Category Archives: libertarianism

Snowden, Morozov and the ‘Internet Freedom Lobby’

The dust from whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations has still not settled, and his whistle looks set to carry on blowing into this new year. Enough time has elapsed since the initial furore to allow us to reflect on its broader implications. One interesting consequence of the Snowden story is the way it has changed the debate about Silicon Valley and the ‘internet freedom’ lobby. In the past, some commentators have (rightly or wrongly) accused this lobby of cosying up to Silicon Valley companies and preaching a naive kind of cyberutopianism.

The classic proponent of this view is the astute (though unecessarily confrontational) journalist Evgeny Morozov, but variations on his theme can be found in the work of BBC documentarian-in-residence Adam Curtis (whose series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace‘ wove together an intellectual narrative from 60’s era hippies, through Ayn Randian libertarianism to modern Silicon Valley ideology). According to these storytellers, big technology companies and non-profit groups have made faustian bargains based on their perceived mutual interest in keeping the web ‘free from government interference’. In fact, they say, this pact only served to increase the power of both the state and the tech industry, at the expense of democracy.

Whilst I agree (as Snowden has made clear) that modern technology has facilitated a something of a digital land grab, the so-called ‘internet freedom lobby’ are not to blame. One thing that was irksome about these critiques was the lack of distinction between parts of this ‘lobby’. Who exactly are they talking about?

Sure, there are a few powerful ideological libertarians and profiteering social media pundits in the Valley, but there has long been a political movement arguing for digital rights which has had very little to do with that ilk. Morozov’s critique always jarred with me whenever I came across one of the many the principled, privacy-conscious technophiles who could hardly have been accused of Randian individualism or cosying up to powerful elites.

If there is any truth in the claim, it is this; on occasion, the interests of internet users have coincided with the interests of technology companies. For instance, when a web platform is forced to police behaviour on behalf of the Hollywood lobby, both the platform and its users lose. More broadly, much of the free/libre/open source world is funded directly or indirectly from the profits of tech companies.

But the Snowden revelations have driven a rhetorical wedge further between those interests. Before Snowden, people like Morozov could paint digital rights activists as naive cheerleaders of tech companies – and in some cases they may have been right. But they ignored the many voices in those movements who stood both for emancipatory power of the web as a communications medium, and against its dangers as a surveillance platform. After Snowden, the privacy wing of the digital rights community has taken centre stage and can no longer be ignored.

At a dialectical level, Silicon Valley sceptics like Morozov should be pleased. If any of his targets in the digital rights debate have indeed been guilty of naivety about the dangers of digital surveillance, the Snowden revelations have shown them the cold light of day and proved Morozov right. But in another sense, Snowden proved him wrong. Snowden is a long-term supporter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose founders and supporters Morozov has previously mocked. Snowden’s revelations, and their reception by digital rights advocates, shows that they were never soft on digital surveillance, by state or industry.

Of course, one might say Snowden’s revelations were the evidence that Morozov needed to finally silence any remaining Silicon Valley cheerleaders. As he said in a recent Columbia Journalism Review interview: “I’m destroying the internet-centric world that has produced me. If I’m truly successful, I should become irrelevant.”

Nudge Yourself

It’s just over five years since the publication of Nudge, the seminal pop behavioural economics book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Drawing from research in psychology and behavioural economics, it revealed the many common cognitive biases, fallacies, and heuristics we all suffer from. We often fail to act in our own self-interest, because our everyday decisions are affected by ‘choice architectures’; the particular way a set of options are presented. ‘Choice architects’ (as the authors call them) cannot help but influence the decisions people make.

Thaler and Sunstein encourage policy-makers to adopt a ‘libertarian paternalist’ approach; acknowledge that the systems they design and regulate inevitably affect people’s decisions, and design them so as to induce people to make decisions which are good for them. Their recommendations were enthusiastically picked up by governments (in the UK, the cabinet office even set up a dedicated behavioural insights team). The dust has now settled on the debate, and the approach has been explored in a variety of settings, from pension plans to hygiene in public toilets.

But libertarian paternalism has been criticised as an oxymoron; how is interference with an individual’s decisions, even when in their genuine best interests, compatible with respecting their autonomy? The authors responded that non-interference was not an option. In many cases, there is no neutral choice architecture. A list of pension plans must be presented in some order, and if you know that people tend to pick the first one regardless of its features, you ought to make it the one that seems best for them.

Whilst I’m sympathetic to Thaler and Sunstein’s response to the oxymoron charge, the ethical debate shouldn’t end there. Perhaps the question of autonomy and paternalism can be tackled head-on by asking how individuals might design their own choice architectures. If I know that I am liable to make poor decisions in certain contexts, I want to be able to nudge myself to correct that. I don’t want to rely solely on a benevolent system designer / policy-maker to do it for me. I want systems to ensure that my everyday, unconsidered behaviours, made in the heat-of-the-moment, are consistent with my life goals, which I define in more carefully considered, reflective states of mind.

