May 2012

What is the relationship between technology and freedom? The West has asked itself this question again and again, particularly since the Enlightenment: Think of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Aldous Huxley’s soma, and George Orwell’s telescreen.

Historians have also noticed how technology and freedom may be friends or enemies to one another. City walls kept urban dwellers relatively free in medieval Europe — until early modern cannons brought them down, and in came the king’s administrators. The printing press promised to free people’s minds, but it arguably took centuries before it delivered on its promise. Mechanized warfare killed hundreds of millions in the twentieth century, while the mass media offered opportunities for both control and resistance.

Today Internet technology has spread across the world and into every corner of our lives. But how does it alter the balance between liberty and power? Many have viewed the Internet as an unmitigated good, but others are quite skeptical. They note that repressive regimes are often quite happy to welcome the Internet — discreetly monitored, of course, to prevent anyone from spreading subversive thoughts. In the meantime, their subjects get cheap entertainment to help them forget all about their political woes.

To discuss these questions, we’ve invited a panel of experts. Each sits somewhere between doom-and-gloom and techno-utopianism. Lead essayist Berin Szoka is the founder TechFreedom, a think tank dedicated to technology policy, entrepreneurship, and individual choice. Jason Benlevi is the author of Too Much Magic: Pulling the Plug on the Cult of Tech, which urges us not to believe all the hype coming from the Internet sector. Rebecca MacKinnon spent years observing China’s Internet policy and is the author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. John O. McGinnis is a law professor at Northwestern University who specializes in technology and trade law, using a public choice approach to his subject.


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Lead Essay

  • Berin Szoka surveys recent developments in Internet activism. The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran may have failed, but activists in the United States defeated SOPA, a bill that would have imposed significant restrictions on the Internet. Szoka concludes that the Internet helps solve a significant problem in activism: It makes it easier for like-minded people to provide reputational feedback about corporations and governments. Still, we must pay close attention to the fact that governments can and do manipulate the Internet to repress their populations.

Response Essays

  • Jason Benlevi argues that digital activism rarely gets the kind of results that real-world activism can. In any conflict, reality usually beats virtuality. Though he is no Luddite — and though he has a career record to prove it — Benlevi argues that online activism is often a hostage to the medium that carries it. That medium, in turn, exists in the real world, where it is controlled by corporations and governments. Social media activism is at its strongest when it does what the medium was designed to do — provide consumer feedback on corporate products. It’s not so effective at challenging oppressive governments.

  • Rebecca MacKinnon urges a close attention to the particularities of time and place. Protest movements are more and more using social media, but they may stand or fall based on other factors. Laws and Internet architectures may vary, rendering the medium more or less conducive to citizen activism. It becomes increasingly important to pay attention to what makes for good or bad Internet law, because the results in this area may prompt virtuous or vicious cycles throughout society.

  • John O. McGinnis argues that the Internet and associated technologies can and will change the terrain on which policy choices are made. Not only does it become easier for dispersed interests to aggregate, but information technology can also shift the focus of our political culture. Empiricism and evidence will become relatively more important as facts become easier to check; ideology and unsupported intuition will lose a good deal of power. For these reasons, McGinnis is an optimist.

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