Philosophy & Cyber-Libertarianism

Patrick Ruffini, political strategist, author, and President of Engage, a digital agency in Washington, DC, discusses his latest book with coauthors David Segal and David Moon: Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists, and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet. Ruffini covers the history behind SOPA, its implications for Internet freedom, the “Internet blackout” in January of 2012, and how the threat of SOPA united activists, technology companies, and the broader Internet community.


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W. Patrick McCray

W. Patrick McCray, author of The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, tells the story of these modern utopians who predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds.

Believing that the term “futurist” was too broad, McCray coined the term visioneers to describe those who not only had ambitious visions for future technology, but who carried out detailed and extensive scientific and engineering work to bring those visions into fruition, and who actively worked to promote their  ideas to a wider public.

McCray focuses on the works of Gerard O’Neil and Eric Drexler, detailing their early contributions as visioneers and their continuing impact particularly in the fields of space colonization and nanotechnology. He also identifies modern-day visioneers and their work.


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Marc Hochstein

Marc Hochstein, Executive Editor of American Banker,  a leading media outlet covering the banking and financial services community, discusses bitcoin.

According to Hochstein, bitcoin has made its name as a digital currency, but the truly revolutionary aspect of the technology is its dual function as a payment system competing against companies like PayPal and Western Union. While bitcoin has been in the news for its soaring exchange rate lately, Hochstein says the actual price of bitcoin is really only relevant for speculators in the short-term; in the long-term, however, the anonymous, decentralized nature of bitcoin has far-reaching implications.

Hochstein goes on to talk about  the new market in bitcoin futures and some of bitcoin’s weaknesses—including the volatility of the bitcoin market.


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Andy Greenberg

Andy Greenberg, technology writer for Forbes and author of the new book “This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information,” discusses the rise of the cypherpunk movement, how it led to WikiLeaks, and what the future looks like for cryptography.

Greenberg describes cypherpunks as radical techie libertarians who dreamt about using encryption to shift the balance of power from the government to individuals. He shares the rich history of the movement, contrasting one of t the movement’s founders—hardcore libertarian Tim May—with the movement’s hero—Phil Zimmerman, an applied cryptographer and developer of PGP (the first tool that allowed regular people to encrypt), a non-libertarian who was weary of cypherpunks, despite advocating crypto as a tool for combating the power of government.

According to Greenberg, the cypherpunk movement did not fade away, but rather grew into a larger hacker movement, citing the Tor network, bitcoin, and WikiLeaks as example’s of its continuing influence. Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, belonged to a listserv followed by early cypherpunks, though he was not very active at the time, he says.

Greenberg is excited for the future of information leaks, suggesting that the more decentralized process becomes, the faster cryptography will evolve.


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Robert McDowell, one of the two Republican Commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission, announced on Wednesday that he would soon resign. In his seven years on the FCC, Commissioner McDowell has been a consistent critic of over-regulation and a champion of both Internet freedom and the rule of law. He’s earned a uniquely loyal following among policymakers and thought leaders alike in the free market tech policy community, not only in the U.S. but around the world.  Here are just a few tributes to this remarkably humble and personable regulator—the regulator who, again and again, cried, in the most mild-mannered-but-firm way possible: “Hold on a minute, have we really thought this one through?”

  • Sen. John Thune (R-SD): “As we have seen with his recent leadership on efforts to prevent foreign government intervention in the operation and use of the Internet, Rob has been a consistent voice cautioning against unnecessary governmental regulations. I hope the president’s nominee to replace him will approach the job with the same passion and energy that Rob exhibited and will be similarly committed to finding market-based solutions to our nation’s communications challenges whenever possible.”

  • Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI): “At a time when broadband and wireless technology are transforming voice, video, audio and data communications, we could not have asked for a better steward than Commissioner McDowell. With every decision, he has fought to ensure we are creating an environment for investment, innovation, and growth. And he has done so with both eloquence and good humor. No question that he has left the communications landscape better than he found it. We thank him for his service.”

  • Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR): “For more than a half decade, Robert McDowell has embodied the consummate FCC commissioner. He has kept a steadfast eye on how to foster a vibrant communications marketplace for the American people and the American economy. He has always stood up to protect the freedom of the Internet for all, and at every turn he has made sure to respect good process, good policy, and the rule of law. The country is all the better for his service. With much gratitude, we wish him all the best wherever his path may take him.” Continue reading →

Marvin Ammori, a fellow at the New American Foundation and author of the new book On Internet Freedom explains his view of how the First Amendment applies the Internet through the lens of constitutional law and real world case studies.

