Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 14, 2013
Local freedom

I was reading about the death of Aaron Swartz, and started thinking about the philosophical concept of the internet as a place of unlimited freedom. I do appreciate the role that the internet can play in some cases to increase the freedom of people living under repressive or authoritarian regimes. But I don't think that unlimited freedom, on the internet or elsewhere, is actually such a good thing. Basically my freedom to swing my fists ends where your nose begins. Unlimited freedom results in anarchy, civilization stems from a social contract which limits everybody's freedom to account for the freedom of the next guy.

Apart from that there is a problem with freedom being "local", as in having more freedom on the internet than in real life. Because at the end of the day the internet is *part* of real life, and can't be completely separated from it. I would consider that many western societies have found a reasonable (albeit not perfect) compromise regarding what the freedom of everybody in real life is. If you are not free to do something, there is usually a good reason for it stemming from the harm your additional freedom could cause to others.

Thus if we create a local spot of more freedom somewhere on the internet, the people most attracted by that additional freedom will be those who had their freedom restricted somewhere. And if that restriction was one that a liberal western society considered to be reasonable, overcoming that restriction can have harmful results. You start out with an idealist concept of unlimited freedom in some spot of the internet, and you end up seeing that freedom used for child porn or hate speech.

I do hope that societies discussion of what freedom everybody can have without harming anybody else continues. I just don't think that local unlimited freedom on the internet is a good idea, because in practice it has too many downsides. If you believe your freedom to be unnecessarily restricted, the right way is political activism to change the laws that restrict you. Just breaking the laws on the internet and hoping that anonymity will protect you is not the way to go, and is likely to backfire at some point.

I think the final thoughts are a little too simplistic and uncompromising. The point about 'If you believe your freedom to be unnecessarily restricted, the right way is political activism to change the laws that restrict you.'

That is not always going to be appropriate.

Not everyone is the same. And for better or worse, navigating or making a home in the Internet involves a very different set of skills and preferences.

Freedoms a 'Netizen' (Internet denizen, or citizen if you prefer) might want to pursue there may not be appropriate for local change, simply due to the substantial number of people who would find themselves forced to be included in that ruling, but who do not have similar preferences or the access/inclination to that same Internet exposure.

And that group could be quite large. Take the stark difference between the closest you'll get to Internet cultural norms, versus an Islamic state, with religion as law. What are the chances of any netizens enacting a change in their freedoms to align to those on offer in the Internet? And why should they? Where CAN the Islamic people go to embrace their own peferred restrictions on freedoms without that Internet influence eroding it?

It's so uncompromising. 'You like freedoms? Change the law locally or do without.' Where's the in-between? A place of compromises, of non-physical neutrality? A place like the Internet?

If there is a way of separating the two worlds, why wouldn't we? The greatest strength of cyberspace has always been the ability to dip into the collective pool of experience or knowledge to access any element that might otherwise be restricted to you by the very substantial barrier that is geography, family, or any other coincidence of birth.

At present, the world does what I think it should - allow the individual nations with their own specific, unique restrictions on freedoms to determine, locally, how that wild, lawless zone affects the people living outside of it. Local impact having local enforcement. We see this with threats, theft, defamation... It's not a perfect system. The Chinese, for example, believe that even the ethereal freedom of speech is too great an impact on their local system. And while it could be argued that 'a safe haven of non-physicality' allows for the child-porn haven, I think that that discounts another important facet of societies as a whole.

The Internet, in its uniqueness, has one. A society, that is. It's different. It's chaotic. But it's there. And much like the population of a nation puts the enforcement of its mores into one body, such as the police, the Internet has its vigilantes as well . The Internet has its own mores, and pursues those who violate them badly enough - making good use of the links to local restrictions of freedom.

Allowing the collective of nations to better enforce their own opinions of restriction of freedoms on what is arguably a different society in its own right, is hardly ideal if the Internet seeks to preserve its own identity and serve as a semi-detached haven for those whose barriers to personal freedom are greater than, say... a modem and data plan.
Oh, and cutting through the meta: Of course, this is about stealing. And the problem with framing the debate around something pretty clear-cut, (maybe to you and me) like stealing, and taking it to higher, broader concepts is that the broader philosophy in favour of freedom is probably the 'fairer' one. You wanna watch Family Guy, but it's banned in your country, that's what the Internet is for. You wanna steal someone's intellectual property? Maybe not so much. Which one of these will you be able to lobby to get laws changed around? I get the idea that the severity of freedom-restriction is probably directly linked to the disinclination to change those freedoms.

