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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Death of Internet Freedom

I first started using the Internet in the early 1990s. I remember tying-up our household's one telephone line as I dialled into the Internet and surfed the web with a text-based browser. Back then the possibilities seemed endless. The Evil Empire had fallen and with it, the threat of a communist world had ended. And here we had this new communications medium, which was free from government control. Back then the Internet was often compared with the Wild West. This inspired images of the lone cowboy, at liberty to do as he pleased, to travel wherever the wind may take him, free from any authorities telling him what to do and think. The Internet was something organic, an interconnected world of communities built from the ground-up by individuals acting of their own volition. This was a world where the politicians—who told us how to live, who took our hard-earned money, and who always had their fingers close to the little red button with the power to destroy the world—were no longer needed.

For many years, governments took a hands-off approach to the Internet and the world witnessed technological innovations that were beyond our wildest dreams. From the creation of e-mail and the World Wide Web, to the browser wars of the '90s, to the creation of online payment systems, streaming video, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, and the open source movement, a spirit of competition and innovation created the modern-day Internet. Likewise, personal web pages, blogs, and other technologies have given people around the world the ability to express themselves to a mass audience. The low barriers to entry that the technology provides created a marketplace of ideas that is unparallelled in any other communications medium and at any other point in history.

Yet, all this seems to have changed. Nowadays people portray Internet service providers as the big bad wolf, arguing that government must step-in to save us from the multinational corporations. They say that government must spy on us to protect us from terrorism. That our ideas should be censored because they might offend someone else. They ignore that government is the one entity that can hold a gun to our heads and call it justice; the one entity that can take our money and call it charity; while companies operating in a competitive market have every incentive to provide people with what they want. At the same time, governments are introducing strict laws that prevent people from using the technology to its full potential. Laws that prevent us from sharing our lives and participating in our own culture.

It is now clear that the Wild West is gone and in its place we have something far more tame and much less free. The Internet, however, has become an indispensable tool in many of our lives. People rely on it for business, education, entertainment, and communication. The future of the Internet is, therefore, more important than ever. My new website Fencing the Digital Horizon: How Government Regulations Threaten Internet Freedom, produced as part of my masters thesis, explores the issues of copyright law and net neutrality in Canada from a libertarian perspective.

Posted by Jesse Kline on April 7, 2010 in Web/Tech | Permalink


Anything that is free annoys the hell out of government and must be taxed. Any excuse to get their foot in the door and what better excuse than our own safety. The nanny state must have control and the threat of terror, child porn,hate groups or any perceived threat to the stability of government doctrine is enough to warrant intervention by big brother. Not to mention the taxation potential. They will not rest until they have complete control. We are sheep. They will get it.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-04-09 11:20:44 PM

Sheesh, the writer of this article needs to dry up a little. Internet freedom, while perhaps compromised slightly, is not dead at all.

Posted by: Cytotoxic | 2010-04-10 11:13:23 PM

Time will tell

Posted by: peterj | 2010-04-11 1:12:52 AM

@Cytotoxic: Dry up a little?

You're right that Internet freedom is not completely dead. The point I was trying to get at is that the government initially took a hands-off approach to regulating the Internet, but nowadays, we are seeing more and more regulations. As a result, privacy and freedom of speech have suffered and things could get much worse if we pass new lawful access laws, strengthen copyright, and impose neutrality regulations.

Posted by: Jesse Kline | 2010-04-11 2:01:31 PM

Government initially takes a hands-off approach to most anything, Jesse. Technology is always two steps ahead of the law. Politicians don't usually push for laws until their constituents push them for such laws (or at least until they figure they can score brownie points by pushing for such laws). And that doesn't generally happen until the subject of the legislation has been around long enough to step on a few toes.

But let's be serious here. The musicians' lobby protested when Thomas Alva Edison brought out the phonograph (and the actor's guilds, when he invented the movie projector). Similar outraged screeches greeted the invention of the cassette tape recorder (and for many years, as a result of their litigation, it cost more to buy a blank cassette than a prerecorded one, as the music labels feared piracy). Ditto for the introduction of the CD-ROM--again, fears of piracy. And it's only the protests of Hollywood that keep recordable Blu-Ray, a reality for years in Japan, from American shores.

