Opacity as a public good

Something I’ve been grappling with is the right to opacity and how that can be supported. The reason I think is less to do with opacity as a privacy supporting right and more to do with it as a public good. Currently opacity is largely ‘owned’ by centralised platform services.

A darknet is any online system which disguises its content in some way. In contrast to the open web which is publicly searchable and connectable a darknet is designed to limit some of the information accessible to external observers. Much of the digital world is now composed of semi-darknets. Facebook has some attributes of a darknet as it operates as a self contained private network. Users are visible to Facebook and its advertisers, to each other with some limits, but invisible to google or other web search engines. Opacity pervades the digital world. What is usually meant by the term ‘darknet’ is a system where users rather than platform owners can control the terms on which they are opaque, where the opacity of the system is a decentralised public resource. A system like the Tor darknet exemplifies that principle and provides a degree of anonymity to users.

Tor is a routing system which encrypts connection data. Doing so makes it difficult for a third party to tell who is connecting from where. The internet is a disclosing machine. It tells a lot about anyone using it. Tor limits that automatic disclosure. Effectively it means an internet user can browse websites and send messages without being easily traced. Tor enables a second function, onion or location-hidden services. Onion services allow a server to be connected without its location being revealed. Users can set up web services without the host’s IP address being known.

Glissant wrote of the right to opacity in a colonial context, to resist being known to systems of colonial governance. Colonial subjects created a thicket of unknowability. Discussions of encryption often view it as criminogenic. Viewing it as one means for opacity might help move the discussion on to one which balances risk and benefits and which considers opacity as part of growing the digital public space.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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