The other issue you get is when these things produced locally, with local impact for theft, have been produced specifically for an Internet market. It's like a shipwright whose family has spent centuries making really good boats... who then decides that with all this air-travel business, he should move his product into the air, by strapping balloons to it. Then wonders why he isn't experiencing any success.

Air-travel and Internet distribution alike come with their own unique environmental hazards, which need to be engineered to.

And we're seeing that. DRM, licence/ID-bound social enhancements/multiplayer, in-app purchases, payment for the benefits of a specific distribution method (eg: Steam - who buys things on Steam that they could feasibly pirate purely because steam makes it faster, easier, and more reliable?)... The industry is finding ways to monetize something which can easily be accessed without paying.

It's like your post last week about DRM and locks. You'd get laughed at by your insurance company and dismissed by the courts if you left your house completely unlocked then got robbed, but that's what authors of intellectual property are doing in having their product able to float around in the ether without being tied to monetization of some sort. So why aren't the courts dismissing the authors who have their IP 'stolen' because it was, effectively, wide open and vulnerable as an unlocked house?

The Swartz case is obviously an extreme one. That was a LOT of IP. But getting all hung up on litigation is a problem. People who keep clinging to that as a way of protecting their goods are like the shipwright tying balloons to their boats, avoiding evolution to the environment they want to break into.
(Oops, left a bit of my analogy out. Jailing internet thieves is like killing the birds who keep popping the shipwright's balloons, wrecking his air-boats.)
Oh, and cutting through the meta: Of course, this is about stealing.

No, it isn't. I'm actually able to hold more than one thought in my brain. :) One of the stories that came to mind, since Aaron Swartz was involved in Reddit, was about that Violentacrez outing story a few months back. Even the people who thought that unlimited internet freedom should cover Jailbait photos curiously weren't convinced that this freedom should also include lifting the anonymity of a Reddit moderator.

Having said that, it is interesting that when discussing abuse of internet freedom you THINK this is all about piracy. There is a German saying, "Der getroffene Hund bellt", literally saying if you throw a stone blindly into a group of dogs, the dog who got hit will bark; meaning that if you make a broad remark, the person who "barks" is usually the one who felt "hit" by it.
I disagree with many of the premises you present.

The internet does not create a safe haven for child porn. To create child porn, you need children: either physical access, or the child needs a webcam. Child porn is illegal because making it harms the child and, like polygamy, the practice and the sharing are banned to stem the tide of the offences. I don't think it just to lock someone up because they have some pictures or videos of someone fifty degrees of separation away. The people making it are the problem, not the people watching it.

Our "liberal western societies" do not support the phrase "my freedom to swing my arm ends at your nose" (or variants). You are allowed to in self defence, and you are allowed to, by proxy, via state controlled police. As defending your property can trigger the self defence clause, so too must state seizure (via kidnapping/arrest or taxation/theft) trigger this. Instead, if the state does it, it's okay. Don't worry, everyone else agreed to it. Just lobby for law changes because you don't like it, rather than abstaining from the immoral and unjust practices.

And I don't think it is right to limit one persons freedoms because of the harm that freedom could cause to others. I don't see a difference between that and thought crime. If we are to use state-sanctioned force to punish people for their actions, let's at least ensure there is harm caused first. At least then we can talk about whether there should be a punishment.

Lastly is that absurd "social contract" business. If it's a social contract, enforce it socially by avoiding interactions with the person, and encouraging others to do the same. If it's more than that, if it's a real contract, then go ahead with real enforcement. But I sure didn't sign anything, so please keep your guns out of my face.

We've been given the historical narrative of progression to greater freedoms for all. Moving from autocratic rule all the way over to democratic rule. These are all enforced through the threat of physical violence by the rulers on anyone who disagrees. The next logical step is to change from "everyone votes" to "everyone is their own leader". That would be the next level of freedom, of emancipating the masses. And that, to be without rulers, would be Anarchy.

If we all think there should be public roads, and public libraries, and public whatevers, then ask for my money. If you use guns to take it from me then you show that you don't actually respect my opinion and my freedom, and are willing to swing your arm to hit my nose, just because everyone says you "deserve" your park. Pfft.

And whether you support anarchy or democracy, both require a huge degree of accountability. An open and free internet has that in spades, and any attack on that should be treated with the highest level of skepticism.
Right. When a man has a hammer, all he sees are nails... The piracy story's got the most traction in the gaming blogs I read, so I missed the one you linked. (I don't do Reddit.) But other than IP and child-porn (which I would suggest is actually easier to cover since it's facilitating a local crime), what other major instances of freedoms being impinged are there? You did mention early on a caveat for oppressive regimes, so that's out. Bullying/trolling, maybe? Defamation?

