How The Internet and Digital Culture Affect Rights and Liberties.

In this interview, we talk to Gigi Sohn, President and Co-Founder of Public Knowledge (a highly influential Washington, D.C.-based public interest group working to defend citizens’ rights in the emerging digital culture) and Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge. We talk about how digital technologies and the internet have affected our rights as citizens and consumers. We discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by the digital era, and how these will affect our rights in the future.

History has seen humanity exist in a near constant battle for social, economic, political and (since the enlightenment) individual freedoms. These battles have been set against a backdrop of great change and conflict, as states, commerce and other bodies struggle to reconcile their needs for utility, their risk aversion and so forth, with an individual’s right to autonomy.

In the modern age, we exist in a society which is largely defined using economics, and where (as Ben Wilson observed in his book, ‘What Price Liberty?’), “….individuals are supposed to always exist in real or potential conflict. Freedom in this sense is seen as negative, in excess it leads to antisocial behaviour and unacceptably risky actions. Nowadays, states regard the individual as a potential troublemaker (a ‘selfish economic actor’) who puts personal gain first; in other words, a risk.” He continues (somewhat retrospectively) by stating “…faced with barely explicable changes and dangers, people found it hard to articulate the kind of liberties appropriate for the twenty-first century. It was a time of revolutionary change in the economy, in world affairs, in technology, and in the very identity of the modern state. The public was overwhelmed by the fear of terrorism, and the sheer complexity of modern life.”

This articulates very clearly the fact that society assumes that you either have protection (on one hand) or liberty (on the other) – without assuming that the two can co-exist. It also illustrates that change and uncertainty have created an atmosphere of fear which gravitates people towards protection and paradoxically means that concepts such as ‘liberty’ are no longer held as sacred in society (as liberty itself is seen as a threat to protection). History also shows us that some of the greatest changes in the structure of rights in a society emerge from periods of upheaval and change. In the past quarter century, society has experienced one of the most profound changes with digital technologies combining with globalisation meaning that humans now exist as individual in both a hugely democratic decentralised space (the internet) and within their existing nation states, with varying degrees of liberty. The internet has changed not just the nature of how we communicate, but also how we engage economically, socially, and politically alerting us to where rights are being subverted to others, and ourselves, but also bringing challenges to our own understanding of rights.

In this interview, we talk to Gigi Sohn, President and Co-Founder of Public Knowledge (a highly influential Washington, D.C.-based public interest group working to defend citizens’ rights in the emerging digital culture) and Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge. We talk to about how digital technologies have affected our rights as citizens and consumers. We discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by the digital era, and how these will affect our rights in the future.

[bios]Gigi is an internationally recognised communications attorney, regularly quoted in some of the most influential publications on the subject. She is a Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado and a Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne Faculty of Law, Graduate Studies Program in Australia. She has been a Non-Resident Fellow at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center, and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. Gigi served as a Project Specialist in the Ford Foundation’s Media, Arts and Culture unit and as Executive Director of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that represents citizens’ rights before the FCC and the courts. In 1997, President Clinton appointed Gigi to serve as a member of his Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters. In May 2006, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Gigi its Internet “Pioneer” Award.

Gigi currently serves on the board of the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (TPRC) and Broadcasters’ Child Development Center (BCDC). She is a member of the advisory board of the Future of Music Coalition and the Center for Public Integrity’s “Well Connected” Telecommunications Project. Gigi served on the District of Columbia Bar Board of Governors from 1997-2000.

Ross John Anderson, FRS is a researcher, writer, and industry consultant in security engineering. He is Professor in Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, where he is engaged in the Security Group.

Anderson graduated with a BA in mathematics and natural science from Trinity College, Cambridge, and subsequently received a qualification in computer engineering. He worked in the avionics and banking industry before moving in 1992 back to the University of Cambridge, to work on his doctorate under the supervision of Roger Needham and start his career as an academic researcher.

