The Web makes us Smarter, Regulating it would Retard Society

I recently read Clive Thompson’s book ‘Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better’, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it. Any book arguing that the Internet and Internet technologies is fundamentally making us smarter and more capable as a species (based on plenty of reason and evidence) is a breath of fresh air these days because there’s no shortage of people who argue the opposite.

The most common argument today seems to me to be that human beings are going to become less smart and less capable of remembering things as a result of being able to query history’s largest repository of human knowledge (i.e. the Internet) at the touch of a button. In short, that the Internet will make us and our children dumber. The argument or fear is broadly that we are doing less thinking as a result of being able to ‘Google’ anything we don’t know. But Clive Thompson’s book is a strong and very well-evidenced argument against this fear. He shows, firstly, that such fears are nothing new and are recorded as far back as the ancient Greeks, and secondly that the Internet isn’t making us dumber, it’s makes us smarter when we use it in the most productive ways – which we mostly do.

In a nutshell, what we learn from Thompson’s book is: that we’re only doing less of the type of thinking and recalling that’s actually better-performed by computers anyway, and as a result freeing ourselves up for more of the type of thinking that the human brain is especially good at; how vast communities of networked minds are enabling us to solve scientific and technological problems almost quicker than we can think of new ones; how blogging and chat rooms have turned the common man into a writer (something unprecedented in human history) who takes the time to improve the quality of his arguments as a result of having an audience; how technology, when it enables students to learn in ways they couldn’t before, vastly improves their rate of progress; how we’re using technology to coordinate and direct local and global responses to humanitarian disasters much more quickly and effectively than previously possible; and perhaps most profoundly of all, how technology is making political and social activism less costly and time-consuming, which is expediting significant, and sometimes radical, social and political change.

“To make social change begin to snowball, we need to make our thoughts visible. When members of society think in public and keep in ambient contact with one another, it creates a new environment—where we’re increasingly aware of what changes might be possible.”

When, inevitably, the discussion moves onto privacy, censorship, data control and governments, Thompson initially refrains from revealing his own political stance on these hot topics. Instead, he briefly discusses government actions such as the so-called ‘right to forget’, (which at the time of publication was a proposal but is now E.U. Law), and other proposals from intellectuals such as “reputation bankruptcy”. But Thompson eventually openly reveals his agreement with the notion of a “Magna Carte for the Digital Age”, which, according to the author, has been proposed by ‘inventor’ of the Internet Tim Berners-Lee and other “thinkers”.

He writes:

“What we need now, as MacKinnon and other thinkers have argued, is a new Magna Carta for the digital age—one that requires corporate providers of online speech to respect the rights of those who speak on their platforms. “No person or organization shall be deprived of the ability to connect to others without due process of law and the presumption of innocence,” is the prime rule suggested by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web. More countries worldwide (the United States included) could follow European Union officials and push for regulations requiring high-tech services to give users more control over their data—or deleting it upon request.”

He then discusses how regulation can spontaneously emerge in markets and effect social change, without government involvement, as a result of peaceful lobbying, protesting and picketing by activists.

“…Indeed, in addition to regulation, it’s possible high-tech firms might agree to some voluntary standards. As MacKinnon points out, firms in democratic, open societies have responded to public pressure in the past. When student activists pressured apparel companies to reform their sweatshop practices in the 1990s, it produced the Fair Labor Association—a very imperfect solution, but one that improved conditions at some overseas factories. After Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! were humiliated in Congress for their cooperation with the Chinese government, they joined the Global Network Initiative, adopting voluntary rules to address the human rights implications of their work. (It’s had concrete, positive effects: When Yahoo! later rolled out services in Vietnam, it assessed the country’s rights record and opted to locate its servers in Singapore, where they’d be out of reach of the dissent-crushing Vietnamese government.)”

