Why Your Personal Information Wants to Be Free

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You wouldn’t know it from the buzz, but the hack of Sony’s PlaysStation Network that compromised 77 million accounts is not the biggest breach in history. It’s only 4th according to DataLossDB. We’ve been losing much more data for quite a while now.

In a thoughtful blog post this week, computer scientist Ben Adida reflected on Stewart Brand’s famous maxim, “information wants to be free.”

“When this idea was applied to online music sharing, it was cool in a ‘fight the man!’ kind of way,” Adida said. “Unfortunately, information replication doesn’t discriminate: your personal data, credit cards and medical problems alike, also want to be free. Keeping it secret is really, really hard.”

This brings to mind another famous aphorism: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Internet pioneer John Gilmore was first quoted saying that in the pages of TIME Magazine in 1993. Back then, when he said “censorship,” he was referring to the family-friendly online services of day, like AOL and Prodigy, which deleted messages they found offensive. Today, when we say the Net interprets censorship as as damage and routes around it, we really mean it.

Consider the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. Despite the efforts of many world governments, including the U.S. government, public access to those cables has not been thwarted one bit. The WikiLeaks.org domain name may have been taken out of commission, Amazon may have been intimidated into pulling web hosting, and PayPal pressured to stop processing donations, but once the information in the cables got on the network, it was free. Censorship was no longer an option.

Yet governments continue to try. This week it was reported that the Japanese government is looking to remove from the Net what it considers “illegal information” related to the Fukushima nuclear accident “harmful to public order and morality.” And the Indian government just issued new rules to restrict Web content that it considers “disparaging,” “harassing,” “blasphemous” or “hateful.” How well will these efforts fare?

That said, while we may celebrate that the Net is bringing us the end of political censorship, we need to understand that it’s also ending all controls on speech. And although you may not realize it, as Adida points out, we all like a little bit of censorship.

Who, me? Like censorship?

No one thinks they’re for censorship because the word implies squelching the expression of a different point of view, a most undemocratic notion. But think about it this way: The Internet is a communications medium, and all communications is speech. Censorship is the suppression of speech. So suppressing any information on the Internet is essentially censorship. Is there nothing you think should be suppressed? What about child pornography?

You can find less extreme examples of communication that many would like to see stopped. If you’re a record company, you certainly want to end illegal music sharing, but you might also want to suppress works like Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, an unauthorized mashup of the Beatle’s White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album that is hailed by many as a masterpiece. If you’ve been defamed online, you may want posts with lies about you taken down. What if you sent an ex a risqué photo and then found it had leaked online? What if you regret having tweeted too many personal things a year earlier? And what if your personal information was compromised in the Sony Play Station breach? You certainly want to contain that information.

Because the word censorship implies political suppression of speech, it might be better to think about it as information control. We all think some information control online is legitimate. It might be to protect individual privacy, to stop hate speech, or in the name of national security. But what John Gilmore said about censorship applies to any attempt to control information online. The Internet will find ways to route around it; once information is free, there’s no way to reel it in again.

The Nature of the Beast

The Internet’s amazing power to resist censorship or information control stems from its inherent nature. Some of the factors that make it difficult to tame:

  1. Digitization: – In the past, one could conceive of burning every copy of a particular book, or recovering every copy of a photo, but once information can be conveyed in 1s and 0s across the network, replication becomes trivial.
  2. Scope: – The Internet is global in scope. It is everywhere, crossing every international border. Just because a piece of information is illegal in Japan or India doesn’t mean it will be illegal in any other country. Even if the governments of those countries are successful in erasing every bit of “illegal information” from the web servers in their territory, it will still be accessible on the Internet if its been copied somewhere outside.
  3. Scale: – The Internet revolutionized the scale of communications possible. The amount of information generated and exchanged online every day is mind boggling. Data collection and retrieval has been massively automated so that the sheer volume of information available makes it virtually impossible for anyone to control.
  4. Distribution: Perhaps most important, the Internet is distributed and decentralized. Take down one part of it and the rest keeps on working just fine.

These factors make information hard to control, and that means not just political speech, but all information. Gambling, spam, viruses, leaked private information all benefit from the same nature of the Internet.

On the margin, it may be possible to control some information, but to get a sense of how difficult it is to do so, here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that you were charged with removing all pornography from the Internet. How would you go about that? Could you get some of it down? Could you get all of it down? Why? Now imagine being tasked with removing from the Internet all personal information compromised in a breach like the PSN or Epsilon hacks.

Living with Reality

A more controversial Internet aphorism is attributed to Sun CEO Scott McNealy, who said in 1999, “You have zero privacy. Get over it.” He was lambasted in the press for that statement, but maybe they were just shooting the messenger.

It’s a cold-hearted thing to say, that privacy is dead, that once information is free it can’t be controlled, and that we need to “get over it.” But what if it’s not an opinion, but a description of reality?

Maybe it could be said more constructively. “Get over it,” implies resignation and passivity in the face of the inevitable. A better way to think about it might be, “Get used to it.”

On net, the fact that we now live in a hyper-connected world where information can’t be controlled is a good thing. The cultural, social, economic and political benefits of such a transparent system will likely outweigh the price we pay in privacy and security. And that’s especially the case if learn to live with that reality.

Human beings are incredibly resilient, and faced with a new environment, we adapt. When major changes take place—-from natural disasters to the Industrial Revolution—-we learn to live in the new context, but only if we acknowledge the new reality. We need to get used to this new world in which information can’t be controlled.

Maybe a new social norm will develop that accepts that everyone will have embarrassing facts about them online, and that it’s OK because we’re human. Maybe if we assumed that data breaches are inevitable, we wouldn’t give up on securing networks, but we might do more to cope. For example, the technology exists to make all credit card numbers single-use to a particular vendor, so they’re of little value to hackers.

Welcome to the new world. Information wants to be free. The Net interprets information control as damage and routes around it. Get used to it.

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.