In our digital lives, choice architectures are everywhere, highly optimised and A/B tested, designed to make you click exactly the way the platform wants you to. But there is also the possibility that they can be reconfigured by the individual to suit their will. An individual can tailor their web experience by configuring their browser to exclude unwanted aspects and superimpose additional functions onto the sites they visit.

This general capacity – for content, functionality and presentation to be altered by the individual – is a pre-requisite for refashioning choice architectures in our own favour. Services like RescueTime, which blocks certain websites for certain periods, represent a very basic kind of user-defined choice architecture which simply removes certain choices altogether. But more sophisticated systems would take an individuals’ own carefully considered life goals – say, to eat healthily, be prudent, or get a broader perspective on the world – and construct their digital experiences to nudge behaviour which furthers those goals.

Take, for instance, online privacy. Research by behavioural economist Alessandro Acquisti and colleagues at CMU has shown how effective nudging privacy can be. The potential for user-defined privacy nudges is strong. In a reflective, rational state, I may set myself a goal to keep my personal life private from my professional life. An intelligent privacy management system could take that goal and insert nudges into the choice architectures which might otherwise induce me to mess up. For instance, by alerting me when I’m about to accept a work colleague as a friend on a personal social network.

Next generation nudge systems should enable a user-defined choice architecture layer, which can be superimposed over the existing choice architectures. This would allow individuals to A/B test their decision-making and habits, and optimise them for their own ends. Ignoring the power of nudges is no longer a realistic or desirable option. We need intentionally designed choice architectures to help us navigate the complex world we live in. But the aims embedded in these architectures need to be driven by our own values, priorities and life goals.

Libertarian Floating Islands

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that if the world were an infinite plane, then all the problems of political philosophy would be solved. If one citizen disagreed with the way his society were run, he could pack up and start a new one over there. In reality, we’re stuck with this spherical earth, and if you keep re-locating over there, eventually you’ll end up back here, to face whatever it is you were trying to get away from in the first place. So it looks like we’re stuck with each other, and the challenge of modern society is to find a compromise.

One thing Kant probably didn’t imagine is that in the 21st century, we would spot an opportunity for a new over there. Last week was the third annual conference on Seasteading. The Seasteading movement aims to create small floating cities in international waters. They envision experimental societies, intentionally-formed communities free from the regulation of national governments and the influence of social mores.

In reality, the most serious interest in seasteading has come from rich venture capitalists. Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of paypal and noted libertarian, donated $500,000 to the Seasteading Institute in 2005. As a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Thiel knows first-hand the downsides of government regulation. Thiel has seed-funded a Seastead off the shore of California, which will provide day trips to the mainland and promises to get around the restrictive work visa system, allowing the unrestricted flow of international capital and labour.

But for some, seasteading is more than just a legal hack. It’s an opportunity to apply the scientific method to society; each seastead an experiment to test an economic or political idea. Do financial transactions taxes really chill innovation? What are the consequences of zero welfare provision? How about if we legalise all drugs? Policies which would be impossible in a large democracy with a divided citizenry become possible in smaller communities of like-minded individuals.

So it is no surprise that seasteading is popular amongst libertarians like Thiel. And libertarian seasteads may indeed prove highly successful. But to see them as experiments in the ‘science’ of Politics is a rather dangerous mistake. Such ‘experiments’ have flawed validity; the citizenry of libertarian seasteads would end up a selective group blessed with talents and riches, who spend at least as much of their resources keeping the wrong people out, as letting the right people in.

Thiel criticises the US government immigration policy, as it prevents skilled foreign programmers from working in Silicon Valley. But the libertarian view of immigration has an ironic nuance. On the one hand, they often advocate open borders, arguing – admirably, if unrealistically – that no government should interfere with an individual’s freedom to roam the world as he wishes. On the other hand, in a libertarian society, where private property is absolute and everything is privatised, undesirable immigrants would have the same rights as trespassers, i.e. none. Some Seasteaders, fearful of climate change, have even begun building self-sustainable floating islands, impenetrable to climate refugees. Those foreign programmers on Silicon Island may be welcomed, but only at their host’s discretion. The poor, the destitute, the dispossessed, and the sick need not apply. The taxpayers on the mainland who funded the Seasteaders’ education can also forget about getting anything back.

Libertarian seasteads will be the preserve of the rich, and cut free from the draining demands of the rest of society they may well thrive. But this would hardly be a lesson for the rest of us. Those of us who know that the earth is not an infinite plane, also know that the challenge of building a good society means caring for all. The success of selective libertarian islands would constitute the failure of humanity to work together for an equitable future in a prosperous world.