Code Is Speech: Amir Taaki on Crypto’s Debt to Phil Zimmerman

by Admin
6 minutes
Code Is Speech: Amir Taaki on Crypto’s Debt to Phil Zimmerman

Currently, he's establishing an academy in Barcelona to coach hackers to figure on revolutionary technology projects.

I recently had the respect of meeting Phil Zimmermann, the creator of PGP, the world’s first freely available encryption software for the masses.

The development of PGP (which stood for “pretty good privacy”) was a socio-political cause when Zimmermann managed to defeat the us through a subversive mechanism and enshrine code as a sort of free speech.

As such, it’s a foundational tale for the cryptocurrency community, one well worth retelling from time to time.

During the late 1980s, round the fall of the Soviet Union , there was heavy activism within the nuclear disarmament movement. Zimmermann, a programmer , was deeply involved, even getting to prison at various points with Carl Sagan and Daniel Ellsberg. He became documented within the circles as a speaker and organizer.

As a believer in civil liberties, Zimermann felt that humans throughout history had shared secrets and made alliances with one another to arrange politically. That we always had the expectation of a personal communication with another person and no third party involved. And he wanted to increase this freedom to any two people communicating across the world .

His concept of free speech was an immediate consequence of his experience in organizing activists. PGP was specifically developed for anti-nuclear weapons activists. He took out six mortgages over a multi-year period to finance his venture, and he became skilled at making excuses to his banks. Yet he managed to tug through and PGP was born.

At the time, strong encryption software was classified by the U.S. government as military munitions that would not be exported from the country. Yes, cryptography was within the same category as missiles, fighter jets and advanced weaponry. It took an idealist like Zimmermann to possess the courage to defy this law due to the conviction that privacy of speech through cryptography was a fundamental right .

The U.S. government opened a criminal investigation against Zimmermann. Phil told us that despite it on reflection being good for his career, at the time he was during a very stressful dark place and for several years he was working desperately with a team of lawyers to seek out avenues to stay himself out of prison.

Legal checkmate

It was at a conference when Zimmermann was approached by an enormous U.S. publisher, the MIT Press, who asked him to publish a user’s guide to PGP. He immediately responded, “Yes, but i would like you to also publish a second book.”

Why? Zimmermann had heard about another case where Phil Karn had applied to the U.S. State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls for a license to export Bruce Schnier’s book Applied Cryptography. This book includes many code samples for cryptographic algorithms with explanations and may be a standard text within the field.

The regulator was puzzled why a book was being applied for a commodity exports license and replied back that there's no restriction on exporting books within the U.S. They didn’t even consider the contents of the book, as long as books are protected under the primary Amendment right to free speech in U.S. Constitution.

Then Karn did something curious. He sent an equivalent regulator a diskette with files including an equivalent code inside the book. They promptly rejected it, since it contained cryptographic technology and was restricted by the munitions export list. Karn took the govt to court and eventually won.

With that case in mind, Zimmermann told MIT Press that he wanted to publish a second book with the code for PGP. They accepted.

And this book contained everything you would like for the PGP software package, the ASCII text file , the make files, all the config files… everything.

Then they repeated an equivalent process Karn had wiped out applying for an export license. the govt quickly realized it had been trapped. If they said no, the govt would be not be ready to regulate cryptography. If they said yes and accepted his export of the book, then Zimmermann would win his case.

Zimmermann and his team excitedly waited for a solution . He had caught them during a clever legal bind. They never responded, and really soon dropped the case against him.


Later PGP and other cryptography products began to become big, and now play a fundamental role in our industry. Zimmermann went on to figure on several other important cryptography related projects, steering and advising many standards including development of ZRTP which is a crucial widely used voice encryption system for messaging applications on mobile and desktop.

But it had been his act of courage that led to the liberation of crypto from the control of the U.S. government into the hands of idealist hacker programmers, and more generally into securing our lives on the web .

In 1992, the year after PGP was born, we saw the Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto calling for using this new power of cryptography to liberate humanity from the yoke of the state and central banks. Then in 1993, we saw the Cypherpunk Manifesto which laid down the philosophy for a movement which created many new ideas around digital currency and ultimately birthed bitcoin.

It was incredible to listen to the story of a pivotal moment in computing history from the person himself. I’m sure I even have n’t done it full justice in my retelling but I hope I have captured the overall importance of PGP within the heritage of the free technology movement.