Law in the Internet Society

The Limits of Freedom

In the course, Professor Moglen has placed an especial emphasis on the idea of freedom in the internet society. This involves the freedom to remain anonymous, and once, when the professor was questioned in class about the implication this had for child pornography, he said that this was a drawback of freedom, but that in the final count, freedom had to prevail and this was just part of the price for it.

I would like to question in my essay the value of this notion of absolute freedom on the internet that results from online anonymity. This anonymity creates a mask behind which people can hide, and thereby absolve themselves of wrongs committed. In other words, anonymity removes an external check--shame--to a person's bad behavior, thereby freeing him to do things he would not normally do in real life. At the very least, anonymity, ceteris paribus, raises the likelihood of crimes being committed, such as identity theft, fraud, various kinds of harassment (cyberstalking, cyberbullying, hate crime, threat, intimidation), and child pornography. Now, the counterbalance to (individual) freedom most commonly cited is (communal + individual) security, and this check on freedom might be said to become all the more relevant in a dimension where other forms of opposing forces are done away with. Security is especially pertinent in such a case because it is a prerequisite of freedom to start with. Otherwise, who would care about freedom when his basic sense of security is not met in the first place? Thus, perhaps it would be more prudent and realistic to think in terms of freedom and security being complementary and co-existent instead of mutually antagonistic and exclusive.

In the first place, not everyone loves shame. Shame is an intensely destructive emotion; social control through shame is an intense and disgraceful kind of oppression, for those of us who don't come from or live inside shame cultures, where of course it is normal, and everything is fine.

Hence the difficulty in discussing anonymity across culture boundaries. Anonymity, which is a right in cultures of individualism, is anathema to shame cultures.

But as a single extraskeletal nervous system begins to embrace all humanity, which will happen over the next generation, these dichotomies are going to be resolved, one way or another. A form of neural competition is developing in the Net, as individuals in control of nodes seek to potentiate the freedom of other nodes in order to preserve or impose one or the other behavioral schema on the Net. Merely restating one side's position, based on its arbitrary pre-existing cultural starting points, has little effect, even in amplifying that signal in the Net. You don't change the minds of the people determined to destroy shame control by enabling anonymity in order to preserve freedom from surveillance and prediction. They understand just as clearly as you do, but differently, what you disagree about and why.

So supposed balancing of harms and benefits will never constitute an argument. It's just an arbitrary quantification of the same divisions over axioms. Calculations about second- and third-order effects are irrelevant in the presence of fundamental disagreements.

Furthermore, I would like to question the fundamental premise that online freedom is or should be a given thing. Freedoms granted online are not a kind of inalienable right universal to all mankind.

There's no difference between "online" and "offline." If people have fundamental inalienable rights, they have them whether they are using the Net or not. In less than another generation, everything we do will be using the Net: the Net will be connecting humankind in a super-organism, and we will exist as much within it as ants exist within a hill. The question whether we will be free in that society, or will live under all-but-ineradicable despotism, is the question you are blithely dismissing without so much as an argument.

I am aware that there are some countries where access to the internet is a right, but this is hardly the same thing as making online freedoms a right, much less an universally inalienable right. Rather, I would like to consider the notion that duty is a counterpart to freedom, and that duty should be part of a larger picture consisting of education regarding the uses of the internet. Insofar as we may analogize democracy to freedom (after all they are not concepts that are completely divorced from each other), we can see from history that democracy without the prior education of the population has consistently led to disaster--it was like that in Europe, and so it was the case as well in many Asian countries. Former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, in a speech that he gave, pointed out that from his experiences and observations during his lifetime, democracy has more often than not been associated with regression.

Yes. And a purer bunch of shit was never spoken. Am I to conclude on the value of human freedom according to the personal experience of a successful despot dying peaceably in his labyrinth? Might as well take my lessons in history from Tiberius rather than Tacitus, or Cesare Borgia rather than Machiavelli.

He cites the example of Sri Lanka, which, during his student days, was often touted as having all the preconditions for a functioning democracy--and yet, when it came to the crunch, it still failed the democratic experiment. My point in raising this analogy is not to go against the idea of freedom (or democracy for that matter), but rather to qualify an unbridled form of it with education.

"Unbridled" is literally a word we use about animals.

I'm not going to dignify that monster Lee Kuan Yew with a response, but I will point out to you, if you are interested in the subject, a largeish nearby democracy called India, governing—only more or less, but no doubt without failure at various crunch times (including experience in throwing off despotisms)—more than a sixth of the human race. Which, unfortunately has not achieved universal literacy. Though it has done so in the State of Kerala, consisting of 31 million extremely poor people, the second-poorest State in that very poor country. Keralites were governed, under a pure electoral democracy, by Communist governments for two generations. They achieved female educational equality and a literacy rate almost exactly equal to that of the United States. They have now been turned out of office and replaced by a conservative government, which is maintaining all the essential elements of social and education policy left behind by the departing Communist Party government.

These condescending anti-democratic opinions, in which the people are referred to in bestial terms, when expressed by some supercilious despot trying to take credit for human sociality, are self-serving obscenities; in other contexts they're just balderdash.

Democracy did not work at its optimum without education, and so, in my opinion, it shall be in the case of online freedom. Furthermore, this will change internet users from within, rather than focusing on external checks which will probably fail in the long run if we depend exclusively on them. It thereby serves as a complement to security regulation. Internet users thus have to realize first that online freedom is not an entitlement nor a birthright, nor should it be (in my opinion). Freedom as such is not something with an inherently positive value; rather, it is neutral good that can be channeled as well as mis-channeled, used as well as abused.

No, people don't have to realize this. They can (and no doubt will) continue struggling, as they have been struggling for more than a thousand years, for their inalienable right to freedom of thought. You can have a contrary opinion. Nobody among those fighting for freedom would want to stop you. But the justifications advanced are merely the old language, everywhere tediously familiar. It's been used as an excuse to murder us, torture us, silence us, centuries on end. Now, in the generation in which the nervous system of humanity is forged, we have the most profound opportunity to win, the most severe danger if we lose.

The way the Net works is shaped by the struggle as it is now going on. Your essay would benefit from actual contact with the arguments of the side you're not on.

However, the difficulty in this is that I also believe that the internet should be used as a tool for education through the propagation of information and knowledge. This is especially since the cost of this is reduced when and if we use the internet as a means or vehicle to advance education. Therein lies the paradox.

-- EugeneThong - 13 Jan 2013



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r4 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:50 - EbenMoglen
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