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More Master Debating

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“Jane, you ignorant slut…” On openDemocracy, Siva Vaidhyanathan and Bill Thompson begin an ongoing debate on the nature and meaning of P2P.

Siva:

    This is the story of clashing ideologies: information anarchy and information oligarchy. They feed off of each other dialectically. Oligarchy justifies itself through “moral panics” over the potential effects of anarchy. And anarchy justifies itself by reacting to the trends toward oligarchy.

    The actors who are promoting information anarchy include libertarians, librarians, hackers, terrorists, religious zealots, and anti-globalisation activists. The actors who push information oligarchy include major transnational corporations, the World Trade Organisation, and the governments of the United States of America and the Peoples’ Republic of China.

    Rapidly, these ideologies are remaking our information ecosystem. And those of us uncomfortable with either vision, and who value what we might call “information justice”, increasingly find fault and frustration with the ways our media, cultural, information and political systems are changing.

    ….Several technological innovations have enabled this amplification and globalisation of peer-to-peer communication:

    The protocols that makeup the internet (i.e. TCP/IP) and the relative openness of networks that make up the internet.
    The modularity, customisability, portability, and inexpense of the personal computer.
    The openness, customisability, and insecurity of the major personal computer operating systems.
    The openness, insecurity, and portability of the digital content itself.
    Understandably, states and corporations that wish to impede peer-to-peer communication have been focusing on these factors. These are, of course, the very characteristics of computers and the internet that have driven this remarkable – almost revolutionary – adoption of them in the past decade.

    These are the sites of the battle. States and media corporations wish to:

    Monitor and regulate every detail of communication and shift liability and regulatory responsibility to the Internet Service Providers.
    Redesign the protocols that run the internet.
    Neuter the customisability of the personal computer and other digital devices.
    Impose “security” on the operating systems so that they might enable “trust” between a content company and its otherwise untrustworthy users.
    These efforts involve both public and private intervention, standard setting by states and private actors. The United States Congress, the Federal Communication Commission, the Motion Picture Association of America, Microsoft and Intel have all been involved in efforts to radically redesign our communicative technologies along these lines. And they are appealing for complementary legal and technical interventions by the European Union and the World Trade Organisation.

    These moves would create Internet 3.0, although it would not actually look like the internet at all. It would not be open and customisable. Content – and thus culture – would not be adaptable and malleable. And what small measures of privacy these networks now afford would evaporate. These are the dangers that Lawrence Lessig warned us about in 1998 in his seminal work Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Only now are we coming to understand that Lessig was right.

    ….Where there is no rich, healthy public sphere we should support anarchistic communicative techniques. Where there is a rich, healthy public sphere, we must take an honest, unromantic account of the costs of such anarchy. And through public spheres we should correct for the excesses of communicative anarchy.

    Still, we must recognise that poor, sickly, fragile public spheres are more common than rich, healthy public spheres. And the battles at play over privacy, security, surveillance, censorship and intellectual property in the United States right now will determine whether we will count the world’s oldest democracy as sickly or healthy.

    Anarchy is radical democracy. But it is not the best form of democracy. But as a set of tools, anarchy can be an essential antidote to tyranny.

Bill Thompson:

    In his essay Siva Vaidhyanathan works hard to establish the cultural and political significance of the growing number of peer-to-peer (P2P) networking tools that have come into general use on the Internet. He sees an opposition between the two political positions of anarchy and oligarchy, an opposition which extends from the real world onto the Net, and outlines a dialectic between the positions which derives from the widespread adoption of P2P. This, he contends, is ‘remaking our information ecosystem’ and altering the world.

    Unfortunately, while I think his core thesis is both interesting and defensible, the approach he has chosen simply does not support it adequately, and the central argument is both weak and technologically flawed. While the view that ‘anarchistic’ communication technologies are particularly important where there is no ‘rich, healthy public sphere’ – we should encourage email, blogging and chat in Myanmar, Iran and Afghanistan – has much to recommend it, Siva’s essay would fail to convince a sceptic even if it entertains those who already agree with him.

    ….There is a choice to be made, although it is not about whether or not we have a governed and regulated Internet.

    It is about whether the network is open or closed, whether it is run by the corporations in their interests or by democratically accountable governments in the interests of us all. An open society is neither unregulated nor anarchistic, but relies on state-backed guarantees of freedom in markets, property rights, freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom from intrusive surveillance or loss of privacy. If we want an open network then those guarantees have to extend to the technology which provides and sustains the network, and they can only be extended by the state.

    There is definitely a need for ‘healthy public discussion’ here, but this essay does not contribute much to it in its present form. Freenet is not a realistic solution – democratic control of a trusted network and accountable systems is the answer, not a techno-anarchism that can only fail to hold against the corporations.

    In the end, Siva’s thesis is entertaining but simplistic: putting the US government and the People’s Republic of China on the same side in some claimed ‘infowar’ may sound radical but is really just misleading. And the idea that ‘anarchistic’ communication is a tool to undermine closed societies smacks of the worst sort of US interventionism. Is Saudi Arabia to be hacked because the social norms there make looking at photographs of women in bikinis impermissible? Should UK anti-war websites be undermined because they do not support the US imperial worldview?

See also this P2P debate between Freenet inventor Ian Clarke and Matt Oppenheim, RIAA’s senior vice president of business and legal affairs.

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