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.

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