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This is a transcription of the Marco Ricca’s talk at the ISIL 2013 World Conference.
Transcribed and edited by Kenli S.
What is a hacker?
So before I start, let me define what I mean by “hacker”.
A hacker, in the sense that I mean it, is not someone who steals your credit card number or your Facebook password on the internet. I mean hacker in the original sense. The hacker subculture has existed—or has been using that word—for at least 30 or 40 years, and gathers people who identify with a common set of values and traits. Hackers are curious, creative, imaginative, and are absolutely free-minded. They do not take anything anyone says for the truth before they have been able to verify it.
The first assumption that is out there is that computers are safe. So hackers initially tried to challenge that assertion. Hackers love to take apart and modify the behavior of things. So, you may do something that has “hack” value, even if it is not necessarily linked to computers.
If, for example, you have ever used a coffee machine to make tea, strictly speaking you are a hacker.
Welcome to my world.
A few words about myself, Christian Michel introduced me very well. I got interested in computers very young and in 1998 I figured out how these skills I had accumulated could be monetized. I happened to grow up in Switzerland, and Swiss banks are very keen customers of such skills because as you know, and as is even more the case right now, they are trying to protect secrets from a large bunch of people.
At the time they were just introducing the internet in their offices, and they were very keen to know the flaws that governments, intelligence agencies, and private investigators could use to steal their information. So I founded Ilion, which was the first ethical hacking firm in Europe, and from I this founded another company in cyber security, which I later sold.
All of this I started in 1998, so I have been in that business awhile. I have just sold my last company, so I’m a bit in between activities and am looking to do something more philanthropic in the promotion of liberty.
A key question that I think people are asking right now is what will we make of this information age? What will the 20th century look like, given the internet?
I think we can feel the tension especially now with this new story that has come out of Edward Snowden and everything. A lot of people paint a dystopian future, where the government leverages the information age to spy upon us, and to take away our liberties.
We are in the year of biometric passports, of biometric identification in airports, of CCTV and video surveillance. We are in the era of bloated, obese government that uses every means it can to attack our liberties to finance unproductive small elites.
We know this, we see how this is happening, but at the same time we feel the tension, and we can see if we are a bit in touch that Edward Snowden is obviously a hero in the hacker community, on the internet more generally. I would say a mere illustration of what is going on. I’m not going to go through all the logos on the slide, but you probably recognize some of them.
We are feeling that the internet is fuelling a backlash against big governments, against tyrannical surveillance, against big brother.
So this tension exists, people tend to be quite pessimistic, and say that the internet is an agglomeration of porn and fantasy, and that the government is going to win and take over our liberties even more easily now that it has the internet, so go back to the post office and to the typewriter if you don’t want to fall victim to that tyranny.
I happen to disagree with that vision, and I’m going to try in the 25 minutes I have left to explain why.
How is the internet built?
The first thing I think is important to insist on is: the building blocks of the internet. How is the internet built? Most people envision the internet as something very structured, organized, designed, thought through, that comprises a backbone—and that all you need to do is go into that backbone, or cut that backbone to influence the internet overnight.
There is a little bit of truth to that story, but the more correct definition of the internet is a heuristic and dynamic conglomerate of voluntary peering agreements.
It is true that ARPANET was initially funded by the US government. It is true that initially the World Wide Web was actually funded by CERN or devised by people working for CERN.
Nonetheless you should see these inventions as random inventions, it could have been any invention and these inventions were voluntarily selected by the free-market, by people around the globe, and people decided to adhere to these inventions and to use this to communicate with one another.
Nobody had plans for the internet, people working on ARPANET in the 70s never could have planned or described what the internet actually turned out to be. Same with World Wide Web.
The internet is a set of connections, if I want to connect with this guy because I have data to exchange with him on a regular basis, then I’ll finance a peering agreement with him or we will co-finance a peering agreement with one another.
Then I’ll be able to lease out that line to whoever wants to communicate through it. That’s the internet. Then there are a number of protocols that help the packets find the shortest path around the world and along the internet, but it is not structured, it is not organized. It was never designed or thought-through, and it was never planned.
So the internet itself—I’m going to talk later about what the internet allows to emerge—but the internet itself is a formidable product of individual unilateral free human action. This is very important to remember. Twenty years ago we imagined flying cars, we didn’t imagine the internet as it happens to exist today.
That is the first thing, and you’ll see how that is important later on.
