January 30, 2013

Online Freedom

A couple of recent articles about 'online freedom' really grabbed my attention more than is normally the case when I scan such material. The first was a ZDNet post about the 'hack' of the U.S. Sentencing Commission website by the hacker-collective known as Anonymous. The second item was a very nice Op-Ed by Timothy Karr, published in the Seattle Times, in which he talks about the importance of protections needed to ensure the Internet remains what it has rapidly evolved to become: a globalized 'common good' like air, food, water and shelter.

'Online freedom' is such a complex, expansive, and nuanced issue that I'll not even attempt to fool myself into thinking I can do it justice in a brief blog post, but I do want to make a few observations.

First, 'the web' is probably that last domain or medium by/through which people can exchange information of any type, any where, at any time. It probably comes as close to 'unfettered freedom' in the public domain as one is likely to find in life and as such presents mind-boggling opportunity as well as enormous potential for harm. In a sense, it is the virtual-world/cyberspace analogy to what the U.S. has represented in the physical world to so many people for so many years. For multitudes, the U.S. has represented the idea that anyone has the opportunity to do anything, that in this country one has the freedom to pursue any dream...not the guarantee of an outcome, mind you, but the freedom to try. With that freedom, however, come 'vulnerability' and 'risk' and the very real potential to 'fail.' Every attempt to eliminate risk, to guarantee an outcome, or to reduce vulnerabilities to near-zero, however, necessarily means that controls over behavior must be effected, that efforts must be shaped and managed, and that comparative differences be 'normalized' such that one person or group does not have an inherent advantage over another. When freedom is maximized, there will always be winners and losers. But when controls are imposed to erase such disparity, freedom is sacrificed. All freedoms carry this inherent dichotomy. 'Freedom of speech' means equal freedom to praise as well as condemn, for a society to be able to express opposing views without fear of persecution. Freedom to 'arm and defend oneself' means your neighbor can have a gun, too. 

I do not propose that all freedoms are perfect in their implementation. As our own legal system has determined here in America, and we have wholly embraced, 'freedom of speech' does not mean the freedom the shout 'Fire' in a crowded theater because of the real danger of causing irreparable physical harm to others. But herein lies the rub: when 'freedom' bumps up against things like 'intellectual property', 'public good' (or safety), the inherent obligation of government to exercise its lawful responsibility to provide for various protections, etc., etc. These are in constant tension--the freedom to do vs. necessary constraints on activity to guard from excessive harm. In the midst of this, of course, are issues such as 'personal responsibility', 'individual restraint', 'willingness to accept risk' (and the natural and/or logical consequences of such risk), and protection of the weak against the predations of the strong.

Second, 'online freedom' is arguably the greatest tool in the eternal fight against repression, corruption, intimidation and criminality whether practiced by governments, corporations, criminal organizations, or private groups and individuals. We value a 'free press' because a responsible press corps has the ability to bring corrupt practices into the light of public visibility and thereby enable the public to hold officials of all types accountable for their actions. Social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter enable people to share information, collaborate on projects, and bring to public awareness all manner of issues. Much of it is inane, of course, but much of it is immensely good too.

Which leads me to a third point, that of the importance of not only protecting online-freedom but of promoting it even when problems are encountered. (When an issue is important enough - like recognizing the inherent right to maintain ownership and control of one's creative work - we find ways to protect such things without destroying the larger good that comes from sustaining the underlying freedom or right.) As I mentioned above, governments have an obligation to undertake tasks individual citizens or even a collected whole cannot do on their own, such as defending a country from invasion or establishing and maintaining a legal framework within which a society conducts business. But all too often governments abuse their power, exploiting their ability to draft and impose laws and rules, to compel compliance, and to effect punishments against which an individual citizen or minority group has little defense. In such cases, the Internet affords people the ability to share information about, raise awareness of, and mobilizing opposition against such corruption. 

Governments know this. Repressive, authoritarian regimes fear it. Examples abound but two that are regularly cited are the efforts by China and Iran to stifle dissent and prevent collective action by censoring the free exchange of information among their populations through control of the Internet within their borders.

It is sometimes observed that people should be mindful when they hear of efforts by one group to control another even in small things or when long-held 'rights' are lessened even a little, because once a precedent for such has been established and it becomes the 'new normal' it doesn't take as much effort to nibble away the next little chunk. At some point, the once-unassailable 'right' or 'freedom' is gone and people wonder how it all happened.

You might remember some reporting about our own fight here in the U.S. over this issue about a year ago. A couple of bills had been introduced into Congress for debate that would have placed restrictions on content and the exchange of information across the internet. A massive effort was mobilized by 'online freedom' advocates and a range of companies with both idealistic and capitalistic reasons for preventing their passage. Personally, I'm glad the freedom-advocates won.

In closing, let's return for just a brief moment to the hack perpetrated by Anonymous. I don't know much about the group but I found their manifesto quite interesting for a couple of reasons that include their commitment to 'net freedom' (and willingness to confront attacks on such) as well as insight into the strange new world dawning upon us in the form of high-level competitions waged in cyberspace, with all the implications we are only on the verge of beginning to understand. 

This evolving world is becoming our 'new normal'. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to understand these issues, to jealously guard our freedoms, and to make sure that those who have the ability (legally or technologically) to impose restrictions, controls, and limitations on such clearly understand that they are being watched and will be held accountable in the public domain for their policies and actions both here at home and in so many countries around the world where our freedoms remain a dream yet to be realized.

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