Ithiel de Sola Pool’s “Technologies of Freedom” Turns 30

by on April 4, 2013 · 606 comments

Technologies of FreedomThis year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Technologies of Freedom: On Free Speech in an Electronic Age by the late communications theorist Ithiel de Sola Pool. It was, and remains, a remarkable book that is well worth your time whether you read it long ago or are just hearing about it for the first time. It was the book that inspired me when I first read in 1994 to abandon my chosen field of study (trade policy) and do a deep dive into the then uncharted waters of information technology policy.

A Technological Nostradamus

Long before most of the world had heard about this thing called “the Internet” or using terms like “cyberspace” or even “electronic superhighway,” Pool was describing this emerging medium, thinking about its ramifications, and articulating the optimal policies that should govern it. In Technologies of Freedom, Pool set forth both a predictive vision of future communications and “electronic publishing” markets as well as a policy vision for how those markets should be governed. “Networked computers will be the printing presses of the twenty-first century,” Pool argued in a remarkably prescient chapter on the future of electronic publishing. “Soon most published information will disseminated electronically,” and “there will be networks on networks on networks,” he predicted. “A panoply of electronic devices puts at everyone’s hands capacities far beyond anything that the printing press could offer.” As if staring into a crystal ball, Pool predicted:

Separate nations will have separate networks, as they do now, but these will interconnect. Within nations, the satellite carriers, microwave carriers, and local carriers may be—and in the United States almost certainly will be—in the hands of separate organizations, but they will interconnect. So even the basic physical network will be a network of networks. And on top of the physical networks will be a pyramid of service networks. Through them will be published or delivered to the public a variety of things: movies, music, money, education, news, meetings, scientific data, manuscripts, petitions, and editorials.

Remember folks, he was writing this in the early 1980s, when VCRs and the Sony Walkman were still considered cutting-edge electronic technologies! His predictions, which must have sounded like science fiction in 1983, are today’s reality. Few scholars or futurists were more accurate in their forecasts about the world of electronic commerce or online communications that was emerging. It’s worth reading the book just to see how much Pool got right about the future because it is absolutely astonishing. [Note: You might also want to check out how he almost perfectly predicted the copyright policy wars of modern times in his posthumous book, Technologies without Boundaries.]

A Passionate Defense of Free Speech & Technological Freedom

But what made Technologies of Freedom truly special is that Pool did not stop with predictive judgments and scenarios about future tech developments. He continued on to offer a passionate defense of technological freedom and freedom of speech in the electronic age. Pool worried that technological convergence would lead to the convergence of regulatory policies unless action was taken to quarantine electronic publishing and digital networks from analog era regulatory policies:

In the coming era, the industries of print and the industries of telecommunications will no longer be kept apart by a fundamental difference in their technologies. The economic and regulatory problems of the electronic media will thus become the problems of the print media too. No longer can electronic communications be viewed as a special circumscribed case of a monopolistic and regulated communications medium which poses no danger to liberty because there still remains a large realm of unlimited freedom of expression in the print media. The issues that concern telecommunications and now becoming issues for all communications as they all become forms of electronic processing and transmission.

“The specific question to be answered,” Pool asserted, “is whether the electronic resources for communications can be as free of public regulation in the future as the platform and printing press have been in the past.” In his closing chapter on “Policies for Freedom,” Pool discussed possible futures for the emerging world of electronic communications and argued that:

Technology will not be to blame if Americans fail to encompass this system within the political tradition of free speech. On the contrary, electronic technology is conducive to freedom. The degree of diversity and plenitude of access that mature electronic technology allows far exceed what is enjoyed today. Computerized information networks of the twenty-first century need not be any less free for all to use without hindrance than was the printing press. Only political errors might make them so.

Guidelines for Freedom

To guard against those “political errors,” Pool set forth ten “Guidelines for Freedom”:

1. The First Amendment applies fully to all media.
2. Anyone may publish at will.
3. Enforcement must be after the fact, not by prior restraint.
4. Regulation is a last recourse. In a free society, the burden of proof is for the least possible regulation of communication.
5. Interconnection among common carriers may be required.
6. Recipients of privilege (monopolies) may be subject to disclosure.
7. Privileges (copyrights and patents) may have time limits.
8. The government and common carriers should be blind to circuit use. What the facility is used for is not their concern.
9. Bottlenecks should not be used to extend control.
10. For electronic publishing, copyright enforcement must be adapted to the technology.

Pool’s vision was quite libertarian for his time, but his embrace of minimal interconnection / common carriage regulation shows this he was open to some forms of regulatory oversight. Nonetheless, the role of law in Pool’s paradigm was tightly constrained to ensure new electronic networks developed free of the regulatory burdens of the past.

Importantly, Pool also identified regulation as the source of many of the “monopoly” problems that drove traditional communications and media policy. “The force that preserves most monopoly privilege is the law,” and “most monopolies exist by grace of the police and the courts,” he noted. Further, “most would vanish in the absence of enforcement.” This reflected his general concern about regulatory capture in tech sectors.

Toward Tech Liberty

So, on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, I strongly encourage you to give Pool’s Technologies of Freedom a second look, or a first look if you haven’t had the pleasure of taking it all in before. I think that, like me, you’ll find his predictive powers breathtaking and his principled policy vision refreshingly bold and enlightening. And I challenge you to find another Internet policy book since Technologies of Freedom that has contained more elegant, inspiring prose. It is a beautifully written polemic. Toward that end, I leave you with the final passage from the book and hope that it inspires you as it has me to keep up the good fight for tech liberty:

The easy access, low cost, and distributed intelligence of modern means of communication are a prime reason for hope. The democratic impulse to regulate evils, as Tocqueville warned, is ironically a reason for worry. Lack of technical grasp by policy makers and their propensity to solve problems of conflict, privacy, intellectual property, and monopoly by accustomed bureaucratic routines are the main reasons for concern. But as long as the First Amendment stands, backed by courts which take it seriously, the loss of liberty is not foreordained. The commitment of American culture to pluralism and individual rights is reason for optimism, as is the pliancy and profusion of electronic technology.

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