According to Ammori, Internet freedom is a foundational issue for democracy, equivalent to the right to vote or freedom of speech. In fact, he says, the First Amendment can be used as a design principle for how we think about the challenges we face as Internet technology increasingly becomes a part of our lives.

Ammori’s belief in a positive right to speech—that everyone should have access to the most important speech tools in society and be able to speak with and listen to any other speaker without having to seek permission— translates to a belief that Internet should be made available for everybody, without restrictions aside from those placed on offlinet speech.

Ammori goes on to explain why he thinks SOPA threatened to infringe upon free speech while net neutrality protects it, suggesting that allowing ISPs to control bandwidth usage is tantamount to forcing internet users to become passive consumers of information, rather than creators and content-spreaders.


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Joe Karagenis

Joe Karaganis, vice president at The American Assembly at Columbia University, discusses the relationship between digital convergence and cultural production in the realm of online piracy.

Karaganis’s work at American Assembly arose from a frustration with the one-sided way in which industry research was framing the discourse around global copyright policy. He shares the results of Copy Culture in the US & Germany, a recent survey he helped conduct that distinguishes between attitudes towards piracy in the two countries. It found that nearly half of adults in the U.S. and Germany participate in a broad, informal “copy culture,” characterized by the copying, sharing, and downloading of music, movies, TV shows, and other digital media. And while citizens support laws against piracy, they don’t support outsized penalties.

Karaganis also discuses the new “six-strike” Copyright Alert System in the U.S., of which he is skeptical. He also talks about the politics of copyright reform and notes that there is a window of opportunity for the Republican Party to take up the issue before demography gives the advantage to the much younger Democratic Party. 


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In the New York Times today, Evgeny Morozov indicts the “solutionism” of Silicon Valley, which he defines as the “intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with [technology].” This is the theme of his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, which I’m looking forward to reading.

Morozov is absolutely right that there is a tendency among the geekerati to want to solve things that aren’t really problems, but I think he overestimates the effects this has on society. What are the examples of “solutionism” that he cites? They include:

  • LivesOn, a yet-to-launch service that promises to tweet from your account after you have died
  • Superhuman, another yet-to-launch service with no public description
  • Seesaw, an app that lets you poll friends for advice before making decisions
  • A notional contact lens product that would “make homeless people disappear from view” as you walk about

It should first be noted that three of these four products don’t yet exist, so they’re straw men. But let’s grant Morozov’s point, that the geeks are really cooking these things up. Does he really think that no one besides him sees how dumb these ideas are?

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Joseph Reagle

Is geek culture sexist? Joseph Reagle, Assistant Professor of Communications Studies at Northeastern University and author of a new paper entitled, “Free as in Sexist? Free culture and the gender gap,” returns to Surprisingly Free to address geek feminism and the technology gender gap.

According to Reagle, only 1% of the free software community and 9% of Wikipedia editors are female, which he sees as emblematic of structural problems in the geek community. While he does not believe that being a geek or a nerd is in any way synonymous with being a sexist, he concludes that three things that he otherwise loves—geekiness, openness, and the rhetoric and ideology of freedom–are part of the problem inasmuch as they allow informal cliques to arise, dominate the discussion, and squeeze out minority views. Reagle also comments on a unintentional androcentricity he has observed even amongst free software community heroes, highlighting the ways in which this behavior can be alienating to women and prevents geek culture from growing beyond its traditional base.

Reagle prescribes a 3-step solution to sexism in geek culture: talking about gender; challenging and expanding what it means to be a geek; and not allowing the rhetoric of freedom to be used as an excuse for bad behavior.

Reagle further supports efforts to form female-only subcultures within the geek community, which opponents argue goes against the free software value of openness. Instead of the balkanization of their movement that opponents fear, these closed-group discussions actually strengthen geek culture at large, according to Reagle.


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Gabriella Coleman

Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill University, discusses her new book, “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking,” which has been released under a Creative Commons license.

Coleman, whose background is in anthropology, shares the results of her cultural survey of free and open source software (F/OSS) developers, the majority of whom, she found, shared similar backgrounds and world views. Among these similarities were an early introduction to technology and a passion for civil liberties, specifically free speech.

Coleman explains the ethics behind hackers’ devotion to F/OSS, the social codes that guide its production, and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. She also discusses the tension between the overtly political free software movement and the “politically agnostic” open source movement, as well as what the future of the hacker movement may look like.


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