In 1998, Anderson founded the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a think tank and lobbying group on information-technology policy. He is well-known among Cambridge academics as an outspoken defender of academic freedoms, intellectual property, and other matters of university politics. He is engaged in the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms and has been an elected member of Cambridge University Council since 2002. In January 2004, the student newspaper Varsity declared Anderson to be Cambridge University’s “most powerful person”. In 2002, he became an outspoken critic of trusted computing proposals, in particular Microsoft’s Palladium operating system vision. Anderson is the author of Security Engineering, and was the founder and editor of Computer and Communications Security Reviews.[/bios]

Q: What impact do you think the internet has had on liberty and free speech?

[Gigi Sohn] The internet has had a tremendous positive impact because it’s the most democratised and decentralised medium ever known. I started out as a communications lawyer around twenty one years ago, and the only mediums available were broadcast and cable. And those medium have a gatekeeper that controlled who could get access, what channels were broadcast and what programming was carried on those channels. It was a very top-down command and control medium.

Along comes the internet, ten or fifteen years into my service as a public interest and communications lawyer, and it changes all that, it puts the power of communication in everyone’s hand, at least everyone who can afford access, and if we can get our policies right in a way that makes sure that people can afford to get access, it becomes a total game changer for free speech and liberty.

It’s not just the internet which is contributing to these changes, its mobile and digital technology generally, it makes everyone a journalist. This is why the internet has blown apart the notion of journalism, because it gets rid of the gatekeepers. We don’t need to have CNN, NBC and their counterparts. Anybody can report on the most important news of the day. The best example recently was the video circulated of that young girl who got killed in Iran; that had an unbelievable impact on our knowledge of what was going on in that country. There are numerous examples of how handheld videos, or twitter feeds from war-zones have changed the face of journalism forever, and informed people inside and outside repressive regimes about what is going on.

[Professor Ross Anderson] Very positive indeed – not so much two steps forward and one step back, as ten steps forward for every step back. By breaking the oligopoly of the established press and letting everyone be a publisher, it has made information much harder for the powerful to control. And the overall picture that’s emerging is that the controls which still work operate more along corporate boundaries than along national boundaries. In order to censor youtube, for example, countries like Turkey and Pakistan had to block access to the whole site; it’s not practical just to block selected content. And a country that stops its citizens having access to Facebook, say, or Google or Skype, faces real disadvantages – from inward investment to domestic discontent. We analysed this process in “Shifting Borders“, a paper for Index on Censorship. That’s why Google’s showdown with China is welcome and important; previously big countries like China could persuade Google to be selective about the content they made available there (while smaller dictatorships like Burma or Tunisia just had to censor whole swathes of the Internet). And even if Google had not stood up to China, the shift of censorship’s borders from countries to companies is very welcome. It’s easier to set up a new company than a new country.

Q: Do you think total freedom of speech is a realistic goal on the internet? And what are your views on the dilemma where such an environment gives a voice to morally objectionable groups? Should that be legislated?

[Gigi Sohn] I don’t think this should be legislated. Our first amendment contemplates that freedom of speech is a value, and contemplates that people will say things which are morally objectionable. They may, for example, make hate speeches, or release videos threatening to commit terrorist acts. The first amendment contemplates such eventualities and answers that if we don’t like these messages, we should have more messages saying that [the message of hate] is morally objectionable. The aim is not to censor or cut it off.

When I was working mainly in broadcast and cable in the late eighties and early nineties, the anti defamation league and other Jewish groups would try to shut-down public access channels rather than have the Klu Klux Klan or Nazi groups use them. Even though I, myself, am Jewish, I am opposed to that course of action and find it particularly objectionable given that Jews were subject to a holocaust where books were burned, and music was banned (which in itself was censorship).

The way to stop “bad speech” is not by having the government come in and cut it off, the way to stop it is to have people shout it down. When the Nazi’s marched on Skokie (IL) in the eighties, Jewish groups objected, but Skokie allowed the march to go on and in the end, there were far more people who shouted down the Nazis, than Nazis marching. The underlying notion here is that people are good, honest, and not haters. When haters want to speak out, they should be allowed to, but what will happen is that the good, honest, non-hating people will drown them out.

