Free Speech In The Age Of The Internet

Not too long ago, the internet used to be a very free space. It seemed out of reach from governments, and was almost entirely unregulated. Users felt free to publish almost anything they liked, and they could do so anonymously. The internet, therefore, was a hope for everyone with non-mainstream opinions that their voices could finally break through the protected consensus of the mainstream.

This hope was certainly justified. The internet still is very much a force for good. But like all forces for good, the government tends to hate them. And so Leviathan has been eager to jump on it. The state is trying to make the internet a force for its own good. The progress made in that endeavor during the last decade is very worrying.

Edward Snowden, who worked for the NSA, was the first to blow the whistle. His revelations revealed that western governments had very advanced programs to use the internet to control society. Before Snowden, few people had thought about the consequences that most of what we do these days leaves some traces on the internet. I certainly was not worried about it. But Snowden made the public aware that, by hovering up all these information, the government could potentially know about almost everything we are up to in our lives.

This is not just a problem for really bad guys, like terrorists. The secrecy of private lives has been an effective tool against a lot of government tyranny. Whenever the official rules of the state became too silly, a lot of people just secretly stopped following them. The state essentially needed to be good enough, so that most people followed the rules out of conviction. The prospect of the state being able to take away this kind of effective protest is truly frightening. For the first time, Snowden revealed that the internet did not necessarily have to be a force for good. If we are not careful, it could turn out as a tool for real enslavement.

Nevertheless, the fact that everyone can now publish their opinions cheaply, and on multiple platforms, remains extremely powerful. After all, in many western countries there are still laws in place which, at least formally, guarantee a certain amount of free speech. These laws date back to times, when it was significantly more complicated and costly to make one’s voice heard. The establishment therefore usually did not see free speech as too much of a threat.

In fact allowing people to express their opinions, while at the same time not giving them a platform, can be an effective tool for controlling opposition. The moment the government locks up dissidents, they can claim to be a victim of an oppressive regime. This tends to draw support to them. At the same time, leaving someone alone without platforming him, but giving him hope that his voice might be heard in the future, gives that person an incentive to not go too far with his opposition. As long as he believes he can make his voice heard in the future, he might still play along with the system, even though the system is very much rigged against him.

But with the internet, people now have a very real chance of finding an audience. The internet has indeed shown to be the game changer that it was promised to be at the beginning. Since the people in power often believe their own propaganda, they have been very late to realize, how much they have been loosing control over the narrative of debates.

The big wakeup call came with Brexit and the election of Trump. Both events were completely unexpected to the established forces. They were so hit by surprise that it took them a while to realize why voters had turned against them. A lot of people simply do not get their information from officially briefed sources anymore.

Since the establishment had this epiphany, we have seen frantic attempts to win back control. There has been an increase in legal speech prohibitions in almost every western country, with the possible exception of the US. Only last week we saw Scottish YouTuber Markus Meechan, who goes under the name Count Dankula, being convicted in a court of law for hate speech. His crime was to make a joke for his girlfriend, by teaching her pug to perform a Nazi salute to the words “gas the jews”. Meechan is not actually a Nazi. Far from it, he explains at the beginning of the video that he thinks Nazis are the most offensive thing he could imagine. The goal was not to spread hatred, but to teach his girlfriend wrong, who claimed that her pug could not possible do anything that is not cute.

None of that of cause matters. Free speech is meaningless if it is not allowed to offend people. Unless someone is issuing a concrete and believable thread, or is involved in planning a violent crime, everyone should be free to say whatever he or she likes. A Precedence like the Meehan case clearly shows that the government is trying to clamp down on free speech.

Last year, we saw the UK government even proposing punishments of up to 15 years in prison for people who merely watch “extremist” content online. This is allegedly targeted at supporters of terrorist groups. However, all it takes is a precedent from a judge to extend this law to cover all kinds of opposition to the government. True opposition can easily be portrayed as extremist. But if merely watching content online becomes a crime, punishable by multiple years in prison, we are truly in deep tyranny territory.

