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Attacks on the Freedom to Connect

Susan Crawford is an assistant professor at Cardozo Law School, where she teaches cyberlaw and intellectual property law. Crawford is also a fellow with the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.; serves as a fellow with the Information Society Project at Yale Law School; and is active with the Internet Policy Project of the Aspen Institute. Her morning talk at Freedom to Connect addressed some of the challenges to free connections that people bring upon themselves.

Susan Crawford is an assistant professor at Cardozo Law School, where she teaches cyberlaw and intellectual property law. Crawford is also a fellow with the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.; serves as a fellow with the Information Society Project at Yale Law School; and is active with the Internet Policy Project of the Aspen Institute. Her morning talk at Freedom to Connect addressed some of the challenges to free connections that people bring upon themselves. What follows is a partial transcript:

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How many federal judges does it take to change a lightbulb? Federal judges? Change? I want to take issue with the name of this conference. The right to connect, the freedom to connect assumes that we have some sovereign power who can take that away. We are here to assert that we dont need permission to connect. In fact, we are more threatened by our inner demons — desire for control, security, and safety — than any external threat. That’s what we should be focusing on.

The Net doesn’t depend on the FCC. The health of the Net doesn’t depend on any structure. Things are doing just fine. Things are actually flourishing. We should thank the FCC for modems. AT&T wanted to control that. But don’t work on an IP act at this point in time.

Net neutrality conflicts with rules about media ownership. Do we want total freedom? Or some freedom? Dinosaurs cling together for warmth in the cold winds of change. Let them clump together. We have a great desire for planning and predictability. Thats the way we operate. Humans have this need. We should be planning for the right network.

But this future can’t be planned. There’s no intelligent way to go about it. Lots of industries would like control: the content guys, law enforcement, and telecom. Monopolists always cry for predictability. That’s a danger. We’re very scientifically deductive people. We’re trying to parse what the freedom to connect is.

Our challenge is to change the way we think about the meaning of connection. Stop looking down at the parts. Look up to the context. We’re dealing with bits here. That said, there are still atoms in the world. Atoms are important. There will always be a role for hierarchies to deal with atoms: jail, property rights, and other atomic subjects.

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A large amount of what matters to humans assume that there is matter. We shouldn’t assume that governments are in charge of bits. They’re in charge of atoms. They’re not in charge of our minds or our culture. This is a relevant question: Who’s in charge of bits?

Connection involves atoms and bits. It’s difficult to draw the line between what government should do, and what people should do. At what level in the protocol stack should government intervene? We like to find information and use it. What amount of government intervention allows the maximum amount of that use to occur?

What inner demons will make this difficult? We have a regrettable tendency to allow government to design software and devices. To allow design mandates to be designed by a sovereign is like thought control. When a government determines where your attention is going to go takes away freedom. This is acute in the spyware debate. You should see the bills! We should be very cautious.

The second demon is filters. The power to remove a filter brings with it the power to impose the use of a filter. And the third and final demon is our need for security and safety. We long for someone to be in charge. We view the Internet like water or air. That drives a lot of these threats.

To assert that we have connection without permission requires that we overcome those three demons. So at what level of the protocol stack should government intervene? Can we get around the idea of government regulation? Are they smaller ways of connecting? No one gets killed by bits. Maybe we need to make regulation irrelevant.

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