Q: Do you think the same is true of the politicisation of the internet, where, for example, China restricts what people can and cannot see?

[Gigi Sohn] This is not politicising free speech, but is, in fact, a limitation of free speech. What China and Iran are doing is the wrong thing for governments to do. Governments should have no role in deciding what speech is proper, and what speech isn’t. You could really call this the politicisation of internet access rather than speech.

[Professor Ross Anderson] What we’re doing is helping to maintain Tor, an anonymous routing system that lets people in places like China and Iran get round the national firewall and see the proper internet. In the past, one of our contributions was the Eternity Service – a design for a censorship-resistant distributed file store that was one of the inspirations for the peer-to-peer movement. Action on such matters is still largely for geeks; the role of governments is to support the right projects. For example, the US State Department is one of the financial supporters of Tor.

Q: What is net-neutrality? And why is it an important issue for internet users?

[Gigi Sohn] Net neutrality is the concept that the companies that provide internet access, providing the on-ramp for the internet, should not be able to pick and choose ‘winners’. I talked before about how in the broadcasting world, broadcasters decide who gets access, what programming is on.

Similarly in the cable world, the cable operator decides what networks get on the system, on what tier, at what price. The internet blows this concept away, and we want it to stay that way. If, all of a sudden, the companies who provide the conduit and gateway to the internet start picking and choosing who gets faster speeds, better service and so forth, they are simply replicating the centralised model on top of this wonderfully democratic and decentralised technology.

Net neutrality is a very narrow regulation. It only goes to the question of whether these on-ramp providers will become gatekeepers. Will they pick and choose who gets faster speeds and better service based on who pays more? That is not the nature of the internet, nor the way the internet was envisioned when the government, defence department and universities planned it as far back as the 1960’s. The internet was planned to be a democratic medium, and because of that we had a great explosion of creativity, innovation, free speech and education. It has generally been a positive factor, particularly for allowing voices which would never have been heard before. If all of a sudden you had telephone and cable companies deciding which website comes up faster and clearer, it will hurt the little-guys. Small-businesses, for example, will be at a distinct disadvantage. The citizen journalists with their blogs would be blown away by CNN or Disney.

[Professor Ross Anderson] There’s a tussle, particularly in the USA, about whether the revenues from e-commerce should go to the network carrier or the service providers. It’s less of a tussle in Europe because there’s more competition between network providers; no-one in Britain would think it was reasonable for BT to be given 20% of Google’s revenue just because Google ads flow over BT’s fibres. BT’s attempt to muscle in via Phorm was unlawful interception and has rightly failed. The solution in the USA is deregulation via local loop unbundling, like we have in Britain – not awarding huge rents to incumbent network operators

Q: Do you think this discussion will just make companies search for more complex ways to control content?

[Gigi Sohn] I think if the government create neutrality rules, then no. It will get away from such actions. Ultimately, we are happy to accept the notion that when a network is congested, or needs to run more efficiently, that a network provider should be able to manage that network using whatever tools are available. At times of congestion, it may be necessary for a network provider to throttle back all users or just higher bandwidth users. That is not the same thing, however, as picking and choosing among applications and content, deciding which are more or less important. There’s no problem with non-discriminatory or neutral network management techniques.

Looking at a recent case; Comcast picked on peer to peer, and said “we’re having congestion problems, so we’re going to throttle back only peer to peer” and they ignored video streaming and other high-bandwidth applications, regardless of times of congestion. That was clearly discriminatory. Comcast now has to network manage in a neutral way, throttling back all high bandwidth users, regardless of the application, only during times of congestion. It is not necessary to prioritise certain items over others to manage ones network, and we would be opposed to that. We would also be opposed to access tiers, whereby the internet service provider charges a Yahoo!, Google or indeed a gaming company for a certain speed or quality of service to carry its content.

Q: What impact do you think internet access and digital technologies have on human development?

