Law in the Internet Society

Will Education Promote Freedom of Thought?

-- By SarahClouston - 22 Oct 2021

Although education will play a key role in enabling freedom of thought for future generations, there are currently significant issues that stand in the way of implementing an effective educational framework. It therefore needs to come with, and develop alongside, legal, political and technical change.

Setting the Scene

This essay accepts several key contentions discussed in class to date. We can conceive of the internet as an exoskeletal nervous system, which actually or potentially connects all human beings. Some of us have gradually become wrapped up in this nervous system as it developed, while younger generations will live their whole lives embraced in this nervous system. Software may be considered the “physiology” of the Internet, in that it dictates how (and for whom) the Internet works. This leads to a key contention – whoever controls software, controls the physiology of the network and therefore how it behaves.

We have seen, through class discussions, that a vast amount of the most commonly used software does not protect users’ privacy. In fact, this software has been developed with the purpose of collecting and analyzing human activity. This is having a detrimental effect on the freedom of thought, because we develop our sense of self and our independent mind through internal, private, processes. The creation and use of software that is freedom-enhancing, in addition to other changes in technology, law and politics, is required to protect freedom of thought.

What Role Can Education Play?

An education framework should have two distinct but related components. We first need to understand that there is both an existing issue and available solution. We then need to learn how to engage with the Internet in a way that shifts power back to individual users. These components are discussed in further detail below.

First, to achieve change, Internet users must understand the risks presented by engaging with the Internet through privacy-invading software. It is important to raise awareness that our interaction with the Internet is being surveilled through much of the software that we use, and that privacy (and therefore lack of such surveillance by software) is necessary for freedom of thought. We also need to understand that free software (which is capable of performing the same functions in a way that protects users’ privacy) is a currently available alternative. From my own experience, understanding these key points provides motivation to engage with the further work that must be done to effect change (through, for example, technology, politics and law).

Secondly, teaching people how to use, improve and create freedom-enhancing software will both change the way we interact with the internet and, based on previous evidence, improve the overall quality of the software available. As noted above, whoever controls software can control how the Internet behaves. Many individuals, myself included, feel like passive recipients of the services provided by software; however, education in coding and computer literacy has a role to play in empowering users to engage with the Internet as producers and contributors. As producers and contributors, individuals will be able to create software that achieves their goals which, if the first prong of education is successfully achieved, may include enhancing the privacy of such software. This will give us a different way of engaging with the Internet and allow us to gain different perspectives on what the Internet should be giving us (and vice versa). As discussed in class, if everyone is able to produce and improve software based on their needs, and there is an effective way of collating such software, the quality of software would improve.

Issues In Implementing This Education Framework

There are various challenges to implementing the educational framework set out in this essay. This section canvasses two of the main challenges in implementing such a regime.

First, in many instances, those in power benefit from the ignorance of the general population and would actively resist the education described in this essay. In the absence of public, freely available resources, who would provide the vital service of education? Although there are various entities which may play a role, such as media and nonprofit organizations, these may be subject to their own internal politics and are unlikely to have as much reach and influence as governments. Any ability of such organizations to raise awareness and implement educational programs would also be seriously constrained if the government actively opposed the education.

Secondly, we need to find a way of educating people effectively to achieve the goals set out earlier in this essay. It is not enough to show someone that there is an issue without also given them clear, implementable solutions that are workable in that person’s daily life. Similarly, it is not enough to empower someone to create or adapt software without also instilling in them values that will promote the production of freedom-enhancing software and effective sharing with broader society. A concentrated effort will be required to ensure that effective education is available and visible to those who are interested.


Education has a vital role to play in motivating individuals to shift from privacy-invading to privacy-enhancing software, thereby promoting freedom of thought. However, there are several key issues which stand in the way of the implementation of effective education. While these challenges exist, education will need to develop alongside and supplement legal, political and technical change.

I believe, although you don't say so anywhere, that this is a framework for post-secondary or adult education. If we were to be talking about a framework for educating children I might characterize the goals slightly differently, while the methods and contexts of instruction would vary substantially. Education of both children and adults of all ages psychically rewards teachers and benefits society, but they do so differently.

It's important to be aware always of the importance of curiosity. One can teach adults about threats; in children it is usually preferable to teach about opportunities to explore. In my experience, it was not necessary to teach programmers about the need to make pro0-privacy free software: they taught themselves, from all the motives that motivated learners have.

So it may actually suffice to teach young people the joy of programming—which only some of them will feel, as only some feel the joy of musical performance, or math, or watching birds—and leave them to go where their curiosity takes them. As it would surely be enough to teach children to love writing poetry in their minds, without bothering to tell that what poems should be about.

What if we can, therefore, take the kinds of ultra-cheap hardware that children are likely to encounter in schools globally, and provide a software starting-place? We could make an OS and basic tools that make other software installed in that system privacy-respecting as a matter of infrastructure. We could provide all the basic sorts of programs you would want on a server, in versions configured to work with privacy-respecting infrastructure "just there" underneath them. Then whatever young people do with those computers helps to achieve privacy outcomes, and to give them ways to imagine and quickly realize new forms of privacy protection for their own uses. It would work in all the new generations of small "single-board computers" from RaspberryPi Zero that costs $20 to really high-powered SBC's that cost $100. Then every cheap computer in every classroom, library, rec center, and many working-class households would become a development hub for curious children.

That's FreedomBox. We did that. It's been working for years already, and it keeps getting better all the time. Every time an eighth-grade science teacher falls in like with FreedomBox I feel an immense personal sense of well-being. I know that each of those folks is going to change a couple dozen lives and push the whole human race another millimeter towards technical and civil freedom.

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r2 - 29 Nov 2021 - 20:13:05 - EbenMoglen
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