“Internet Freedom”: How Statists Corrupt Our Language

by on October 27, 2009 · 25 comments




So declared the Party in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. The corruption of language with a constant theme of Orwell’s work, most notably his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” So Orwell would not have been surprised to see the term “Internet Freedom” captured by those who advocate an increased role for government (i.e., Big Brother) online. Nor would Orwell had been surprised to see these advocates claim Orwell for themselves, insisting that opponents of government regulation are the ones corrupting language. There is perhaps no better example of this than MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow’s comments in an interview with Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin about the divisive issue of “Net Neutrality” regulations:

Rachel Maddow [dripping with sarcasm]:  Sen. McCain’s bill, as you mentioned, is actually called the  “Internet Freedom Act of 2009,” and he’s deriding the government effort to keep telecoms from walling off the Internet as “government intrusion” and “trying to regulate the Internet.” What that means is that he’s picked better branding, he’s picked better names.  It doesn’t really relate the facts of what he’s doing. I’m wondering if it’s too late for a rebranding of the other side here. We need to get better about talking about this, because the language seems sort of corrupt at this point.

What makes Maddow’s comments so stunning is not her view that corporate America, rather than government, is the real enemy of freedom. That view is simply part of the long-regnant political orthodoxy. No, what’s stunning is that she actually thinks that her side is losing the “war of words” just because Sen. McCain had the gall to use the term “Internet Freedom” as a rallying-cry for the outdated, bourgeois notion that “freedom” means the absence of coercion by the one entity that can enforce its commands at the point of a gun and call it “justice”: that coldest of all cold monsters, the State. That’s precisely what “liberalism” used to be about until people like Rachel appropriated that word and words like “liberty” and “freedom” as slogans for control. Xeni Jardin picks up where Rachel left off by appropriating the concept of rights, too:

Xeni Jardin: the Internet really is a basic right, it’s a necessity,such a fundamental way for communicating and accessing information now.  Telecoms shouldn’t be able to throttle, to block, to slow down our access to something that might not be in their corporate interests.

This is pure, unadulterated cyber-socialism: Rights become not the sacred defense of the individual, but a positive assertion of entitlement to a vaguely defined principle of access: by guaranteeing this access through ever-expanding “neutrality regulation”, government gains unlimited control over the Internet itself.

As Adam Thierer and I have warned, that way lies madness: Inviting the government to regulate online content and services in the name of “neutrality” (or “privacy” or any of the many “glittering generalities” ending in “-y” Orwell would have denounced) would be the death of real Internet Freedom, which requires a strict “Separation of Web and State.”

If you want to see this bastardization of the language of “freedom” in action, watch the video. Just as nauseating is the way that McCain and is “disdainfully dismissed” as a corporate whore because he’s—GASP!—received donations from the telecom industry. Obviously, he must only be committing these thought crimes because evil enemies of the People’s Revolution paid him to do so! (Of course, donations may to politicians that support increased regulation of the Internet don’t corrupt them because their intentions are pure! Anyone can support any cause they like with donations so long as the cause is the right one, as determined by the People’s Revolutionary Guard.)

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  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    Misleading Orwellian language is also used by those opposing net-neutrality. The shrill demands for non-regulation seem never to be balanced by real offers of open transparency. The ISPs hide behind abstract terms, such as “traffic management”. The pleading whine is: please don't tell us engineers how to manage packet traffic flows. Sounds reasonable until you ask what is really going on. The reality, is that the companies want the unfettered ability to inspect packets and if we don't like those packets for whatever arbitrary reason, into the garbage they go. When caught its wink wink, we promise not to do it again until caught once again. Then another round of disingenuous “apologies”.

    Anecdotally, the collapse of our financial system was the result too much freedom from regulation. I don't like unreasonable regulation either, but we need to realize that regulation can provide a level competitive playing field. After all, why are there referees and umpires at sporting events?

    PS: The spokespeople for Microsoft and Intuit seen to be exclusively graduates of schools teaching Newspeak.

  • Ryan Radia

    Regulation that enforces voluntary arrangements is pro-freedom, pro-market. Regulation that bans arrangements that would otherwise occur absent coercive intervention is anti-freedom, anti-market, and worst of all, anti-human welfare.

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com/ Peter

    “Inviting the government to regulate online content […]”

    How does the principle of NN regulate the content? How is a network that treats no packet as different from any other packet “regulating content”?

  • http://beyondthecode.wordpress.com Remixer96


    Please don't take the TLF down the path of name-calling and hyperbole. I find the perspective here absolutely invaluable because of its reason, not because of its heat-level.

    Accusing the other side of using glittering generalities while leaning on Orwell and the threat of “cyber-socialism” yourself is both unpersuasive and insulting. Stick to the analysis and leave the labels at home.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    I appreciate your sensitivity to name-calling, but if asserting that “The Internet” is a basic right isn't cyber-socialism, what is? The implications of that assertion for policy-making are profound: once a new “human right” is asserted, that right will, of course, trump the mere “interests” of those who build the platforms involved—whether that infrastructure exist in the physical world (broadband “pipes & tubes”) or in the cloud (services and applications).

    A glittering generality is a bright, shiny happy, vague abstraction that commands positive emotional appeal because of its innocuous blandness. To be sure, one could unfairly throw out negative labels, like “cyber-socialism” (although, again, I don't think I'm being unfair), are not “glittering generalityies.”

  • http://beyondthecode.wordpress.com Remixer96

    First, the engagement is always appreciated Berin.

    I'll grant you the distinction between glittering generalities and negative terms like cyber-socialism. I was trying to highlight their similar hyperbolic (and polarized) nature rather than their positive or negative tone.

    To your point, I would argue that asserting the Internet as a basic right doesn't lead to cyber-socialism any more than asserting water as a basic right leads aqua-socialism. A regulated environment perhaps, but not necessarily communally owned means of production. Profits do still exist in utilities, even if their maneuverability is significantly restricted.

    I don't disagree with Adam's and your point that claiming rights like these leads to government intervention with no clear end in sight. Especially at higher and higher network levels, the implications are something that certainly merit consideration. I'm not a fan of positive rights in general, which makes me wary of any argument that starts with them.

    However, I still think characterizing that future government intervention as “unlimited control” or socialism without significant support does more harm than good.

  • http://twitter.com/LibbyJ Libby Jacobson

    Fantastic post, Berin!
    I would suggest that anybody who actually buys the argument that government intervention (meddling) into private affairs is a good means of *preserving freedom* ought to read Margaret Atwood's “The Handmaid's Tale” (that book turned me more libertarian than anything else I've read).
    Also… is there a Godwin's Law regarding mentions of Orwell, 1984, or “Big Brother?” It seems like there ought to be…

  • http://twitter.com/LibbyJ Libby Jacobson

    Fantastic post, Berin!
    I would suggest that anybody who actually buys the argument that government intervention (meddling) into private affairs is a good means of *preserving freedom* ought to read Margaret Atwood's “The Handmaid's Tale” (that book turned me more libertarian than anything else I've read).
    Also… is there a Godwin's Law regarding mentions of Orwell, 1984, or “Big Brother?” It seems like there ought to be…

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