Some people argue that the Internet is the equivalent of a supermarket where you never have to pay for anything. Others say that the costs of internet use go far beyond money. As with so many debates that focus on the ethics of information technology, both are perfectly valid points of view, and paradoxically some people believe both at the same time.
Either way, the Internet is stretching our definitions of the word free in new and unexpected ways.
A digital libertarian utopia
In many ways, the Internet is the libertarian ideal; peer-to-peer connectivity unchecked by political or geographical borders, free, open access to vast amounts of information and media and technologies developed to reject centralised authoritarian control like blockchain and open source software.
In 2006 the Piratpartiet (Pirate Party of Sweden) was launched by Rick Falkvinge after receiving an apathetic response from Swedish politicians to the idea of revising copyright law. Since then, Pirate Parties have been launched in countries all over the world, some as members of a loose union of parties known as Pirate Parties International. While they exist as distinct entities, most pirate parties embrace common policies (see right).
Defend the freedom of expression, communication, education; respect the privacy of citizens and civil rights in general.
Defend the free flow of ideas, knowledge and culture.
Support politically the reform of copyright and patent laws.
Have a commitment to work collaboratively, and participate with maximum transparency.
Do not accept or espouse discrimination of race, origin, beliefs and gender.
Do not support actions that involve violence.
Use free-source software, free hardware, DIY and open protocols whenever possible.
Politically defend a open, participative and collaborative construction of any public policy.
Solidarity economy, Economy for the Common Good and promote solidarity with other pirates.
Share whenever possible.
Members of the world’s Pirate Parties absolutely believe that access to the world’s knowledge ought to be free, and to a degree they may be right; the grip held over academic research by the major publishing houses certainly stifles discourse and locks down publically-funded research papers on their hugely expensive proprietary platforms.
Taking this as an example of what is wrong with the world and expanding it out to cover all forms of intellectual property puts them in much murkier moral territory, though; the overwhelming majority of creatives have always struggled to make a living from their creations, and wholesale media piracy of movies, books and music doesn’t help.
The rise of the crypto-anarchist
Beyond issues of piracy and intellectual property, the ubiquity of cheap, high-speed access and the distributed nature of the Internet has given groups that identify as “crypto-anarchists” new opportunities to pose entirely novel, never-before-asked questions to lawmakers.
Cody Wilson’s Defense Distributed, for example, gained (almost entirely negative) international press coverage in 2013 for publishing the schematics for a 3D-printable pistol called the Liberator, and for successfully 3D-printing lower receivers for AR-15 assault rifles. In answer to questions posed in the documentary below about gun control, Wilson’s response is, “There are people from all over the world downloading these files, and we say, good. We say you should have access to this. You simply should.”
These are issues that up until now have simply never existed, and leave lawmakers scrambling to respond. One of the first responses to Wilson’s new-found fame in 2013 was from the manufacturer of his 3D printer, Stratasys, who demanded the return of a printer he had leased, but he has since been issued with a Federal Firearms License that allows him to manufacture and deal in 3D printed weapons. As Wilson says in the video above about a similar group developing 3D-printed magazine clips, “You can’t ban a box and a spring.”
“You see these progressives talk all the time about the wrong side of history: “Somehow we’re going to get to some result, and it’s all going to be whole and good.” And we say no. Here’s an element of reversability, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s like the intelligence and transparency of evil itself. It can’t be ignored.”
– Cody Wilson, in VICE (2013).
For me personally, Second Amendment arguments are bizarre. The idea that an amendment to the constitution made at a time when there was a need for a citizen militia now speaks to some fundamental right for people to carry tools that may-not-kill-people-but-make-it-a-hell-of-a-lot-easier-for-you-to-kill-people makes exactly no sense to me, but then I’m an Englishman who has been fortunate to live in several different places around the world where gun crime isn’t a thing.
To see such ambivalence from Wilson in the face of the potential consequences of his actions – the proliferation of firearms in the hands of people who would use them to create their own Sandy Hooks or Columbines – is chilling, but he is right that the genie can’t simply be put back in the bottle.
Many of the ideas espoused by the Pirate Party and their ideological partners above are little more than an illusion. As Leonard (2014) says, “The same digital infrastructure that was supposed to enable freedom turns out to be remarkably effective at control as well. […] The instrument of our liberation turns out to be doing double-duty as the facilitator of a Panopticon.”
Over time, governments and corporations have built methods to control and monitor into the very fabric of the Internet. Hofmann (2010) says:
“[…] the Internet began as an object of libertarian dreams of social autonomy and creativity; but became subject to growing state control and surveillance, ultimately restricting individual privacy and social liberty to a much higher degree than any other democratic communication media.”
Some of these were discussed in last week’s post about governments viewing networks as tools for authority and control, but many of the most insidious approaches to control and monitoring aren’t initiated by governments at all, but are instead held by the private corporations who offer us tools so powerful that we can’t live without them – for free – with the only cost being our personal data.
As Facebook announced to great fanfare a couple of years ago, it was going to allow users to opt out of certain kinds of adverts. Unfortunately, as Leonard (2014) points out:
“Of course, the announcement about opting out was just a bait-and-switch designed to distract people from the fact that Facebook was actually vastly increasing the omniscience of its ongoing ad-targeting program. Even as it dangled the opt-out olive branch, Facebook also revealed that it would now start incorporating your entire browsing history, as well as information gathered by your smartphone apps, into its ad targeting database.”
He goes on to say that “the sharing economy, it turns out, is an integral part of the surveillance economy”. Whether you’re using the Internet to torrent a movie, post to an anti-government discussion forum or download the schematic for a gun, records are being generated by corporations and government agencies alike about your predilections, which may not seem like a problem today, but it’s entirely possible that it will become a problem in the future if someone decides to take notice.
And that’s the crunch point, right there – most of the time nobody does decide to notice. That’s why we choose not to care when told about a government spying on its own citizens – almost all the time, to almost all the people, they’re a benign observer. The problem with that is by the time the gaze fixes on you, you’re in no position to protect yourself – and that’s the true cost of free.
Hofmann (2010). The Libertarian Origins of Cybercrime: Unintended Side-Effects of a Political Utopia [Online], available from: http://www.lse.ac.uk/accounting/CARR/pdf/DPs/Disspaper62.pdf [Accessed October 28th, 2017].
Leonard (2014). Death of a libertarian fantasy: Why dreams of a digital utopia are rapidly fading away [Online], available from: https://www.salon.com/2014/06/15/death_of_a_libertarian_fantasy_why_dreams_of_a_digital_utopia_are_rapidly_fading_away/ [Accessed October 28th, 2017].
Pirate Parties International (2015). Building the Principles of PPI [Online], available from: http://wiki.pp-international.net/Building_the_principles_of_PPI [Accessed October 27th, 2017].
VICE (2013). 3D Printed Guns [documentary, online], available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DconsfGsXyA [Accessed October 26th, 2017].