Internet at Liberty

I’m in Budapest at the invitation of Central European University and Google, at a conference of activists called “Internet at Liberty.” The conference features discussions about the possibilities and limits of free speech on the internet. Given its main sponsors and its topic, I wanted to think carefully about how the conference was positioning both the internet and -because it’s such a weighty term – liberty.

First, liberty comes across as being about liberal democracy and economic liberalization. These are connected in the internet space: liberal democracy underpins the development of the internet as a medium and as a (commercial) platform, and the development (democratization) agenda of the United States in the world.  Sami Ben Gharbia has an interesting perspective on this.

So it makes sense for Google as a commercial entity that depends on a liberalized regulatory framework, that has a reputation at stake as a progressive company, to fund an event like this. Google’s market expands when internet content is not blocked, and the company has an interest in supporting free expression - as evidenced by their recent action in China.

But the focus on liberty and American-style freedom of expression are linked to economic liberalization as well. They should remind us that libertarian and liberal politics are not the only means by which media is democratized – or for that matter, potentially regulated.

Liberal views of power normally see power struggles as being about obvious struggles – people not getting what they say they want. But there are other views of power that see greater importance in t is NOT being disucssed. As media scholars know, what gets left off the agenda is as important as what issues are directly introduced. Here are a few things I thought were missing from the first day of Internet at Liberty:

    1. It took most of the day to start talking about privacy online – which is significant because privacy and anonymity is essential for gaining control of one’s expression.

    2.More importantly, not a lot of discussion about the infrastructure level of access. The discussion of freedom was not all that much about the design of the internet. This is signficant in two ways: one, a certain amount of autonomy and control over the structure and function of our media, and two: the convergence of media practices across internet and mobile services. Google, remember, published a policy paper this summer with mobile operator Verizon that stipulated that mobile operators could prioritize services and block others without being subject to any provisions that protect net neutrality in the “wired” internet.

However, there was a significant amount of discussion about media platforms – Facebook and Google. This is both encouraging and distressing. Encouraging because it created a real dialogue about technological choices and user autonomy when using these platforms, and distressing because it reiterated to me that these corporate-owned platforms are now the main way that people experience interactive media. They are, essentially, the infrastructure. And thus, real media democracy would involve appropriate governance of them. But unlike the public internet or other media, there is no opportunity for governance.

These lapses, and this shift of interactive media towards free services that make money by mining social connections raises bigger questions about power, and who gets to ask what kinds of questions. Working from the title of the conference, liberty itself becomes more complex. Indeed, it is possible to have both positive and negative liberty. Much of the discussion has been about negative liberty – the lack of barriers, especially to free speech. Activists and politicos talked about the right not to have blogs and speech blocked, and urged companies and governments to remove these impediments. But POSITIVE liberty, at least as far as Isaiah Berlin is concerned, is the right to have control over your life. This includes the right to communicate, the right to establish your platform for expression, and the right to live your life as you please (which includes the right to privacy)

We didn’t talk much about positive rights in the conference. Maybe because positive rights pose a real struggle for regulators and for the development of the internet. Regulation is often couched in ideas of negative liberty. Something more radical – governance? – might take a broader view of power. This would require a better understanding of how people negotiate the terms under which they communicate

This is where I think the philosophical questions have real pragmatic importance. If the only thing we can do to negotiate our stake and our right to communicate is to complain about Facebook terms of service, we have lost our positive rights. Real liberty is having a stake in how we communicate.