It’s great that the author takes the time to note how markets can regulate themselves in reaction to and for the benefit of society, but he is wrong to suggest that Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! were willing parties in Internet censorship in China. This supposes a world where businesses have far more freedom than they do in reality. To say that Google et al cooperated with the Chinese government is to assume that they were free to choose whether to engage in Internet censorship/filtering or not in the Chinese market, but they weren’t free to choose.  The fact is that the Chinese divisions of Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! have no choice but to obey the laws and demands of the Chinese government; censorship is a legal requirement of Internet companies operating in China. If they don’t obey the laws, then they are simply not allowed to do business in China. Doing what the people with guns tell you to is not “cooperating” it is obeying so as to avoid being harmed, which is entirely different. The harm, in this case, is not physical but comes in the form of economic opportunity; it is being denied the opportunity to engage in peaceful exchange with the Chinese people – who are an increasingly prosperous people who represent 19% of the world’s population. For any global business whose competitors have been allowed to operate in China, losing such ground to your rivals could be fatal or at least very damaging. It is easy, then, to understand why Google et al did what the Chinese government demanded of them, and it’s unreasonable to expect them, as commercial enterprises seeking to expand their customer base, to do anything else.

It’s ironic that corporations such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo!, ones which are regularly rounded upon by politicians and the media in the western world for their perceived propensity for circumventing laws, regulations and legislation, have been chastised for obeying the law in other countries. They are damned when they do obey government and damned when they don’t! The U.S. government dragged Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! before congress and wagged its hypocritical finger at them simply because it couldn’t punish the real culprits: the Chinese ruling elite. But someone had to be punished, otherwise it would look like the government didn’t care about liberty, and no one fits the bill better than the villainous ‘evil corporation’. Which conveniently reinforces the delusion that democracy/government is a victim of corporations, even though the latter is nothing but a legal concept that wouldn’t exist if it were not for the existence of governments.

It’s not as if any of these corporations didn’t demonstrate their unwillingness to engage in illiberal behaviour by attempting to avoid having to censor and otherwise corrupt or devalue their own services at the behest of ruling authorities. In 2010, after the Chinese government hacked into its servers, Google announced that it was “no longer willing to censor its search results” and tried to negotiate a way to provide an unfiltered Internet search engine to the Chinese people with their rulers. Sadly and not surprisingly, the men with guns weren’t keen on compromise or negotiation, and so Google redirected its Google China service to Google Hong Kong, which is outside the jurisdiction of Chinese censorship laws, in a brave attempt to evade censorship laws. However, even this noble attempt to bring the people of China an untainted version of the Google search engine has failed and the “Great Firewall” of China continues to censor its search results. Furthermore, as noted by Thompson, all three corporations involved in the China saga have since joined the Global Network Initiative and are now using its principles as a factor in deciding where they locate their servers whenever particularly oppressive governments loom large over a market.

Sometimes criticism of the behaviour of corporations is valid, but in this case Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! have been falsely identified as willing accomplices of despotic and autocratic ruling authorities around the world. They have been characterised as antisocial enterprises that do not share the ideals of free speech and freedom of association. But nothing could be further from the truth. These three giants of the Internet and technology markets create enormous value for societies around the world and, of course, they want to do business in the world’s biggest market: China. The people of China no doubt want to benefit from Google and other tech giants as fully as we in the western world do, but one entity stands in the way of this mutually beneficial exchange: the Chinese ruling elite. They want the economic growth that Google et al’s products and services would facilitate in China because that would mean more money in the government coffers. But they don’t want the average person’s mind to be exposed to the philosophy and culture of liberty that exists behind the curtain because that will eventually lead to moral outrage spreading like a forest fire that will incinerate the foundations of China’s autocracy.

Let us now assess the concept of a “Magna Carta for the digital age”, which Thompson concedes would only have any power to work in democratic nations where moral outrage at any threat to freedom of speech and association isn’t hard to come by.

“It might seem utopian to imagine this sort of regulation stitched together across nations. (In autocratic ones, it would be impossible.) But in democratic countries it’s not inconceivable.”

