Understanding Gilmore’s Law
– John Gilmore
Gilmore’s Law, one of the most poorly understood principles of the era of connected intelligence, is about to zoom into prominence, as the only way to make sense of a number of convergent trends. This week we saw both Kim Beazley (leader of Australia’s Labor party, currently in opposition) and Helen Coonan (Australia’s Minister for Communications, who once quipped, “Digital is the new black”) announce their support for an nation-wide Internet “filter,” designed to block “obscene and violent” content from reaching the web browsers of Australia’s three million children. Minister Coonan had previously opposed such a filter, arguing that it would seriously cripple Australian’s Internet access, but there’s no stopping the march of the “Net Nannies,” with their cries of Won’t somebody think of the children? and endless statistics on the prevalence of pornographic materials online. While one could engage in a fierce intellectual argument about the origins of “innocence” in the Modern age – children in the Mediaeval period slept in the same bed their parents, were confronted with public nudity on a daily basis, and, in general, inhabited a culture whose coarseness would offend nearly all of us moderns – there’s no way any argument can defeat the innate desire to protect the young. Much better then, to take a more direct approach, and send politicians and parents the same message: it simply won’t work. You can’t break Gilmore’s Law.
John Gilmore formulated his law more than a decade ago, in a world somewhat different from the one which confronts us now: when only a few tens of millions of people surfed the web, instead of a billion; in the golden age of Web 1.0; in the world before September 11th. China was rising, but had not fully arrived on the world stage. Only a few universities and large corporations had connections faster than dial-up modems. Most of what we think of as life online did not exist. And yet, because Gilmore understood the basic principles at work on the net – and as one of the co-founders of SUN, purveyors of the first intrinsically networked computer, he ought to have – he had the capacity to synthesize a whole range of intuitions about net logic into a simple declaration.
Richard Stallman famously claimed, “Information wants to be free.” The truth is somewhat more complex. Instead, we might say that information seeks to preserve itself, and the best way to do that is by replication. Multiple copies of the same information are better than a single copy – at least as far as the information is concerned. While it might seem philosophically questionable to invoke an entelechy of information, as if it possessed some inner life of its own, much of the modern theory of evolutionary biology rests on this foundation. Our genes, bearers of the bits which define us, do seek to replicate and reproduce themselves endlessly. If Richard Dawkins can claim that a chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs, Richard Stallman can legitimately talk about the agency of information. Once some bit of information exists, it becomes increasingly likely, over time, that this information will be replicated. (Just as with a backup of your computer’s hard drive, having one copy of it is good, but having two copies is better.)
While Gilmore undoubtedly incorporated this axiom into his Law, he focused his own philosophical postulate on the network itself. Unlike information, the network is an active entity. The reason that the Internet exists, the reason it is so reliable and so efficient, is because it possesses agency of itself. Each part of the Internet is designed to be fantastically resilient: if any part fails, other parts of the network will adapt to the failure, sending their messages around the damaged components. This was a design goal of the Internet, back when it was a project of the US Department of Defense: a network which could recover from its failures might survive a nuclear war relatively intact. This is the essential feature of the Internet. It’s not so much about getting bits from point A to point B – that’s easy – but to do so under any conceivable circumstance. Kill one part of the Internet, and another part will smoothly fill the gap. This is why Internet-wide outages have never occurred; there have been attacks, and failures of portions of the Internet, but, as a whole, it remains reliable, because it has the capacity to recognize failures and remedy them.
Gilmore’s insight combined Stallman’s statement about the agency of information with the designed intent of the Internet. Consider: Information wants to be copied. The computers which are used to copy this information are connected together in a resilient network – the Internet. In order to stop the copying of information, you’d have to break the Internet – and that’s practically impossible. Human agency has nothing to do with this, except in its origins: we may have created this information, and we may have created the Internet, but – once information and Internet meet – there’s no more room for human agency. The information will be copied, freely and reliably. That’s why censorship is practically impossible.
Many people have pointed to the “Great Firewall of China” as an example of a violation of Gilmore’s Law. And yes, the Chinese do broadly censor their Internet, by directing all Internet traffic to their nation through a single choke-point, where computers and humans examine it for faithfulness to party doctrine. If a site is deemed inconsistent with Communist Party beliefs, the site is blocked. But don’t be fooled: this is not censorship, this is monitoring. When something is censored, people are unable to gain access to it. Yet every Chinese net surfer of any skill knows precisely how – using a broad array of techniques – to thwart the Great Firewall. There are many sites on the Internet which document precisely how to do this, and it’s not even particularly hard. It’s time to say it: this emperor wears no clothes. The Great Firewall of China doesn’t actually work; it’s just that if you evade it, you’ll be subject to arrest, and possibly shot. That’s not censorship, that’s dictatorship. Even the Chinese, for all their enormous efforts, have to resort to the threat of force to defeat the inexorable dictates of Gilmore’s Law.
