TOC Augean Agora, Internet needs Hercules Your Turn

I confess a weakness for good stories. The habit of hanging stories on a strong hero may seem threadbare today, but who would argue the prototype had class? Admire Hercules, challenged to clean Augeas' stables, a kind of Superfund site before the EPA era. The filth may have been colossal but the task in itself was hardly heroic. Does our hero feel demeaned? Not a bit. He diverts a couple of rivers to do the trick. To the exception perhaps of downstream dwellers, the solution does appear heroic.

From the Augean stables to the Internet, the transition is seamless thanks to Richard Waters who just reported (*) on the results of a study ordered by the Department of Justice on pornography. As the source is a court session transcript (**), we can savor how both sides can spin the same facts into opposite conclusions. As we said before (see 6/06 fillip), surveillance is a case of pattern recognition. The more one attempts to block the bad guys, the more one ensnares good guys too. Underlying the debate is the undisputed presence of "hundreds of millions of freely available web pages [with] adult material".

This is not a surprise if we realize Internet has become the ultimate agora. Virtually but quite effectively the whole world has been crammed into a single public place. There is reason to rejoice. Both democracy and commerce flourish on agoras as well as wisdom and culture. In great part, the Greek Miracle (1) was the product of its agoras and it is there that Socrates could be found, testing the understanding of his fellows Athenians. But public places are open to all and, whether in the Athens of Socrates or the Corinth of Saint Paul, prostitution was already rampant.

As the ultimate agora, the whole wild world of Internet behaves as one would expect. Hawkers tend to shout, so are we buried under spam (6/27 fillip). Thieves work the crowd, so is our private data pilfered at every turn (5/30 fillip). Vandals leaves graffiti everywhere, so are public content sites disfigured (2). The prostitution of Greek times is echoed by Internet pornography.

For parents, companies and governments, Internet is thus as filled with danger as any public place. It is no wonder they react with the two time honored methods of universal surveillance (6/06 fillip) and preemptive justice (11/14 fillip). It is simply our bad luck that these very measures trample the same individual data rights (5/23 fillip) and threaten to put our lively agora under the pall of the Airport Syndrome (5/16 fillip).

Pity the judge who must adjudicate the case of the ACLU versus the US Attorney General. Both parties are right and no solution can be correct. Tolerate the Augean Agora and expect the level of filth to suffocate us one day. Clean the Augean Agora and the Internet can no longer be the ultimate agora.

Yet we have a choice as to what we want Internet to be. As a creation running amok (11/14 fillip), the Web certainly makes for fascinating studies. But the ultimate agora is not the only model. Hercules diverted rivers. Why not divert the course of Internet itself? I previously proposed another model (9/05 fillip). Internet like air, the first medium for human communications . I am not quite happy with the metaphor. True, it emphasizes that Internet is not a place so much as a communication medium, one normally used for private conversations. But people routinely shout to attract public attention and I want to exclude this occurrence so as to offer a real alternative to the cacophonous agora.

Why not take Internet instead as the ultimate pneumatic network (3)? Such a network is memoryless and confidential by construction. Citywide implementations of pneumatic post worked well because correspondents only exchanged to their mutual benefit. It is this peer to peer capacity delivered on a world wide scale I see as the true essence of Internet. Peer to peer communication rests of course on some mutual recognition between the correspondents. But ePrio has shown that, beyond pre-arranged recognition, correspondents can indeed find each other over the Internet via a negotiation mechanism in total confidentiality.

In this new model, the trade-off between public safety and first amendment rights disappear. Responsible parties would negotiate in their mutual interests and adult sites would be found and visited by adults only. If an underage child were to escape from his or her parents' supervision and pose as an adult, adult sites would be held in a safe harbor as long as they forbade entry to underage children. The party at fault would be the parents.

I have no illusion about the shortcomings of the ultimate pneumatic network. I have already writen about them but it is worth to sum them up again as the three L's:

  • lording it over
    all communications require a negotiation. Powerful people do not do negotiations, they do not deign to open them or else accept nothing short of unconditional surrender (6/13 fillip).
  • laziness
    real negotiations need to be prepared and responsibilities must be assumed by the negotiators. Lazy people avoid work (5/02 fillip) and skirt responsibilities (11/07 fillip).
  • lying
    contrary to popular belief, total confidentiality does not breed lying. Why tune a persona to attract the wrong crowd since it decreases the appeal to one's real target, especially if a clear redress process makes lying a self-defeating proposal (11/07 fillip).
I harbor no illusion but I do have a dream about a world where the individual right to free speech is balanced by the individual right to pick one's speakers, where individual rights are balanced by individual responsibilities, where the ultimate agora is cleaned by the mediation of the ultimate pneumatic network. A herculean task indeed.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ..Explicit material on 1% of web pages, says DoJ, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - November 15, 2006
  • (**) court transcript of the first day of "ACLU versus the US Attorney General" - October 23, 2006
  • (1) a favorite expression of Jacqueline de Romilly
  • (2) see for example how Wikipedia has been forced to lock out pages as innocuous as the one on Hercules
    11/24/06 revision: the page lock out has since been lifted.
  • (3) Paris retired its pneumatic network in 1984 but Americans still use the principle when banking from more than an arm length away from the teller window.
November 2006
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