The Agenda

Larry Downes on the Movement for Internet Freedom

In his wonderful essay on “Who Really Stopped SOPA?,” Larry Downes offers a concise, compelling characterization of the goals and agendas of Internet activists:

The political philosophy of the Internet, though still largely unformed, is by no means inarticulate. The aspirations of Internet users largely reflect the best features of the technology itself—open, meritocratic, non-proprietary and transparent. Its central belief is the power of innovation to make things better, and its major tenet is a ruthless economic principle that treats information as currency, and sees any obstacle to its free flow as inefficient friction to be engineered out of existence.

Those seeking to understand what kind of governance Internet users are willing to accept would do well to start by studying the engineering that establishes the network and how it is governed. The key protocols and standards that make the Internet work—that make the Internet the Internet–are developed and modified by voluntary committees of engineers, who meet virtually to debate the merits of new features, design changes, and other basic enhancements.

The engineering task forces are meritocratic and open. The best ideas win through vigorous debate and testing. No one has seniority or a veto. There’s no influence peddling or lobbyists. The engineers are allergic to hypocrisy and public relations rhetoric. It’s a pure a form of democracy as has ever been implemented. And it works amazingly well.

Today’s Internet activists have adopted those engineering principles as their political philosophy.

The “bitroots movement” Downes describes is a natural ally of those who defend open, competitive markets. One wonders if our political system will at some point realign between the champions of bottom-up entrepreneurship and self-government and the proponents of top-down regulation and rule by (benevolent, data-driven) experts. This will take some time, as most Internet activists don’t fully appreciate the parallels between the forces threatening the Internet (overregulation, paternalism, rent-seeking) are the forces that have so badly undermined the well-being of our broader economy. Moreover, a failure to appreciate the role of disruptive innovation in solving the problem of non-consumption of innovative goods encourages certain misapprehensions regarding how we should think about public goods. Perhaps the most obvious example is that people tend to equate the promotion and diffusion of knowledge with the defense of legacy educational institutions, just as legacy media firms have deliberately advanced the idea that their interests are identical to those of artists, inventors, and workers. 

My co-author Patrick Ruffini has observed that “the Internet is our Hong Kong.” The difference is that this time, if we manage to keep the Internet free and open, Hong Kong will swallow up the Mainland. 

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