Defensiveness aside, I got to thinking a bit about the whole issue of pursuit of justice, and the inefficiency/irresponsibility of it.

Like... let's ride this air-boat-balloon analogy a little longer. There are a LOT of birds and pirates out there. Killing those birds will definitely stop that individual bird, and maybe its immediately, close social circle from popping air-boat balloons, but it won't stop the phenomenon.

Just like there are quite likely (at least) tens of millions of folks pirating out there. Swatting each one down with laws designed around local protection seems horribly inefficient. I mean... the money that is spent on every prosecution is pretty extreme. Much more than the individual value of what is stolen, for your average book/game/movie/music album. Hell, probably two hours of the prosecutor's time is worth more.

The various industries fighting piracy don't help themselves by spouting ridiculous hyperbole, claiming trillions of dollars of hypothetical losses in a bid to convince lawmakers to spend even more public money on fighting what is, effectively, an endless swarm of balloon-popping birds. I think it's why we don't see more piracy-prosecution cases, and why the ones we do see are basically an attempt to recover millions from one person.

If law enforcement and the judicial system really cared to, they could throw trillions of dollars into hiring prosectors and net-cops to catch and jail (jail - because who can pay the millions in damages being claimed?) the teeming mass of internet pirates, but that's utter madness and I don't see most justice systems aren't doing it. There are more immediate, higher impact local crimes to take care of.

It seems to be enough that the obvious, egregious, low-hanging fruit can get tagged for making an example, sure. But I think the lack of prosecution is probably the most sensible, subtle way of the courts telling these digital shipwrights to find a different way of getting their product in the air.
The internet has accountability? I don't think so! It has anonymity, and the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory that goes with it.

I would very much be in favor of accountability on the internet, where law enforcement could always gets access to real names of everybody. I don't think that is what you had in mind.
Just like there are quite likely (at least) tens of millions of folks pirating out there. Swatting each one down with laws designed around local protection seems horribly inefficient.

I totally agree. This is why this is a far more abstract and theoretical discussion: Should the freedom of the internet be absolute?

Because if you argue that the freedom should be absolute, and thus enable you to copy whatever digital game, song, or movie you want, then how about the freedom of the copyright holder to hunt you down and sue you? How about the freedom of the hacker sending your incriminating Facebook photos to your boss? How about the freedom of the Mittani to ask for help via the internet to drive a mentally unstable guy to suicide?

If there is ANYTHING you think shouldn't be done on the internet, then the freedom isn't unlimited. I suspect that many of the internet freedom activists only want their freedom against others, but wouldn't want others to have complete freedom to act against them in return.
I totally agree. This is why this is a far more abstract and theoretical discussion: Should the freedom of the internet be absolute?

Again with the absolutes! If I didn't know better, I'd say that avatar in your icon was wearing Sith robes, not the browns of a Jedi!

Why go to either extreme? Every law enforcement agent able to find any and all net-users, to enforce their own local version of the law, for how they behave in a non-local environment? Not good. Complete freedom for hackers to defame/sabotage your online identity? Also not good.

The balance is where it's at. Enough anonymity to preserve the unique ecology and some of its amazing products, along with some of its less savoury ones. The local laws don't go away just because they can be avoided more easily in that space. While he swings a little further to the extreme than I like, I believe the 'accountability' Lightsagazi was referring to isn't accountability as you're thinking of it. Legal accountability? That's the accountability of the local society. But from what I've occasionally seen of 4chan or Anonymous or whatever hunting down and providing the contact details and evidence of pedophiles, I'd suggest that this nebulous, fluid society has a certain interpretation of accountability on its own terms. One which doesn't shy away from making use of local laws.

These societies don't exist in a vacuum, nor should they. The interplay is important, as is maintaining their discrete and separate identities and characteristics. I think if we were to try to turn the Internet into simply an electronic version of our current nations, we'd be poorer for it.
The internet has accountability? I don't think so!

Once anything is attached to your name, or your businesses name, it is nigh impossible to scrub it from the internet.

While yes, people have less accountability while acting anonymously, that all gets blown away by a single chat log or getting doxed, and the accountability can be quite retroactive. If anything, we're so trusting of these that you can ruin someone's life just by accusing them of doing something (see Aaron Swartz).

