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The Gutenberg Inheritance

In medieval times, knowledge was guarded for the power it gave. The Bible was controlled by the church: as well as being encoded in Latin, bibles were often kept chained up. Secular knowledge was also guarded jealously, with medieval craft guilds using oaths of secrecy to restrict competition. Even when information leaked, it usually did not spread far enough to have a significant effect. For example, Wycliffe translated the Bible into English in 1380-1, but the Lollard movement he started was suppressed along with the Peasants' Revolt.

But the development of moveable type printing by Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg during the latter half of the fifteenth century changed the game completely. When Tyndale translated the New Testament in 1524-5, the means were now available to spread the word so quickly that the princes and bishops could not suppress it. They had him executed, but too late; by then some 50,000 copies had been printed. These books were one of the sparks that led to the Reformation.

Just as publication of the Bible challenged the abuses that had accreted over centuries of religious monopoly, so the spread of technical know-how destroyed the guilds. Reformation and a growing competitive artisan class led to the scientific and industrial revolutions, which have given us a better standard of living than even princes and bishops enjoyed in earlier centuries. Conversely, the societies that managed to control information to some extent became uncompetitive; and with the collapse of the Soviet empire, democratic liberal capitalism seems finally to have won the argument.

But what has this got to do with a cryptology conference?

Quite simply, the advance of electronic publishing has placed at risk our inheritance from Gutenberg.

Just as advancing technology in the fifteenth century made it very much harder to control information, so the advances of the late twentieth are making it very much easier. This was made clear by recent court action involving the `Church of Scientology', one of whose former adherents had published some material which the organisation would prefer to have kept secret. This apparently included some of the organisation's `scripture' that is only made available to members who have advanced to a certain level in the organisation.

Since Gutenberg, the publication of such a trade secret would have been irreversible and its former owners would have had to cope as best they could. However, the publication was in electronic form, so the scientologists got court orders in an action for copyright infringement and raided the primary site in the USA in August 1995. They then went to Amsterdam where they raided an Internet service provider in September, and filed for siezure of all its assets on the grounds that their copyright information had appeared on a subscriber's home page. Their next move was to raid an anonymous remailer in Finland to find out the identity of one of its users. The saga continues.

The parallel with earlier religious history is instructive. The Bible came into the public domain because once it had been printed and distributed, the sheer number of dispersed copies made it impossible for the bishops and judges and princes to gather them up for burning.

However, now that publishing has come to mean placing a copies of an electronic document on a few servers worldwide, the owners of these servers can be coerced into removing it. It is irrelevant whether the coercion comes from wealthy litigants exploiting the legal process, or from political rulers conspiring to control the flow of ideas. The net effect is the erosion of our inheritance from Gutenberg: printing is `disinvented' and electronics document can be `de-published'. This should concern everyone who values the benefits that have flowed from half a millenium of printing, publication and progress.

So how can we protect the Gutenberg Inheritance?

Put into the language of computer science, is there any way in which we can assure the availability of data when the threat model includes not just Murphy's ferrite beetles, the NSA and the Russian air force, but Her Majesty's judges?

next up previous
Next: Preventing Service Denial Up: The Eternity Service Previous: The Eternity Service

Ross Anderson
Tue Jun 17 15:08:09 BST 1997