[Gigi Sohn] We believe that the broadband internet is critical to full participation in society. It is more than just being “part of the conversation”, as [without internet access] you don’t have access to economic opportunities, best healthcare, best education and so forth. It essentially means that without access, the opportunity gap will become larger, as more services, job announcements, and education opportunities are moving online. If you don’t have access, or cannot afford it, you are going to be left behind. It is therefore critically important for lower socio-economic classes to get online.

There already is a connectivity gap in society, which has existed for many years. 10% of the USA, particularly rural areas, are completely un-served. In urban areas, telephone and cable companies have decided that it is not economically beneficial to enter certain areas. Even here in Washington DC, if you visit some of the poorer areas such as Prince George’s County, you cannot get broadband service.

[Professor Ross Anderson] The change brought in places like India and Africa by cheap mobile phones is enormous, and wire line Internet will give them another big boost to development when it arrives. In many less developed countries, though, this is held up by dozy incumbent phone companies. May foreign aid should be tied to local loop unbundling, the award of WiMAX licences, or other mechanisms for ensuring that the rest of humanity can get broadband Internet access

Q: Do you think access to the internet is an enabler for democracy?

[Gigi Sohn] To the extent that people have a better sense of what their government is doing, it becomes an enabler. In the USA, for example, the current administration is dedicated to putting more data and proceedings online, and so it can facilitate greater transparency, but the government has to be willing to get online and put the data and proceedings online. The mere fact of access is not enough, you need a government willing to open up processes to the public through internet access. Once that [government participation] happens, then, indeed, you have greater transparency and accountability.

Q: How do you think intellectual property vehicles, and the intellectual property itself is affected by digital rights?

[Gigi Sohn] I think the jury is still out as to how the internet and digital technology affects intellectual property. I can tell you that it blows apart business models. The old “command and control” business model for the recording industry where the record company controlled everything from production to distribution and sales is finished. The internet disaggregates, dis-intermediates and takes away control from big gatekeepers such as recording and motion picture industries. They will tell you that the internet has destroyed intellectual property and protection, but I can point you to empirical studies that show that people who use file sharing and other services enabled by the internet are, in fact, more likely to buy records, songs, and movies.

One could argue just as persuasively, that digital technologies have helped the sales of records and movies, and helped intellectual property more than harming it. It has certainly, though, hurt the old business models.
The internet has also enabled the creation of more intellectual property, by more people. I can, for example, take my HD movie camera and make a semi-professional movie, which can be distributed via YouTube and Facebook, maybe I’ll get discovered! This property [of enabling content creation] means that many more people can be creative, and thus gives momentum to the destruction of ‘top down industries’. You don’t just have to watch Hollywood movies anymore, or manufactured music from the multinational record companies. A good musician can now make a living or be heard by millions of people, and have millions of fans independently of large firms. Just fifteen years ago, if you didn’t have a recording contract, nobody would hear you.

The big companies will tell you that because people are stealing their intellectual property online, that’s a disincentive to create. We are seeing that is absolutely not the case. What is the case is that profit margins are going down. You don’t have to buy a CD anymore, you can buy the two songs you want rather than the two songs you want plus the ten that you don’t for an ever increasing price. You can take a look at a movie beforehand and decide, “I don’t like that movie, I don’t want to see it” and save your dollars. I have to add, though, that Hollywood had its best year ever in 2009, taking more than ten billion dollars. This notion, therefore, that the internet destroys intellectual property rights, and that people are stealing and economically harming the big companies is completely unsubstantiated.

I was watching the Comcast/NBC merger, and noticed how Hollywood always get their one or two congress members to talk about the billions of dollars lost every year. That’s assuming you believe that every time someone shares a movie, they wont go to the movie theatre, or buy it otherwise, which has been proved wrong over and over again.
To complete the thought, digital technologies also give the ability to lock-down content, hurting people’s rights to use technologies and the media they buy. In the USA this is called “fair use”. The flip-side of the freedom; when we talk about copyright filtering by ISP’s, and ‘three strike’ policies, that chills speech and creativity, and hence people’s rights.

