Make War, then Love

At the close of the first decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves continuously connecting to one another.  This isn’t a new thing, although it may feel new.  The kit has changed – that much is obvious – but who we are has not.  Only from an understanding of who we are that we can understand the future we are hurtling toward.  Connect, connect, connect.  But why?  Why are we so driven?

To explain this – and reveal that who we are now is precisely who we have always been, I will tell you two stories.  They’re interrelated – one leads seamlessly into the other.  I’m not going to say that these stories are the God’s honest truth.  They are, as Rudyard Kipling put it, ‘just-so stories’.  If they aren’t true, the describe an arrangement of facts so believable that they could very well be true.  There is scientific evidence to support both of these stories, but neither is considered scientific canon.   So, take everything with a grain of salt; these are more fables than theories, but we have always used fables to help us illuminate the essence of our nature.

For our first story, we need to go back a long, long time.  Before the settlement of Australia – by anyone.  Before Homo Sapiens, before Australopithecus, before we broke away from the chimpanzees, five million years ago, just after we broke away from the gorillas, Ten million years ago.  How much do we know about this common ancestor, which scientists call Pierolapithecus?  Not very much.  A few bits of skeletons discovered in Spain eight years ago.  If you squint and imagine some sort of mash-up of the characteristics of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, you might be able to get a glimmer of what they looked like.  Smaller than us, certainly, and not upright – that comes along much later.  But one thing we do know, without any evidence from skeletons: Pierolapithecus was a social animal.  How do we know this?  Each of its three descendent species – humans, chips and bonobos – are all highly social animals.  We don’t do well on our own.  In fact, on our own we tend to make a tasty meal for some sort of tiger or lion or other cat.  Together, well, that’s another matter.

Which brings us to the first ‘just-so’ story.  Imagine a warm late afternoon, hanging out in the trees in Africa’s Rift Valley.  Just you and your mates – probably ten or twenty of them.  You’re all males; the females are elsewhere, doing female-type things, which we’ll discuss presently.  At a signal from the ‘alpha male’, all of you fall into line, drop out of the trees, and begin a trek that takes you throughout the little bit of land you call your own – with your own trees and plants and bugs that keep you well fed – and you go all the way to the edge of your territory, to the border of the territory of a neighboring troupe of Pierolapithecus.  That troupe – about the same size as your own – is dozing in the heat of the afternoon, all over the place, but basically within eyeshot of one another.

Suddenly – and silently – you all cross the border.  You fan out, still silent, looking for the adolescent males in this troupe.  When you find them, you kill them.  As for the rest, you scare them off with your screams and your charges, and, at the end, they’ve lost some of their own territory – and trees and plants and delicious grubs – while you’ve got just a little bit more.  And you return, triumphant, with the bodies you’ve acquired, which you eat, with your troupe, in a victory dinner.

This all sounds horrid and nasty and mean and just not criket.  That it is.  It’s war.  How do we know that ‘war’ stretches this far back into our past?  Just last month a paper published in Current Biology and reported in THE ECONOMIST described how primatologists had seen just this behavior among chimpanzees in their natural habitats in the African rain forests.  The scene I just described isn’t ten million years old, or even ten thousand, but current.  Chimpanzees wage war.  And this kind of warfare is exactly what was commonplace in New Guinea and the upper reaches of Amazonia until relatively recently – certainly within the span of my own lifetime.  War is a behavior common to both chimpanzees and humans – so why wouldn’t it be something we inherited from our common ancestor?

War.  What’s it good for?  If you win your tiny Pierolapithecine war for a tiny bit more territory, you’ll gain all of the resources in that territory.  Which means your troupe will be that much better fed.  You’ll have stronger immune systems when you get sick, you’ll have healthier children.  And you’ll have more children.  As you acquire more resources, more of your genes will get passed along, down the generations.  Which makes you even stronger, and better able to wage your little wars.  If you’re good at war, natural selection will shine upon you.

What makes you good at war?  That’s the real question here.  You’re good at war if you and your troupe – your mates – can function effectively as a unit.  You have to be able to coordinate your activities to attack – or defend – territory.  We know that language skills don’t go back ten million years, so you’ve got to do this the old fashioned way, with gestures and grunts and the ability to get into the heads of your mates.  That’s the key skill; if you can get into your mates’ heads, you can think as a group.  The better you can do that, the better you will do in war.  The better you do in war, the more offspring you’ll have, so that skill, that ability to get into each others’ heads gets reinforced by natural selection, and becomes, over time, evolution.  The generations pass, and you get better and better at knowing what your mates are thinking.

