Darkness and Light: questions about a free and open Internet

”I want a free and open internet!” “Do you really?”

Photo by Thom on Unsplash

As I was writing an entry in my ‘Author confession’ series (a game I play with other writers on social media) I went off on a rant about free speech, a free and open Internet, and whether information can have inherent moral qualities.

how FREE free speech really should be?

I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was aware that I’m usually on the side of an unpopular opinion, I’ve had a number of arguments about it online. It doesn’t usually end well, either. (I can be somewhat of an aggravating partner in a disagreement.) This time, however, I’ve found myself in a conversation that was not only civilized (which by itself was a novelty) but also enlightening. Not because it made me change how I think about this topic, but because it made me think it through differently. I still hold what I think true, and I still think I’m right. My brain was, however, working in overdrive in the past hours to articulate an even more coherent argument for my perspective.

This article is that argument. A couple of things before I get started.

Firstly: I find value in original thoughts, even when they’re not original at all. What I mean by that is that instead of sourcing a number of quotes and arguments to support my own. I’ll be flying solo for three major reasons:

  1. I think quotes can often distort a person’s argument, especially when they’re trying to fit their thoughts to the quote. So I’d rather repeat someone else’s thoughts unintentionally than misappropriating their meaning.
  2. It’s always fun — and highly beneficial — to think for ourselves. Yes, it may be reinventing the wheel, but coming to the same conclusion as others on our own doesn’t diminish the feat of coming to the conclusion. Thus, what I present here may not be original, but definitely originated from my own brain. (When it doesn’t, as nobody can isolate themselves from the larger cultural contexts and knowledge they know and have, I’ll say so.)
  3. I’m lazy as fuck, and couldn’t be bothered to source some damned quotes. Points 1 and 2 may or may not be a smoke screen to conceal Point 3. I could probably do it, having been educated to fairly high levels in philosophy and law and other disciplines, but… whatever.

Second, I’m aware of the paradoxes and ironies between my strong feelings and the leveled, non-emotional aims I claim to support. It’s a semantical thing, really, a shortcoming of language itself. I trust you can get over it.

Thirdly, and in the interest of expediency (heh.) I’d just assume that you know and acknowledge that there’s a huge “IN MY OPINION…” at the beginning of this article and virtually every single sentence in it. I don’t claim to be an expert, I don’t claim that my argument is the One And Only Truth There Is — in fact, given the subject matter, I’m quite certain of the polar opposite of that — and I’m interested in a discussion on any points or the overall point. I’m not interested in telling.

With that, let us begin.

Scaling democracy (?)

Democracy is good, right? I don’t think it is, but there’s nothing better we can think of for the moment. (I forget who said that, and with what exact words. Maybe Churchill? I do know Aristotle wasn’t wild about democracy either, and he lived in it when it was invented!) The problem with democracy, or at least one of the problems, is scaling.

Democracy was born in ancient Greek city-states. The democratic principle of “one person-one vote” is quite fine and dandy on a small scale, like when those whom would be affected by any decision made on state-level could fit in an agora. Everybody came to cast their vote (except maybe a fringe minority of three people) and it was open and public and all was right with the world. (Except it wasn’t quite, but that’s a nuance of history we can overlook for now, in the grand scheme of things.)

Then the city-states became bigger. They stopped being city-states after a while and became states and/or countries. Yadda-yadda-yadda, and we have countries within countries (hello, United States of America!) and countries together in a big, dysfunctional, not happy family (hello, United Nations!).

We’ve been clinging to democracy like nothing before. We now live in a world where decisions on a global scale are made based on a system that was designed to sustain a group that could fill a single agora (and it sometimes couldn’t even do that). Are we completely crazy?

Well, not completely. Churchill (or whoever it was) was right: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. It’s worth mentioning that the other systems aren’t rejected purely because of systematically logical and sound reasons, but because historically they ended horribly. That fact by itself fascinates me to no end. Someone can consolidate power, twist the hell out of an otherwise well argued — not perfect, but what is? — ideology, and we don’t look at it again. No, sir, no Marxism for us, ever!

