Law in the Internet Society

Essay One Draft One: Moral Licensing and the Perpetuation of Harm

-- By LaurenBaron - 22 Oct 2021

About three weeks into this course, I was using the Safari app on my iPhone to look up the meaning of a word. My connection was fickle, so I went to my computer, typing the word into the same google search bar, but in Firefox. It struck me, then, that Safari is one of Apple’s data-gathering hounds and that I should probably use the same browser on my phone and computer anyway. I did what I believed was a responsible step: I looked up, on Google, the “best browser for preventing data collection,” and clicked the first non-ad article that came up: “Stop Trackers Dead: The Best Private Browsers for 2021” by Armed with no evidence of legitimacy other than the fact that Google did not mark it as an ad, I was satisfied with this sufficiently reputable source. A cursory skim yielded the result I hoped for: Firefox was listed as one of the best browsers. I installed it on my phone and made it the default browser, unable to delete the Safari app, and went to bed satisfied with this step toward a better relationship with the Internet.

I assume that reading this makes your skin crawl, and rightfully so. An uninformed choice about which proprietary browser to use

Firefox is not a proprietary browser. It's free software, released under the Mozilla Public License, so everyone can read its source code and distribute modified versions (which for trademark reasons, they can't call "Firefox." Your reliance on PC Magazine to tell you about browsers may be as questionable as you say below, but you would have reached the same conclusion on a sound basis if you had asked "Which major browsers are not made and distributed by ad-tech companies?" Google, Apple and Microsoft make the other major browsers, and your analysis in replacing Safari was right on that basis, as you saw.

You might have found Brave, the pro-privacy free software browser made by Brandon Eich, who worked on Firefox from the beginning and who left leadership at Mozilla after his colleagues there learned he had contributed to anti-gay marriage causes in California, which resulted in his social ostracism. But I'm not surprised that PC Magazine didn't direct you to it. I too use Firefox everywhere, for what that's worth.

for the rest of my bad internet habits is, at best, a bare minimum positive change. While I have had a hard time swallowing the magnitude of some of the concepts you’ve articulated in class, I am no skeptic. I believe that most of what you are preaching is right, and I understand that it has utmost importance when it comes to promoting freedom of thought. I see my peers do things like this all the time, whether it’s “quitting Facebook” while staying on Facebook-owned Instagram or installing ad-block software but allowing location services on every application. The question I entertain in this “shitty first draft” is whether this sort of change is better than no change, and why I bothered to download Firefox despite knowing it was not enough to make any difference. I believe that this attitude exemplifies how small, virtually meaningless changes toward promoting data security are detrimental to the actualization of freedom of thought for all people because they morally license people like me to avoid taking impactful steps toward positive change.

For what it's worth, I don't think so. That's because I don't believe in utopian politics, where we transform everything at once into our ideal. The purpose of my "Die Gendanken Sind Frei" was directly to address this feeling you are having. Incremental change based on proof of concept, running code, sharing our incremental improvements, learning our way forward one individual step at a time, is actually—in my theory of revolution—more important to the cause of freedom of thought than the idealization of wholesale perfectionist transformation, which has led to violent failure so many times over the past half millennium. Freedom begins by knowing that another future is possible, which you now do. Freedom of thought consists of the ability to learn, together, more about how to advance step by step on the future we want. The browser today, self-hosted services tomorrow, and the day after agitation to make sure that everyone can share all the benefits of everything we do, because everyone knows how to learn from everyone else.

Because small departures from the dominant data collection paradigm are performed by people who know their habits perpetuate that paradigm, they evidence the idea that people making these inconsequential changes know that larger shifts would be better. I believe that, aside from sheer inertia, we do not make these changes for two reasons: because small changes make us feel like we are “doing our part” already, and because (as you have mentioned) the system of information suppression threatening freedom of thought has reached a critical point such that even people with the means to learn how to make impactful changes do not understand how to use those means. In personal terms, I know that I am not doing enough, but other than taking this class, I do not know how to acquire reliable information about what I can do to fight the tyranny of capitalist data collection.

So it's about time I started teaching about that, instead of "preaching" about the problem. Two weeks left, and we'll see where we get......

This is because I get all my non-class information about how to do virtually anything through the Internet, through Google algorithms, through my Macbook, and through eyes which learned to use computers after the proliferation of these technologies.

This is not, by any means, a fresh perspective. I am sure you are reading this thinking that it’s precisely what you predicted thirty years ago. The fact that you describe this problem so clearly is part of what has led me to trust you even when you say things that threaten my comfortable ignorance. Returning to my original question, then: If we know there is a better way, why do we make small changes instead of large ones? First, as described above, we don’t understand what large changes look like, but we assume they would be drastic and are afraid to make them without understanding. Second, we hesitate to gain understanding even through the few reputable sources that we have because our identities feel intrinsically linked to our online presence. So, we download Firefox or take a no-phone day because it gives us a semblance of control, making us feel like we did something other than wriggle deeper into a comfortable bed of perpetuation.

Maybe. Or maybe because that's what learning is actually like.

I don't think this is about whether people are doing enough. I think this is about whether people are learning as much as they want to learn, and whether the way they learn makes them want to learn more. The greatest of social forces is not our guilt about not doing enough; the greatest of social forces is the curiosity of children.

Planning and writing this essay drove this idea home for me, helping me realize that small, morally licensing changes might not be enough to satisfy my conscience. I looked at your comments on past essays last week and realized that I don't know enough about any of the topics past students tackled to write a justificatory essay about internet law in the middle east, how hardware affects comprehension, or what have you, and I don't know how to learn enough accurate information about those topics to develop a coherent perspective that stands up to your scrutiny. I do not believe that half-assing an academic argument about the digital landscape makes any sense, even though I am sure I would feel better handing in something that sounds more “legal” and professional than this. This has helped me understand that half-assing it in my digital life is even worse. Although it makes me feel better, like pretending to understand some legal topic and spewing something I don’t even believe would, it threatens all people’s access to free and accurate information instead of something so inconsequential as my grade because it allows me to sleep well at night without making any material changes during the day. In other words, I am no longer okay with this, and I think I am ready to open my mind to these changes even if it threatens my identity. If changing my self is truly necessary, which it might not be, it could be worth it to become somebody working toward a freer world.

The purpose of scrutiny is not to show that students' knowledge doesn't live up. The basic pedagogical principle is that in order to help people learn you have to meet them where they are. You are perfectly reasonably asking school to teach you "how to learn enough ... to develop a coherent perspective." That you don't yet know is not a mark against you. I agree that "half-assing" has become much more common in the world of the epidemic, when Googling something and taking the first hit replaced going to the library and reading for an afternoon or two before starting to outline. As a teacher, I cannot solve that problem all by myself. Change is in that sense necessary. But changing yourself isn't always something the self doesn't want to do. Learning towards a freer world (at least for the learner) is often why.

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r2 - 29 Nov 2021 - 18:37:21 - EbenMoglen
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