We all knew that, when the time came curb the online free-for-all, that the publishing, recording and media industries, with their phalanxes of pricey lawyers and boatloads of vested interests, would be at the front of the pack. But what proof have you that VOIP, e-mail, and e-commerce would not have come about even had the Net been regulated from the start? Online socializing and e-commerce are becoming ubiquitous. Just because the Net is no longer quite so tolerant of copyright violations and other long-illegal activities doesn't make it unfree.

Perhaps, in your thesis, you can explain why it is that so many libertarians seem to have a criminal mentality.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-12 6:38:13 AM

"Perhaps, in your thesis, you can explain why it is that so many libertarians seem to have a criminal mentality."

Perhaps the WS is better without a comment section. Just saying ... ;)

And I agree with peterj, the gov't won't stop until they have control of the Internet as well.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-04-12 7:45:08 AM

If that was the only thing you could find to criticize, Charles, then I'm having an exceptionally good day. :-)

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-12 10:34:29 AM

@Shane: I think you are misunderstanding what libertarians are trying to say. When I say that copyright laws should not be so strict, I am not saying that people should go out and start pirating movies. Just like when I say that marijuana should be legal, I am not advocating the use of the drug. I am merely saying that people should be allowed to make their own decisions, without being threatened with state coercion.

The music industry has tried using the justice system, by strengthening the laws and engaging in lawsuits, for a long time now and they still are not making any money. The one technology that has curbed online piracy is iTunes, because it allows people to easily and cheaply download music. There have been other companies that have tried to setup other online distribution systems, but the music industry has generally resisted them and stuck to trying to prop-up their outdated business model by creating new legal restrictions.

As for online innovation, I obviously do not know how an alternative timeline would play out. However, I think we can both agree that competition fosters innovation. Because the Internet is based on open standards and because Internet technologies have operated in a free market environment, people have been free to experiment with new technologies and improve upon existing technologies. Likewise, consumers have been free to try the different technologies and settle on them based solely on their merits.

Posted by: Jesse Kline | 2010-04-12 1:33:15 PM


1. This is essentially the same proxy argument put forth by "pro-choicers"; i.e., while they may not want to do it personally, they have no trouble with other people doing it. Which means, of course, that they have no problem with the act itself, even if their argument is worded to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, some acts are deemed serious enough to be ineligible for this sort of self-policing, and the theft of intellectual property is one of them.

2. The music industry is losing money because they cling to an extremely expensive and outdated method of distributing music that was set up as a racket to benefit them in the first place. Under the old system, you had to pay to duplicate millions(!) of recordings, package each copy, distribute each copy to untold thousands of stores (sometimes across oceans), and then run the risk that you'd make too many and not all would sell. On the other hand, often only one or two of the songs on an album were any good; the rest were filler, but you had to pay full price for them to get the one you wanted. Online distributing requires only a few servers. But instead of taking this boon and running with it, they resisted, allowing others out of the gate before them, so now they're playing catch-up. Expect the same thing to happen to newspapers and magazines, for much the same reasons. So I guess I largely agree with point 2.

3. Yes, competition fosters innovation, but competition can exist in a regulated environment. In fact, regulation is often employed to break up monopolies, which are most certainly NOT good for innovation, but often develop in laissez-faire capitalism. (History is replete with examples.) Regulation still leaves you free to pick between Air Canada and Westjet, or Honda and Chevrolet, or for that matter to build your own car or plane, provided minimum safety standards are met.

If your argument is that regulation stifles innovation, and therefore freedom, then your argument is not yet made.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-12 3:02:00 PM


1. Did you even read the article on copyright? I am not advocating abolishing copyright laws, nor do I even talk much about piracy. It is really about resisting a push to adopt US DMCA-style legislation.

3. You are simplifying my argument too much. I am not talking about anti-trust laws and I do, in fact, advocate using public policy to foster competition.

Posted by: Jesse Kline | 2010-04-12 3:16:03 PM

Not only is Shane Matthews still alive and unwell, but he is as economically illiberal and illiterate as ever.

Posted by: JC | 2010-04-12 4:13:14 PM


1. Yes, I read it. Furthermore, I read Title II of the DMCA, which explicitly provides exemption from direct and indirect liability for ISPs for copyright violations by their customers, provided they remove or block the offending material upon being notified by the copyright holder. And the entire objective of the DMCA is to prevent piracy, so I don't see how you can pretend to exclude it from the discussion.