That’s not to say I subscribe to Marxism or Communism in any shape or form as a whole ideology. Which leads me to my next point, which is:


The world isn’t black and white. So why are we treat it like it is? Note that I’m not talking about violent extremist acts here. That’s one kind of extremism, a physical manifestation of extreme ideas. Or, rather, the extreme rejection of all ideas except for one. That’s an important distinction, because extreme ideas can exist simply through the existence of binary issues.

Yes, there are a number of things that are binary. There aren’t that many, though, if for no other reason because thousands of years of history have shaped them into issues that are nuanced and complex. It’s even entirely possible, moreover a number of examples exist right now, that an issue becomes binary due to societal and/or cultural pressure. Like that you’re either a racist or you aren’t. There’s no middle ground, no graduality (you cannot be “a little racist”), no compromise. This type of binary I struggle with, because as much as I understand the moral good behind them they’re not “naturally” binary. And that bugs me, and I’m willing, given the right context, to discuss them as something other than binaries.

Extremism isn’t new, historically speaking, but it sure as hell became mainstream in recent memory. My theory is that we’re in such a rush to get our points across in a conversation — that otherwise could be completely civilized and beneficial for all involved — that we opt for the shortcut of extremities.

Just because I agree with a single idea from an ideology doesn’t mean I’m accepting the entire ideology. I can subscribe to a single idea in Communism and yet steer clear of being a Communist. Interestingly, and to add further confusion, the ideas regarded in such fashion have generally lost a war or two after being distorted and exploited by someone in power. We are all looking at conservatives and liberals working hard to make their ideologies binary. To the extent of using questions like “Do you accept gay marriage?” as a qualifier.

We used to have layers and boundaries. You could have been a fiscal conservative and social progressive. A liberal in education but a conservative when it came to military power. That’s all going away as we speak. Polarized is the word that gets thrown at it, and while most people would agree that it’s a bad thing, there isn’t much anybody’s doing about it.

Polarized societies also yield a higher profit. A person driven to the extreme is easier to mobilize, easier to sell to. News organizations (and I’m being very liberal with the use of that designation here) from any background profit from people tuning in to be reassured in their beliefs or outraged by the beliefs or others. (And why would someone go out of their way to get outraged is both a highly visible symptom of the polarization and something that defies all logic.)

Of course I’m talking about the US. Donald Trump has been a godsend for anyone making money off of emotional people, and a poster child for extremism. But polarization isn’t limited to the US, and it isn’t limited to the past two, five, ten, fifteen, or even fifty years. The tension has been building up for much longer than that. I’d argue the Grand Canyon of difference between sides used to be a scratchmark in the desert when it all started. Somewhere around the time humanity decided that democracy would scale just fine.

Welcome to Upside Down

Some binary concepts we treat as nuanced issues, and nuanced issues we think of as binary. I think I sufficiently hinted at the former, so let’s discuss the latter. Or, more precisely, one examples of the latter: free speech.

It’s a hot topic. With questions like: “Where does free speech end?” Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

Free speech, by definition (per definitionem, for them Latin afficionados, and those who like to throw around phrases like this; myself included) is… well, free. It’s not, and it cannot be, constrained, bargained, compromised, or agreed upon. It is what it is: free.

I’m willing to concede, on my part, that the definition of “free”, as in “freedom” (since ‘free speech’ is a shorter version of ‘freedom of speech’, appropriately shortened for the population less and less comfortable with a higher number of syllables; yes, I’m unfairly generalizing for comedic effect) can be: “freedom means to do whatever the hell you please as long as you don’t limit or violate anyone else’s same freedom”. But that’s up for debate whether that definition alone imposes a limit incompatible with the concept of ‘freedom’.

Let’s move on to the second word: speech. What is speech?

Let’s agree on the basics: speech is an idea expressed in some form. That can be silently — also known as: a thought — or out loud — a.k.a. what we actually refer to as ‘speech’ — or through some other individual means, like a vote in an election. I emphasized the part where it’s ‘individual’, because while speech can be expressed as an act, when it’s acted on another person it’s no longer speech but action, and thus no longer enjoying the protection of free speech.