[Professor Ross Anderson] Technological change has shifted power in the music supply chain from the music majors to the platform companies like Apple; the majors no longer have anything very much to do. The result will be positive for listeners, musicians and the platform firms while the majors will go bust. Politicians should stop fighting this. It’s just like the budget air travel revolution: great for air travellers, great for Boeing and Airbus, tough luck on BA. The solution is not for ministers to tax easyjet’s passengers; it’s for them to stap taking BA’s calls.

Q: What digital rights issues arise from social networks, cloud computing and collaboration?

[Gigi Sohn] This is a huge topic. The nature of what ownership is in the digital world, to me, is one of the biggest questions. In the USA, there are initiatives such as the DECE (Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem) and Disney’s Keychest which essentially allow you to use your DRM (Digitally Rights Managed) content on any device, or allow any authorised device to play the content. There are many flaws with these systems, but once you don’t actually own the physical ‘thing’, what does that do to your rights? What if Keychest or DECE shut down? What do you own?

If I don’t actually own a disk, or digital file, if ownership is simply the right to access, rather than the right to own the content itself, then how do I exercise my first sale right? If I own a book, I can sell it, burn it, or give it away. What I cannot do is make a hundred copies and give those away, but I have the right to make use of the copyright work that I purchase. If you no longer own the item; and ‘ownership’ is merely the right to access it, then what do I really own? And what can I do with it afterwards?

[Professor Ross Anderson] Social network services have a huge conflict of interest. The users aren’t the company’s customers, but its product; it makes money from selling their personal data to advertisers. In order to have lots of data to sell, the services create the illusion that the users are in a private space with friends. This deception has a number of interesting aspects, on which my colleagues Joe Bonneau and Jon Anderson have done interesting work. For example, the services try to avoid privacy becoming salient; and while they do make privacy controls available to users, they are extremely complex and difficult to use, with very poor defaults. This approach is fragile, with Facebook in particular constantly being surprised when some new advertising innovation causes user outrage. It will be interesting to see whether the services converge on something sustainable or whether they get regulated. If it’s the latter, I expect that any effective regulation will in the long run come from the European Commission. America doesn’t care, and no-one else is big enough to matter.

Q: What about the rights of individuals as content generators vis-à-vis social networking sites who claim to own their content?

[Gigi Sohn] One day, this will be challenged. When a company decides to exercise that ability, and say ‘I own all your pictures’, someone will challenge this, and invariably the company will lose. We call this a ‘contract of adhesion’. You cannot use facebook, for example, if you don’t agree to their terms. There is no bargaining power; you cannot say ‘I don’t accede to that’. It is similar to the paradigm from sports where you see a warning stating, “Any reproduction, publication, or any other use of this broadcast without written consent, is prohibited by law.” This is nonsense, you cannot contract away your rights like that, it is a one sided negotiation. This is an interesting area of law, but if a company ever try to sell an individual’s content (for example, a photo) which they thought was valuable, I feel the individual would win.

Q: How do you think phenomenon such as media-consolidation and the emergence of dominant players in search and other markets are affecting digital rights?

[Gigi Sohn] I don’t mind consolidation so long as entry barriers remain low. The fact that Google continues to grow, and remains dominant in search is concerning, but someone could create another search engine. That is how the internet differs from the networks. You cannot easily build another telephone, cable or wireless network. You need public rights of way, government licenses, and much more. I am, though, less concerned about the consolidation in the content market than I am about consolidation in the infrastructure market. Also concerning is when a content provider merges with a conduit, such as a Comcast buying an NBC. Our concern with this would be that ‘over the top’ video providers such as Netflix and Apple TV who want to aggregate content, and make it available without owning the pipe, will no longer get access to the content. Cable companies are doing everything they possibly can to keep people buying cable subscriptions. In the US, we have a “TV Everywhere” initiative which says if you want access to certain content online, you must buy a cable subscription. The flipside is that they will not make the programming available to a company who allows you to get rid of your subscription, cutting the cord.

