Speech without Accountability; October 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by W. Wayt Gibbs; 2 Page(s)
SAN FRANCISCO-In the centurieslong struggle to decide what people may say without fear of prosecution, almost all the big decisions have been made by constitution writers, judges and politicians. When things work properly, these players balance one another out and change the limits of free speech only slowly and after much debate. Inventors have played an occasional starring role, too, Gutenberg being the archetype. But with the rise of the Internet, a certain class of inventors-computer scientists-has asserted its own special power to determine the boundaries of permissible speech. Unlike the leaders of governments, programmers release the new methods that they devise for sharing information globally, quickly and often with little thought to the consequences.
Consider Publius, a censor-resistant Web publishing system described in mid-August at a computer security conference in Denver. Engineers at the conference greeted the invention warmly, presenting to its creators-Marc E. Waldman, a Ph.D. student at New York University, and Aviel D. Rubin and Lorrie F. Cranor of AT&T Labs-Research-the award for best paper. Publius is indeed an impressive technical achievement: a tiny little program that, once widely installed, allows almost any computer user to publish a document on the Web in such a way that for all practical purposes it cannot be altered or removed without the author's consent, even by an incensed government. In fact, authors can post files to Publius that even they themselves cannot delete. Yet it is quite simple for any Web surfer anywhere to view files published this way.