This is the beginning of the social revolution.  All the way back here, before we looked anything like human, we grasped the heart of the matter: we must know one another to survive.  If we want to succeed, we must know each other well.  There are limits to this knowing, particularly with the small brain of Pierolapithecus.  Knowing someone well takes a lot of brain capacity, and soon that fills up.  When it does, when you can’t know everyone around you intimately.  When that happens your troupe will grow increasingly argumentative, confrontational, and eventually will break into two independent troupes.  All because of a communication breakdown.

There’s strength in numbers; if I can manage a troupe of thirty while all you can manage is twenty, I’ll defeat you in war.  So there’s pressure, year after year, to grow the troupe, and, quite literally, to stuff more mates into the space between your ears.  For a long time that doesn’t lead anywhere; then there’s a baby born with just a small genetic difference, one which allows just a bit more brain capacity, so that they can handle two or three or four more mates into its head, which makes a big difference.  Such a big difference that these genes get passed along very rapidly, and soon everyone can hold a few more mates inside their heads.  But that capability comes with a price.  Those Pierolapithecines have slightly bigger brains, and slightly bigger heads.  They need to eat more to keep those bigger brains well-fed.  And those big heads would soon prove very problematic.

This is where we cross over, from our first story, into our second.  This is where we leave the world of men behind, and enter the world of women, who have been here, all along, giving birth and gathering food and raising children and mourning the dead lost to wars, as they still do today.  As they have done for ten million years.  But somewhere in the past few million years, something changed for women, something perfectly natural became utterly dangerous.  All because of our drive to socialize.

Human birth is a very singular thing in the animal world.  Among the primates, human babies are the only ones born facing downward and away from the mother.  They’re also the only ones who seriously threaten the lives of their mothers as they come down the birth canal.  That’s because our heads are big.  Very big.  Freakishly big.  So big that one of the very recent evolutionary adaptations in Homo Sapiens is a pelvic gap in women that creates a larger birth canal, at the expense of their ability to walk.  Women walk differently from men – much less efficiently – because they give birth to such large-brained children.

There’s two notable side-effects of this big-brained-ness.  The first is well-known: women used to regularly die in childbirth.  Until the first years of the 20th century, about one in one hundred pregnancies ended with the death of the mother.  That’s an extraordinarily high rate, particularly given that a women might give birth to seven or eight children over their lifetime.  Now that we have survivable caesarian sections and all sorts of other medical interventions, death in childbirth is much rarer – perhaps 1 in 10,000 births.  Nowhere else among the mammals can you find this kind of danger surrounding the delivery of offspring.  This is the real high price we pay for being big-brained: we very nearly kill our mothers.

The second side-effect is less well-known, but so pervasive we simply accept it as a part of reality: humans need other humans to assist in childbirth.  This isn’t true for any other mammal species – or any other species, period.  But there are very few (one or two) examples of cultures where women give childbirth by themselves.  Until the 20th century medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth, this was ‘women’s work’, and a thriving culture of midwives managed the hard work of delivery.  (The image of the chain-smoking father, waiting outside the maternity ward for news of his newborn child is far older than the 20th century.)

For at least a few hundred thousand years – and probably a great deal longer than that – the act of childbirth has been intensely social.  Women come together to help their sisters, cousins, and daughters pass through the dangers and into motherhood.  If you can’t rally your sisters together when you need them, childbirth will be a lonely and possibly lethal experience.  So this is what it means to be human: we entered the world because of the social capabilities of our mothers.  Women who had strong social capabilities, who could bring her sisters to her aid, would have an easier time in childbirth, and would be more likely to live through childbirth, as would their children.

After the child has been born, mothers need even more help from their female peers; in the first few hours, when the mother is weak, other women must provide food and shelter.  As that child grows, the mother will periodically need help with childcare, particularly if she’s just been delivered of another child.  Mothers who can use their social capabilities to deliver these resources will thrive.  Their children will thrive.  This means that these capabilities tended to be passed down, through the generations.  Just as men had their social skills honed by generations upon generations of warfare, women had their social skills sharpened by generations upon generations of childbirth and child raising.

All of this sounds very much as though it’s Not Politically Correct.  But our liberation from our biologically determined sex roles is a very recent thing.  Men raise children while women go to war.  Yet behind this lies hundreds of thousands of generations of our ancestors who did use these skills along gender-specific lines.  That’s left a mark; men tend to favor coordination in groups – whether that’s a war or a footy match – while women tend to concentrate on building and maintaining a closely-linked web of social connections. Women seem to have a far greater sensitivity to these social connections than men do, but men can work together in a team – to slaughter the opponent (on the battlefield or the pitch).

