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Issue 258
January/February 2010
Liberty

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Liberty in the Network Age
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Cover: Common Starling flock, Dumfries, Scotland. Photograph: Paul Hobson/FLPA

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Liberty in the Network Age

Freedom to code, like the freedom to own and use a printing press, should now be included as a vital component of freedom of expression.

As a well-educated and affluent citizen of a long-established democratic state, where the rule of law is generally respected and the markets are regulated to some extent, I enjoy a wealth of freedoms that were denied to most people during history and are withheld from the majority of those living today. My liberty is not absolute, of course, and like many others I am aware of the need to guard against the encroachments of both public and private sector agents, but in general, I am grateful for my freedom from want and oppression and for the freedom to act and think as I will.

While our understanding of liberty as a philosophical abstract may be relatively unchanging, the way it informs my politics and drives my activism is not, and cannot be, constant. Freedom is always freedom within an environment, and as new spaces for action emerge and new possibilities for engaging with others are developed, the freedoms we seek and the liberties we fight to enjoy will inevitably change too.

The growth of the internet and the emergence of a networked world is a revolutionary change in the way we organise the world. The impact of this change is certainly comparable to that of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, and may eventually be comparable to the emergence of agriculture in its long-term effect on the scale and nature of human relationships.

In this emerging networked-world many of the assumptions that have underpinned the translation from our theoretical notions of liberty into practical politics will no longer hold, and there will be new freedoms and forms of expression to consider.

One of the most important may turn out to be the freedom to code, to write programs, to run them on our computers, and to make them available to others. It may not feel like a vital component of modern liberty, partly because relatively few computer users actually understand the processes that allow them to write words or record sounds and images and have them made visible to an audience around the world. But the freedom to code, like the freedom to own and use a printing press, should perhaps now be included as a vital component of freedom of expression.

Most of us, most of the time, use software that has been written by other people to carry out tasks that it was designed to perform. My word processor lets me enter, edit and format text and save what I write as files that can be stored, emailed or printed. My blogging platform, Wordpress, lets me create blog posts that can be seen by anyone with an internet-connected computer and a web browser, and so on.

Today’s computers are very permissive, and I can acquire and run a vast range of different programs. But, I can also go further: as I sit here at my laptop writing, I have access to a variety of tools that I can use to write computer programs (something which I once did professionally). If I felt inspired to, I could start up my ‘editor’ and pull together the lines of code that tell my computer to start sharing the contents of my hard drive with anyone who cares to look at them, or that implement a complex cryptographic algorithm that will hide my files from the prying eyes of customs officers or my suspicious colleagues.

If I had time and skill, I could write code that might change the world as much as the spreadsheet, the World Wide Web or any of the peer-to-peer music services have done in the past. No one could stop me doing this, because the computer I’m using is simply a machine for executing instructions, and has no way to determine or limit what those instructions might be, so long as they are within the capabilities built into the Intel processor it contains.

As with all freedoms, the freedom to code is, of course, tempered in many ways. All of today’s computers in commercial production are based around the stored program model. In this model instructions and data are stored as patterns of bits and executed one at a time by each processor. It is a model that requires linear thinking and a rigid logic to be effective, but it still facilitates a wide-ranging freedom to code that I, and many others, cherish.

My freedom to code can also, it must be noted, impinge on your freedoms. I could use my freedom to write a virus or a worm, or some other malicious software that would make your computer unusable. I could use my freedom to write a program that makes it easy to share copyrighted works without restraint, thus damaging the commercial models of publishers and reducing the income of authors and musicians. I could offer my skills to the service of a repressive state and use them to develop tools that monitor and control use of the network, as is done in China, Burma, Iran and other countries.

As well as the freedom to code, I also have the freedom to share and to use the network. When Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first browser and server for the World Wide Web he could simply write his code, test it and then start using it over the Internet. He did not have to ask for permission, and indeed there was nobody to whom he could apply for permission, since the Internet is, to all extents and purposes, a self-governing collective consisting of all the users of all the connected computers and networks.

This principle of self-governing still applies. If I write a new streaming music application like Spotify, currently massively popular in the UK, I can simply launch it and try to build customers.

This is not the case for all technologies or for all networks. Apple has worked very hard to ensure that its iPhone is carefully controlled and locked down and, unless you go to some effort to ‘jailbreak’ your phone and free it from Apple’s constraints (voiding your warranty in the process), you can only install software on the iPhone that has been approved by Apple for sale through the iTunes App Store. If you buy an Amazon Kindle then the books you read are not yours to keep or pass on to your friends, but simply licensed content that can be removed by Amazon from a distance should it decide to do so.

These devices are tethered, to use the term coined by Professor Jonathan Zittrain in his book ‘The End of the Internet’. They are controlled and restricted in order to preserve the commercial models of the companies that sell them. Of course, governments could use the same controls and restrictions to limit the actions of their citizens.

At the moment, those who would remove our liberties have to work hard to limit the capabilities of the open computers and open networks that we have built, and must spend a lot of time and energy to build imperfect blockades and easily bypassed systems of control. However, that could change very easily with the new generation of controllable computers and a more manageable network, both presented as improvements on current technology, both presented as ways to control malicious software and criminal uses of the network.

Those who seek to defend liberty must take notice of the new-found freedoms that our open network and permissive processors allow, and ensure that they are not taken away from us even before they are in the hands of the majority.

Bill Thompson is a technology critic and writer who explores the impact of digital technologies on society.

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