So what is the internet today? How would one define what it has become, in the most abstract, philosophical, and general terms? I’ve tried to do this, but before I give you my wording and conclusion, try to think of the internet this way:
It is a medium, by which people with a very low barrier of entry——it is very easy to connect to the internet, it is very low cost to use the internet, it is very easy technically also to contribute to the internet——so it is a medium of exchange that allows the exchanged good to flow freely.
I want to make an important point about the last singularity, that happened in 2003, I call this on the slide “editing, formatting, divergence”. What happened in 2003 is that in order to contribute to the internet you needed to have less formatting skills. Before 2003, if you wanted to contribute a video, a text, or an article, you needed to know how to put it online, you needed to know how to format it. How to make it available for everyone to see. Working on the content, or being able to produce content was not enough.
In 2003, with web 2.0, with the first blogs, with Youtube etc. this changed, and now if you are able to produce content you are readily able to share that content without having to master any technical skills. So the entry barrier to getting on the internet is low both financially and technically. And the asset that is being traded, is being traded for free.
So, whenever this happens, whenever a market can be entered freely and the good is traded freely, in an unregulated way, obviously the value and quality of that good increases exponentially.
If the good traded is information, if any new good, any new information is called an idea, well the internet shall allow for the exponential growth in the quality and value of ideas, being produced by humanity. So in other words, the internet is a distributed invention that dramatically decreases the costs of producing and delivering ideas.
That’s it, if you strip away all technical jargon, what is the internet for humanity? That’s what it is.
So are there any historical precedents of this? Has humanity ever invented something that has decreased the cost of producing and distributing ideas? I’ve tried to think about that, and I’ve come up with two examples. If you have other ones, please let me know.
The inventions of writing and of the printing press
Writing, obviously allowed for the emergence of civilization. The printing press allowed us to free ourselves of the political tyranny of the time at which it was invented, namely the Roman Catholic Church.
This is a very good article that quite well summarizes my points. Here I recommend you Google it, Bing it, or whatever. But it is a historical fact that Luther’s pamphlets spread throughout Europe much like social media micro-messages spread in whatever latest revolution you want to think about.
The printing press allowed people to consult about and contribute ideas at much lesser cost, hence better ideas spread. Better ideas tend to be congruent with liberty obviously and of truth, hence liberty-minded ideas, truth, spread throughout Europe and in less than one century the Schism happened, which was then followed by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Just by looking at it through this angle it is possible to envision that the internet will——exponentially faster and better——be able to emancipate consciousness and humanity from tyranny, as much as the printing press had 500 years ago.
Has the internet proven itself?
Is there any proof of that? Is there any example in the world today of the internet having already produced such a result? Has the internet been proven as a real free-market of ideas that optimizes the emergence of better information and better ideas?
If the internet functions indeed as a free-market of information, in that it empowers the emergence of ideas, then the best informational goods should be the ones that leverage the internet the most. If we can find some, then there is truth to this statement.
What kind of intangible goods can we think about? Software.
Computer software is an immense industry, and is made of purely intangible goods, purely of ideas, purely of information. The most complex and large software that exists, are large operating systems, are these software that allows your smartphone, your computer, your laptop to function.
Let me first tell you an anecdote before I tell you what these logos mean.
In 1996, when I was 16 years old, my family was visiting some friends in Huntington Beach. I was contributing at the time to the Linux kernel, the kernel of the Linux operating system.
The daughter of the friend of my parents was a very prominent senior Microsoft developer. And I would argue with her that Linux would overtake Windows, that Linux is better than Windows, that Windows is a crappy system etc.. Whatever word you would use when you are 16 years old.
She would say, “but how can a system that is the sum of contributions of people that you don’t master the competence of, who are not paid, who have no financial incentive, in a system that is not organized, not designed, not hierarchically structured, ever come close to such a powerful system as Windows, which does not suffer from all these caveats that I have just cited?”
I, a bit naïvely at the time answered: “because free markets work better than communism and contstructivism”.
I didn’t know at the time to what extent this answer was true, Linux is an operating system, so it is this operating system that allows devices to work. It is an unplanned system. A guy in 1991, called Linus Torvalds, basically had the idea for calling out to people to contribute to design this. No particular idea of where that would end up.
Now Linux, and its cousin FreeBSD, developed in the same mindset, according to the same principles, equips 90% of all smartphones in the world——Android is based on Linux, and iOS Apple is based on FreeBSD——and more than 60% of all servers in the world.