The bigger strategy to get back in control of the narrative, however, does not seem to be outright speech prohibitions. Especially in the US, these would face some serious legal hurdles. Instead, the strategy seems to be to somehow go back to the good old days of being able to deny someone a platform.

After the Trump election, a narrative has been spun to make alternative news sources look like tools for evil forces. The phrase ‘fake news’ was introduced to differentiate between legitimate, meaning establishment, information, and uncontrolled news sources. Introducing the label ‘fake news’ would be little more than amusing if it had stopped there. But unfortunately, we are seeing an outright criminalization of everything that is not approved media content.

This would usually look like a cause doomed to fail, giving how easy it is to publish anything on the internet. But unfortunately, the way the online distribution of information appears to work at the moment does give the government a chance of succeeding. While it is true that everyone can publish anything easily on the internet, that is not to say that it is easy to find an audience.

Social media has a huge effect on which content people consume. What does and does not appear in the news feed of Facebook and Twitter, or in the search results of Google and YouTube, very much influences opinions. And these few companies very much control a huge amount of the distribution, and advertisement of alternative media.

From a libertarian perspective this could sound like good news. If distribution is in the hands of private companies, then there is little to worry about, right? Private companies, for the most part, do not have political agendas. They just want to make a profit. That means, they have an economic incentive to make as many customers happy as possible.

Unfortunately, this is only true in a free market system. What we have today, however, is crony capitalism. In today’s system, whenever a company reaches a certain size, or whenever a company crosses political interests, a collusion between the government and that company can be observed. After all, the government can make business very difficult for pretty much anyone. It is therefore difficult to say no to the mob.

How do we know that this is happening? Well, first of all, it is naïve to believe that the state would simply stand bank when one of its core interests is threatened. Many people have long suspected that the reason google is the best search engine is because they get help from the intelligence community in the US.

But we don’t even need to go into conspiracy theories. The collusion is happening very overtly. Governments simply have declared the media platforms to be responsible for the content that its users post. As a result, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, who have a quasi monopoly, have started to censorship user content. And they are not just censoring posts that are against some laws. They are keenly censoring anything that even remotely might get them any negative criticism from the establishment, just in case.

There clearly is no will to resist government influence. These companies are more than happy to go along with an established agenda. On the other hand, the pressure they are put under by the government is certainly huge. Campaigns to demonize content are being lounged very aggressively. Anyone who is on the wrong side of the news, is attacked as being an illegitimate actor.

The most prominent villain has been made out to be Russia, who is accused of “interfering” in elections by simply talking to people on social media. I wrote about this here. But there are other scapegoats. The latest scandal is the use of Facebook data by the company Cambridge Analytics. As already in the Russian scandal, there is a lot of noise, but it is actually not so easy to find out what the exact accusations are. I might be wrong, but as far as I can tell, Cambridge Analytics is not actually accused of breaking the law. Instead, the company is accused of unethically collecting user information on Facebook, by burying the agreement to share these information in the terms and conditions of its apps. And we all know that no one reads those. It then used these information to provide a superior advertisement service.

If this is true, than it is not clear what the huge scandal is about. Sure, Cambridge Analytics might have got some information about users that the users were not really happy to share. While that would not be very good, the harm done in this case does not seem to be huge. After all the company did not use these information to steal or harm users in any other way. It simply used it for tailor made advertisement.

The fact that Facebook excessively collects its user’s data, and uses it to influence people on the network, has been well know for a long time now. Many users feel uncomfortable about it. I know a number of people who have left the platform for that reason. I myself have a ‘strictly no private stuff’ policy when it comes to using Facebook. As a consequence, user numbers are declining, and the average time spend on Facebook is down 24%. That is huge. If the Cambridge Analytics scandal will turn the psychology of users against using Facebook even more, than that is certainly a net positive as far as I am concerned.

