Social Contract Theory And Onion Routing

This is an essay I wrote for a class. I’ve obviously very specific to that class – and it’s written like a class for a paper. It’s not a research paper, it’s not anything fun or legitimate, and you’ll probably be bored reading it because… why would you care what Socrates thinks about TOR?

Anyways, enjoy the paper. It’s actually edited for once.

TOR is a program funded by the US Navy and designed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in order to allow for near-perfect anonymity when accessing the internet. Since its inception the program has been adopted by developers around the world, and it’s free to be used by anyone.  By routing internet traffic through various ‘nodes’, which can be hosted by anyone with a computer, TOR prevents anyone from being able to tell where traffic is going to or coming from. There is, in fact, an entire ‘hidden network’ called ‘The Deep Web’, which can only be accessed by using TOR.

The implications of a program that can prevent any and all tracking are considerable. Users of TOR can access ‘hidden services’ on the network, which can provide highly illegal content: there are websites dedicated to selling drugs, hacking websites, and even sites where people offer to murder for money. Because the TOR system is set up so well, it is virtually impossible to track users accessing these services. Even governments with significant resources are unable to track users of the system–leaving criminals an open forum to discuss and propagate illegal activity.

One site that has garnered significant attention is Silk Road, a website that sells illegal drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine. Silk Road is only accessible through the TOR network, and all payments are made using an anonymous currency called ‘bitcoins’. Anyone can access the site via TOR and have a wide variety of illegal substances delivered to them, without any law enforcement agencies being able to track them through their transaction. The Silk Road is an example of clearly illegal activity happening in a fairly public forum with the state having virtually no power to stop it.

In contrast, TOR is also heavily used by activists in countries where speaking out against the government carries serious penalties, sometimes including death. Totalitarian countries such as Iran and China block users from accessing websites that question the government, and it’s a punishable offense to try to get around these bans. TOR has enabled citizens of these countries to bypass the censor and have free, unhindered access to information. Without fear of being tracked down, activists can report on their government’s corruption.

The network is highly controversial due to its clear applications for ethically questionable actions. The tool itself, as a method for individuals to bypass the laws set down by a sovereign entity, is interesting in the context of social contract theory. The question of whether rising up against one’s government in any way can be ethically justified has piqued the interest of philosophers as far back as Socrates. Socrates, Hobbes, and Rousseau would all have very interesting ideas about a technology such as TOR.

In its purest form the social contract is a mutual concession of rights in order to achieve a mutually beneficial system. We, as individuals, give up our animalistic and natural rights, such as the right to kill each other, in order to form a mutually beneficial society. The question of where our obligations lie in the system, and whether this system is objectively beneficial, is at the heart of the issue.

Socrates was one of the earliest philosophers to deal with these issues. In Apologia, Socrates is put on trial for his views – he is accused of, essentially, sacrilege. The details of the trial aside, Socrates is found guilty and sentenced to death. While waiting for his sentence to be carried out Socrates is visited by his friends and students, and they offer to break him out and hide him. Socrates responds by stating that he has no right to leave: although he feels that he is not guilty, he believes that he would not even be alive if not for the people accusing him; he is a product of the state, and therefore is justly at its mercy.

Socrates’ opinions on the relationship between citizens of a state and the state itself were so strong that he felt justified dying for them.  He believed that he would not have been alive had the state not provided a system for him to be born into;  he existed only because the state existed. For Socrates the only power above the state is God, and individuals are products of both.

But that is not to say that Socrates would not break the law; he compared himself to a ‘gadfly’, persistently buzzing around those whom he considered unjust. While he was willing to let the state kill him, he did not feel that he had done anything wrong.

Applying this to a modern context, where users of a product like TOR are bypassing government restrictions, it seems likely that Socrates would have been entirely supportive of the users–or at least of the users’ activism–but would feel that those who are caught should accept their punishment. Socrates would have no moral qualms about the tool itself, so long as users accepted the consequences of the tool.

Another philosopher who worked more directly with the concept of a social contract is Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes is credited as the creator of the social contract theory and is an influential writer on political philosophy. The question that Hobbes was trying to answer was whether our ethical obligations should be to society, our government, or to ourselves. He was writing during the English Civil War, and this was the question that many people wanted an answer to; they wanted to know if they should continue to follow the current political entity, the monarchy, or if instead they should revolt. This tenuous environment gave Hobbes a platform for his views–social contract theory, after all, was directly relevant to everyone’s life, and to the questions that everyone was asking.

