Law in the Internet Society

The Why Question

-- By OrnaMadigan - 16 Jan 2023


Released in November 2008, Etherpad, an open-source online editor, promised “collaborative editing in really real time.” With just one click, users could start a document, share the URL, and have friends and collaborators join in minutes. Now, if you are anything like my millennial self you likely are doing a double take, asking yourself; “Did she mean to say Google Docs?” If that’s the case, you are not far off. Etherpad operates similarly to Google Docs but without third-party servers, eliminating concerns about data leaks and user information being sold by big tech giants. Etherpad is all of the positives, with none of the surveillance capital negatives. And yet, here I am writing this first draft in a Google Doc, leaving the question–why?

The Question

This “why?” is the exact question Professor Moglen enjoys lobbing to his computer-screen lit Law in the Internet Society class. On the day this question finally made it to my back row seat, specifically pertaining to my own use of Google Docs, I had nothing more to offer than the already passee quibble that there were no viable alternatives. Professor Moglen’s rebuttal, of course, was Etherpad. Typing the tech-y name into my browser and navigating through its homepage, I quickly realized my naivety. Before me was the perfect alternative, with all the functionality and tools of Google Docs sans data-soul-selling. Leaving class that day the uncanny feeling that I had not chosen Google Docs but in fact maybe Google Docs had picked me was unshakeable–had I already lost the ability to control my “future tense” (see Zuboff).

The Search

Prompted by this feeling in my free time I began to search for other Etherpad-like alternatives, with a specific eye to the social media platforms I frequented the most. In these meanderings I came across the app Moments, a "new social media" with a mission to “take down instagram,” dethrone money-hungry Mark Zuckerberg, and alleviating the “pressures” of current social media platforms. A centralized, privacy aware photo-sharing social platform, Moments allows users to create private photo albums or event-specific photo collections without the typical follower-following dynamics (only those one invites to see or add to or comment on a 'moment' will be able to). By eliminating the “influencers and reels bullshit” and worries about being “silently judged” the creators contend that the app creates a “safe space” for users to capture their favorite memories and interact with friends online. But pressure wasn’t the only thing top of mind for the creators. In a video to users the creator noted “the main difference between us and Instagram is that we will never switch up on privacy. We want to ensure everyone’s data is encrypted…because we never want to sacrifice privacy.” Integral to their app, unlike those I frequented such as Instagram, Tik Tok and the like, was ensuring that privacy was always a priority.

There it was social-media sans behavioral futures markets participation, and the answer to my question – yes, just like Etherpad it is possible.

A Return to the Why?

Once again, I found myself grappling with the same question. If Moments and Etherpad are possible then why do I continue to draft this essay in Google Docs while looking over to check my Instagram notifications, happily running on a server of which I have no control? Obvious excuses come to mind. Firstly, there is the inertia of habit and the clutch of addiction. Having joined Facebook in 2007 at the tender age of 11 the dopamine-fueled highs of social media have become a daily necessity. Breaking free from these ingrained habits of course demands effort, time and the daunting prospect of battling the pangs that accompanies any withdrawal. Secondly, there is the reality of how gargantuan of a task this presents. Zuboff herself calls surveillance capitalism an entirely new economic order. With a year and a half left of law school classes and final exams, the notion of dismantling an entirely new order induces a sense of change paralysis. Not to mention, the tech-speak fluency it seems necessary to approach this world (even reviewing feedback I found myself searching for examples of federated platforms to truly grasp the term). Finally, the fear of missing out. Sure, these alternatives work, but it would take a mass exodus of the users that currently make up my online world for any new federated, or privacy aware platform to truly be comparable (of course I could choose to return full time to the land of the living but as Moments has shown there’s no need for the choice to be between social media and privacy).

Although all of these feed into my lack of change, they are mostly surface level excuses. As I reflect now trying to dig deeper, I think the fundamental reason behind my reluctance to alter my interactions with the parasite is a desire (maybe even a need) to believe that my choices are my own. Sure, now as I approach the intersection of Broadway and West 110th Street, I receive a notification from my Chipotle app with an offer for “FREE chips with purchase of any bowl or burrito,” still, the decision to enter the store and purchase an entree feels like a product of my own agency. If this is just an allusion, then it assuredly implies that the battle has already been lost, pushback futile. Hence, I choose to cling to the belief in my freedom, afraid that if I take a stand(set up a freedom box, remove myself from Instagram, create my own photo-sharing alternative), I am in some way acknowledging that I am in trouble.

However, upon reflecting I think it would be remiss not to acknowledge that while this belief may dampen my urgency for change, it may also serve as the lifeline keeping a hope for change alive. I think it may be this same hope that also fuels the creators of Moments and those who keep Etherpad running, the hope that we still have the ability to be free.


Although these last few months have brought me closer to my why, the search remains active. At the moment, I will continue to perform the intricate dance between futility and hope. However at least now, each step will be made with a keener eye for finding alternatives, and questioning my autonomy.
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r3 - 17 Jan 2024 - 04:15:22 - OrnaMadigan
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