Belmont Club

The Digital Imprimatur

AP photo, file

Today, when censorship is being advocated to counter ‘disinformation’ or the ‘Big Lie,’ it may be time to remember John Walker, the man who anticipated way back in 2003 that a digital imprimatur would be required to say anything substantial online. Walker was the man who wrote AutoCAD.

Walker moved to Switzerland in 1991. By 1994, when he resigned from the company, it was the sixth-largest personal computer software company in the world, primarily from the sales of AutoCAD. …

One particularly noteworthy article was titled The Digital Imprimatur: How big brother and big media can put the Internet genie back in the bottle, an article about Internet censorship written in 2003. It was published in the magazine Knowledge, Technology & Policy. In the article, Walker argues that there is increasing pressure limiting the ability for Internet users to voice their ideas, as well as predicting further Internet censorship. Walker claims that the most likely candidate to usher what he calls “the digital imprimatur” is digital rights management or DRM.

The word ‘imprimatur’ is Latin for “let it be printed.” Historically, it is “a declaration authorizing publication of a book. The term is also applied loosely to any mark of approval or endorsement. The imprimatur rule in the Roman Catholic Church effectively dates from the dawn of printing, and is first seen in the printing and publishing centers of Germany and Venice.”

English laws of 1586, 1637, and 1662 required an official licence for printing books. The 1662 act required books, according to their subject, to receive the authorization, known as the imprimatur, of the Lord Chancellor, the Earl Marshall, a principal Secretary of State, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Bishop of London. This law finally expired in 1695.

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In the early days of the Internet, Walker believed that the imprimatur was gone forever. Then in 2003, he changed his mind. He realized that, like the Gutenberg press before it, the technology for censoring the Internet was growing alongside it.

Over the last two years I have become deeply and increasingly pessimistic about the future of liberty and freedom of speech, particularly in regard to the Internet. This is a complete reversal of the almost unbounded optimism I felt during the 1994–1999 period when public access to the Internet burgeoned and innovative new forms of communication appeared in rapid succession. In that epoch I was firmly convinced that universal access to the Internet would provide a countervailing force against the centralization and concentration in government and the mass media which act to constrain freedom of expression and unrestricted access to information. Further, the Internet, properly used, could actually roll back government and corporate encroachment on individual freedom by allowing information to flow past the barriers erected by totalitarian or authoritarian governments and around the gatekeepers of the mainstream media.

So convinced was I of the potential of the Internet as a means of global unregulated person-to-person communication that I spent the better part of three years developing Speak Freely for Unix and Windows, a free (public domain) Internet telephone with military-grade encryption. Why did I do it? Because I believed that a world in which anybody with Internet access could talk to anybody else so equipped in total privacy and at a fraction of the cost of a telephone call would be a better place to live than a world without such communication.

What changed his mind was the realization that commercial companies would control the network and eventually make everyone micro-pay for it — and thus be able to micro-control everything.

The original design of the ARPANET, inherited by the Internet, was inherently peer to peer. … [in 2003] that user is no longer a peer of all other Internet users as the original architecture of the network intended. …

Sites with persistent, unrestricted Internet connections now constitute a privileged class, able to use the Internet in ways a consumer site cannot. They can set up servers, create new kinds of Internet services, establish peer to peer connections with other sites—employ the Internet in all of the ways it was originally intended to be used. We might term these sites “publishers” or “broadcasters”, with the NATted/firewalled home users their consumers or audience. …

With every Internet transaction tagged with the personal certificate of the requester and that of the computer where the request originated, operators of Web sites and other Internet services will be able to “know their customers”. For the first time, Web sites will be able to compile accurate readership statistics, subject to audit by circulation bureaux, as for print publications. This, in turn, may restore the viability of the advertiser-supported business model for popular Web sites.

Internet traffic can be logged and audited by others, for their own purposes, as well. The ability to potentially recover a list of certificates of those who accessed a site containing prohibited content such as child pornography will deter those who now rely on the anonymity of the Internet to shield them from prosecution. Sites indulging in hate speech and/or material of interest to terrorists will find their regular visitors scrutinized by the authorities concerned with such matters. Societies which wish to control the flow of information across their borders can monitor the activity of their nationals to determine whether they are violating imposed restrictions. Parents will be able to monitor the activities of their minor children using certificates they’ve obtained for them which are linked to the parent/guardian’s certificate.

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Walker’s predicted censorship and surveillance, made 18 years ago, has arguably come to pass. But isn’t the censorship worth it if it protects us from error and the Big Lie? There is a quote on the Internet attributed to Joseph Goebbels on the Big Lie, with whom the concept is most closely associated. Though the quote is unsourced and its provenance disputed, it nevertheless makes two interesting points worth examining.

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

The first is that the Big Lie is mostly, if not always, told by the State or at least the establishment because they alone have the “powers to repress dissent.” This is an immensely important insight. The imprimatur is the tool of the ruling elite; they control the Narrative.

The second is that the Big Lie eventually collapses in the face of reality. “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.” This raises the possibility that the phenomenon of overt censorship is actually the result of the collapse of an earlier, implicitly accepted narrative.

Are we in the age of Walker’s digital imprimatur or at the point where the holodeck image is flickering, stabilizing, and flickering again prior to going out?

BooksLast Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost by Michael Walsh “A philosophical and spiritual defense of the premodern world, of the tragic view, of physical courage, and of masculinity and self-sacrifice in an age when those ancient virtues are too often caricatured and dismissed.” —Victor Davis Hanson

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