Robert Kolker, a writer for New York Magazine and author of “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery” takes some time off from his day jobs to do a review of Nate Anderson’s “The Internet Police” for The New York Times. Following is the review, which has been “mildly” edited.
In “The Internet Police,” Nate Anderson, deputy editor at the technology Web site Ars Technica, describes how order has been erratically imposed on the chaos. It’s a tale filled with plot twists. Government overreach leads to judicial pushback. Private-sector innovation enables the cops, but also the criminals. Internet utopians resent the intrusion of old-world laws on what they had hoped would remain an untrammeled new world. The latest technology renders traditional methods like wiretap laws obsolete. But no one can finish this book thinking the Internet remains a disorderly wasteland. The West is being tamed, if slowly.
High-tech law enforcement is nothing like what we see on “CSI” or “Criminal Minds.” There’s no junior agent with thick glasses and a large soda, pulling up personal records with just a few clicks. There’s no single Internet police force, either. In the past decade or two, as the Internet grew, “all police became the Internet police,” Anderson writes. He includes in this group Congress and the Justice Department along with federal prosecutors, the local police, the F.B.I., Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the N.S.A. More loosely, he includes telecommunications companies and universities — any entity that controls access to the Internet for large numbers of people — and businesses that self-police and lobby the government for more regulation, like the recording and movie industries.
His storytelling is brisk and lucid, often pithy but never glib. He recounts the pursuit of the “natural male enhancement” fraudster Steven Warshak (who unexpectedly plays the Larry Flynt role in a debate over government overreach and privacy rights); the master spammers Oleg Nikolaenko, Sanford (Spamford) Wallace and Jeremy Jaynes, who get caught, but at great cost and highly debatable success (Anderson notes that spam still makes up about 90 percent of e-mail sent worldwide); and Jammie Thomas, a single mother in Brainerd, Minn., who — in an almost Dickensian accident of fate — ends up the star defendant in a landmark file-sharing case (Anderson finds great comedy among prospective jurors dismissed from Thomas’s trials because they downloaded music all the time, too).
Even familiar tales contain surprises and fresh insights. The story of HavenCo — an ultrasecure Internet data center seven miles off the British coast that aspired to become its own nation, free from copyright, patent, libel and political censorship restrictions — shows how even the lawless eventually need laws to survive. The investigation into “the Cache,” which in 2008 the United States government called “the largest child-pornography conspiracy ever prosecuted by anyone anywhere,” angers Internet libertarians who suspect that proposed laws meant to stop child pornography on the Web are a Trojan horse for regulators, censors and anti-file-sharers. Anderson’s discussion of the Silk Road, the black-market Web bazaar where people can order just about every drug on the planet, happens to be timely: on Oct. 1, F.B.I. agents arrested 29-year-old Ross William Ulbricht, whom they believe to be the owner of the site, on narcotics and money-laundering charges.
Anderson observes repeatedly how technology has empowered the police in surprising, troubling ways. Which brings him to the N.S.A. WikiLeaks, he writes, “believes that we have entered a new era, one characterized by near total, automated surveillance of digital communications.” That would be endlessly depressing if Anderson didn’t demonstrate how companies are innovating to help people avoid detection. When the government tries to require a “back door” to tap these technologies, the private sector often resists — as do civil libertarians.
Many social critics and artists (most recently Thomas Pynchon and Dave Eggers) have suggested that the fix has always been in — that governments or corporations developed the Internet to control us all. But Anderson wisely reminds us that the struggle between security and liberty didn’t start with the Internet, and that the debate may not be as Manichaean as it seems. In “The Internet Police,” we see, time and again, how those who wish to remake a free society in cyberspace end up needing order, too — and how those in power have begun to reconcile themselves to the turmoil. His best example is Tor, a network of routers designed to resist detection by almost anyone. The United States Navy helped create Tor to keep its own secret communications from being detected — but it also made it available to citizens of oppressive regimes trying to communicate and rise up against their governments. Criminals, however, can also take advantage of the networks — a reality the state seems strangely at peace with.
“Life is a messy business on the Internet,” Anderson writes, “and we’re never going to engineer the mess out of it.” He’s right. He’s also right when he concludes that “the cost of total order is totalitarianism; the real challenge is making prudential judgments about how we weigh risks and rewards, costs and benefits, order and chaos.” In other words, let the watchmen watch. But watch the watchmen, too.