The Movement for an Open Digital Environment

The most important battle of the 21st century will be over how much freedom people will have to create, connect, and communicate in the digital environment.

We have constructed an environment out of computerized devices and the networks that connect them. This digital environment shifts power away from big government and big business, and places it in the hands of individuals. As computers have become more powerful and cheaper, as software has become more user-friendly, and as data transmission speeds have increased, so too has the ability for people to take control over their lives.

However, control is a zero sum game. The freedom we have gained because of interconnected computer networks means that the former wielders of the master switches – government agencies and corporations – have now lost some of their ability to control things.
Recognizing that they are losing their grip on the lives of their subjects and workers, they are now battling to regain this control.

I should give some examples of the freedoms we now enjoy because of the digital environment. These freedoms allow us to control more of our lives than ever before:

  • We have the freedom to browse vast quantities of information. We do not have to go to a centralized building overseen by a knowledge curator (i.e. a library and librarian) who by making choices is in essence controlling what we can and cannot know. Those libraries are still there if we need them, but we now have more freedom to make our own decisions about what knowledge is important. This also means we can educate ourselves in order to be more informed citizens, to improve our value in the labor market, or just for fun.
  • We have more freedom to form groups. We can organize without an organization doing it for us. A few decades ago, if you wanted to start a community organization you needed a building and resources to get the word out. Now now. Just to prove the point, there is a thriving online community called Buddhist Geeks. Only in the digital environment is it possible to create an organization for geeky Buddhists and actually find people who fit that description.
  • People are now more free to create wealth. Individuals have not been this free produce for the economy since the days before the Industrial Revolution. That revolution brought with it rising standards of living but also a loss of the individual person’s ability to innovate and create wealth on her own. The digital environment is a space where all one needs is a computer, an Internet connection, and drive to be productive in today’s economy.
  • We have never been more free to play with our individual identities. A young person can go online now and learn all about a culture or lifestyle and connect with people who live that lifestyle. That child can then go and perform his new identity on any number of websites. This is a scary thought for parents, but exciting for young people.

These are only a few of the ways in which we are free from bureaucratic and organizational intervention in our lives. We have never been in more control over the pursuit of our happiness.

An Attack on our Freedoms

Over the past 15 to 20 years, after a brief period of unfettered freedom, several pieces of legislation have been enacted that transfer control back to bureaucracies and corporations. They gain support by bludgeoning the public with big notions of “national security” and “economic growth”. But they are really about retaining the power that bureaucracies and corporations have traditionally had. Below are some examples and my quick interpretation of their repercussions.

The Patriot Act, Section 215 – With our overreaction to the 9/11 attacks, we gave unprecedented powers of surveillance to law enforcement agencies. One particular section of the Patriot Act, Section 215, gives federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the National Security Agency enormous power to spy on Americans. Specifically, these agencies can collect data about you from third parties. For your life in the digital environment, this means your e-mails, texts, and web searches. This also includes data that is not unique to the digital environment as well, such as bank records.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act represents one instance of how our freedoms have been taken away in the digital environment. It is rather difficult to find information or organize when we are wary of big brother watching over us. It may be hard for Americans to consider the dangers of a government reading e-mails and recording web activity surreptitiously. But consider how hard one party countries like China and Saudi Arabia work to eavesdrop on their citizens so as to repress criticism of the government or make statements that go against government sanctioned ideas.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act – The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) places restrictions on what individuals can do with files, software, and hardware in the digital environment. Specifically, the DMCA prohibits the circumvention of any copyright protections. This anticircumvention prohibition is in an effort to prevent copyright infringement, and should assist programmers and content providers in rightfully profiting from their works. However, once a user has purchased a work, it may need to be modified to fit the unique circumstances of the user or programmer. For example, you may want to read an e-book in which you bought for your Kindle on a different e-reader. However, the e-book is embedded with digital rights management (DRM) code, blocking the reading of this e-book that you bought on another device. A user or service that circumvents this DRM is in violation of the DMCA. Another example is what is called “cell phone unlocking”, where a user is prohibited from altering the software on his phone so that she can use a different wireless carrier from the one that originally sold her the phone. In other words, if someone bought a phone from Verizon, she is prohibited from altering the DRM on her phone so she can use it with AT&T unless it is “unlocked”.

