Agorism’s Tech Triumvirate
Anything Peaceful in the Counter-Economy
JUNE 14, 2013 by TOMASZ KAYE
In Turkey, a large, spontaneous uprising is being met with brutality by government forces. Sometimes such brutality occurs when those who participate in these uprisings cannot communicate or interact effectively—whether to organize or to subvert the State’s power.
What are people looking to shed themselves of an illiberal State—or any State—to do?
They could consciously embrace the counter-economy of agorism. Agorists believe that libertarian philosophy manifests itself in the real world through “the study and/or practice of all peaceful human action which is forbidden by the State.” Practicing counter-economics means, as far as you’re able, circumventing the restrictions the State places on your peaceful activities. In finding ways to do so, you're helping to create the framework for a new society within the shell of the old.
The protestors in Istanbul are already practicing agorism when they organize to help one another defy the commands of the police. And this impulse needn’t diminish when the energy on the street has dissipated and the tear gas has been washed from their eyes.
Perhaps the most important foundations for successful agorism are tools and techniques for conducting communication and commerce outside the reach of the State. Recently the Cypherpunks have created technologies that bring the ideal of crypto-anarchism closer than it's ever been before.
You might have heard about Bitcoin, which is currently the most mature and popular cryptocurrency. Bitcoin is decentralized, it cannot be inflated, it's very difficult to seize, and it can be transferred anywhere in the world at next to no cost. And although Bitcoin is pseudonymous by default, with the proper precautions (or if the Zerocoin extension is adopted) it can be used anonymously.
Governments, banks, and credit card companies ought to be worrying about Bitcoin. It has the potential to obviate the restrictions on peaceful commerce created by the State and its cronies. Thus, Bitcoin has the potential to dramatically increase freedom in trade. But what about communication?
"The protests in Turkey are the perfect test for Bitmessage," writes a user in the nascent Bitmessage subreddit.
One of the problems with most email providers is that they centralize data. All the emails of Gmail users are stored on Google's servers, for example. This might not look like a problem if we trust that Google will live up to its “Don't be evil” slogan. But even if Google were exclusively staffed by incorruptible angels, we should be concerned. Right now the FBI is trying to force Google to hand over confidential user data to be used in warrantless investigations.
While writing this article, the PRISM scandal broke, which appears to confirm the worst fears about the extent of the surveillance state. In general, the state can probably find a way to read your emails. Technologies like GPG exist that allow people to encrypt their email messages, but this approach still doesn't anonymize the sender and receiver of messages. This information can be made harder to uncover by using chained remailers, but from a privacy standpoint, email seems broken in a way that probably can't be fixed.
Bitmessage (pdf) is designed to solve these issues. Bitmessage is an encrypted, peer-to-peer, trustless, decentralized, open-source messaging system that can be used the same way one uses email. Message delivery doesn't depend on any central server, however, and all message data—including sender and receiver information—is encrypted automatically.
Currently an installable Bitmessage package exists for Windows only. An OSX version is in the works, as well as an Android implementation, which should be of particular interest to protesters who need to stay mobile.
Interestingly, Bitmessage is based on Bitcoin's underlying technology. While Bitcoin is relatively young, Bitmessage is even younger. It still requires a thorough security audit, so it remains to be seen whether its promise is real. But if so, it complements Bitcoin beautifully, the pair allowing people to carry out commerce and communication on their own terms.
Both Bitcoin and Bitmessage rely on Internet access to function, and despite valiant efforts by supporters to create ad-hoc networks for protesters, it's still often within the State's power to prevent reliable access to many. The third emerging technology relevant here is Meshnet. Meshnet is a free and open-source project that aims to provide robust network access in the face of deliberate attempts by “authorities” to restrict Internet access and censor online speech.
Meshnet works by dynamically creating networks of wireless routers. Each router becomes a node in the network, relaying connectivity to other routers in its physical vicinity. Such networks often include connections to the Internet through at least one node, effectively allowing all participating nodes Internet access.
The key difference between a wireless access point and a meshnet is that data can be requested from a PC that is too far from the source PC to have a direct wireless connection. The mesh application allows the request from one computer to hop from meshnet node to meshnet node until it reaches the computer with data. The computer with data then sends the data back to the original computer that requested the data by hopping from meshnet node to meshnet node. In this case a meshnet node can be either a PC or a wireless router with meshnet software.
If reform of the State is not a viable option in the long run, we should take heart from the way emerging technology is helping people practice agorism by routing around restrictions the government attempts to impose.
- The use of Bitcoin removes control of the money supply from the State and the banks and makes it very difficult for the state to monitor transaction activity.
- The use of Bitmessage removes the State's ability both to eavesdrop and to pressure third parties into giving up the details of our communications.
- Meshnet makes it very difficult for the State to disrupt Internet access or monitor online activity.
In the words of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin: "[We may not find a solution to political problems in cryptography,] but we can win a major battle in the arms race and gain a new territory of freedom for several years."
Who knows what we could achieve in those years?