If this proposed solution is aimed at preventing situations like the Google China one, then not only does it point government guns at the wrong people (corporations), but if they were pointed at the right people (autocratic, oppressive governments) they would be powerless anyway. Leaving that obvious flaw aside let’s assess the concept in its broadest possible sense, which was articulated by Thompson when he explained that it would require corporations to respect the rights of those who speak on their platforms and by Tim Berners-Lee’s “prime rule” that “No person or organization shall be deprived of the ability to connect to others without due process of law and the presumption of innocence…”

The notion of the digital Magna Carta seems to be an attempt to create virtual versions, if you will, of the physical rights of freedom of speech and of association in the real world. This is problematic from the first because the freedom of speech and association are simply a more elaborate way of expressing the libertarian concept of self-ownership. And that is logically derived from the laws of physics – cause and effect. In order to not violate someone’s ‘right’ to speak and to freely associate with others (i.e. their self-ownership) you simply have to refrain from forcefully preventing them from them using their bodies as they wish in peaceful ways. In short, you don’t have to do anything, you just have to leave them alone and get out of their way as long as they are acting in ways that do not violate your self-ownership. These rights, which reside under the umbrella term of self-ownership and are negative ones, cannot be translated into positive ones for the digital realm because connecting to the Internet and using corporate platforms for speech and forming associations (e.g. Facebook) requires entering into a contract to use physical property owned by someone else (e.g. Facebook’s servers and databases); unlike speaking and moving which only requires the use of property you (and only you) can own – i.e. your body.

The reality is that speaking in the real world and “online speech” are two different actions and they cannot be ethically equated. Likewise, the right to move around and associate with others in the real world is not the same action, from an ethical perspective, as “connecting to others” over the web. The only rights that an individual can have, in regards to the continued use of the property of a provider of online speech, are those afforded to him in the contractual agreement between both parties. This is so because it’s the real world equivalent of being in someone else’s house. You may remain on the property if and only if you abide by the terms and conditions set out by the owner – e.g. if you don’t use his phone to make obscene or abusive phone calls.

Thus if the terms and conditions allow for the provider to terminate the user’s access at any time without notice, or as a result of certain behaviours, then the user has no recourse in the former case and none in the latter if they have engaged in such behaviour. But if the terms don’t allow for this or the user did not engage in behaviours that allow for expulsion, then the user may take the issue before a court (perhaps a virtual, online dispute resolution service) on the grounds of contract violation. If the court rules in favour of the user, then the provider would have to reinstate the user’s access to their platform. If the provider refuses to comply, then this fact may be widely advertised by a watchdog or regulatory body to the detriment of the provider’s reputation. The same principles and procedures can be used to resolve issues around data control too.

The problem of Internet censorship only exists at all or on the scale that it does because there are groups of people in the world with sufficient violent authority (e.g. the Chinese government) and resources to strangle the minds of an entire population; and to prevent them from freely using the world’s universal communication system as they wish. Government power is the problem and therefore more government power cannot be the solution, even if it is from democratic nations.

A Magna Carta for the digital age would give individuals the ‘right’ to use force (in the form of government regulations) against corporate providers of online speech simply because their online service (which requires the use of physical property to exist and function) facilities online speech and connecting with others. This is arbitrary and that’s no good for a universal ethical principle. It would give governments even more control over the behaviour of individuals and that only serves to create more government and less society. The absolute respecting of property rights and contracts is sufficient an ethic to protect and preserve the liberty of everyone. There is no need to invent bundles of positive rights and wrap them around the Internet like network cables around an office.

The Internet and its myriad of technologies have blossomed into something unimaginably wonderful in the absence of government regulation. If we start to believe that we can use government action, however modestly and judiciously, to ‘improve’ and ‘regulate’ the Internet for the benefit of society, then we will find ourselves on the same logical path as the Chinese oppressors we so denounce. And we will take the very great risk of turning a beautiful thing ugly.

As Clive Thompson’s book shows in such an enjoyable fashion: the web makes us smarter. Regulating it would retard society, ethically, materially and culturally.

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