[Professor Ross Anderson] Back in January 2005, there was a fascinating talk at a DRM conference by Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian. He asked who would benefit from stronger DRM, and argued that it would not be the music majors but the platform vendors like Apple and Microsoft. The reason is that a technological link between two industries tends to cause the surplus to flow to the more concentrated industry. The music industry people there reacted with a mixture of anger and scorn, but by the end of that very year it was clear that Hal was right: at the copyright conference organised as part of the UK presidency of the EU, the music firms were complaining loudly that Apple was stealing their breakfast.
In other words, technological changes have shifted the market power up the supply chain. In the short term this is good for users and for artists but bad for the music majors; we’ll have to wait and see whether users and artists continue to gain in the longer term.

Q: How do you think governments can balance the needs for security versus rights to privacy?

[Gigi Sohn] Governments must be sensitive to this, and certainly should put restrictions on commercial actors who want to invade your privacy. In the case of Phorm, for example, we argued that people should have to opt-in. Opt-out simply wasn’t good enough as they were reading your packets and personal communications. When it comes to security, this is a very delicate balance. We feel that when then government has to look at your transmissions; they should have to get a warrant, not be able to do it at their discretion. You cannot wiretap someone without a warrant. That has been the case in the USA for many years, and should similarly be true of reading an individual’s packets on the internet. We think the same due-process protections which exist in the telephone world should certainly apply in the internet world, we shouldn’t loosen things ups because we are afraid of cyber-attacks, or terrorists using the internet. It’s not a technology issue, it’s a people issue, and we shouldn’t therefore punish the technology and other people’s privacy rights for security reasons.

[Professor Ross Anderson] I don’t agree that “balance” is the right approach – that’s a word used by bureaucrats when they’re up to no good. For example, the whole dreadful business of torturing detainees was obfuscated by officials talking about “balancing” the rights of detainees with those of citizens. There is no such balance. Tony Blair and his ministers justified torture by claiming that “the most important human right is the right to remain alive” but in terms of human-rights law this is a complete nonsense. The obligation on a state to protect people within its jurisdiction is always secondary to the limits on the methods that may be used, and the main purpose of constitutional and human-rights law is to set these limits clearly, in advance, in a calm and relatively unemotional environment.

Similarly, there are hard limits on what can be done with data. Since 9/11 these have been systematically ignored by many states, and in particular the British state, but now the European Court of Human Rights has been reasserting the fundamental principles in a number of key judgements. The Marper judgement ruled that the state can’t retain DNA data on innocent people indefinitely, for example, and the I v Finland judgement ruled that people can forbid their doctors (and by extension the government) from using their medical records for any purpose other than their healthcare.

Donald Rumsfeld justified torture by asking the “ticking-bomb” question. If you have a terrorist who knows the whereabouts of a ticking atomic bomb in Manhattan, surely it’s legitimate to get him to talk? We know now, of course, the right answer to that question: “Rumsfeld, the fact that you’re asking that question shows that you’re not fit to hold public office”. But the question will be asked again and again in different variants, and the only sustainable answer to it is to point to entrenched constitutional law and explain the purpose and function of constitutions. (In fact, I greatly admire the U.S. approach of having federal employees from private soldiers up to the President pledge allegiance to the constitution.) Translated into clear English: “there are some things you just can’t do, no matter what”. You just can’t torture people; it’s been illegal in Britain since 1640. And the same will increasingly apply to information, thanks to section 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


It is important, at this juncture, to understand that liberty (as James Griffin, White’s Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford describes), “guarantees not the realisation of one’s conception of a worthwhile life, but only its pursuit.” He continues to explain, “…One can be denied liberty in many ways. One can be constrained – physically by another person, or by a law with swingeing penalties, or by the threatening presence of an absolute ruler, or by sever social disapproval. Or one can be compelled to live in a way that one does not want to – by a state or a church or a family, each with its own idea about how one should live. Or one can find oneself placed in conditions that themselves allow only a very few ways of life, one’s own rationally chosen way not among them.” The structural backdrop his statement is that (in his words), “…out of the notion of personhood, we can generate most of the conventional list of human rights. We have a right to life (without it personhood is impossible), to security of person (for the same reason), to a voice in political decision (a key exercise of autonomy), to free expression, to assembly, and to a free press (without them, exercise of autonomy would be hollow), to worship (a key exercise for what one takes to be the point of life). It also generates a (disputed) sense of positive freedom, a right to basic education and minimum provision needed for existence as a person, something more – that is – than mere physical survival.”

