Like 500 years ago, geeks are becoming the last line of defense for free speech

Rick Falkvinge
Rick Falkvinge is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party. He has been named one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, and shortlisted as one of the world's 100 most influential people by TIME magazine.
Like 500 years ago, geeks are becoming the last line of defense for free speech
Businesses are attacking liberties that challenge their interests, and normally powerless people are defending freedom of speech. This is a world upside down, the direct opposite of how it should be - and yet, entirely predictable when we look at history.

In the past week, the spam protection service Spamhaus was subjected to a relentless attack that gives a glimpse of things to come. The attack initially rendered the service inoperable, effectively killing many crucial spam filters around the world for the duration of the attack.

However, geeks rose to the occasion, mounted countermeasures, and dissipated the attack, restoring the functionality of the world's spam filters in a matter of hours.

There is an escalating war on free speech happening right now. What Spamhaus does is easy to describe: it maintains a list of electronic junkmailers to the best of its ability, giving any and all e-mail services in the world the ability to sort out e-mail from known junkmailers. Publishing the list is obviously part of exercising free speech.

However, this free speech interfered with business interests of the junkmailers, who are making tons of money filling up your inbox with advertisements for Viagra (regardless of your gender or age – they don't know and they don't care). In an attempt to force people to listen to their advertising, they killed most mail systems' ability to sort out their junk mail in an outright attack. (Some people would claim that such unwanted advertising is a form of free speech in defending the businesses. That's confusing the right to speak freely with a perceived right to an audience. The former exists, the latter does not.)

While the attack was eventually repelled, it gave a glimpse into the resources and foul play businesses are prepared to use to quell free speech that goes against their interests. One number says that 75 gigabits of internet capacity was used in the attack against Spamhaus.

This is an immense volume: a typical small firm has about one-thousandth of that at its disposal. Just like regular armies are a numbers game, so are net attacks; if the defender has one-thousandth of the attacker's numbers, they lose, simple as that. (A key difference would be that the defender doesn't die, though, but comes back online when the attack stops.)

Normally, defending free speech would be the job of politicians and courts. Unfortunately, they have long had their own agenda, as their power is threatened by the net; where we used to see warrantless wiretapping and wanton censorship of the net (and cry foul over it), we are now seeing mass surveillance of everybody, all the time, with no better justification than "because it can be done". Anybody who challenges their power - such as the late Aaron Swartz - will find themselves in the crosshairs of a might-makes-right ideology.

Aaron Swartz. (Reuters / Noah Berger)

In this, we are seeing an almost verbatim repeat of how the union of the Church and Crown reacted to the threat of the printing press in the 1500s. In those times, freedom of speech was also defended by the many small people against the few powerful institutions - and yet, it led to 200 years of war across Europe, over the mere power of freedom of speech.

This time around, the conflicts are still escalating. Anywhere the corporations can use the power of the courts to kill an activist protest or a bad consumer review, corporations are trying to do so. Anywhere law enforcement can use the data of corporations to get the upper hand over activists that insist on exercising their rights, law enforcement will do so.

Thus, we have arrived at the weird situation where the geeks of the world are defending free speech rights for everybody against the desire and hard push of business interests, politicians, and governments. Politicians have abdicated from one of the most important parts of their job - safeguarding civil liberties - and are instead trying to dismantle them.

In the coming years, the battle will keep escalating. The Spamhaus attack, even though it was one of the largest attacks documented to date, was just a skirmish. Looking at the blueprint from when this happened with the printing press 500 years ago, free speech and activists will eventually win. Let's hope it doesn't take 200 years of war this time around.