforms.
Yet, investment for freedom enabling technology is immeasurably minuscule by comparison. While their arch-rivals Blue Coat have been acquired by a deep-pocketed Private Equity Firm able to provide millions, if not billions in funding. Projects like Tor get by on small grants and the help of volunteers.