And this is important. People blowing up building, beating up or killing other people, and any number of other violent actions are not exercising there right for free speech. As long as it’s contained to the individual and doesn’t affect others, I consider it speech. When it becomes an — often violent — action, that’s no longer expressing an opinion, it’s suppressing somebody else’s.

As a sidenote, I have to say that this lead me to an uncomfortable acceptance of the “money is speech” argument. I don’t like it, because I think money (as in: political donations) should be regarded as expressing an opinion, it’d be going against my own logic if I didn’t accept it.

That said, I completely reject the “corporation are people” argument in return, which largely balances it out. Corporations aren’t people, or we should treat them as such — which we cannot do, for a number of reasons — practical and theoretical alike. That leaves millionaires for the “money is speech” thing, and I can live with that, somewhat comfortably. (Although that goes into the territory of wealth distribution, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole this time around.)

Anyway. I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t a perfect definition. This is as far as I got, though.

But there is a lot of ground to cover between thinking and acting. (Ground many people cover faster than the speed of light, unfortunately.) There’s plenty of moving room. Yes, someone else’s opinion can be hurtful. At the same time I do think it’s time we stop trying to please everyone (and by everyone I mean the majority who dictates the societal rules). Sometimes we have to stop and accept that words are words. Judge them, draw the conclusions, but once you start prosecuting for them, it’s over.

I don’t mean ‘prosecute’ in a legal sense, although the slope is pretty slippery from one to the other. Suppressing an opinion, any opinion, just because it doesn’t conform to our (and by our I mean both individual and societal) world view is not right. In principle it’s the same as if (when!) the tables were turned. That lead to the Holocaust, to name one example. Every side thinks they’re right. But rules, like history, are written by the winners. In this case, winners can be a democratically elected government with the best of moral intentions, or a power-hungry psychopath with an army. It doesn’t matter.

As long as expressing an opinion is just that, everybody has the right for freedom of speech. Not everybody gets it, though, and I can go with that. Not because I’d compromise the logic of my argument, but because the larger the scale the more practical issues arise from such a proposition. It’s simply unfeasible to guarantee everyone’s freedom of speech, especially in an increasingly polarized society. And while I don’t think that by itself it’s acceptable to abandon logic and common sense in face of practical obstacles, I recognize a windmill when I see one. And I ain’t no Don Quixote.

There’s one place, one magical place, where unicorns run around farting rainbows and where freedom of speech is not only possible, but a foundational part. Oh yes:

Welcome to the Internet

First thing’s first. What is the Internet? There are a number of ways to look at this.

There’s the physical Internet. The cables, the hardware in the servers, the network switches, the computers and smartphones and smartwatches and smart dildos.

There’s the digital side of the Internet. The software that runs the hardware and that runs on the hardware. The former being the operating systems of the billions of hardware pieces, and the latter being the services we use, from Facebook to Google Search to that Geocities site we found that hasn’t been updated since 1997 but is still the single source of information on the accepted interpretation of a particularly badly phrased rule on page 372 of Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition. All that is made possible by software created by millions of people.

Here’s the first fascinating fact. The hardware is worth many billions of dollars. The costs of building the internet (lowercase ‘i’) are so astronomical there hasn’t been anything, anything even remotely comparable in human history. Those costs, however, are dwarfed by the value of the software. I say value, because while much of the software that runs the internet (again, lowercase ‘i’ — from this point forward I’ll assume you’ll know to look for whether or not I’m using capital or lowercase ‘i’; there’s a reason for the distinction, don’t worry, and it’ll be clear in just another thousand or so lines ?) was indeed bought, sold, or otherwise paid for, much — and I’d argue most — wasn’t. It was contributed, generously, by people who had an idea and wanted to see it become a reality, only there wasn’t anybody willing to make it so. But the value of the software running the internet is orders of magnitude more valuable than the hardware ever will be.

