Debates over net neutrality, online privacy, cybersecurity, copyright, free speech, media consolidation, and “openness” are all part of a larger conflict between two visions of freedom—and how to protect it. Ensuring the right one comes out on top is the mission of a policy voice in Washington.
The dominant vision in Washington is that, as Harvard law professor Larry Lessig put it in his influential 1999 book Code, “Cyberspace, left to itself, will not fulfill the promise of freedom. [It] will become a perfect tool of control.” But some of us still believe that the general trajectory of technological change is one towards greater empowerment and choice through technologies of freedom—if we allow the freedom to innovate, experiment and invest. That’s the core message of TechFreedom, a new non-profit, non-partisan think tank that will launch next week. On a wide variety of issues, TechFreedom will outline a path forward for policymakers towards a bright future where technology enhances freedom, and freedom enhances technology.
For cyber-regulationists, the real “Big Brother” is not government but Apple, AT&T, Google, Comcast, Facebook and other “information empires” bent on controlling our cyber-lives. Thus, they argue, only government can protect our freedom from corporate oppression. We just need the right people implementing the right regulations to carefully steer technology away from imposing the “perfect control” of network management, digital rights management, “search bias,” closed or “appliancized” devices, and so on.
But the history of digital technology suggests that “perfect control” is largely a phantom menace, and that even “effective control” is difficult to achieve, and more difficult to maintain—without help from government. IBM, Microsoft and AOL are but a few of the empires that have been most feared just before some rebel competitor disrupted their dominance. Relentless, unpredictable technological change eventually dethrones even the mightiest of incumbents—not “perfectly,” perhaps, but much more effectively than attempts by government to steer the evolution of technology. If we embrace the evolutionary dynamism defined by futurist Virginia Postrel as “constant creation, discovery, and competition,” freedom will not only survive, it will thrive.
An unknowable future demands both humility and optimism: Policymakers should avoid imagining they can steer markets better than the invisible hand. TechFreedom’s first goal is to remind all three branches of government, the media and the academy that things are rarely as bad as they seem and that cyberspace is never really “left to itself” because reputation and other market forces are always at work.
Second, TechFreedom will highlight the costs and dangers of regulation. Slowing innovation denies consumers the rich rewards of the future. Worse, even the best-intentioned regulators must inevitably rely on the companies they regulate to help them understand the technologies of the future. This opens the door for incumbents to protect themselves from competition by to “capturing” regulation.
Third, we will help identify the least restrictive means for government to remedy real harms. Government’s role should be limited to promoting—sometimes perhaps even requiring—corporate transparency, holding companies to their promises (the FTC’s job), supporting consumer education about real concerns like privacy, child safety and defamation, promoting better user empowerment tools, and using antitrust law to thwart true threats to consumer welfare.
Finally, effective advocacy requires facilitating constructive, serious dialogue on technology policy—from high theory to its day-to-day application in Congress, regulatory agencies and the courts. That spirit of engagement is perfectly embodied by TechFreedom’s first publication, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet—a unique book containing contributions from 26 thought leaders from a wide variety of perspectives on ten key questions.
We’re launching the book with a free, half-day symposium in Washington, DC today, January 19, 2011. Watch the livestream at nextdigitaldecade.com starting at 12:45 pm Eastern / 9:45 am Pacific.
Before founding TechFreedom, Berin Szoka directed the Center for Internet Freedom at The Progress & Freedom Foundation and practiced communications law.