The Internet Is Not Free – Bits & Pieces #15

I spent this past weekend meeting all kinds of awesome liberty-minded people at the International Students for Liberty Conference in Washington, D.C. My main job at the event was to tell people about free memberships, and as I explained the endless list of the site's benefits to student after student, one of them offered a somewhat shocking perspective.

"I'd rather not sign up," he said, "Because I don't believe the internet is free anymore." That sounded a little crazy to me, and I definitely disagree. It's not that the internet is no longer free. Rather, the internet never has been free.

I'll use the concept of a chatroom for further illustration, but the following concepts apply just as well to any form of online data transfer, whether it involves email, Bitcoin, a video game, or anything else. Suppose I wanted to join a cartoon-themed chatroom. The moderator might assume that there will be some younger users in the room, so he might choose to censor strong language. Now suppose I get really angry at some kid and try to drop a gigantic f-bomb. When my four letter word gets replaced with four asterisks, is the internet expressing freedom?

Of course not! The internet did not choose to suppress my language. The internet never decided to take action against me. In fact, the computers that make up the internet are completely incapable of choosing to do anything, ever! While we often talk about computers or robots making decisions, we know that they don't really work that way.

Digital decision-making is simply an abstraction. It helps us communicate more easily, but every computer scientist learns in Programming 101 that computers are quite stupid. Their abilities are strictly limited to doing exactly what we tell them to do. That's why program bugs exist. When a programmer makes a mistake, the computer has no choice but to follow through with that mistake and operate incorrectly. A computer can only find and fix faulty code when a programmer has previously instructed it to do so.

So if the computers on the internet did not change my letters to asterisks, who did? Why was I not free to speak my mind? Because the people using the internet are free. Remember that sweet-mouthed moderator? The one in charge of the chatroom? He's a free man on the internet, and since he owns (or has been given control of) the chatroom, he gets to choose what can and can't be said there. If I disagree with his decisions, I too can exercise my freedom. I have the ability to start my own foul-mouthed, cartoon-themed chatroom if I so desire.

We like to say that the internet is free, but that's simply an abstraction. In truth, the internet enables people to exercise their freedom. The government can and does make laws about internet usage, but those have always been the easiest laws to circumvent. Any individual can learn how to gamble online in the US, even though it's illegal. And there's not a tech-minded soul on earth who has not illegally downloaded an MP3 for free, even though Napster and Limewire have been shut down.

So I'm sorry, pessimistic dude at the conference, but you're wrong. Maybe you're words were true in a sense, but your point was way off. The internet is an extraordinarily free place, and it has already increased personal liberty around the world in countless ways.

Leave a comment and let me know if you think the internet is free!

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