What Cablegate tells us about cyber-conservatism

by on December 13, 2010 · 5 comments

Over a year ago Adam Thierer and Berin Szoka penned [an essay](http://techliberation.com/2009/08/12/cyber-libertarianism-the-case-for-real-internet-freedom/) seeking to define the contours of cyber-libertarianism, and they drew a contrast with the digital commons movement, part of what they called “cyber-collectivism.” They were criticized, however, for not drawing a similar contrast to “cyber-conservatism.” The reason they didn’t do this, Adam [explained](http://techliberation.com/2009/08/12/cyber-libertarianism-the-case-for-real-internet-freedom/#comment-14730877), was because they didn’t “think there really is a coherent ‘cyber-conservative’ movement out there the same way we see a rising ‘Digital Commons’ movement.” I think the reaction to Cablegate might be allowing us to see the outlines of cyber-conservatism a bit better.

The most vocal and strident reaction against Wikileaks has come from folks we can identify as neocons. Aside from demanding that the U.S. hunt down Julian Assange, Charles Krauthammer [wrote](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/02/AR2010120204561.html), “Putting U.S. secrets on the Internet, a medium of universal dissemination new in human history, requires a reconceptualization of sabotage and espionage — and the laws to punish and prevent them.” Meanwhile Marc Thiessen, ignoring the distributed nature of WikiLeaks, [called](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/06/AR2010120603074.html) for the U.S. to “rally a coalition of the willing to defeat WikiLeaks by shutting down its servers and cutting off its finances.” And William Kristol, for his part, [asked rhetorically](http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/whack-wikileaks_520462.html), “Why can’t we disrupt and destroy WikiLeaks in both cyberspace and physical space, to the extent possible? Why can’t we warn others of repercussions from assisting this criminal enterprise hostile to the United States?”

I won’t say there’s a fully developed theory of internet policy in these statements, but you can definitely see a rejection of an unregulated internet, not to mention of internet exceptionalism. Information control in the name of security, they seem to argue, is more than justified. And despite his technical [cluelessness](http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20101208/10133512187/how-political-pundits-get-confused-when-they-dont-understand-that-wikileaks-is-distributed.shtml), Marc Thiessen does grasp that pressuring internet intermediaries, like Amazon and PayPal, is an important way to control information.

Joe Lieberman, often associated with neocon sensibilities, has led the charge to apply just such political pressure. As a result, some have [pointed out](http://twitter.com/#!/ggreenwald/statuses/12873577632104448) how ironic it is that Sen. Lieberman is [a founding member](http://brownback.senate.gov/public/press/record.cfm?id=323402) of the congressional Global Internet Freedom Caucus. (John McCain is also a founding member.) But maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising.

In his forthcoming book, [The Net Delusion](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1586488740?ie=UTF8&tag=jerrybritocom&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1586488740), Evgeny Morozov talks about the neocons’ embrace of the cause of internet freedom as a cheap and easy way of extending the “freedom agenda” of exporting democracy. In the book, Morozov coins the “[cyber-con](http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n23/james-harkin/cyber-con)” moniker and points out that the first big event of the George W. Bush Institute (headed by former [BBG](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadcasting_Board_of_Governors) Chairman and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman) was a conference on internet freedom in support of “cyber-dissidents” under authoritarian regimes. He also points out that many neocons have taken up the cause of the Falun Gong and have supported their campaign of cyber-resistance in China, sometimes [with U.S. funding](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/11/AR2010051105154.html).

These contradictory views are problematic for a coherent cyber-conservative position, and to the extent that cyber-conservatism does develop into a unified vision, they’ll have to deal with this problem. I can imagine, though, that if you believe in American exceptionalism and national greatness, these two viewpoints can be reconciled.

Also this week, another edge of cyber-conservatism’s contours peeked through in [an article](http://american.com/archive/2010/december/get-the-governments-hands-on-this-junk) Jim DeLong wrote for the American Enterprise Institute endorsing the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). The bottom line of that piece is that there are limits to free speech, and protecting intellectual property is one of them, so allowing the DOJ to force intermediaries to act against suspected pirates is legitimate.

The internet is a means of communications, and communications is speech. Regulating the internet is regulating speech. I noted in my previous [post on Cablegate](http://techliberation.com/2010/12/06/some-thoughts-on-cablegate/) that there are arguably legitimate reasons to limit speech, and I gave the example of child pornography (an example with which cyber-conservatives no doubt agree). Cyber-conservatives, it seems, would add to that list national security and the protection of intellectual property rights. Others, generally from the Left, would add privacy and human dignity to the list. According to Adam and Berin, together the ideas of information control from the cyber Left and Right form “cyber-collectivism,” which they define as “the general belief that cyber-choices should be guided by the State or an elite class according to some amorphous ‘general will’ or ‘public interest,'” and to which cyber-libertarianism stands in contrast.

An aside: I’m not crazy about the “collectivist” label. Wiktionary [defines](http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/collectivism) “collectivism” as “an economic system in which the means of production and distribution are owned and controlled by the people collectively.” A much better definition of “collectivism” for what Adam and Berin have in mind comes from the [Concise OED](http://www.wordreference.com/definition/collectivism): “the practice or principle of giving the group priority over each individual in it.” To my mind, however, the fact is that the word “collectivism” is too wrapped up with the former definition to be very useful. And if you’re including information control in the name of intellectual property protection in the definition, then I’m not sure collectivism is the word I’d use. What’s a better label? I’m not sure, but off the top of my head, how about simply “[statist](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statist)”?

The tricky thing about cyber-libertarianism is that, at least as I would define it, it is not categorically opposed to information control, and it’s important that we coherently articulate the contours of our own ideology. To me, libertarians simply have a narrower view of what information control is desirable, with harm to individuals as the relevant standard. They also prefer individual choices and self-regulation to state control. And to the extent that state control is unavoidable, they want to ensure robust due process and protection of individual liberties. I hope to flesh out these ideas some more in future posts.

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