Tor is Peace, Software Freedom is Slavery, Wikipedia is Truth: The Political Philosophy of the Internet
On something of a whim, I proposed a lecture topic to the 27th Chaos Communication Congress. Somewhat to my surprise, it was accepted. This is the result; an attempt to apply the some of the concepts of political philosophy – learnt as an undergraduate – to some questions in the real world.
It’s also a presentation by non-experts to non-experts, so political philosophers should take it with a grain of salt.
The Internet began as state-sponsored anarchy, but it is now the tool of first resort for dissidents and propagandists alike. The poster-child project of the Free Software Movement runs on the authority of a single person; the rest clash over the very definition of the word ‘free’. A company which pictured itself as smashing Big Brother is now perceived as one of the most secretive and authoritarian in the industry; and for another, ‘Don’t Be Evil’ is proving to be a challenging motto to live by.
This talk aims to present a view of the societies of Internet from the perspective of political philosophy. Political philosophy is not politics, in the same way that computer science is not programming. It’s not the politics about the Internet, but the politics of the Internet. Even so, events at any particular place or time just provide examples to be studied. Political philosophy is meta-politics, it’s about the trends in politics and the theories we use to understand them.
Real-world political systems have striking parallels in the evolution of the Internet: there was primitive anarchy before Eternal September, the era of walled gardens resembled that of Ancient Greek city-states, which were succeeded by more-or-less liberal regimes following the geographical territories of real-world governments. Because of its rapid evolution, mass participation, and highly complex human interaction, the Internet should be subjected to the sorts of questions that political philosophers ask. On the Internet, what is freedom? Do we have obligations to those in control? To each other? What rights do we have? What can we own?
Once we know the way it is, we can ask how it should be…