All posts by Thomas L. Knapp

“For the Children”: The Last Refuge of Anti-Encryption Scoundrels

Graphic by Santeri Viinamäki. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Graphic by Santeri Viinamäki. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The UK’s Home Office, Rolling Stone reports, is ramping up for a new offensive against end-to-end encryption, starting with a $750,000 payment to advertising agency M&C Saatchi for a publicity campaign aimed at scaring the bejabbers out of parents.

“Patriotism,” Samuel Johnson said in 1775, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” These days, it tends more toward first resort than last refuge. Both the UK and US governments have leaned into that approach for years — “TERRORISTS use encryption! You don’t like TERRORISTS, do you?” — with little success in budging public opinion.

So, naturally, they’re moving to their true last refuge: “Child pornographers and child sex traffickers use encryption! You don’t like child pornographers and child sex traffickers, do you? End-to-end encryption must be stopped FOR THE CHILLLLLDRENNN!”

Yes, terrorists and child pornographers and child sex traffickers do presumably use encryption. They also presumably use cash. And cars. And locks on their front doors.  Just like you.

Government anti-encryption advocates hope you won’t notice that, like those other things, encryption is just a tool. Yes, it can be used to facilitate crime. It can also be used — in fact mostly IS used — to protect your private affairs from the prying eyes of criminals and governments alike.

Government anti-encryption advocates also hope you won’t notice that  criminals and other evil-doers will always have resort to strong encryption if they’re willing to make even minimal efforts to use it. That cat’s been out of the bag for more than 30 years, since Phil Zimmerman released PGP (the first widely used “public key” encryption application) in 1991. Game over, voyeurs.

End-to-end encryption — encryption built directly into apps and requiring little or no effort to invoke — brings the benefits of online privacy to everyday Internet users. The campaigns against it aren’t aimed at terrorists or child pornographers or child sex traffickers. They’re aimed at you.

The same governments which resist even minimal transparency when it comes to their own operations, declaring huge troves of information “classified” and threatening those who reveal it with lengthy prison sentences, want to peek into your private affairs at will.

Not because they think you’re a terrorist or child pornographer or child sex trafficker, but because they consider themselves entitled to run your life and can’t abide anything which might get between them and that entitlement.

If encryption should be forbidden, it should be forbidden to governments, not to the rest of us.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION HISTORY

The Filibuster: Schumer Gets it Half Right

Jefferson Smith's filibuster from the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Public Domain.
Jefferson Smith’s filibuster from the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Public Domain.

On January 19, US Senate Democrats tried and failed to pass a one-time exception to that body’s practice of the parliamentary delaying tactic known as the “filibuster.” Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) put together half of a slam-dunk plan that should have passed with overwhelming support. But it didn’t because, well, Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and those darn Republicans.

Yes, you read the above correctly. For probably the first time ever, I (partially) agree with Chuck Schumer on something.

Let’s start with the half he got wrong: He wanted the rules change to apply to one, and only one, piece of legislation: The Democratic Party’s “voting rights” bill.

The part he got right was suggesting a reversion of Senate rules to require the old-fashioned “talking filibuster.”

In the old days — that is, until 1987 — the filibuster required effort. To delay the body’s vote on a bill with majority support, a Senator in the minority had to take the floor for debate and refuse to give it up.

So long as the Senator kept talking (standing, without leaning on the podium), it took a super-majority vote (at one time, 67 votes, now 60) to end debate. But if the minority left the debate floor vacant for even  a moment, the majority could  proceed to a vote on the bill.

These days, all a minority Senator has to do to stop a bill from coming to to a vote is object, and if his or her party can marshal 40 or more votes against “cloture,” it can leave the bill in limbo eternal by pretending the matter is still “under debate.”

I’m firmly on record as favoring gridlock. In my opinion, the less the Senate “gets done,” the better off most Americans are. I’d support a constitutional amendment requiring a unanimous, or at least high super-majority vote, to actually pass any bill. It should be hard, not easy, to subject 330 million Americans to legislative dictates.

But I’m also in favor of requiring politicians to actually debate the bills they propose or oppose instead of just blocking consideration of those bills.

Senators spend millions getting elected to, and are paid $174,000 per year to serve in, what Edmund Burke called a “deliberative assembly.” They should have to deliberate their rear ends off to secure victory or impose defeat.

The “talking filibuster” should be restored as a permanent Senate rule instead of offered up as a one-off workaround.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION HISTORY

Of Pockets, Legs, and Polarization

Kouros of Flerio, broken legs, Naxos, 6th c BC. Photo by Zde. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Kouros of Flerio, broken legs, Naxos, 6th c BC. Photo by Zde. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

“For the people who actually study the origins of civil wars, not just in the US, but as a class of events,” says Dr. Timothy Snyder, who does just that as the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University, “America doesn’t look good right now, with its high degree of polarization, with its alternative reality, with the celebration of violence.”

While Snyder’s remarks are specific in context — they concern a prospective attempt to steal the 2024 presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump — he does seem to have a point.

America is certainly “polarized,” or at least most Americans seem to think so. And since polarization is about what people think, it amounts to the same thing.

Alternative realities and celebrations of violence are both symptoms and causes of such polarization, but the polarization itself seems to be the big problem.

What can we do about polarization, though?

So long as there are issues, people will hold different opinions on those issues and “polarize” on — that is, flock to opposite and mutually exclusive sides of — those issues.

As the number of contentious issues grows and larger groups coalesce around bundles of those positions, a more general polarization springs up  and scales up in intensity from single-issue polarizations.

You and I may disagree on whether Paul McCartney died in 1965 and was replaced by a body double, yet still get along quite well. We might also disagree on whether Val Kilmer should have received an Oscar for his portrayal of Doc Holliday in “Tombstone,” and be able to have a beer together without it devolving into a brawl. But sooner or later you’ll cross some final red line, probably by suggesting that pineapple is a legitimate pizza topping, and then, well, we’re just done with each other, aren’t we?

When it comes to political issues, Thomas Jefferson offered a useful standard: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

The way to reduce political polarization is to reduce the number and kind of issues subject to politics. Jefferson marked out a useful starting point, but Henry David Thoreau went him one better:

“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — ‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

As a wordsmith, I’m nowhere near Jefferson or Thoreau in skill, but let me offer my own unworthy summary of the dual lesson:

The way to reduce political polarization is to give up politics as an instrument through which each of us claims an entitlement to run the lives of others.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION HISTORY