Still, one has to ask why this particular case sparks so much outrage. One cannot help but get the impression that the real “crime” of Cambridge Analytics was to work for the wrong team in the last US election. What if they had worked for the Clinton campaign, or to promote an officially accepted cause, like climate change? I am willing to bet anything that in that case, we would have never heard much about it. And if we did, the media would have presented Cambridge Analytics in a very different, much more positive, light.

In fact, we don’t really have to wonder about this. As a number of commentators have pointed out, Obama employed very similar advertisement tactics in the 2012 election. This was not a big scandal at all. No one seemed to have be bothered by it. And the difference between the two cases is clear – advertising the election of Obama is officially approved, while advertising Trump is not.

All of this makes it increasingly obvious that the domination of distributing content online by a very few big players is a real problem. It gives governments a handle on attempting to control the narrative. Making distributers of information responsible for the media content on their networks is a quite clever stroke of genius. That way, we will likely overshoot on the censorship side, without the government having to formally make it look like they are clamping down on freedom of speech. But this strategy would not be so easily possible if it wasn’t for the fact that we have quasi social media monopolies.

What can be done about it? I have heard a lot of people suggesting that we need to get the government involved in controlling these monopolistic platforms. This would apparently guarantee more fairness. At the very least there should be strict regulations.

Unsurprisingly, this seems like a really bad idea to me. I really do believe that the government is the real villain in all of this. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were not too bother censoring information before the state threatened them, and made a lot of noise about it. Putting the state officially in charge of these platform would only make things a lot worse.

It seems that the only possible answer to this problem is more consumer responsibility. Users need to demand less interference, and move to alternative platforms if possible. This is certainly easier said than done. The reason why there are so few players in this field is, because one of the major benefits of big platforms is a network effect. As consumers, we want to have as easy as possible access to all information. More importantly, content providers want to use platforms on which they can reach a maximum amount of people. If, however, all information are in the same place, we are necessarily talking about a quasi monopoly.

So the only solution seems to be to make a compromise to reduce one’s benefits of a network effect in exchange for having fewer interferences. But this could turn out to be a too big compromise for many people to make. Still, with the degree of interference that we are seeing at the moment, it seems likely that a large enough number of people will eventually make that compromise and move to alternative platforms.

In fact, this is what we are seeing already in the last few months. As mentioned, user time on Facebook is down 24%. Market monopolies don’t tend to last forever. Very few of the biggest major companies from a century ago are still around today. I shell be very surprised if Facebook will still be the dominant platform 20 years from now. At some point users will have enough of it. If nothing else, Facebook will at some point become old and not hip anymore. All the cool kids will be on the new popular platform X.

I witnessed the speed with which such change in psychology can happen myself when I was still living in Germany. Before there was Facebook, another social network called StudiVZ was very popular there. Within a very short time, it was so popular that one had to be on it in order to maintain a normal social life. Then, suddenly, people liked Facebook more and an exodus from StudiVZ began. Within a year, the network went from being so popular that no one could afford not to be on it, to being completely dead. That is how quickly it can go. Something similar happened of course to myspace.

Meaning, if there is any major shift in psychology against Facebook, the social network could very well go from having a quasi monopoly to being out of business very quickly. This seems inconceivable to most people now, and I am not predicting this to happen within the next year. But it seems almost certain to me that social media platforms will be subject to fashions. And that means that at some point in the future the network effect will work against Facebook.

In free markets, consumers have powers and responsibilities. Simply complaining about the policies of a company, without being willing to take action and move to the competition, is usually not very effective. On markets, everyone acts according to incentives. And the big companies have no incentive to resist the influence of governments. An institution that has a monopoly on physical force has the ability to make offers that no one can refuse. We therefore need to educating internet users about their responsibilities as consumers in order to change the psychology against companies that have become too powerful. I am not saying it is easy, but it is the only way, and it can clearly be done.

Building Galt’s Gulch

Astonished. That was the overwhelming thought I was left with after listening to a 73 minute podcast between the brash, sexually liberated, libertarian American, ‘King of the Nerds’, Brian Sovryn and a mild mannered, boat loving, free thinking futurist and software engineer from Scotland named David Irvine.