Linux in 20 years or so has taken over Windows big time. Windows is particularly ridiculous compared to Linux in terms of stability, scalability, privacy, security, and a number of different factors.
That’s a first example. This is a pure informational good, that was produced to a better extent through this free market of ideas, which tends to prove that the internet is a free market of ideas.
Are there other examples?
Wikipedia. One of the founders said “The problem with Wikipedia is that it doesn’t work in theory, it only works in practice.” This is a true statement, but he must have only studied Keynesian economics, or neoclassical economics I guess, because otherwise he would have understood that it also works in theory if you apply human action and free market principles to this kind of wealth creation process.
What about political ideas?
If political thought is also information, is also an idea. If it is exchanged, distributed, contradicted, better on the internet than on any other medium of exchange of ideas, then truth and liberty should prevail, or should be more prominent on the internet.
How does the internet rate in terms of putting forward liberty minded ideas and the truth?
Here is a very simple test that you can do at home as well. I did this last night: I tried to Google “John Maynard Keynes” and “Ludwig von Mises”, and you notice that Ludwig von Mises, contrary to what one might expect rates much higher than John Maynard Keynes on Google.
So this is not a definite proof that Ludwig von Mises is more prominent on the internet than he is in the Financial Times, but if you repeat this request on FT.com, NYTimes.com, or Forbes.com you’ll see a result that is altogether different.
I don’t know if this is proof, but the internet tends to select out ideas that are true. While there is a lot of rumour, a lot of fantasy—a lot of everything is represented by the internet. But the kinds of ideas that tend to be selected by the free market of ideas and tend to be the ones that I’m familiar with.
The Hacker culture has changed somewhat over time. There is an interesting movement called Crypto-Anarchism, which I would say pretty much represents what the Hacker movement has turned in to.
Originally hackers were participants in MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, now we’re talking about crypto-anarchism, anonymous and with open source software. So the values of the hacker subculture, or information-sharing as an ideal and practical strategy, freedom of inquiry as related to secrecy and especially important distrust for authority. So hackers helped build the building blocks of the internet. The original hacker culture was in the Unix culture, and GNU free software culture, and as we see most software run on open source software, all major protocols on the internet, whether DNS, which we’ve mentioned, the routing protocols, were initially developed in an open-source free-software organization.
The hacker culture is intertwined with the internet. It is the principle that allowed the internet to emerge, and it is the principle that has empowered the internet to evolve.
Hackers helped build the foundations.
Humanity gets a free market of ideas.
Intangible assets improve in quality.
Does it stop there? What impact does it have on the real world?
Let me give you a few examples of it is already impacting the real world. Of how this concept of individuals being free——to exchange whatever information they want with whomever else they want to in the world, at whatever time at whatever location they are, in complete anonymity if they wish to——is already shaping a different world.
I call this slide Anachronisms, because there are a number of 20th century laws that have already become completely obsolete and anachronistic.
To understand why, you should understand that in this age, information is a number. Whether it is a music, or a movie, or an opinion piece, any piece of information is in fact a number. A long number for sure, but it is still a number.
Regulating the flow of numbers is like controlling the pronunciation of numbers, it makes absolutely no sense. And what are you going to do? Are you going to forbid numbers? Is 42 going to be illegal? 67 perhaps? What about the square of an illegal number, is it also illegal? It makes absolutely no sense.
The only way to regulate the pronunciation of numbers is to implement tyrannical measures that will stifle wealth creation to such an extent that tyrants won’t have reasons to be tyrants anymore. It means we’re North Korea. If you really push the reasoning to the extreme, if you say ‘we’re going to control the exchange of information in this era’ technically speaking, as well as practically and operationally speaking, it means North Korea. It means you need to threaten people with the death penalty if they have a computer. Or any kind of peripheral device. It is completely impractical, and impossible to do.
Opinion crimes, become impossible to prosecute. All the activities of government that consist of controlling information, whether through copyrights, censorship, or propaganda, become increasingly meaningless. I’ve put some examples on the slide, and feel free to ask me afterwards of the ways in which you can circumvent censorship or make sure that you are anonymous on the internet, etc.
All crimes related to information sharing become null and void. The flow of goods is increasingly difficult to restrict and control as well. I don’t know who here has heard of the Silk Road—the silk road is a free, anonymous marketplace on Tor.
