2013-04-18

The National Police Agency of Japan is urging ISPs to block "abusive uses of Tor". This is essentially driven by the Japanese "cat hacker" incident, where hacked machines were used to send crime threats. The police arrested an innocent suspect and forced him into a false confession through heavy handed means (this is pretty standard so far). But after the false confession, the actual hacker announced that he is still out there, and this become a huge controversy and embarrassment for the Japanese police.

The Japanese police and other government bodies are not tech-savvy at all, so in light of this public shaming that they've gone through, are naturally flexing their muscles to shut down an avenue that makes it difficult for them to "carry out justice" (or something along those lines). It's certainly easier for them to shut down this "threat" than try to understand and harness its forces.

Through discussions on Hacker News, I was reminded of the latent "fear of the Internet" that persists in mainstream Japanese society. From the article:

So maybe Japanese national paranoia towards the Internet is not paranoia at all, but a slightly-overcautious but basically-accurate level of risk assessment. The problem, however, is that the mass anxiety — justified or not — has crippled the development of the Internet, which subjectively-speaking, resembles the English-language net in 1997, in terms of graphic design, corporate participation, and general cultural influence. The only difference is that everyone in Japan knows the Internet is supposed to be a big deal, instead of some freak side show for college kids and nerds.

The article provides quite a thorough analysis of how the Internet and Japanese society intertwine to create the current mess in the country, but I couldn't help but think of the contribution of the underlying lack of technological understanding of the Internet as one cause of this fear.

For a developed country, Japan is fairly unique in that the Internet proliferated through mobile phones in the 90's rather than through the traditional personal computer [1][2]. We (in the States) are currently having the "consumption vs creation" device argument with the penetration of iOS and Android mobile devices, but computing and the Internet became widespread through personal computers. These machines were much more open and also much more temperamental, making us more comfortable with computers and the Internet in general as we spent time attending to these computers' needs. Spending time figuring out what's wrong with our systems, searching online for fixes and workarounds, and just generally being in touch with the back pipes of computing made us "fear technology" much less than we otherwise would have.

Of course, not everyone is an expert or even merely computer savvy. But we typically have friends or acquaintances who are savvy, or perhaps work in one of those mega tech companies. I think we generally feel as society that technology is "on our side" and that it is something we can harness to great ends. Having a Diaspora of technical folks throughout the country has prevented technology from becoming an ivory tower that we look up to from a distance in fear and awe. It is not something that we fundamentally do not or cannot understand [3].

This is in stark contrast to Japan, where computers typically weren't owned by "normal people" during the 90's and were esoteric, highly geeky things to have. Honestly, the perception was that you were quite weird if you owned a personal computer in the 90's in Japan (those things were super expensive too! They cost $2~3k in the US, and $3~4k in Japan where people traditionally have less disposable income than people in the States). The Internet was something that was primarily accessed via cell phones (which were super advanced for their time), which naturally came with a great deal of abstraction, much more than what comes with smartphones today [4]. This abstraction and consumption-only interaction with the Internet would mean that there would only be a very very limited number of people who would become comfortable with the underlying technology of computing and the Internet, and thus lead to an overall nation wide lack of understanding of cutting edge information technology.

It's a cliche, but we fear what we don't understand. We're not sure how it works, and we're not sure what it's capable of doing. We flinch, and want this terrible thing to go away. Even when we do interact with it, we do so by poking it around with a 10 foot pole.

I think we're tremendously fortunate that this new generation of technology originated in our own country, and that we didn't develop a fear for interacting with it along the way. We "grew up with it" so to speak, and were able to spend time with it during the years when there was comparatively little at risk (Geocities pages were pretty innocent). These days, with so much information handled by technology and the Internet, I do empathize with those who simply aren't comfortable with how these black boxes handle some of the most vital functions of society. But on the other hand, if we don't keep up with technology, we are by definition obsoleted by those who are willing to make that emotional and temporal investment and commitment. Even the heavy handed quashing of technology inevitably gets circumvented by newer incarnations of technology. If legislation and control over infrastructure is used to unilaterally stimey the use of the newest technology, then the nation as a whole loses out in the global IT war (China will surely have a field day hacking Japan's servers if Japanese authorities go the route of putting up domestic technological walls).

Will Japanese authorities turn course and invest in understanding and harnessing technology? I'm putting my money elsewhere.

[1] Korea is also an interesting case, since access to computing and the Internet was primarily through PC cafes (PC bangs), since individual computers were too expensive for most families back then.
[2] Of course, many developing nations are using phones as the primary way to access the Internet, so it will be interesting to see how they develop societal attitudes in the coming decades.
[3] I fully admit that my views and perceptions may be horribly biased since I grew up in Silicon Valley.
[4] This is the main driver for Yahoo! Japan being the market leader in search in Japan rather than Google.

via Hacker News