The prefrontal cortex – freakishly large in human beings when compared to chimpanzees – seems to be where the magic happens, where we keep these models of one another.  Socialization has limits, because our brains can’t effectively grow much bigger.  They already nearly kill our mothers, they consume about 25% of the food we eat, and they’re not even done growing until five years after we’re born – leaving us defenseless and helpless far longer than any other mammals.  That’s another price we pay for being so social.

But we’re maxed out.  We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.  If our heads get any bigger, there won’t be any mothers left living to raise us.  So here we are.  An estimate conducted nearly 20 years ago pegs the number of people who can fit into your head at roughly 148, plus or minus a few.  That’s not very many.  But for countless thousands of years, that was as big as a tribe or a village ever grew.  That was the number of people you could know well, and that set the upper boundary on human sociability.

And then, ten thousand years ago, the comfortable steady-state of human development blew apart.  Two things happened nearly simultaneously; we learned to plant crops, which created larger food supplies, which meant families could raise more children.  We also began to live together in communities much larger than the tribe or village.  The first cities – like Jericho – date from around that time, cities with thousands of people in them.

This is where we cross a gap in human culture, a real line that separates that-which-has-come-before to that-which-comes-after.  Everyone who has moved from a small town or village to the big city knows what it’s like to cross that line.  People have been crossing that line for a hundred centuries.  On one side of the line people are connected by bonds that are biological, ancient and customary – you do things because they’ve always been done that way.  On the other side, people are bound by bonds that are cultural, modern, and legal.  When we can’t know everyone around us, we need laws to protect us, a culture to guide us, and all of this is very new.   Still. Ten thousand years of laws and culture, next to almost two hundred thousand years of custom – and that’s just Homo Sapiens.  Custom extends back, probably all the way to Pierolapithecus.

We wage a constant war within ourselves.  Our oldest parts want to be clannish, insular, and intensely xenophobic.  That’s what we’re adapted to.  That’s what natural selection fitted us for.  The newest parts of us realize real benefits from accumulations of humanity to big to get our heads around.  The division of labor associated with cities allows for intensive human productivity, hence larger and more successful human populations.  The city is the real hub of human progress; more than any technology, it is our ability to congregate together in vast numbers that has propelled us into modernity.

There’s an intense contradiction here: we got to the point where we were able to build cities because we were so socially successful, but cities thwarted that essential sociability.  It’s as though we went as far as we could, in our own heads, then leapt outside of them, into cities, and left our heads behind.  Our cities are anonymous places, and consequently fraught with dangers.

It’s a danger we seem prepared to accept.  In 2008 the UN reported that, for the first time in human history, over half of humanity lived in cities.  Half of us had crossed the gap between the social world in our heads and the anonymous and atomized worlds of Mumbai and Chongquing and Mexico City and Cairo and Saõ Paulo.  But just in this same moment, at very nearly the same time that half of us resided in cities, half of us also had mobiles.  Well more than half of us do now.  In the anonymity of the world’s cities, we stare down into our screens, and find within them a connection we had almost forgotten.  It touches something so ancient – and so long ignored – that the mobile now contends with the real world as the defining axis of social orientation.

People are often too busy responding to messages to focus on those in their immediate presence.  It seems ridiculous, thoughtless and pointless, but the device has opened a passage which allows us to retrieve this oldest part of ourselves, and we’re reluctant to let that go.

Which brings us to the present moment.

Why Copyright Doesn’t Matter

 

