The Future of Freedom and Tyranny

Cory Doctorow delivered a fascinating talk  at the Chaos Communication Congress . Doctorow is an incredibly engaging speaker, and I suggest you really take sometime to sit down and watch it. My take away on it is this:  In this talk he makes the claim that the current copyright wars are but the opening chapter of a “century- long struggle” regarding the freedom of information, of which SOPA, and PIPA are mere opening skirmishes, that is to be fought out by forces against some element of that freedom trying to do away with general purpose computation machines. What does he mean? As I take it corporate and political interest have what will only be an increasing desire to diminish the “hackability” of the information exchanging devices and software we use. So that a computer company might, for instance, want to create the ability to monitor and erase pirated software on my computer. A government might want to be able to monitor people engaged in criminal activity, a power which, when taken to an extreme, might see a tyranny only allowing software or hardware to be sold with extensive surveillance capabilities in its borders. This is, of course, what is known as “spy-ware” and Doctorow sees corporate and government efforts to control information to increasingly be in the form of “spy-ware”.

Doctorow briefly touches on the extension of this conflict between the freedom and control  to new forms of hacking such as 3D printing or DIY biology. As he admits general purpose computation may result in things that “freak even me out”, but he nevertheless appears to think we should always lean more in the direction of freedom than control.

There are is a question I wish I would have been able to ask  Doctorow directly, so asking it here will have to suffice.  My question relates to what might be called the inevitability of efforts to control information, and the ultimate source of such legislation.

One of his listeners pointed out how regulation of the internet might ultimately resemble the laws of the sea with pockets of control and pockets of freedom. Doctorow responded that the analogy was inaccurate. The internet was an interdependent network in a way that the oceans, where something happening in the middle of the Pacific might have no effect elsewhere, is not.

My question is this: if some attempt (a very likely to fail attempt) at governance of the open information system we now possess is inevitable, wouldn’t it be a good idea to try and see if the very liberating and democratic potential of that system was used to provide that governance rather than fight for a kind of perfect freedom of information and hackability?

As Paddy Ashdown recently pointed out one of the features that make our era unique is the dis-junction between the power of the nation-state and the international nature of our problems, that we have yet to evolve institutions, not of world government, but international governance. Attempts , even failed attempts, at such governance their certainly will be as institutions emerge to fill this power vacuum. As Doctorow points out, this is now beginning to be done by secretive, non-democratically accountable institutions such as The Trans-Pacific Strategic Partnership   and ACTA.

A clear example might help better explain my question. I wish Doctorow would have mentioned his thoughts the recent request by the National Science Advisory Board for Bio-security that scientist not publish recent work on the evolveability of the bird flu to a form that would be pandemic in humans for fear that it might be used by terrorists. No doubt, this is but the first of many cases, and not just involving security, but primarily posing deep ethical questions, such as the crazy planet of the apes scenario that a group of British scientist recently warned about. Certainly, in addition to questions of security and crime, there will be the desire and efforts to control the hackability of life, even our own personal selves, on ethical grounds.

What I really want to know, is if knowledge, and even more importantly technological and genetic practice,  is bound to be regulated, then can we construct democratic mechanisms to do it which avoids the problems of the tyranny of the majority, is not motivated by a hysterical fear of technology, and bridges the gap between expert knowledge and common understanding?  That is the question of the century.

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