Law in the Internet Society

Free as in Semi-Free

-- By JohnJeffcott - 16 Jan 2012


Underlying our discussion of the benefits of anarchist methods of production and distribution for goods whose marginal cost is zero was the position that the Internet is an excellent environment for employing them, both because digital media is so easily replicated and distributed, and because the Internet is structured nonhierarchically. Acknowledging that this is perhaps the greatest strength of the Internet (it is) entails acknowledging that limiting freedom of interaction between user and computer and network undermines much of what has made the Internet so important to modern society.

Despite this, Apple’s market share is growing. When asked why they prefer Apple products--computing products in particular--it has been my experience (including in class) that two explanations are offered: they’re easy to use and more secure. Putting aside the role outside factors play (e.g. familiarity with the interface and the disincentivizing effect of a smaller user base on coders of malware), these explanations indicate that people are generally willing to trade some freedom for security and comfort. Our forefathers may have had some choice words for such a trade, but perhaps it is unavoidable. Rather than focus on how or why this trend should be reversed, this paper asks how best to preserve the freedoms attendant to computing and the Internet that have made technology such an incredible force, while taking into account a user environment that actively pushes itself toward greater regulation. Assuming this push is indeed inevitable, the benefit of anticipating it becomes apparent: It allows us to ask who should drive regulation and at what level those regulations should be applied. As it stands, technology manufacturers appear to hold most of the cards and are building in limitations at the product level, but it is not apparent that this is the only or even the best option available. This paper proposes (quite generally) that there are two levels at which to impose regulation and three types of users whose concerns should shape the process.

Levels at which to Regulate

Use limitations and various other regulations are at present commonly imposed at the end user (computer) level, but they might also be imposed at the network level.

Computer Level

One of the clearest advantages to imposing limitations at the computer level is that as long as their remains a market for them, “freer” alternatives will almost certainly continue to exist. Computer scientists and other technology enthusiasts will remain able to interact with an unrestricted internet using the software and hardware of their choice, while more casual users will operate within a “safer” environment constructed out of self-imposed regulations. Regulation at this level is not without potential problems, though. For one, due to the high ratio of casual users to computer programmers, it risks creating a sort of default user perspective, altering an Internet culture which has so far encouraged creativity and production at all levels of the user spectrum.

Network Level

Regulation at the network level presents the opposite challenge. It may risk crippling everyone’s use of the Internet, denying at least some freedom even to those who desire and would make productive, legitimate use of that freedom. Concededly, such would be a deprivation of liberty any freedom fighter worth her salt would probably oppose, but the network regulation course of action is not without its advantages. It may be that regulating at the network level would allow for a lighter touch to accomplish the ends sought, be they general security concerns or property rights matters. If your concern is with the overall vitality of the Internet, choosing a 1% limitation on all users over a 20% limitation on 90% of users might well be the wisest choice.


There are, let’s say, three categories of technology users: the power user, the hobbyist or curious novice, and the consumer. The first two categories are responsible for generating Internet content but present different problems for regulators, while the third consumes that content, creating value. All three are necessary for the internet to thrive, and so our goal should be to foster an environment in which each type of user has the freedoms necessary to fulfill her role.

The power user’s voice is quite clear: regulate as little as possible. Limitations imposed at the product level will probably do little harm as alternatives will necessarily present themselves. But serious computer programmers and the like are not the only users driving Internet content creation. The Internet, because of its enormous size and horizontal structure, is able to leverage the creative output of countless hobbyists and curious computer novices whose own individual needs or problems drive the creation of new inventions or solutions. While such users would like the power users be averse to network regulation that might hamper this creativity, limitations imposed at the product level present a significant issue for them. When closed computing platforms are the norm, curiosity and hobbyism are stifled to the degree that freer alternatives are obfuscated or otherwise marginalized in mainstream culture.

Consumers, on the other hand, are a force in the direction of regulation at either level. Their concerns are primarily related to security and ease of use, but whether they realize it or not, they should also be concerned with maximizing the creative output of the first two categories of users in order that there be something to consume. Thus their voice, even though pro-regulation, is bound up in the desires of the creating class.

Personal Take

The most laudable course of action will almost always be to maximize freedom and provide the education necessary to utilize it responsibly. If, however, practical concerns necessitate that our interaction with technology and the Internet be regulated, it would be wise to explore the possibility of network-level regulations rather than accepting those imposed by hardware and software manufacturers. Following that road risks undercutting much of the Internet’s creative productivity by minimalizing the entrance of new hobbyists and curious computer users at possibly the same overall liberty cost as other options.



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r2 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:24 - IanSullivan
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