You see, hardware loses its value faster than a good Arabica loses its flavor after the hot water runs through the ground beans. It’s not exclusive to infrastructure hardware, of course: by the time you get home from the store with your shiny new smartphone, it’ll lose at least 20% of its value. Even if you live upstairs from the store. Much if not all of the hardware gets outdated, fast. Where new software can re-use and build on existing software, hardware barely can do such thing. And, practically speaking, it’s a hell of a lot easier and cheaper to throw the old one away.

Thus, software keeps and even increases its value over time while hardware loses it. Yet, the money — that sweet, sweet money — is on hardware’s side because those bloody idiots are just giving away the software for free. Damn them.

And so corporations, and generally those who look to make money from the internet, are grabbing the hardware as desperately as a drowning man grabs any piece of floating something he can reach. Not that it doesn’t happen on the software side, let’s just look at Facebook or the other giant platforms. But that doesn’t really affect users as a whole: after all, you don’t have to be on Facebook or Instagram or MySpace, nor do you have to run a WordPress blog or whatever. Software, thanks to it’s DNA deeply encoded with ‘open’ and ‘free’ (as in ‘free beer’, and also as in ‘freedom’) remains a matter of choice.

That leaves hardware for the money people, and that creates a problem.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Riddle me this, I said in the Twitter conversation I mentioned when I began this article some years ago: if someone owns the only road leading into the city, should they be considered as owning the city as well? Because I think that’s as perfect a metaphor for the entities controlling the hardware for the internet as it gets.

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There are a lot of legal issues surrounding the internet. I won’t get into them all, although I touch/touched on many of them already. It should be axiomatic that the Internet (capital ‘I’ — oh good, you were paying attention; just checking) is such a colossal paradigm change that catching up to it will work our lawyers and lawmakers and law geeks busy for several decades. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be surprised that by the time they sort this shit out we’ll be in an entire new paradigm, an entire new galaxy, or even entire new species. But I digress.

One legal issue, the one I’d like to discuss here, is ownership. As in: who owns the internet? Who should own it? Can it be owned at all?

The software surely cannot be, or not in a large part, and even that is shrinking from moment to moment. We’ve got to a point where “proprietary software” is a swear word. Thank goodness.

The hardware? That’s where it is. ISPs and the likes of them can claim they paid for the cables and the network switches and gave away routers like candy (but still paid for it). Never mind, of course, that all those investments have been recovered tenfold from the money they made from subscription fees and selling you a hundred and fifty TV channels that you don’t need because you don’t own a freaking TV because you have Netflix and YouTube. They want it all, and they want it forever.

Putting aside that twisted logic, it’s interesting to think about this. As long as it’s physical, we’re accustomed to assign ownership to things. Take a look at the mess that is copyright and patents, and you’ll see how ownership as a concept seems to end with physical things. And it’s accepted as a fact that you cannot own an idea, you can only get limited legal protection for the execution of it.

But, let’s keep talking about physical things. Join me in a step-by-step following of my logic.

Step 1: Do you own your smartphone? By a cursory look, you do. Ask a lawyer and they’ll look at you funny. So let’s say you own said smartphone. Let’s move on.

Step 2: Do you think that wireless is the future? (Thanks, Apple.) It sure looks like it. When was the last time you plugged in an ethernet cable? (Millennials, google it.) Wifi’s where it’s at, yo!

Step 3: Is it technically possible that instead of coming to your house through a copper (fiber-optic, whatever) cable, you’d get your network connection through wireless? You already do!

Step 4: What if, instead of your mobile provider, you’d have access to independent sources of connectivity? Again: you already do! The GPS service isn’t privately owned, it’s a military thing, which makes it taxpayer-funded, which makes it yours.

Step 5: Is it conceivable that, in a near or far future, philanthropists (like that crazy cat Elon Musk, or Sergey Brin and Larry Page, or any of their like-minded peers) launch a bunch of satellites into space and provide network connectivity to everyone?

They’re already doing it. Sure it’s in a test phase, but there are a number of companies, including Google and Facebook, are launching hardware up to go around… well, everyone. How can the FCC regulate a satellite orbiting peacefully in space? Nobody owns space, and nobody can — legally — either.