All efforts toward censorship inevitably surrender to Gilmore’s Law. The biggest blog on Earth, Boing Boing, has recently run afoul of Secure Computing Corporation’s SmartFilter, a piece of software known as “censorware”, because it blocks access to sites deemed obscene, violent or otherwise unacceptable. Because roughly one half of one percent of the imagery posted to Boing Boing consists of naked human beings – mind you, these are not pornographic images, just naked bodies – SmartFilter has placed Boing Boing onto its list of blocked sites. This was recognized when Boing Boing readers in the United Arab Emirates noted they could no longer reach the site. SmartFilter has contracts to filter the Internet traffic of entire nations, as well as numerous other deals with corporations and individuals. When contacted by Boing Boing, SmartFilter suggested techniques Boing Boing might adopt to appropriately rate their content, so that individual posts could be filtered, while keeping the majority of the site available. After due consideration, Boing Boing rejected this approach as inconsistent with their basic philosophy (because they do understand Gilmore’s Law), and instead, went on the offensive, asking their readers – there are nearly two million of them – to contribute their own suggestions on ways to defeat SmartFilter. Within a few days a page of suggestions and techniques, provided by its readership, ended up on the Boing Boing web site. This page has itself been replicated throughout the Internet, to sites which aren’t blocked by SmartFilter, and so, in this way, SmartFilter’s block of Boing Boing has become a minor annoyance – but is no longer censorship.
This is Gilmore’s Law at work, through the combined agency of networks and people: the damage was detected, and, very quickly, techniques were developed to route around it. Furthermore, when you multiply the innate tendencies of networks to route around damage by the creative capabilities of millions of readers acting in concert as a “swarm,” the product dramatically outweighs any effort to censor information. The swarm is always smarter, faster and more adept than any actor which seeks to thwart it. That’s the engine driving Gilmore’s Law.
What is censorship? At an essential level, it’s someone saying, “Here’s some information. I won’t let you have it.” The reasons for the censorship are unimportant. This is perhaps the most poorly understood aspect of Gilmore’s Law. Gilmore’s Law isn’t a pronouncement on politics or morality; it’s a scientific statement. Only one condition needs to be satisfied: someone must be in possession of some information (on the Internet) which is being withheld. Once that condition has been satisfied, Gilmore’s Law comes into play.
In this sense, Digital Rights Management (DRM) – which seeks to protect the copyright of information through various encryption and authentication techniques – represents an economic form of censorship. And, just as with political and moral censorship, economic censorship is doomed to fail, because of Gilmore’s Law. Every attempt to “lock” information behind walls of commerce has been systematically thwarted; the creators and purveyors of these locks have been confronted, at every turn, by a swarm of people who are smarter, faster and more adept than the locksmiths themselves. The only way to keep information secure is to refrain from putting it onto the Internet. Once any locked information is placed onto the Internet, the lock is perceived as damage, the lock is picked, and the information is then free to replicate. That this lock-picking is illegal (because of the political and economic power of copyright holders) is as immaterial as a Chinese citizen circumventing the Great Firewall (backed by the political power of the Communist Party); in other words, both locks only maintain their integrity through the threat of force.
We’re seeing a dramatic increase in these attempts at censorship – political, moral and economic. CBS was recently fined $3,600,000 by the US Federal Communications Commission for “indecency” in a broadcast of the drama Without a Trace. This sanction is possible only because the FCC asserts a monopoly control over the broadcast spectrum: if CBS does not comply with the ruling, they’ll lose their coveted broadcast licenses. But CBS has an alternative; they are already selling their shows through Google Video, and could easily reach millions more viewers through Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Because of Gilmore’s Law, Internet distribution may be subject to censorship in name, but never in fact. Anything CBS wants to distribute, however prurient, can be delivered through the Internet. Images of Abu Ghraib prison, which could not be shown by the US media, because of a lawsuit filed by the US Department of Defense, were broadcast in Australia and quickly found their way to US viewers, via the Internet. George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith – tightly guarded by FOX Studios, the film’s distributor – was freely available on Internet file-sharing networks even before the film had premiered in theatres. Every attempt to lock away information is failing, because it is in the nature of information to reproduce itself freely.
Finally, another threat of censorship looms on the horizon, the threat of altering the Internet itself, an attempt to modify its basic function as a system for the replication of information. On the 23rd of March, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin Martin, announced that he favored a proposal, floated by US telecommunications giant AT&T, for a “tiered” Internet. The essence of the proposal is this: the largest carriers of Internet traffic would entitle themselves to a “tariff” levied on the Internet’s biggest sites – sites such as Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Sites that refuse to pay this tariff would be reduced to “second-class citizen” status, their network traffic transmitted more slowly – if at all – across the vast commercial networks controlled by these telecommunications giants. As more than a few commentators have pointed out, this is nothing more than extortion – as if a thug wandered into Google’s Redwood Shores headquarters and mused, “It’d be a shame if your offices happened to burn down, wouldn’t it?”
As expected, Google and the other major sites are fighting this proposal, but they’ll probably lose the battle, as they’re political neophytes, while the telecommunications carriers have a century of political experience – and patronage – to draw upon. Fortunately, it won’t matter. Gilmore’s Law will come to the rescue. A tiered Internet represents yet another form of censorship, an attempt to fetter the passage of bits trying to get from point A to point B. Insofar as any telecommunications carrier is successful in slowing the flow of bits, they’ll be signing their own death warrants. In an age of pervasive, cheap and fast wireless communication, any block on the wire (and that’s all the carriers control) will inevitably result in the rapid development of wireless mesh networks, unconstrained by the artificial economies of scarcity of a tiered Internet. Thus, the more that carriers tighten their grip, the more customers will slip through their fingers. A tiered Internet isn’t just bad business practice, it originates from a fundamentally flawed understanding of just what the Internet is. It is not a service that can be switched on and off, or turned up and down; it’s a force that, like gravity, exerts an attraction everywhere, one that can not be resisted. And, like gravity, the Internet has its own inexorable laws. Gilmore’s Law is just the first, and we’ve yet to plumb its full expression. There will be others, and as we divine them, we’ll learn what Samuel Morse meant when he asked, “What hath God wrought?”