The latter has spent the last 8 years designing and coding nothing less than a solution for a decentralised internet named Maidsafe. Users of the open source system share resources from their computer, such as hard drive space and processing power, and in return for this ‘work’ can use the combined resources of the network for data storage, website hosting and computing power. The system backs up data into encrypted ‘shards’ that are duplicated and stored on multiple computers in the system, such that only those with the keys to decrypt the data will be able to reassemble and interpret these shards. The network adjusts dynamically so that if resources are being used more frequently they become more accessible to all participants. Data can be shared and websites or web assets can be hosted on the system, without the need to store any data in corporate data centres or servers.

Maidsafe promotional video

Maidsafe promotional video

The power of this technology is phenomenal, particularly when combined with the ability to transfer value over the internet via cryptocurrencies. For the first time in human history we now have a true extra-national alternative venue for the expression and trade of the work of the mind. Individuals can interact and trade value regardless free of interference from national governments and established transnational corporations.

‘But not all work is done on the internet – factories still exist!’ one might say. This is true, but consider the lever of competition on governments and markets if a proportion of the productive population embrace an alternative economy. The wealth and value incentives created would surely move the bricks and mortar world towards individual liberty and away from central control. For having tasted the benefits of liberty, or seen it in the success of one’s neighbour, why would anyone chose the state?

Unfiltered : the missing liberal voice from the right

It goes without saying that I have many issues with the new proposals for default-on web content filtering. As many of you will have read, the proposals mean that network level filters for fixed-line broadband will be turned on until an active request is made to remove the filtering. There are so many things that could go wrong with the government requiring filtering for both legal and illegal content and I won’t go into the details here as many of you will know and believe the arguments. But what this, the latest media and political circus, shows is that a classical liberal argument on these and similar issues is still very much needed.

© kyz

© kyz

UK mobile phone providers already have default-on filtering with some success and some notable failures. Either way, in this current debate a conflation of issues is taking place to confuse, among others, the general public. First, child abuse images will be policed. This is something that has been and is already taking place. Reporting, blocking and removing these images should happen as a matter of criminal law. Second, filtering of legal pornography will be the default. This is, of course, outrageous in a free and democratic society, never mind the technically impossibility. And finally, child protection online is getting thrown into the mix because apparently the government knows better than all parents.

But the conflation of these arguments are politically pragmatic. It is clear that winning the votes of women and families will be of the utmost importance at the next election for Cameron and his tories to win a clear majority. Additionally, the lead MP on this issue, Claire Perry, is ambitious and a bit bloody minded. This is public choice theory in action – a political agenda created by those who are captured with greater interests.

The importance of the individual to make their own autonomous decisions for themselves and their family has been all but lost in this debate. So called “negative freedom” – the essential freedom of action that is the motor of society, has been sidelined in the news headlines.

A classical liberal voice on this issue would make all the current arguments, shared with much of the left, and then some. Our perspective is the only one which which can clearly articulate some arguments, including the absolute importance of autonomy in a free society. It continues to be a much needed narrative.

When rights collide?

One of the angles not covered in the Old Holborn fall out is that of privacy.

For the uninitiated, firstly where have you been? And secondly the story is roughly as follows:

  1. Opinionated anonymous tweeter and blogger says some things that some people in Liverpool find highly offensive;
  2. People in Liverpool do some research and find out the name, address, workplace, phone number etc of tweeter, publish it, and there is some harassment such as phone calls, threats, mails and calls to his employer etc.
  3. The tweeter’s account is suspended – probably by the tweeter.
  4. The police are called – probably by both parties, but for different reasons.
  5. The tweeter comes back online.

The issue of general free speech has been the subject of much debate. But there is a specific angle which may split Libertarians: Is it acceptable to publicise someone’s name, address and other personal details – if they haven’t given permission, and especially if they have let it be known that they wish to be anonymous?

Let’s get rid of the easy answer first:

Where it’s someone “official” who has been provided with the personal information, they should not give it out – at least without a court order. This applies to the government, ISPs, utility companies etc. And where such information is collected from these people illegitimately though hacking, social engineering, or because someone knows some who works there, again it is patently wrong.