Tor is this encrypted internet that we mentioned earlier, whereby you access the internet through a number of random relays, by using encrypted channels. Very simple to join, very simple to use. It is part of the so-called “dark internet”.
So, the Silk Road is there. The founder of Silk Road was just interviewed by Forbes, a very interesting interview, a staunch libertarian as well.
You can buy anything from drugs, to fake passports, to guns, to anything you want except some items which the founder decided not to sell, like organs and pornography and things like this.
He says that crimes that don’t have victims should not be crimes, hence he shall help liberate the people from such tyranny.
The picture on the bottom is a 3D printed gun. When there was all this hysteria about gun control in the US a couple of months ago, a guy on the internet said ok, let’s make a model so that anyone can print a gun using 3D printers, he published the model. He was sought by the powers that be, Homeland Security, and etc., but the file had already disseminated in two days. All over the internet. It is impossible to forbid, and impossible to restrict. A 3D printing machine is cheap, and getting cheaper, so anyone can print his own gun today.
This is just an example of how the information age is cutting the grass under the feet of big government. Obviously, Hayek’s goal of denationalization of money is also going to happen. This is the ultimate goal, because if you remove the monetary monopoly from government, they don’t have any more power to tax, to invade, to surveil, to imprison, to kidnap, etc. It becomes much harder for them to finance themselves.
Hayek’s dream of competition amongst currencies is made possible again thanks to the internet. There were a number of attempts, e-gold, digital gold currency that was closed down, people prosecuted, sent to jail because of supposedly alleged money laundering activities.
Liberty reserve, same thing. Then came the bitcoin, which is a crypto currency, completely decentralized, with no central bank, no issuer. Impossible to restrict. Restricting bitcoin would be—like restricting any other information that we have—to transform society into North Korea.
There are now a few investigations that have begun in the US against bitcoin exchanging platforms, which will simply move to other more favorable legislations.
I regret I don’t have more time to spend on this, this could be a whole presentation in itself. How we are going to free ourselves from tyranny thanks to the separation of money and state. A century after the separation of church and state, at least in Europe. This is very good news, I think for humanity.
So how will hackers help this? Obviously by providing the technical means that will allow this to be done. Bitcoin was devised by hacker, all the strong open-source cryptography in the world, were proposed by hackers, in the sense that I define them.
A lot of political mobilization, Aaron Swartz, was suicided*? by the US government as a very famous example of that. Hackers have the ability also of finding the arguments and proposing the arguments, for the mobilization to take place. And open-source software will continue to revolutionalize the information age.
In conclusion, I think that classical liberal thinkers must factor in the information age. Nobody is recreating Italian or Greek city-states. Classical Liberalism can feed itself, become more precise, more wealthy, more prominent, more compelling, thanks to these arguments and thanks to these discoveries, and the new paradigm that has emerged in the world in the past few years.
The internet is built in, by, and around the hacker culture. Don’t forget this. And younger generations have grown up with this. This is what was mentioned by my colleague’s talk as well. This is extremely important.
A teenager nowadays cannot necessarily phrase classical liberal thoughts, but he will tend to have this emotion, of “I am a free-minded, beautiful individual, and you government shall not tell me how to live my life.”
Products of the internet, and the internet itself are eloquent demonstrations of human action. Whenever anyone says now, “central planning works better than stochastic organization”, well Linux and Wikipedia are counter-arguments that usually close the debate.
NSA-like scandals help precipitate privacy as a competitive factor. I disagree a bit with my colleague, I don’t think that the Facebook issue is as serious as government spying on you, if you are dumb enough to voluntarily contribute everything to Facebook, that is fair enough. You make that decision.
But monitoring that happens without your consent on your private property, on your telephone line, is altogether different, because the monopoly of government is there.
If Walmart has CCTV, I don’t go to Walmart. When there is CCTV in the streets, that is another problem. These scandals, obviously are shocking, but will help make cryptography be more widely used, and will help privacy become a competitive factor. Perhaps tomorrow a Facebook that establishes itself in Switzerland says “your data is safe here” because you’re not under the US legislation. Maybe they will benefit from the competitive advantage more than he did yesterday or one year ago.
In conclusion, the internet is emancipating consciousness, enabling the emergence of free, self-actualized individuals, and hopefully with this presentation and these arguments I’ve been able to convince you of exactly that.
Thank you.This is a transcription of the Marco Ricca’s talk at the ISIL 2013 World Conference.
Transcribed and edited by Kenli S.See more videos from the conference