If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal.- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
IAlthough the New York Times found the new film Alternative Freedom a sloppy, disjointed, jingoistic mess, the movie does break new ground, highlighing the growing threat to public expression posed by restrictive copyright laws and digital rights management technologies. Supporting the “copyfight” thesis – that copyright law is slowly strangling the public’s ability to sample, remix and redistribute the ideas sold to them by entertainment companies – Alternative Freedom ventures beyond these familiar tropes: as video game systems, mobile phones and even printer toner cartridges become ever-more restrictive in the way they operate, we’re being sold devices which dictate their own terms of use. Any deviation from that usage is, in effect, a violation of copyright law. With appropriate legal penalties.Coincidentally, this week the US Congress began to deliberate strong and almost draconian extensions to the nation’s copyright laws, adding odious criminal penalties for what have – until now – been civil violations. Large-scale, commercial violators of copyright have always been criminals; now even the casual user could become a felon for any redistribution of content under copyright. As peer-to-peer filesharing networks grow ever broader in scope, become ever more difficult to detect, and ever harder to disrupt and destroy, the pressure builds. In essence, this is the last legal gasp of the entertainment industry to maintain control over the distribution of their productions.I have previously discussed the futility of “economic censorship” – which this proposed law before Congress equates to – and I can see nothing in these new laws which will slow the inexorable slide to an era where any media distributed anywhere on the planet becomes instantly available everywhere on the planet, to everyone. This is the essence of “hyperdistribution,” a recently-discovered, newly-emergent quality of our communications networks. You can’t make a network that won’t hyperdistribute content throughout its span – or rather, if you did, it wouldn’t look anything like the networks we use today. It seems unlikely that we would suddenly replace our entire global network infrastructure with something that would give us significantly less capability. Yet this must happen, if the long march to hyperdistribution is to be stopped.IIThis is a war for eyeballs and audiences. An entertainment producer spends significant time and money carefully crafting content for a mass audience, expecting that audience to pay for the privilege of enjoying the production. This is possible only insofar as access to the content can be absolutely restricted. If the producer only makes physical prints of a film, and only shows it in a theatre where everyone has been thoroughly searched for any sort of recording device (these days, that list would include both mobile phones and iPods), they might be able to restrict piracy. But only if there are no digital intermediates of the film, no screeners for reviewers mailed out on DVDs, no digital print for projection in the latest whiz-bang movie theatres. As soon as there is any digital representation of the production, copies of it will begin to multiply. It’s in the nature of the bits to generate more and more copies of themselves. These bits eventually make their way onto the network, and hyperdistribution begins.There is, in this evaluation, an assumption that this content has value to an audience. Many films are made each year – in Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong, and throughout the world – yet, most of the time, people don’t care to see them. Films are big, complex, and frequently flawed; there is no such thing as a perfect film, and, more often than not, a film’s flaws outweigh its strengths, so the film fails. This wasn’t an issue before the advent of television – before 1947, film was the only way to enjoy the moving image. Over the last sixty years, the film industry has learned how to accommodate television – with cable and free-to-air broadcasts of their films, and, most profitably, with the huge industry created by the VCR and the DVD. Even so, in the era of the VCR viewers had perhaps five or six channels of broadcast television to choose from. When the DVD was introduced, viewers had perhaps fifty or sixty channels to watch – more substantial, but still nothing to be entirely worried about. Now the number of potential viewing choices is essentially infinite. In a burst of exponential growth, the video sharing site YouTube is about to surpass CNN in web traffic, and in just one week went from 35 million videos viewed to over 40 million. That kind of growth is clearly unsustainable, but it’s also just as clearly indicative that YouTube is becoming a foundation web service, as significant as Google or Wikipedia. And this is why copyright doesn’t matter.IIIIt’s frequently noted that much of the content up on YouTube is presented in violation of someone else’s copyright. It might be little snippets from South Park, The Daily Show, or Saturday Night Live. The media megacorporations who control those copyrights are constantly in contact with YouTube, asking them to remove this content as quickly as it appears – and YouTube is happy to oblige them. But YouTube is subject to “swarm effects,” so as soon as something is removed, someone else, from somewhere else, posts it again. Anything that is popular has a life of its own – outside of its creator’s control – and YouTube has become the focal point to express this vitality.At the moment, many of the popular videos on YouTube fall into this category of content-in-violation-of-copyright. But not all of them. There’s plenty on YouTube which has been posted by people who want to share their work with others. A lot of this is instructional, informational, or just plain odd. It’s outside the mainstream, was never meant to be mainstream, and yet, because it’s up there, and because so many people are looking to YouTube for a moment’s diversion or enlightenment, it tends, over time, to find its audience. Once something has found just one member of its audience, it’s quickly shared throughout that person’s social network, and rapidly reaches nearly the entirety of that audience. That’s the find-filter-forward operation of a social network in an era of hyperdistribution and microaudiences. YouTube is enabling it. That’s why YouTube has gotten so popular, so quickly: it’s filling an essential need for the microaudience.Is there a place for professionally-produced content in an age of social networks and microaudiences? This is the big question, the question that no one can answer, because the answer can only emerge over time. Attention is a zero-sum: if I’m watching this video on YouTube, I’m not watching that TV show or movie. If I’m thoroughly caught up in the five YouTube links I get sent each day – which will quickly become fifty, then five hundred – how can I find any time to watch the next Hollywood special effects extravaganza? And why would I want to? It’s not what my friends are watching: they’ve sent me links to what they’re watching – and that’s on YouTube.So go ahead, Congress: kill the entertainment industry by doing their bidding. Let them lock their content up so completely that its utility – with respect to the network – approaches zero. If people can’t find-filter-forward content, it won’t exist for them. Lock something up, and it becomes less and less important, until no one cares about it at all. People are increasingly concerned with the media they can share freely, and this points to a future where the amateur trumps the professional, because the amateur understands the first economic principle of hyperdistribution: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes.

Understanding Gilmore’s Law

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
– John Gilmore

I

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.

II

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.

III

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?”