Digital technologies have acted as a great tool of empowerment in the battle for liberty (in a political context) as it provides a medium which provides the notional ability for one to exercise the pursuit of liberty without constraint, and also provides those who are oppressed with the knowledge that their liberties are being subverted, and a voice to communicate that to each other, and the outside world. The driver here is the pace of change as societies which previously existed in subsistence, or extreme poverty, are becoming parts of globalisation.

To quote James Griffin again, “Freedom for expression, for example, is highly important in certain social settings and quite unimportant in others. Anyone who lives, as we do, in a society with democratic political institutions, culturally heterodox citizens, and a complex economy needing mobility of labour, and having to absorb fast-developing science and technology, vitally needs freedom of expression. It is sufficiently important to us in this setting to justify promulgating the right and imposing correlative duties. But anyone who lived in a traditional medieval hamlet, with static technology and unchallenged social tradition, and where skills were acquired by growing up in the place, quite rightly had a relatively minor interest in freedom of expression, and interest too minor to justify the burdensome apparatus of a right. This example, though misunderstands what the right to expression protects. The right lies in the normative notion of agency; we are self-deciders; that is part of the dignity of human standing. To be a tolerably successful self-decider, requires the ability to ask questions, hear what others think, and so on.”

So we see that as societies are elevated into ‘the conversation’, provision of the necessary apparatus to support the pursuit of liberty is important.
In a commercial sense, we see that digital technologies are raising many questions about the nature of ownership, intellectual property, and our rights as individual and commercial citizens of this new internet-state, and as consumers and participants within it. Many of these issues draw paradigm from political philosophy (which argues as to who gets what? under what terms? and says who?) and present us, as digital culture matures, with deep challenges to our own notions of ownership (as Gigi presented with the example of downloaded music and media).

As we move towards an increasingly distributed, politically and physically abstract, computing infrastructure (through social media, mobilisation, and cloud computing) these questions become more relevant as a global economic environment provides constant tests to our incumbent notions; through the testing of patents, intellectual property, ownership of our personal and company data, ownership of our own ‘virtual’ assets such as software, right to access systems, right to service levels, and more. The changes which we are seeing, for both civil and commercial actors, is a wave of momentum which is forces participation in the ‘new way of doing things’ without due consideration to the consequences of that participation. It is critical that the global community (including individuals, business, policy makers and academics) address these commercial and social challenges to build a framework which is appropriate for the medium itself.

This test of ‘appropriateness’ is important. We have to approach the internet with fresh eyes; it is a decentralised non-political environment, and perhaps the greatest engine we have ever seen for democracy, equality and social change.

While digital technologies could never guarantee equality of conditions, they can guarantee equality of options. They also give rise to the philosophical dilemma which states that one person’s liberty can conflict with another’s. John Mill, in his argument ‘On Liberty’ stated in this context “…We should tolerate even the speech we hate, because truth is most likely to emerge in a free intellectual combat from which no idea has been excluded”. It is this freedom of intellectual combat and participation which, when combined with the inevitability of social change, means that governments can either act as supporters and enablers to these changes, or continue with their incumbent policies until society fights back, and takes its freedom regardless.

Participants in society (individuals, businesses, and as nation states) do, though, need to understand that liberty and security can (and must) co-exist. The solution is not achieved through the creation of restrictive policies and legislation, but through ensuring that all members of society, in all their forms, are connected to the digital medium, and that they are all encouraged to participate, ensuring that voices are heard, and that the majority speak louder, and in greater number, than the minority who would choose to subvert their peace.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security”. And as Walter Cronkite allows me to conclude, “There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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