Step 6: How hard is it to launch a satellite? It ain’t easy, but you don’t have to be NASA or SpaceX or Facebook or Google either. Hell, students have sent up a bonsai tree to the edge of the atmosphere! Combine that with the rapid development of open technologies like the Raspberry Pi or Arduino, all free and open in all manner of speaking.

See where I’m going with this? It’s not entirely impossible, in fact it’s downright inevitable, that soon anyone can build, program, launch, and use their own little micro satellite, thus freeing themselves from any dependence on corporations or external services.

Sounds like science-fiction? Well, I’m a sci-fi writer. ? But it’s also plausible. Moreover, it’s a straight and fairly short path from where we are right now. That makes corporations nervous.

Because once they cannot claim ownership, their power to write the rules diminishes. Not at once, not even quickly. Like I said, our legislative efforts are so far behind the curve of technological evolution they might as well be from the Middle Ages. That’s why net neutrality is such a hot topic now, because now is when the future is going to be decided on. By making legislation now these entities that already feel their grip loosen on the reins of the internet are doing everything to define the future for decades — even centuries, if we’re especially unlucky and dumb — to come.

That creates a whole set of problems, but let’s go back to freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech and the [i|I]nternet

Now would be a good time to explain my obsession with the difference between ‘i’ and ‘I’.

I see two internets. (And just the fact how cringe-worthy that plural form is is a good indicator of how stupid such an idea is, and how singular the Internet really is.) One is the ‘internet’, the one we have now and that we think we figured out. Boy are we wrong!

The ‘internet’ is a collection of independently (so to speak, let’s not repeat the ownership section again here with a slightly different focus; I said NO, Greg, no matter how tempting it is to ramble on for another couple of hours!) owned and controlled islands of content and their supporting infrastructure, both hardware and software. Most people think about the internet like this. Most people are wrong.

Because the ‘Internet’ is so much more than the sum of its parts. The ‘Internet’ is the idea of digital space. There’s somewhat of an overlap between the ‘internet’ and the ‘Internet’, the latter is either something the former will eventually evolve into (leaving a path of ugly destruction in its wake, as (r)evolutions tend to do) or we can go ahead and meet it early and peacefully.

The first rule of digital space is that it’s endless. Can we agree on that? There are no limits (virtually, even though physical storage poses something of a distant ceiling, it gets higher and higher as we develop more and more efficient technology). Let’s take it from there.

If digital space is endless, that means the paradigm of boundaries — national, societal, cultural, etc. — are meaningless. The Internet is not national, and thus cannot be regulated by — or even subjected to — national law. That’s a problem today: if I, being from Hungary but residing nowhere in particular, have a website hosted on a server that’s physically located in Iceland but through a VPN tunnel serves information through a US entry point to a person visiting it from Africe… who the hell has jurisdiction?!?

Sure, there are any number of agreements and conventions and other things. All of those are ephemeral. For one, they’re voluntary. Introduce a single element of the above chain that falls outside the jurisdiction of the signatory countries and you clogged up the system for good. (Or at least for as long as it takes for the case to go cold or you die of extreme old age. Same difference.) For another, they’re voluntary: any one of the signatories can withdraw. I mean you’d have thought the Paris Climate Agreement was not only a matter of politics but also common sense, right? Well, now you have a US President who defies common sense. Go figure.

No, the UN is a largely pointless organization without real power to affect change. The best they can manage, in the grand scheme of things, is a stern talking to and letting indirect actions — through voluntary action on part of its member countries that can affect change through economics — take care of the rest. Yuck.

So there isn’t an even remotely usable legal framework for the Internet today, and likely won’t be in the future either. Not proactively, anyway. And by the time the “important people” will realize the gravity of that, it’ll be way too late for them to do anything about the state of things in the new world. (Where individuals capable of creating and maintaining network connectivity falling outside of the traditional model do so.) The Internet will be built without them.

My point being that it’s up to us to shape what the Internet will be, and we’ve already laid down the foundations. Not consciously, some — including myself — would argue, but they’re there nonetheless.