Unless you are comparing someone calling you names on XBL to, you know, actual crime.

Is that your only response?
You are a bit squishy on free speech. Europeans often are.

Hate speech, aside from being a rather broad term for speech that mainstream society finds abhorrent, doesn't mean much. Being able to engage in 'hate speech' without fear of jail is the definition of free speech. Nobody has ever needed free speech to talk about how awesome the people in authority are, or talk about how awesome the things that most people like are. The difference between hate speech and child porn is of course that minors are being abused to produce it. But as it stands the police seem to be doing a pretty decent job tracking these people down. Given that the internet as it stands is doing a hell of a number of the legal porn industry, leaving things as they are might actually be the worst thing you could do to child pornographers. If you could flatten the profit to be made through piracy and such while maintaining the high risk of going to jail forever, that might really cut into child porn production. Just a thought.

I'm perfectly fine with the internet allowing hate speech (not child porn) When someone crosses the line into criminality by bullying someone, it's usually easy enough to catch them with the abilities the police now have (if they choose to use them). Child porn rings are getting busted all the time, because with active investigation they are pretty easy to deal with, even with a thin layer of anonymity. The existence of trolls and other assorted trash using anonymity to annoy is a side effect that must be endured.

As anybody who has been stalked or bullied in the real world can tell you, the problem is more getting the police to care before something awful happens, not identifying the bully.

You are a bit squishy on free speech. Europeans often are.

The ability to anything you want on the internet is not "free speech". Some of it isn't speech at all. Some of it is the kind of speech that isn't even allowed in the "land of the free".

What I object to is that on the one side we create a democratic society with a well-defined and constitutionally verified set of laws, and on the other side we create a space where these laws don't apply. I don't think anything which isn't allowed outside the internet should suddenly be allowed on the internet, just because a few people think that the internet is a separate universe. It isn't!
As you say, someone 's freedom stop where other's begins. Unlimited freedom is stupid. It is the law of the more powerfull, and I know who will win - those who have more money. Unlimited freedom is also the right for Google, Facebook and others to stop provide you service because they disagree with your opinion/sex/race/religion/piracy etc...
I totally agree : internet has the same rule as real life, because internet *is* real life ! But there is one problem : the rules are not the same everywhere. And Internet is the same everywhere.
This is a real problem : how to define glocal laws (global and local) ? We want democratic laws (chosen by everyone) but are we ready to accept others countrie's laws ?
I find the issue of internet accountability always gets me thinking about jurisdictional issues. In the UK we've had citizens extradited to the US to face trials for breaches of American internet law. And it seems to be a one-way street, it's unthinkable that an American citizen would face extradition to Iran for some contravention of their legal system.

But for how long will that last?

It is, as far as I know, a convention, a traditional area of US supremacy with no actual basis in international law. What if people either stop agreeing to extradite their citizens or start demanding US internet users be flown out to stand trial.

It all seems an absolute house of cards to me.
I don't think anything which isn't allowed outside the internet should suddenly be allowed on the internet, just because a few people think that the internet is a separate universe. It isn't!

And yet it IS a separate universe. Who owns the internet? Under whose laws does it operate? We can say "mainly US law," and yet Pirate Bay continues to stay online. How is that possible? Between darknets being a click away and a potential future when we start seeing space-based servers, who determines the jurisdiction?

As for your more general argument, "what democratic countries agree on" remains nebulous at best. You aren't allowed to show nipples on American broadcast television (wardrobe malfunctions aside), and yet you see all sorts on Latin American and European television. You can't say certain things about Hitler in Germany, but we have a whole television network in the US that routinely compares him to our current president. Japanese porn cannot contain un-pixelated genitals but that obviously doesn't apply elsewhere. Who does Kashmir belong to? And so on.

I do not much care about the concept of unlimited freedom; like you, I believe in the Social Contract and accept Rule By Consensus. At the same time, I also believe that we have reached a threshold at which traditional thinking is no longer applicable. We live in an age with easily-accessed, infinitely reproducible digital goods... and we're still treating them like scarce physical objects. Artists (like anyone) should be paid for their work, but no one is entitled to their own archaic payment models. We live in a world where it's illegal to download a song, but legal to listen to it on Youtube, for free. What is the difference?

If content creators were intelligent, they would realize that aggregators like Netflix and Pandora (etc) are the future. I could go rent the latest movie for free from the library, but I'm willing to pay $7.99/month to have it piped to my TV. In a few generations, no one is going to want to own something because what's the point?
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