More Confusion about Internet “Freedom”

by on March 1, 2011 · 8 comments

Nate Anderson of Ars Technica has posted an interview with Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) about Defining Internet “Freedom”. Neither Sen. Franken nor Mr. Anderson ever get around to defining that term in their exchange, but the clear implication from the piece is that “freedom” means freedom for the government to plan more and for policymakers to more closely monitor and control the Internet economy.  The clearest indication of this comes when Sen. Franken repeats the old saw that net neutrality regulation is “the First Amendment issue of our time.”

As a lover of liberty, I find this corruption of language and continued debasement of the term “freedom” to be extremely troubling. The thinking we see at work here reflects the ongoing effort by many cyber-progressives (or “cyber-collectivists,” as I prefer to call them) to redefine Internet freedom as liberation from the supposed tyranny of the marketplace and the corresponding empowerment of techno-cratic philosopher kings to guide us toward a more enlightened and noble state of affairs. We are asked to ignore our history lessons, which teach us that centralized planning and bureaucracy all too often lead to massively inefficient outcomes, myriad unforeseen unintended consequences, bureaucratic waste, and regulatory capture.  Instead, we are asked to believe that high-tech entrepreneurs are the true threat to human progress and liberty. They are cast as nefarious villains and their innovations, we are told, represent threats to our “freedom.” We even hear silly comparisons likening innovators like Apple to something out of George Orwell’s 1984. 

To be clear, I am not saying everything will be sunshine and roses in a free information marketplace. Mistakes will be made by those innovators and there will even be short-term spells of what many would regard as excessive corporate market power. The question is how much faith we should place in central planners, as opposed to evolutionary market forces, to solve that problem.  Those who truly love liberty and real human freedom would have more patience with competition and technological change and be willing to see how things play out. In other words, “market failures” and “code failures” are ultimately better addressed by voluntary, spontaneous, bottom-up responses than by coercive, top-down approaches.

The decisive advantage of the market-driven approach is nimbleness. It is during what some might regard as a market’s darkest hour when some of the most exciting disruptive technologies and innovations develop. People don’t sit still; they respond to incentives, including short spells of apparently excessive private power. But they can only do so if they are truly free from artificial constraint from government forces who, inevitably, are always one or two steps behind fast-moving technological developments. Thus, we shouldn’t allow the cyber-collectivists to sell us their version of “freedom” in which markets are instead constantly reshaped through incessant regulatory interventions. That isn’t freedom, it’s tyranny.

More insulting to me is the continued repetition of this balderdash about how Net neutrality is “the First Amendment issue of our time.”  As I’ve pointed out before here before in my essay on “Net Neutrality Regulation & the First Amendment,” the Internet’s First Amendment is the First Amendment, not some new, top-down, heavy-handed regulatory regime that puts Federal Communications Commission bureaucrats in control of the Digital Economy. America’s Founding Fathers intended the First Amendment to serve as a shield from government encroachment on our liberties, not as a sword for government to wield to reshape markets and speech according to the whims of five unelected bureaucrats at the FCC. Anyone who suggests otherwise is engaging in revisionist history of the highest order.

Sadly, however, countless people seem to buy into this twisted vision of “Internet freedom” today. They stand ready to empower the techno-planners, to call in the code cops, and to roll out the tech pork barrel in their invitation to Washington to give the Digital Economy a great big bear hug.

You can call this vision many things, but pro-freedom is not one of them.  As Berin Szoka and I have argued here in the past, true “Internet freedom” is freedom from state action; not freedom for the State to reorder our affairs to supposedly make certain people or groups better off or to improve some amorphous “public interest” — an all-to convenient facade behind which unaccountable elites can impose their will on the rest of us.

If you stand for liberty, the choice of which conception of “Net freedom” to embrace is simple.

  • Andy

    Perhaps you’ve written on this before but what are your thoughts on whether this space can truly be subject to market forces when the last mile is essentially a natural or at the very least a limited monopoly problem? Market forces for the last mile don’t really work without open access and non-discriminatory pricing do they?

  • Adam Thierer
  • tommy lawrence

    tyranny is government regulation

    tyranny is fine when it’s registered as an LLC


  • Andy


    Not sure that any of those pieces adequately addresses the natural monopoly bit for wired broadband. At this point for home consumers that really is the only high speed game in town, and most people have at most two providers. We say substantially more price competition in the 1990’s before the Bush administration curtailed open access requirements. I’m not arguing for a ridiculous multitude of providers as you set up as a straw man, but am arguing that US pricing for broadband, and the speeds available even in dense urban areas where the capital can be deployed easiest still pales in comparison to many other highly wired countries.

    Any thoughts as to why they end up having much better networks available at lower prices than we do? Are there government subsidies involved, or simply a different regulatory approach?

  • Catherine Ann Fitzpatrick

    I agree, and I’ve been saying this as long as the Google-fueled fake “net neutrality” gambit has been running.

    I think it’s important to call out how this corruption of language came about. Electronic Frontier Foundation (Mitch Kapor, Cory Doctorow) along with Wu began to popularize this idea that resource management was “a free speech issue” — they performed a conscious sleight of hand as a campaign tool. They converted what is essentially a resource/congestion/scarcity issue into a “civil rights issue” which was highly disingenuous. The jurisprudence of the First Amendment has never been interpreted to mean that the government has to supply extra printing presses to compensate the free market; freedom of the press was always understood to belong to him who owns one — if you can’t get published, well, you always had your newsletter (or now, your blog). So they slyly convert what is ultimately a socialist/collectivist agenda into a more palatable free-speech/civil rights agenda.

    Next, they get the ACLU involved — that bastion of free speech (BTW, have you noticed how the ACLU has now also gotten into the business of condemning online bullying as well? Did they forget Skokie?). Then the EFF gang got into GNI with other human rights groups and begin to bang the drum and try to convert property issues into human rights issues. It’s not just a corruption of language; it’s a deliberate assault on the liberal values of human rights and a radical effort to refashion that coin of the realm into the rhetoric of old discredited socialist models.

    The only reason I’ve ever considered taking the Internet back from those goofy humming engineers at the IETF and their enables at EFF is to enforce the First Amendment in a different way — against the unconscionable TOS restrictions the geeks have put in all the social media platforms to make sure that people above all never criticize them. This has enabled the lefty civility movement to gain a stranglehold on most platforms that makes the Communications Decency Act that John Perry Barlow screamed about years ago seem mild in comparison. At least CDA, whatever its negative features, would have had to be tested court case by court case by competent judges in a system of separation of powers and the rule of law. Not so the typical TOS.

    However, reading your writings and those of Lanier and some others, and especially seeing the appalling takeover of the White House Office on Technology and Science; the FCC; the FTC; and various other Gov 2.0 juggernauts by the technocommunists (which is what I prefer to call them), I’ve become actively worried about having government anywhere near the Internet. The question now is how to mitigate harm from these folks while the Obama Administration winds down the next two years.

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