The Internet and Freedom

The intent of the Stop Online Piracy Act is certainly commendable, allowing intellectual property owners to protect their property. However the law as written has a chance to undermine one of the great advances of individual freedom, access to the Internet.

We don’t often think about it, but communications is a form of power. If we can communicate with enough people we can rally them around a common cause, whether to protest capitalist income inequality or socialist healthcare legislation or to seek a change in government.

For most of history, the state has effectively controlled access to communications. In a less connected world, communication required physical proximity – you had to be near enough to someone for them to hear you talking. To communicate to many people, you needed to be in a location with many people. The place to find many people was the town or city square. But the state controlled this physical space – the state could keep people from talking in the town square. By controlling an individual’s ability to talk to multiple people the state could effectively control ideas and actions.

Technology has long had an impact on communications. We don’t think about it this way, but the first communications technology was the tree stump. By stepping onto a stump, a speaker was able to have his or her voice carry over a much greater area and so be heard by a much larger number of people. The invention of the printing press changed both communications and the balance of power between individuals and the state. Suddenly it was possible for a person to share their thoughts with someone they weren’t standing next to – the printing press removed the need for physical proximity to be able to communicate.

But there was still the need for the distribution of that printed material – someone had to take the pamphlets from town to town to distribute them. Electronic communications was yet another leap forward. No longer was it necessary to take the printed pamphlets to the next city. Now content could be electronically sent to the next city and printed there. A television show could reach hundreds of thousands or millions of people. We forget, but one of the turning points in our involvement with Vietnam was when Walter Cronkite, the CBS news anchor, publicly expressed concern about the war. That broadcast, seen by tens of millions, helped change the public’s perception of the Vietnam war.

For all of the potential of broadcast TV to reach the masses, the vast majority of people don’t have the ability to access this outlet to share their own thoughts. Further, because the broadcast spectrum is licensed by the state, the state still has the ultimate control over what can be broadcast. The Internet, by contrast, is truly a democratized communications channel. Any person who can gain access to a connected computer, at home, at work, or even at the public library, can in theory communicate with tens of millions of people instantaneously. The Internet is the one mass communications outlet that really is accessible to almost everyone in our country.

Communications from the masses certainly brings with it its own social dynamics and challenges and is ripe for all kinds of different abuses. Because of the Internet a significant portion of our population thinks President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. But because of the Internet many more millions of people are aware of growing income inequality in the United States. The Internet effectively opens up the marketplace of ideas to almost anyone who has an idea, whether or not they are part of the state.

The Stop Online Piracy Act isn’t actually targeting the dissemination and discussion of ideas over the Internet. However the protections it affords content owners, including their ability to come close to shutting off access to sites they believe are pirating, is a very large step towards putting in place the processes needed to control any kind of content – it is a slippery slope that again puts the state in charge of the public square, at the potential cost to individual freedom.

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