Law in the Internet Society

Our enemies hide in the shade that we have arranged for them.

Part I: Syllabus is source code too.

-- By CamilleFrancois - 01 Apr 2013

A couple years ago, I embarked on a journey in which I have learned much and about which I still have much to learn. For the sake of simplicity, Princeton University will be my starting point: In 2009, I enrolled in a class called “Internet and Public Policy” - a course that used to be called “Sex, Money and Rock’N’Roll: Information Technology and Society” and that “required students to purchase only one book: Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, by Lawrence Lessig”.

I didn’t know anything about information technology yet it suddenly appealed to me as the most convincing field for advancing equality; defending freedom and unleashing creativity in our society. Lessig was describing a whole world of battles to be fought. Navigation in his world was surprisingly easy: I hypertexted my way through its sources and references, discovered his Net compatriots and read their manifestos.

Manifestos are full of “we”. Moglen defines the inclusive “we” in the dotCommunist Manifesto as “We, the creators of the free Information Society”. Barlow’s manifesto mentions “our culture, our ethics” and “the unwritten codes that [provide order to] our society. He also mentions the place where “we gather”: Cyberspace, the “new home of Mind”.

Yet I discovered there was a more traditional “home of Mind” in which this community met: university. American Universities were the Net’s cradle and still host most of the family gatherings.

Lucky students of these prestigious universities are offered multiple opportunities to attend the summits, talks, conferences that bring the pioneers together. More importantly, students can enroll in classes that will detail the history of the movement, its intellectual origins and the stakes it now faces.

This amazes me. I believe that in these universities three challenges were met with great success:

Education remained open and inclusive, even if provided to stressed and competitive students in the most expensive schools on Earth. E-education tools made the courses break out of the campuses to become available online for those whose curiosity on these topics was also to be satisfied. Teaching methods also remained true to the community’s values. Moglen’s courses at Columbia illustrate that very strongly as his students are invited to speak their minds in class, to challenge the ideas they are provocatively confronted with, to sit together and join open discussions in office hours, to collaborate online on wikis, or to share their work together on a dedicated website.

Message remained consistent across centers. Syllabi of classes taught in Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, in Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society and similar sister centers are extremely consistent. They share common structure and references, as if they were different releases of the same source code. The Free Software’s four essential freedoms seem to have deeply inspired how these materials were assembled, modified and distributed.

The model started spreading outside America. In Rio de Janeiro the “Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedad” hosted by the Fundação Getulio Vargas follows the same pattern and ensures the same mission. I interviewed its founder, Ronaldo Lemos, who told me he created the Brazilian Center after he returned from Harvard. Lemos used William Fisher and Diane Cabell’s syllabi to create the first courses offered by his Center, and invited Lawrence Lessig to inaugurate it. This community believes in feedback loops, and as Lemos explained to me the Berkman Center shaped the Brazilian CTS who can now in return work with them on non-American centric projects.

Across the world, these centers now produce lawyers, coders, policymakers, and thinkers who engage in a common dialogue on the future of Information Society. They will disagree, and they will have conflicting interests as they start their careers in Google, Washington D.C., Hollywood, EFF, or AT&T… but as different as their versions now are, they somehow all come from the same source code and these people have common interface points through these institutions.

- That’s the bright side. Now what’s in the shade?

All what is being discussed between these lawyers, coders, policymakers and thinkers in Washington D.C., in the Berkman Center, at EFF, and at all the interface points is of crucial importance and impacts the future of the Information Society. The system works, but does it cover the entire map?

I’m thinking about our initial mission of advancing freedom, equality and fostering creativity through technology and I wonder about the edges of the map.

“The map” is hard to monitor: it grows bigger and more complex as more interests and more nations advance their stakes in the future of information society. For instance, let’s take three simple sets of stakes within the American context: the Free Information Society Movement, the Business interests and the Defense industry. When was the last time we fought a battle that deeply involved all of the possibly conflicting interests of these three groups? Was this during the Encryption wars – meaning twenty years ago? Now that the map grew bigger and more complex, did we give up on monitoring some of its edges: people who aren’t coming to our gatherings, places that do not touch on our interface points?

I have asked Yochai Benkler about drones and about all the ways they could hurt our vision of a fair and free information society. “Drones - we lost that battle already”, he said. This might or might not be true, and in any case we can’t fight all the battles – but aren’t we at risk of being so self-referential that we won’t see the battles coming from the edges?

West Point University is also teaching classes on Internet Policy, and I have met some of their dedicated students in my Cybersecurity classes at Columbia University. West Point is now setting up a Cybercenter to teach and research on Internet Policy – and so is Navy Academy. I doubt their approach is based on our source code, as my Cybersecurity classmates had never heard about our manifestos, about free software, about Eben Moglen, about Lawrence Lessig, and more generally about all the references that remain so central in our approach.

We believe access to the source code is key to understand, monitor and foresee what could happen in information society. Did we let a part of the Defense industry in the shade? What else lies in the edges of our myopia?

There's too much about me here for my taste. It would be better without me. I think it is also desirable to consider an alternate organization, in which the map itself, rather than your travels through it, is the subject of description. I'm not sure that would be better: the infusion of your personality here is refreshing, not to be lost lightly. But the coherence of the description is also an important end to serve.

--> Thank you a lot for the precious feedback. There is indeed a problem of organization, maybe it is because I attempted to merge different topics in one short piece:

- As you encouraged me to write from my own point of view, I wrote the piece as a journey through the map, thinking it would help understand how I came to these conclusions. It might be confusing rather than helpful so I will edit the angle to leave the personal story out of this (why trying to keep a personal touch).

- It is of course a piece about the map, although I am still unsure how helpful that concept is. I should take a real stab (in an other piece) at trying to define it more precisely and see if that leads me to anything useful.

- It is also a piece about the idea that syllabus is source code too. Maybe this actually is the central point of the piece: the challenges that were successfully tackled, the self-referencial syllabi, the 4 freedoms of free software applied to syllabus construction, the West Point syllabus, etc.

- It is a piece on this idea of a community that has set a goal for itself. There are many questions behind this idea, and the main one is: can we really talk about one community? Through the way you adress these issues and when reading manifestos the answer seem to be yes, but many still oppose this idea. If it is a community, how is it defined? By its goal only, as I suggested, or is that reductive? This is only very briefly addressed in the piece through the questions behind who are the inclusive "we" in the manifestos, and through the fact that people refer to "our goal", "our fight".

- Finally, this could be a piece about the Singularity. I was about to write a final paragraph about how that led to the Singularity movement but I ran out of space - maybe the organization seem odd because it was leading there? I had thought that our movement wasn't so concerned about the Singularity because they didn't seem that serious - I am now thinking that maybe the main reason why the Singularity isn't high up on the radar is that they seem to share the same source code than us. I should further explore this.

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r5 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:50 - EbenMoglen
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