3. What exactly is your argument? First you were talking about censorship and how it supposedly stifles innovation and the free exchange of ideas and technology; then you seemed to suborn piracy (while carefully emphasizing that you do not indulge in it yourself), or at the least argue that if copyright laws remain in force that they should not be so "strict."

Nevertheless, the germ of your argument seems to be that regulation is bad; you have penned what amounts to a romantic lament for the "Wild West" days of the Internet, without offering any proof that the innovations spawned by Web culture would not have happened without them. It is you, not I, who simplifies the argument too much.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-12 9:11:06 PM

When your "system" has actually been tried somewhere, JC, and it proves a resounding success for at least one generation without doing too much damage in the process, you can play the arrogant professor. So long as your ideas remain untried, however, you're in no position to talk. Nor are your ideas ever likely to be put into practice to begin with, since your system essentially consists of not having a system.

The West is won. Get over it, already.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-12 9:13:52 PM

With the way things are going and the censorship that the Parasite Wealth Mafia known as Elitists are going after censorship of the internet -- we may need a network of Computer Techs in Canada, to set up a Peoplenet! Whereby no corporations or Fascist Corporatist organizations are allowed on the system!

Posted by: M Btok | 2010-04-12 10:50:24 PM

Btok, have you been sniffing electronics epoxy again?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-12 11:03:34 PM

My point Shane, is that the DMCA unduly limits freedom (in terms of speech and innovation in cultural works), while doing little to curb online piracy. This has nothing to do with ideology, it is just bad public policy.

As for proof as to whether open networks are better for innovation than closed networks, just look at how well AOL and Compuserve fared against competition from the Internet. If you want proof that free markets are better for innovation than state controls, just look at how the Soviet Union did in comparison to the United States of America.

Posted by: Jesse Kline | 2010-04-12 11:31:22 PM

Whereby no corporations or Fascist Corporatist organizations are allowed on the system!

Posted by: M Btok | 2010-04-12 10:50:24 PM

At this point it might be prudent to remember that no matter how free the net is, it is still profit driven. The only reason it is free is because the "Fascists" are allowed on the system to spend their advertising dollars , primarily diverted from print.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-04-13 12:21:13 AM


1. Is proof forthcoming? Or is that considered optional in Masters' theses now? That entire paragraph is unsupported opinion. I could just as easily say that it is NOT an undue limitation, and by so doing, would have accomplished exactly as much as you have thus far.

2a. We are not, and were not at any time, discussing the relative merits or contribution of open or closed networks, and it would be foolish to do so, because the Internet was, and remains, an open network.

2b. Comparing a regulated vs. unregulated Internet against a command vs. non-command economy is an invalid comparison. Most Internet regulations merely set out a few things you can't do; they do not tell you what you MUST do. A more informative comparison would come from a comparison with regulated vs. unregulated (circa 1900) capitalism instead.

At the risk of sounding snippy, Jesse, a Master's student really should be able to do better than this kind of shell game. Especially when the shells are transparent and you can see everything.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-13 6:40:40 AM

Matthews is indeed economically illiterate. He talks about trust busting as if the trusts had all attained their size by the same means. He has no idea what the difference is between a monopoly achieved through free market (non-coercive) means and a monopoly achieved through coercion.

Don't try to explain to him that one is more permanent than the other. Don't try and explain to him that, in a free market, in order to dominate a market a company must offer a better product for the cheapest price whereas when regulation creates a monopoly, the consumer gets gouged. Don't explain to him that when a free-market monopolist drives down prices, consumers can reinvest the savings elsewhere. He doesn't get it. He'll never get it.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-04-13 3:39:11 PM

Another one of your economic rants, Charles? Is this peevishness by any chance the result of rising interest rates? This thread is supposed to be about censorship and the Internet; try to keep up. Not everything is a matter of dollars and cents. If you could lower yourself to actually debate the topic at hand, we'd all be thankful.

P.S. How the monopoly comes about is not nearly as important as the final result, which is the same in all cases: reduced competition, reduced quality, higher price.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-13 8:35:15 PM

P.S.S. Poisoning the well is a fallacy.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-04-13 8:41:37 PM

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