Ever since Senator Ted Stevens famously referred to the internet as a "series of tubes" in 2006, we have became sadly accustomed to the fact that legislators have little or no understanding of how the internet actually works.
Despite the determined efforts of many internet policy wonks in the past decade, that dangerous level of ignorance was again on full display at the Republican debate Tuesday night in Las Vegas, as presidential candidates vacated their mind bowels all over the global communications network.
Of course the internet punched back with full-on Twitter snark, but unfortunately tweets do not write laws. Here then are the highlights of both the debate and its backlash, from brain-farts to meme-mockery.
The Donald (Trump) was, of course, the most fervent and the most mind-numbingly off-base. He wants to shut down the internet. You know, like Syria and Egypt and other freedom-loving countries.
I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet.
That question came in response to Trump's earlier suggestion that he would talk to Bill Gates about closing up parts of the internet. Trump then clarified that he was not talking about the internet that good people use, only the parts that bad people use:
We're not talking about closing the Internet. I'm talking about parts of Syria, parts of Iraq, where ISIS is. Now, you could close it.
Which strongly suggests that Donald Trump thinks there is some kind of master-switch that can turn off parts of the internet, presumably based somewhere in Washington. He is probably conflating the IANA contract and the root zone system to some kind of control board for the internet while completely ignorant of the fact that the internet comprises millions of servers that use the same protocols to share information.
Sure the US could theoretically disrupt the internet's naming systems, but that wouldn't prevent access to the internet and it would immediately fragment the internet. To shut down parts of the internet, you need to get at all the ISPs within a country and get them to shut down their networks.
That's something that only a government can really do and even then only if there is a reasonably stable rule of law in a country. The US government could certainly try to persuade, say, the Iraqi government to shut down parts of its internet, but the answer would almost certainly be No.
And theoretically, US special forces could sabotage telco networks in a particular country or area but they would be put up again. The internet really is a lot more like a road system than a control box. Yes, you can blow up the highway between Baghdad and Tikrit but you have to be on the ground to do it and the impact would be short-lived.
Before we get into the weeds though, it's time to bring out the old canard of "we built it, we're in charge of it." Said Trump:
Isis is using the internet better than we are using the internet, and it was our idea. We should be able to penetrate the internet and find out exactly where Isis is and everything about Isis ... We can do that if we use our good people."
He later argued that he didn't want terrorists using "our internet." The best assumption about what he actually meant is online services like Google, Facebook, Twitter et al that are US companies. But, honestly, who knows?
The internet, naturally enough, responded:
Amazingly this attempted act of penetration was later picked up by Ohio governor John Kasich, who made even less sense than Trump when he said:
We need to be able to penetrate these people when they are involved in these plots and these plans. And we have to give the local authorities the ability to penetrate, to disrupt. That's what we need to do.
As always with Trump, he knows that he's talking out of his hat, so he has a Plan B when it comes to the internet: other people.
What I like even better than that is getting our smartest and getting our best to infiltrate their Internet ... I like that better.
This appeal to vague "smart people" to produce solutions that aren't really possible has become increasingly popular in this election cycle on both sides of the political divide. See for example the "debate" over encryption, where politicians' approach to the mathematical inability to create a hole that only certain people can use is to simply tell clever people to figure it out because they can't.
Just as an honorable mention for truly mind-bending pronouncements, Trump also created out of thin air the concept of immigrants swarming across US borders with "cell phones with ISIS flags on them." An arresting image, albeit one dredged from the fetid recesses of his mind.
Which leads to the encryption issue – something that has seen rather too much attention in Washington of late.
John Kasich started that ball rolling:
There is a big problem. It's called encryption. And the people in San Bernardino were communicating with people who the FBI had been watching. But because their phone was encrypted, because the intelligence officials could not see who they were talking to, it was lost ... We have to solve the encryption problem. It is not easy.
This is almost certainly nonsense. The most recent (public) information from the FBI makes no mention of encrypted phones or communication with outside people. Instead the San Bernardino shooters used private messages on Facebook and Twitter to talk to one another and a small group of friends. Like everyone else does.
Carly Fiorina, who actually used to be a tech CEO and so should have a pretty good understanding of how technology works and the interplay with politics and law enforcement, then managed to get just about all of it completely wrong.
She said that tech companies only needed to be asked to hand over details.
They do not need to be forced. They need to be asked to bring the best and brightest, the most recent technology to the table. I was asked as a CEO. I complied happily. And they will as well. But they have not been asked.
Unfortunately, that is the complete opposite of reality. Law enforcement is asking for those details and for the past year or so tech companies like Apple and Google have explicitly refused to comply with demands, mostly as a result of the fact that the Snowden documents revealed that the US government was secretly tapping into their data centers and systems.
Tech companies realized that unless they started standing up to the US government, no one was going to trust them and so no one would buy their products and services. All of this is in the public record, and The Reg among many, many other news sites has written extensively about it. Fiorina seems stuck in 2005 – the year she was booted out of Hewlett Packard following her disastrous tenure as CEO.
And talking of Snowden and mass surveillance. For some reason, most of the Republican candidates feel that although their supporters are fiercely skeptical of government, they won't mind having their entire lives recorded.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie for the 150th time went on about how he was a federal prosecutor just after September 11th and so everything he says and thinks must therefore be true.
I spent seven years of my life in the immediate aftermath of September 11th doing this work, working with the Patriot Act, working with our law enforcement, working with the surveillance community to make sure that we keep America safe... What we need to do is restore those tools that have been taken away by the president and others, restore those tools to the NSA and to our entire surveillance and law enforcement community.
Except of course that debate has already happened and the Patriot Act has been revised into the USA Freedom Act because the spying programs were found to be illegal and unconstitutional. So Christie appears to be saying: "Vote for me and I will bypass the Constitution to spy on you." An intriguing pitch if ever there was one.
Surveillance was also a sharp point of disagreement between the two candidates who are most likely to become the Republican candidate once all the nonsense and internal party politics are worked through: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Cruz came up with this gem in responding to Rubio and defending his support of the Freedom Act:
What he knows is that the old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists. The new program covers nearly 100 percent. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism, and he knows that that's the case.
Which is both right and wrong. The fact is that the new system does allow for a broader gathering of data because it is no longer a secret program, but it means that the NSA needs to go to phone companies to get access to data, as opposed to previously when it was simply sucking up all the data and accessing it as it saw fit.
Rubio, who is almost old-fashioned in his persistent use of accurate information as opposed to saying whatever he wants to be true, was having none of it.
So let me just be very clear. There is nothing that we are allowed to do under this bill that we could not do before... The law makes a broader potential universe of records available, but access to it is, at least relatively, limited.
Rubio was a notable critic of the Freedom Act.
Fiorina chimed in to repeat the same message that we should simply hand over everything to the Feds – a pitch that she clearly feels is a good one, but you have to wonder.
The surveillance did allow Rand Paul his entry point into the debate, albeit with his trademark hokeyness:
Rubio says we should collect all Americans' records all of the time. The Constitution says otherwise. I think they're both wrong. I think we defeat terrorism by showing them that we do not fear them.
In short, from the perspective of understanding the internet and coming up with viable solutions to acknowledge problems, the debate was a disaster that comprised bloviating ego-maniacs shouting over one another and talking without thinking or even understanding the basics of what they were discussing.
It was truly a great day for democracy and freedom of speech. ®