People in the digital environment need to be able to modify the objects they have bought so they can find new ways of using them. Established corporations or content providers want to repress competition, and restrict the freedom of individuals to tinker and innovate. They use the DMCA to accomplish this.

Verizon Communications Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission (2014) – This is often labeled the “Net Neutrality” ruling. The FCC had endorsed what they’ve called an Open Internet Policy. Internet service providers such as Verizon or Cox could not block Internet traffic nor unreasonably discriminate (slow down) in transmitting Internet content. However, Verizon held that they had a right to manage their network to provide the best possible service, arguing that high traffic users or services may need to be blocked to ensure reasonable data speeds for all users. The District Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled in favor of Verizon, allowing Internet service providers to block or discriminate content. In other words, if applications like Apple’s Face Time or certain users use a lot of data, ISPs can block the transmission of their content or slow their connections. This also means that ISPs – as they have already done with users – can usher in tiered pricing for content providers. There can now be a fast lane and slow lane, with companies willing to pay higher rates occupying the fast lane, and smaller companies or users taking the slow lane.

This decision goes against a core American value of equality. An entire class of people and businesses will not be able to compete on a level playing ground because they do not have the money to pay for Internet speeds as fast as the bigger, more established businesses

Fighting Back

We may not be able to call the digital environment truly open anymore because of the types of legislation I discussed above. However, individuals and interest groups have been fighting back. They realize that a space unique in world history is being closed, and are working hard to keep it open. Some of the more prominent are the “Free and Open Internet Movement”, the “Open Wireless Movement”, the “Free Culture Movement”, the “Open Access Movement” and the “Open Source Movement”.

For example, the major goal of the Open Access Movement is to leverage the properties of the digital environment to allow more people access to scholarly work. The traditional model, of using brick and mortar publishing houses, has worked because publishing houses absorb the costs of printing and distribution, and recoup these costs through paid subscriptions. This model does not rely on direct contributions from the author. The Open Access Movement shifts these costs to the author or organization they are affiliated with, and then makes the work available to anyone. The downside is that the author bears the brunt of the cost. The upside is that now their work is available to anyone in the digital environment, increasing the amount of knowledge available in society and increasing the exposure of the author.

The Open Access Movement is very much a niche issue and most people are not that interested in scholarly work. The core goal, however, of making information available to as many people as possible, is one that is quite universal. It is these core goals that unify the many disparate interest groups and movements working to keep the digital environment open. I believe there are at least five:

  1. Neutrality – No discrimination in the speed of data transmissions
  2. Censoring – No blocking of data based upon its content
  3. Surveillance – No eavesdropping on data transmissions
  4. Restrictive Copyright – No copyright laws that restrict the modification of properly purchased hardware and software
  5. Control – Service providers cannot sell user content to 3rd parties without explicit authorization from the user

Framing a Movement

The American public is not very aware of the “Free and Open Internet Movement”, the “Open Wireless Movement”, the “Free Culture Movement”, the “Open Access Movement” or the “Open Source Movement” or others. This is regrettable, as the average person would directly benefit from any changes ushered in by these movements. Even if there are Americans who would find the core goals of these movements not conducive to democracy and innovation, it is still imperative that they first know about these movements before barreling headlong into support for closing the digital environment (this goes for politicians as well, who claim to know the consequences of the policies they support, but sometimes I’m not so sure). But unlike issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and affirmative action, most of the public is not even aware there are two opposing sides!

These movements, somewhat splintered and in some cases highly technical, do not present to the public a clear storyline to follow. The American public is not aware that there is a political battle underway. The public needs to at least know the story. Even if they choose to support policies that close the digital environment, at least they would be doing so with their eyes wide open. The public’s lack of knowledge is a problem of framing.

