Law in the Internet Society

User Power

-- By DavidRatnoff - 24 Dec 2021 (rev. 9 Jan 2022)

Several truths emerged at the end of this course. We can’t expect government to stop watching us; we can’t expect industry to stop harvesting data (or in the self-indulgent term, “self-regulate”); and we can’t remain free in the status quo. Rigorous self-discipline in the use of anonymity tools can frustrate data collection efforts. But these individual efforts are not scalable, and they are subject to escalating monitoring efforts by intelligence agencies. So, what’s left?

Your Logic Is No Good Here

Logical solutions are failing us. Our impulse is to correct the institutions surrounding us, which fail to protect us and our ability to think for ourselves. We want to elect better leaders, advocate for better policy, and wage a (timid) resistance against monopoly power. But these impulses have amounted to nothing. Facebook and Google maintain their duopoly on digital advertising; Congress avoids Section 230 reform with a 10-foot pole (and thereby immunizes Big Tech’s use of collected data to discriminate in the provision of employment, housing, and financial services), and Zoom—with its impressive suite of surveillance tools––dominates the global video chat market.

Technical expertise is not the limiting factor. Throughout this course, we have encountered adequate, if not superior, alternatives to proprietary technology. LibreOffice? . Jitsi. Firefox. All of the computing capabilities to participate in contemporary society, but without a watchful gaze from above.

Usage statistics are mixed. LibreOffice enjoys 0.11% market share, compared with Microsoft Office’s 65.45%. Firefox’s user base has plummeted in recent years, leaving it with 3.45% of the desktop, mobile, and tablet browser market in 2021. Yet Debian and Ubuntu, free software operating systems, have captured nearly one-fifth of global web hosting. In one confirmed report, the Google Chrome store falsely warned users that downloading the Microsoft Edge browser was a security risk. The argument that people will see the inherent goodness of a product and adopt it is unsupported. Users are constantly bombarded by advertising and misinformation about their software “choices.” These sly methods give users permission to stay put, locked in an architecture of control. Why? Because it works.

Mudslinging even works for free software developers. Debian innocently invites prospective users to view a pro-con list appraising its adoption (under the section “I’m still not convinced.”). But the link leads to a page exclusively listing pro “Reasons to use Debian.” Not exactly the “honesty and frankness” Debian promised.

Beat Them at Their Own Game: A Thought Experiment

It is time to universalize the Debian approach of (gentle) misinformation. Why? Because nothing else is working and time is about to expire.

We know disinformation works.

Consider disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent scholarship found that consuming “scientific-sounding misinformation” distributed online was associated with a roughly six percent drop in willingness to take an available COVID vaccine. Notice, it was scientifically-sounding information that captured participants. Participants wanted to do what is right, but they were incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. Perhaps the trustworthy Wikipedia website aesthetic should be replicated by every free software developer.

Just as we know that vaccination remains the best defense against COVID deaths, we know that surveillance capitalism, restrictive licensing, and encryption-phobia are eroding freedom of thought. The obvious answer is to exit this system. But disinformation stands in the way.

Apple gave us a device ecosystem and assured us we would be safe inside its walled garden. But, hackers have proven capable of getting inside. And despite this vulnerability, Apple continues to dominate the personal computer and mobile phone markets. This mismatch is illogical, if you believe consumers value their security or privacy. But it makes sense when you understand the environment in which consumers “make choices.” In a world of misinformation, consumers believe that convenience and familiarity are the best they can get. Indeed, as the COVID misinformation study suggests, people will believe anything, true or false, if presented in an effective way.

So, let's prove a better way is possible. People don’t read, they don’t attend lectures, they don’t watch C-SPAN. They do scroll on their devices, unendingly. Why not deploy bots to generate organic content criticizing tech company practices? Or even to generate disinformation? That tactic worked for Russian operatives seeking to suppress voter turnout in the 2016 U.S. election. Or perhaps we should design bots to share free software resources with the users on proprietary platforms, like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Search. These bot-generated-content-ads could contain scientific-sounding jargon about the dangers of proprietary software and include links to free software alternatives to the very products the audience is currently using. Why not replace infinite scroll technology with infinite pop-up technology. Click the X and another box appears. Whack-a-mole for free thought! This isn’t a hacker art project, but rather a possibility to reach a new future.

To borrow a theory from the world of policymaking, which itself is borrowed from biology, punctuated equilibrium theory holds that policy shifts only occur when issues are salient and widely discussed. A disinformation-style campaign about the dangers of the closed Internet might achieve the salience required to push users onto safer platforms. Let’s assume that success involves a meaningful choice between proprietary and free software. That means that free software should achieve 50% global market share. Debian and Ubuntu, at 20%, are far off. It is time to pick up the pace. The next generation of users will be unable to query if another Internet is possible. We have that luxury and that obligation.

This thought experiment directs us to the heart of the solution: we can “honestly and frankly” manipulate user behavior for change.

Okay, but you haven't said what you consider to be the optimal market share for free software, or even for the particular tools you think we should measure, because you have measurements. If you consider the important point to be making the information about how to compute with instead of against freedom durable, so that the choices will always be available, you might want to ask, seriously, whether we haven't already achieved that. Understanding the depth and breadth of the free software ecology, and the quite different prevalence numbers you would find if you were to ask what technically-oriented young people (in their tens of millions on Earth, know about and use) might change your estimation of what is not working. Perhaps you should ask about Ubuntu and Debian and everything that arises towards and descends from them. That woiuld be at any rate one good place to start.

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r3 - 10 Jan 2022 - 04:01:42 - DavidRatnoff
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