Socrates and Hobbes had much in common when it came to their opinions on the state:  both considered it to be the sovereign entity that should have authority over citizens. Hobbes, however, would differ from Socrates in his opinions about circumventing government control; whereas Socrates would accept the state’s control, Hobbes would be against it.

Hobbes felt that a single person, when left to their own devices, would fall back to a natural state of chaos. This natural state would lead to death or significant unhappiness. Because of this, the social contract is formed, to move beyond the natural state. Humans relinquish some of  their individual rights in order to form a society. If one person or group of people begins to move against the societal rules, the laws handed down by the sovereign entity, then it undermines the system, and will lead to the primitive natural state. By circumventing the law, one is refusing to forfeit their rights, and the sovereign entity can not function properly. Hobbes described the state of nature as “bellum omnium contra omnes”, a Latin phrase meaning “the war of all against all”. He considered it to be the ultimate struggle, “a perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour”. In Hobbes’ Leviathan he makes his views explicit:

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. – Chapter XIII, Leviathan

It is clear that Hobbes believes that a sovereign power, above the individual, is necessary to keep the animalistic state of humanity in check.

As TOR is a tool created almost explicitly for the purpose of evading government restrictions and tracking, it is unlikely that Hobbes would have supported such a project. Most internet users forfeit rights just by opening their browsers–browsers track usage statistics, websites track user IP info, etc. All of this tracking is so that the websites can analyze that data, and mutually sacrifice some time in order for a beneficial service. Likewise, governments use the data to track criminals, thereby providing another service. By removing their ability to track, we rescind our sacrifice of rights and we ‘void’ our social contract. We fall back to an animalistic system, and this is evident in TOR’s usage – there are websites about murder, rape, drug use, and terabytes of disturbing content. The TOR network is truly an animalistic subnet within the confines of our greater network. There is no social contract because the community is built around individuals retaining their power, regardless of their socio-political or moral obligations – a free for all of unregulated rights.

Rousseau differs from both Socrates and Hobbes. A French philosopher of the 18th century, his work was influenced heavily by the enlightenment period. Rousseau took a very different view of the world, and of the social contract: where Socrates and Hobbes nearly worshiped the state, Rousseau felt that humanity had left its ‘noble self’ behind in its struggle for progress. For humanity to regain itself, and for societies to actually serve a beneficial purpose, there must be a strict form of democracy in which the people do not serve the state, but in fact form it directly.

Rousseau’s opinions on democracy were integral to his philosophical theories surrounding the social contract. Rousseau felt strongly that society had formed in such a way that a class system was inevitable–and, naturally, the people who were at the top were the ones deciding how things worked. It was because of this class system that Rousseau felt a pure democracy had to be the best form of government.  He did not advocate a return to the animal state, but he did believe that it was the role of the government to provide the same type of environment, one which provided freedom.

TOR is, among other things, a tool that allows citizens to be free. It allows for uninhibited communication, and access to information. Rousseau advocates a society in which all citizens directly make up the government, therefore it’s possible that he would appreciate the access to information that TOR provides – one that would bridge the issue of a direct democracy in a country as large as China or the US.  One of the largest issues with modern politics is an uninformed electorate; often, people are unable to get the information they need, relying on at most a few minutes of news from a specific channel with its own litany of biases. A program such as TOR would allow for full access to information, regardless of government consent; in a country like China, where information is often censored, it would allow for a more informed common citizen, and therefore would provide a society that is more conducive to Rousseau’s image of a pure democracy. The other implications of TOR, in its use, would not factor into Rousseau’s opinion of it, as they don’t directly mitigate or inhibit his view of the social contract.

The case of TOR reminds us that there is no item that is inherently good or evil. But the ethical implications of any technology will be considerable. For a program as complicated and controversial as TOR, there is no limit to the ethical questions that can be asked. But the program is most relevant to political philosophical theory, and social contract theory is key to answering the questions surrounding TOR. Looking at the past we can see how some of the most influential philosophers in the history of social contract theory would view a technology that emerged years after their deaths. Socrates, Hobbes, and Rousseau all attempted to answer similar questions–questions of loyalty and obligation, of individual and government rights–and a system like TOR would have given rise to significant discourse.


2 thoughts on “Social Contract Theory And Onion Routing

    • It’s just a free WordPress theme I picked a while back. I’ve been meaning to work on my own, so I can get some floating elements, but I haven’t had the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *