Mo’ Freedom, Mo’ Problems

I got a heads up from Jarice Hanson (participant bio page), a chairperson at Temple University's (my alma mater, BTW) School of Communication and Theater regarding a webconference at WHYY titled Digital Democracy and Freedom of Speech.

The event looks quite interesting, and it is scheduled at a most-convenient time, 1-2:30pm on Tuesday, 10/9/2007, at the WHYY building, especially for those in the Center City (Philadelphia) area. 

To quickly riff on the subject, I understand and expect this conference to have a very US-centric focus, but I suspect conversations regarding digital freedom, at least as we Americans understand Freedom of Speech as enumerated in the First Ammendment (or don't, as the case may be), will most likely affect other nations, such as those in the Middle East and China, where excessive blocking and monitoring, often aided and abetted by prominent US companies such as Yahoo are the norm.

The excessive use of national security exemptions in FOIA, the circumvention of records-keeping and civil liberty safeguards, and others are all blatant attempts to stymie freedom of the press, but what of freedom of speech?  Despite isolated (although far too many) examples of abuses, such as the recent tasing at a John Kerry speech, "Free Speech Zones" at political gatherings, and arrests and detainings based on what t-shirt one wears, I see little formalized institutional censorship, although we're getting there.

That said, there are tremendous threats to digital freedom here in the US, but they often don't come from the government directly to the individual speaker.  No, they come indirectly, via the corporate sphere, the establishment press, intra-governmental agency suppression , other opinion influencers, ideological bullies, our society-at-large, and our own tendencies to self-censor.  In most cases, all it takes is the threat of a libel suit or a DMCA takedown letter to pull content, either by the creator or their ISP.  As illustrated in the Electronic Frontier Foundation Legal Guide, many of the concerns of online speech have little to do with the government.  You can't really say whatever you want.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing – lowering the barriers of entry to access and create content and share experiences simultaneously creates more freedom as well as creating more consequences for said speech.  If I, as an individual, posts something online, there are multitudes of entities and individuals who become stakeholders in my monlogues, including readers on the other side of the screen, the people, places, and things I talk about, my ISP, the people who link to me, search engines who index me, my employer, my co-workers, my friends, my family, and my spouse.  All of these people can and do have a 'chilling effect' on my speech – legally, the government does not censor me, however, there are consequences to what I can say.

As a result, I generally don't talk about my kids, my wife, my home, or my job.  (These thought's definitely crossed my mind when I saw the CIA googling for the No-Fly List in my referrer logs).  But as Bruce Schnierer points out this morning, anonymity (or psuedonymity) does not equal privacy.  Read long enough, and put enough pieces together, and you can find out who anyone is (see the AOL database).  In my opinion, this is the far greater threat than the spectre of increased government surveillance.

In a political conversation, people frequently mention that we are NOT a democracy, but rather a Republic.  This nation has always been about the few acting on behalf of the many.  Nearly all of our Senators are millionaires, as are many in the House.  The overwhelming majority of our political, economic, social, and entertainment luminaries come from multi-generational dynasties, and this is not entirely by accident.  The rabble, those great unwashed, yearning to be free are best used as cogs in the machine, and are often openly detested by the elite and gatekeepers.  Examine what aspiring Presidential candidate and likely nominee Rudy Guiliani said regarding Freedom (NYTimes):

We look upon authority too often and focus over and over again, for 30 or 40 or 50 years, as if there is something wrong with authority. We see only the oppressive side of authority. Maybe it comes out of our history and our background. What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.

Examine the following from a trio of internet critics, applying a differing standard of authority (previously):

Says Nick Carr in the Amorality of Web 2.0

And so all the things that Web 2.0 represents – participation, collectivism, virtual communities, amateurism – become unarguably good things, things to be nurtured and applauded, emblems of progress toward a more enlightened state. But is it really so? Is there a counterargument to be made? Might, on balance, the practical effect of Web 2.0 on society and culture be bad, not good? To see Web 2.0 as a moral force is to turn a deaf ear to such questions.

Says Andrew Keen, in Web 2.0 is Reminiscent of Marx:

Is this a bad thing? The purpose of our media and culture industries — beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people — is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent. Our traditional mainstream media has done this with great success over the last century. […] Elite artists and an elite media industry are symbiotic. If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural "flattening." No more Hitchcocks, Bonos, or Sebalds. Just the flat noise of opinion — Socrates's nightmare. 

Jaron Lanier says in The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism:

No, the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.

I'm not quite sure where this leaves us, as nearly anyone can get online, but there still is some kind of networked Darwinism that insures that some people will have the influence, and the great many will not.  The only saving grace is that the authority granted to someone online can very quickly be lost.  The problem with so many voices is tht of signal versus noise – how are we to decide what is important over everyone else's voices?

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