Now the interesting part isn’t this process. (Scratch that. The relevant part, as in the part I’ve set out to discuss today. This process I digressed about is endlessly fascinating to watch and think about.) The interesting part is that as soon as people (mostly liberals, although — like I mentioned — I don’t like labels, thanks to the radicalization of the general populace) sensed the power grab from the companies trying to preserve the status quo surrounding the internet (and preventing the Internet to become itself) they cried out for a “free, fair, and open internet”.

They just don’t want all of it. And that’s where the issue of free speech comes in. (And it only took and hour and a half to get to the point!)

They want a free, fair, and open internet as long as it’s free for, fair to, and open to them. Sorry folks, that ain’t how this works.

If the Internet is free, it means freedom of speech is present in its absolute state. Why wouldn’t it be? There are no political issues, physical limitations, or cultural boundaries inherent in the digital space. You don’t like what you read or hear? Feel free to move over — it’s not like anybody asked you to come.

All this is fine with said Free Internet Warriors, in fact: they use almost the same argument (almost word to word, too, if you can believe it) for years, protecting their communities from opposing ideologies. Granted, those communities are often progressive, good-intentioned folks trying to keep racists and their ugly siblings out. But that’s not justification: the pendulum has to swing both ways, it’s in its nature.

If liberals want racists to go away (preferably way, way away to a hole full of gasoline and a burning match in their hands; digitally speaking) can racists want the same thing from liberals? Sure they can. Should the Internet, the digital space accommodate both desires? Sure it should — and best of all, it can.

Local communities, be them as big as Facebook or as small as a group of four people with a very particular and unorthodox interpretation of the rules of 3rd Edition D&D, can and should form around common values. And if there are common values that means we already have a set of rules in place that eventually expand to more and more. Nothing wrong with that.

What’s wrong is denying institutional access on the base of ideological disagreement. (No matter how morally right they may or may not be. Morality has no play in this.) Rules in a digital space are to be respected as long as being subjected to them is voluntary. There’s no harm in, nor there are any costs associated with, moving within a digital space. Set up your racist community or your “but damage is rolled with three d6s, not four!” sect and be done with it. Live and let live.

That’s the Internet I am waiting for.

Yes, I’m an idealist. Also a bit naive. Yes, I realize we cannot be wholly separated from our physical reality. And there have to be safeguards so freedom of speech doesn’t spill over into the physical from the digital to create very real violence. That churches aren’t burnt down, airplanes aren’t hijacked and flown into skyscrapers, and people are safe to walk home at any time of any night wearing any clothes they choose.

What I’m arguing for is theoretical, but it’s important. I think we’re on the verge of defining how our future will look in the next hundred or more years. We can screw it up, and continue to cling to our outdated paradigms until they collapse onto us leaving nothing but rubble. Or we can take a step back, get our common sense ready, and think things through.

I’m not claiming that all the above is complete, comprehensive, or even right. There are so many things to consider that I hardly think a single person can arrive to such a conclusion.A bunch of them, maybe, and democracy may just be working on that size. (Although I’m sure the guy — using this as a gender-neutral term here — who gets voted down won’t feel it that way.)

My point, if I have any after all this, is that if we want freedom we have to accept that others do too. If we want freedom of speech we have to accept that we’ll, from time to time, get offended by what others have to say.

But for the first time in a long time, and maybe ever, we have a chance to put all that in a neutral, endless, and safe plane of existence we can reasonably safeguard from spoiling all the fun we could be having in our physical reality with all that nonsense and aggravation taken out of our lives.

Doesn’t that sound just lovely?

P.S.: Please, please, do let me know what you think! This isn’t a finished train of thought — I barely began to have a handful of wheels, if that much. I’d love to know what you think. Help me refine my perspective, or turn me around on it compltely. (I wouldn’t count on the latter, but I’m not excluding it from the range of possibilities either. I fancy myself an open-minded person, no matter how strongly I can feel about issues. ?)

Darkness and Light: questions about a free and open Internet was originally published in Dinchamion on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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