[TheStandard] Avi Rubin: Publius' Public Crusade

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From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Wed Sep 13 2000 - 18:29:23 PDT

 From the "is it a dessert topping or a floorwax?" department:


September 13, 2000

Avi Rubin: Publius' Public Crusade

The developer of one of the most talked about Web publishing tools has seen
the program's future, and it is political.
By Jenn Shreve

Avi Rubin started small. The man who conceived of Publius, an anonymous Web
publishing program with wide-ranging political and cultural implications,
was working as a principle researcher at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J.,
and as an adjunct professor in the computer science department at New York
University. With Publius, he simply wanted to create a companion for the
anonymous Web surfing program he'd created in 1997, Crowds.

But the tool he developed with NYU graduate student Marc Waldman and AT&T
colleague Lorrie Cranor may turn out to be much more. Publius' potential
uses are many: It could prove to be a useful tool in preventing denial of
service attacks, like those that shut down Yahoo and eBay earlier this
year. It could also be used as a corporate backup system. "Instead of
having your data stored on backup tape in a safe, which an earthquake or
fire could still destroy, it's stored all over the world on all these nodes
all over the Internet, and it's pretty much there forever, as long as a
certain number of people keep participating in the system," Rubin says.
Rubin's greatest hope is that Publius will become an instrument for free
speech, a tool that could, for example, enable dissidents living under
oppressive governments to speak out without fear of punishment.

Named after the then-anonymous authors of the Federalist Papers, Publius
encrypts and fragments documents, then randomly places the pieces, or keys,
onto the servers of volunteers in a variety of locations worldwide. The
volunteers have no way of knowing what information is being stored on their
server. Software users configure their browser to use a proxy, which will
bring the pieces of the document back together. Only a few keys out of many
possibilities are needed to reconstruct a document. Rubin says that even if
70 percent of the Web sites are shut down, the content is still accessible.
Only the publisher is able to remove or alter the information.

For Rubin, a self-described liberal, the free-speech aspirations are as
much political as they are personal. "I grew up with my grandparents
telling me stories about how they were beaten up in Russia and Poland
because they were Jewish," he says. "The Holocaust is definitely an example
where if there had been a lot more information available to the general
community about what was going on, then perhaps something could have been
done earlier to prevent it."

Of course, with freedom comes the potential for abuse. Critics, such as
attorney Bruce Taylor of the National Law Center for Children and Families,
have blasted Publius as a means for criminal activities. Child pornography
could be displayed brazenly. Copyrighted material could be republished
openly and anonymously. To prevent such uses, Rubin has limited the size of
files that can be posted to the site. "We were thinking this could make
abuse easier or harder, and we tried to make it harder. But it's very
difficult to provide a system that gives freedom of speech and expression
and only have it work for things you want to hear," he says.

Despite his desire to make Publius a populist instrument, Rubin is better
known for his behind-the-scenes work in security. Colleagues describe him
as "highly technical" and "incredibly thorough." The project Rubin is most
proud of is not Publius; it's a system called Absent that enables
authorized users to safely access firewall-protected corporate information
from any location. His book, published in 1997, bears the unprovocative and
modest title, "Web Security Sourcebook."

Rubin's assessment of his role is similarly modest. "It's our
responsibility as technologists not just to develop the technologies that
help us in our day-to-day life, but to develop technologies that help
protect the privacy of individuals. I don't think there's anything radical
about it. I just think it's part of the game."


FOSTER CITY, Calif. (Reuters) Internet infrastructure company Inktomi (INKT) Corp. (INKT) on Wednesday said it would buy FastForward Networks, a developer of technology that distributes and manages live online broadcasts, in a stock deal worth about $1.3 billion. The deal adds live broadcasting technology and management to Inktomi's suite of licensed products that provide online searches and manage Internet traffic. "Since its inception, Inktomi has been the company solving large, complex problems that have plagued the Internet, making it a more compelling and reliable medium for users worldwide," David Peterschmidt, Inktomi president and chief executive officer of Inktomi, said in a statement. "Today's move evolves this critical role." -- http://www.thestandard.com/article/display/0,1151,18460,00.html

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