And so for the next few paragraphs I will imagine that I am someone who is working for an organization attempting to do said framing.

My first step would be to consolidate each of the niche movements – “Open Source”, “Open Access”, and so on – into my ad campaign, making clear that they are working towards one common end. That end can be the five core goals stated earlier: net neutrality, no censuring, no surveillance, no restrictive copyright, and no 3rd party control of data. This consolidation is vital, as many of these movements are, by themselves, not relevant to the average citizen. They will always loose out when paired against “national security” or “economic growth”. For example, the Open Wireless Movement is working towards creating an open digital environment for wireless devices in urban spaces. The idea is to use the wireless services of current customers to create open hotspots. Computer technologists have been employed to find ways to make these connections secure. This is a good idea. However, this movement focuses on wireless networks in urban spaces. What about wired connections? What about suburban and rural spaces? The Open Wireless Movement can easily be seen by middle America as yet another entitlement program for the inner city poor, or simply a niche issue for urban hipsters.

The second step would be to make clear to the public that the technologies they use, the software and hardware they buy, the social networking sites they employ to connect with friends and family, and the companies that provide them with access are best understood as being a part of one interconnected digital environment. This digital environment, furthermore, is not only a place for commerce and entertainment, but a social space where we express our humanity and pursue our life’s goals. Only by seeing these technologies as fundamental to our daily lives can interest in these movements resonate with the American public. Think about our lives in the physical environment, and then apply any of the five core goals that power these movements to what we do in our everyday lives. Do we want the NSA watching us in a park or restaurant? Do we want our free speech censored in a park or through some work of art or literature? Would we find it okay if the roads we traveled on were not neutral, and we had to pay a fee to travel on the Interstate?

A third step would be to not employ the terminology “free”. The notion of “free” is toxic to hardworking Americans. This is especially so for those with conservative, business friendly leanings. Free has the ring of entitlements. What is truly important here is the “open” aspect and this needs to be stressed. There is something inherently American about working towards producing a space in which each person is treated fairly and has equal opportunity to achieve their goals (Net Neutrality), can speak truth to power (no censoring), is free from search and seizure (no surveillance), has the ability to exercise her entrepreneurial spirit (no Restrictive Copyright) and is master of her domain (Control). The “Open” digital environment is American.

The Movement for an Open Digital Environment

My movement would be called the Movement for an Open Digital Environment. The narrative would be that there is a current battle being fought over the degree to which individuals can be free to create, connect, and communicate in the digital environment. On one side are government agencies and corporations that fear the freedom inherent in this environment. They are implementing laws that will shackle people in digital chains. If these hulking organizations win, then our lives in the digital environment will be characterized by constant surveillance, limited opportunities for political expression, and few opportunities for wealth creation. Opposing these behemoths are small citizen groups and individuals who are trying to beat back this encroachment. They are more like a tiny militia when compared to the well funded armies of government agencies and corporations. But these groups have the greatest weapon – the tendency of the American people to choose liberty, equality, and individual freedoms over tyranny.

 

Organizations and People of Interest (Google ’em to Learn More)

Organizations (in no particular order)

Freepress’ Save the Internet
Open Wireless Movement (https://openwireless.org/)
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Internet Defense League
Internet Society
Opennet Initiative (https://opennet.net/about-oni)
Internet Declaration (http://www.internetdeclaration.org/)
Creative Commons
Free Software Foundation
Public Knowledge

People of Interest (in no particular order)

Susan Crawford
Richard Stallman
Lawrence Lessig
Tim Wu
Peter Suber
Yochai Benkler
Tim Berners-Lee
Zoe Lofgren
Darrel Issa
Edward Markey
Ron Wyden

8 comments

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  5. I have felt like George Orwell’s Brother is Watching YOU! has been turning into a reality more and more since 9/11. it is quite disturbing. The level of surveillance by government authorities has become frightening. How much is too much, as we turn over our freedoms?

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