Law in the Internet Society

Making Free the Norm

Making Freedom through Legal Realism

It’s both unfortunate and unsurprising that our government is unwilling to revamp the ECPA or enact measures to limit the gross private sector violations of American citizens’ privacy. Eben has outlined the negative effects of this throughout the semester which I pass on reiterating here, but of course they are myriad; immediate and abstract. The success of straightforward lawyering in this area, given the lack of useful law, is unlikely. But of course results are what matter – Eben’s Freedom Box might not be the result of “lawyering,” but the change it has the potential to effect is as valuable as any court ruling in our favor.

Change on such a large scale only works if the people are on your side, however (or at least easily convinced). I’ve spoken with a number of peers – educated, socially conscious, computer-literate adults – on the subject of privacy in internet communications, and their response is remarkably tepid (“im kinda remarkably unconcerned on a personal level about it,” one paradigmatically expressed via his Google chat client). Even when faced with specific, similarly-functioning alternatives to the unholy triumvirate of Chrome/Google Search/Gmail, the marginal gain in privacy is outweighed by losses in functionality (let’s not even go so far as to the pushback against ending smartphone use).

The line of reasoning presented, then, tends to go in both directions: on the one hand people are simply unconcerned with their losses in privacy; on the other people enjoy the functionality offered by their current services. I am most interested in the latter – if people don’t care (or even realize) that their “free” software costs far more than they’d be willing to spend in any other context, offering the superior product would still result in a free internet.

The Free Production Model and Its Accompanying Ideology

Although we seem to be at a disadvantage to our highly-capitalized competitors with undisclosed revenue streams, the free model has the capability to craft stronger products. That process usually requires some large amount of legwork at the start by a single party (Linus Torvalds, the Freedom Box team) who then set it free in the community where skilled programmers customize and fine-tune the product, taking it in directions not imagined by its “creator” and leading to a multitude of products to suit many tastes and needs and all of which can be further fine-tuned. While this is important practically to the model, it is also important abstractly to the community – critically, the machines are ultimately at the user’s control. Provided, of course, that she know how to control them.

The Free Model in Today’s Mainstream Computing Landscape

But of course few do know how to control them. It may have been a calculated move by the unfree to strike before people learned how to control their machines and to, in turn, craft a world where they’ll never “need” to. Or perhaps it was the less malicious result of a confluence of design ingenuity, technical developments, and market demand which created today’s mainstream computing technology, nearly as far from the free ideology as imaginable. Internet technology has caught on so rapidly in large part thanks to devices which carry the hallmarks of unfreedom: the code proprietary; the functionality and design interface decisions already made, the scary complexity of the machine hidden by nineteen icons and one round, satisfyingly-clicked button, at once epitomizing popular acceptance and free movement derision. And while it has quickly ushered in some of the benefits of widespread internet communication, it has wrought an age where the technology writers at mainstream publications complain when a tool is too complicated and where our children, raised alongside the machines and with the potential to truly put in the time and understand them, think to be “tech savvy” means to know how to sync your iPhone interface to your Gmail interface. By duping society into thinking the surface is all there is, doors are opened in the inner workings which can be exploited by those in control (and indeed are already being made use of).

Reconciling Free and Popular

With the very thrust of the free movement at odds with mainstream computing’s modus operandi, how does it create a product that wins in the marketplace? How do you convince someone to migrate from Chrome when they won’t do so even when offered a Firefox build that mimics exactly the former’s look and functionality (and, with limited effort, can be made to do even more)? How do you sell customizability when simplicity got us where we are today and your rivals price at (ostensibly) the lowest price possible?

The easy option is to sell specific builds. When I set my parents up with Firefox, I asked them what functionality they wanted, downloaded the necessary plugins, and they remain none the wiser that their browser could do so much more. They’re happy with what functionality they have and their privacy is protected better than if they were using Chrome, but they’re otherwise no better off than someone running Chrome – the machine still controls them and likely always will. If these builds are better products than competitors’, it could get freedom in households that don’t even think they need it.

The other option is to make a market for products that carry the free ideology. That is to say: to teach. Children have the time and curiosity to learn how to program, and have the future wherein that knowledge can pay off for the greater good. My experience in a rural public school with “computer class” for at least ten of thirteen years (I can remember using 5 ¼” floppies!) taught me nothing about programming (though I learned a lot about proprietary interfaces) and my college and law school peers’ experience at a diverse array of schools around the country appears similar. For this, I’ll be spending my winter break looking into developing a program like 826 (with whose D.C. branch I worked as an undergraduate) which instead focuses on programming skills. And I'd be glad to have your help, LawNetSoc? .

-- MatthewCollins - 15 Dec 2012



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r3 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:50 - EbenMoglen
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