18 May 2107

The Templars and the internet

The ghost of Jacques de Molay

By John Watson

The ghost of a dead man haunts the internet.  Whose can it be?  Some unfortunate innocent, wrongly traduced online and driven in his despair to an early grave?  No, of course there are such ghosts but this is not of their number.  Let’s try again.  What about somebody who became obsessed by cyberspace until he lost hold of reality and died, babbling in an institution.  No, common enough but still wrong.  The ghost I have in mind is quite different.  It is that of Jacques de Molay, last and 23rd Grand Master of the Knights Templar who, following years of torture, was burnt at the stake in 1314 on the orders of Philip IV of France.  How did it go so wrong?  One moment the Templars were a great international organisation, unbelievably rich, founders of a system of banking, brave, devout, prestigious, the ideal charity to contribute some money to if you wanted to be sure of paradise, hugely arrogant and self confident.  Then they were gone;  their enormous wealth had attracted the attention of the French king, himself one of their principal debtors.  No amount of prestige or principle could save them from the cupidity of the secular power.  They were just too rich.  Now let’s move forward 700 years and think about the Internet and social media.

Just recently there has been a change in the air.  Not so long ago the internet was virtually unpoliced, somewhere where information flowed freely without supervision by the authorities.  It was all very exciting.  For the first time the public could really see what was going on, both in their own country and in some of the hidden corners of the world.  For the first time the narrative came direct rather than being retailed by professional commentators.  Photographs from bystanders; posts direct from the oppressed; away with obfuscation and in with a brave new world of clarity and truth.  If the suppression of information is the essence of dictatorship, the world had gained a new force for freedom.  Free transfers of information gave the public new eyes.  When something occurred, they could look.  Lying would be a thing of the past.  Cyberspace would be the cathedral of truth, honesty, information and purity.

Of course it hasn’t worked out quite like that.  Much of what sits on the Internet is false, some of it misleading statements made by ignorant people, some of it carefully designed lies calculated to give a false or distorted impression.  There too can be found pornography of the vilest sort and, even worse than that, material designed to promote terrorist outrages.  Malware sites hold people to ransom by “stealing” their information.

Looking down on this, like Jehovah in the clouds, sit the media companies, the hosts and providers of the system.  For a time they could afford to be detached.  After all they did not post the copy which sat on their servers any more than the Post Office writes the letters which it delivers.  If their facilities were abused, that was very regrettable, but it was hardly something for which they could be held responsible.  Those who post pornographic images or encourage terrorism should no doubt be punished, but why the technicians who did no more than host the sites on which posts could be placed?  Surely they should be left to make their honest profits in peace?

Attractive though this may be in theory, it founders on the rock of politics.  It is a function of government to place limits on what is permitted in its jurisdiction and the public expect it to do so.  No one is happy that the net should prove a haven for paedophiles and terrorists.  No one is happy that it should be used as a tool by those who wish to blackmail the National Health Service.  How then should our government, or indeed any others, counter these activities?  They cannot catch all the criminals involved and there are limits to the resources which they can deploy.  Their resources that is.  It would be so much more effective, and so very much cheaper, if they could use the resources of someone else, the Internet companies perhaps.

That, then, must be the chain.  Government forces Internet companies to control the web and the Internet companies meet the costs of doing so.  All that is needed from the government is some tough legislation and that comes reasonably cheap.  The difficulty for the media companies, of course, is not so much the amount of effort they will have to put in to satisfy the requirements of one state but the fact that different states are likely to have different requirements.  Publish something about the King of Thailand and the Thai authorities will move against you.  Publish something about Ruritania and your local executives go to jail.  As the rules lock into place there will be less and less space between them and the media companies will become more and more nervous about what can be placed on their networks. In effect the uncensored information game will be over.

Look for a moment at that the debate over encryption, where the British Government is insisting that the security services should have a window on encrypted messages.  The Internet companies say that that would take away the point and make secure business links impossible.  So what will happen?  Will someone suddenly think up a form of encryption to which the government can be provided with the key?  Or will institutions using encrypted links have to be licensed by the state?  Who knows?   Perhaps it will be something quite different but an answer there will have to be.

That a struggle should emerge over all this hardly comes as a surprise. We’ve been through the initial stage where the Internet flowed freely.  The next stage will be the imposition of heavy restrictions before a modus operandi emerges.  Bearing in mind that the weight of the technical talent is with the Internet providers, governments will need to take a slightly rough and ready line. Host an illegal encryption and you will pay a fine.  Do it often enough and your executives go to prison. That will test whether there is a technical solution through which everyone’s needs can be reconciled.  And as the fight goes on the media companies need to be careful.  In the end the national authorities always win. In the Middle Ages it did not do to be too rich. Nowadays it does not do to be a threat to the state.  If they are to survive the internet companies will need to heed the real concerns of the politicians and, remembering the fate of Jacques de Molay, not rely on innocence or prestige, or freedom of expression to try to bluster through.


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