One of the above may have been true in this case. But some tweets have indicated that someone knew someone who had a sister who went to the tweeter’s wedding. By knowing the name and the spouse’s name they could do a little research, review old tweets for clues, do some Googling, some searching on LinkedIn and put together the full identity picture.

So at the end of the day, with the exception of the friend’s friend’s sister, it was all put together using public domain information.

We libertarians may rush to the libertarian gods for answers – the Rothbards, the Rands etc – but they pre-date the internet and aren’t very helpful. We can refer to rights and discuss whether our personal information is our property and therefore whether we need to give permission before it is published. But every day we may give our name to casual acquaintances and tell them where we live, and what our job is. Do we need to hand each of them a legal notice telling them that they must not pass this on without express permission?

It’s funny how even some of the most ardent the free speech advocates come down on the side of privacy – even though what is being disclosed is factual. Of course there are problems. Personal information can be used by ne’er-do-wells to hunt someone down and commit violence against them. But one of the challenges of being a free-speech purist is that there can be unfortunate consequences of unfettered speech.

Someone argued with me today that such information was not a part of speech, it was data, and therefore free speech arguments do not apply to it. I countered that free speech involves context, and that part of the context of any utterance is the identity of the speaker.

I would also argue that the risk of “exposure” is a control over the excesses of free speech. In a face to face situation, the control over offensive free speech is the risk that the offended party may initiate violence. This of course is wrong, but of scant comfort when you’ve got a bloody nose and the aggressor has scarpered. With online speech, there is no bloody nose – unless you’re outed to your foes and one of them has the balls to come calling.

As ever, there is never a perfect solution. It’s about balancing conflicting “rights”. Free speech is a natural right. I’m not convinced however, that rights exist in our personal data, except where data is given with the specific expectation that it should be entrusted. The risk of exposure for an anonymous blogger may help to curtail the most offensive excesses of their output.

But really, the main lesson is this: If you know you’re going to offend people online, and those people might come after you, you need to keep your real life and online personae totally separate – even from friends and family. If you wish to keep such personae apart from the “authorities” and from those who might be able to steal information from the authorities, then you’ll need to learn about TOR, proxy servers and other electronic anonymisation and obfuscation tools too.

  • James Rigby
  • Lives in Wickford, Essex
  • Information Security Consultant.

And doesn’t care who knows it. At least not when I’m not offending anyone.

Do you know about SOPA?

As many Libertarians work in web many of you should already know about SOPA, and the potential impact it may have on the internet.

If you don’t please head over to the WordPress blog

Using WordPress to blog, to publish, to communicate things online that once upon a time would have been relegated to an unread private journal (or simply remained unspoken, uncreated, unshared) makes you a part of one of the biggest changes in modern history: the democratization of publishing and the independent web. Every time you click Publish, you are a part of that change, whether you are posting canny political insight or a cat that makes you LOL. How would you feel if the web stopped being so free and independent? I’m concerned freaked right the heck out about the bills that threaten to do this, and as a participant in one of the biggest changes in modern history, you should be, too.

You may have heard people talking/blogging/twittering about SOPA — the Stop Online Piracy Act. The recent SOPA-related boycott of GoDaddy was all over the news, with many people expressing their outrage over the possibilities of SOPA, but when I ask people about SOPA and its sister bill in the Senate, PIPA (Protect IP Act), many don’t really know what the bills propose, or what we stand to lose. If you are not freaked out by SOPA/PIPA, please: for the next four minutes, instead of checking Facebook statuses, seeing who mentioned you on Twitter, or watching the latest episode of Sherlock*, watch this video (by Fight for the Future).

Basically if this gets past the Senate it will make the EU’s Cookie Directive look like a very minor inconvienience.

I don’t usually believe one should get involved in other country’s politics. But in the case of SOPA I make an exception as it will impact everyone. So please show our American cousins as much support as you can in opposing this bill.