In scrambling to the latest threat against liberty and the net like a wild goose chase, it’s sometimes worth asking the bigger question: why do we have incompetent politicians in the first place that force us to be this vigilant for self-evident liberties?
Fights for net neutrality and basic privacy in the European Union, for the right to cryptography in Russia, fights against insane ten-year prison sentences for sharing knowledge and culture in the UK. It’s just the latest attention grabbers in a long string of insanities dating backward in time: ACTA, SOPA, notice-and-takedown, messenger liability, the (first) crypto wars, and so on. From time to time, you can’t help but realize that being a liberty activist in this landscape necessarily means jumping from one brushfire to the next.
Every now and then, it can be useful to take a step back from all of this to look at the forest picture, instead of focusing at an individual tree. Why do we have to defend our liberties in the first place, when it’s the job of politicians and law enforcement to defend these liberties – the very people we find ourselves opposing, literally doing their job for them against their will?
We live in times of change. It’s as disruptive as when the printing press appeared, only ten or twenty times faster. Changes to society that used to take a living memory (about 80 years) to happen, and therefore didn’t meet much natural resistance, now instead happens in ten years. Or two. Or a couple of months. This leads to a lot of people who used to feel in control of the situation not feeling so much in control anymore (and not being so much in control anymore) – feeling disenfranchised. When these people are part of the lawmaking establishment, whether pushing the actual voting buttons or not, they will react trying to protect against the changes that put them out of control.
There’s a Chinese proverb: When the winds of change are blowing, some people build shelters, and others build windmills. Politicians are desperately building bigger and bigger shelters against the future, at the expense of our liberties.
So why is there this immense disconnect? Why do politicians keep talking about “creating jobs”, when in reality, they are trying to prop up industries that have already failed, and who are operating on borrowed time (and legislative favors to keep back competition from more cost efficient alternatives)? Why are legislators behaving this, well, irrationally?
One word: fear.
Fear of change, fear of disapproval, fear of the unknown in particular.
Politicians are not daring risk-takers like entrepreneurs and other change agents. Rather, politicians are risk minimizers (just look at any campaign). In this, their profession is literally afraid of the unknown.
When they see things around them failing, and not understand why, they ask around their circle of friends (some people would say “cronies”). This is a very human behavior: you and I would do exactly the same in our circle of friends when there was something that concerned us we didn’t understand.
The real problem arises when these “friends” are legacy industries that are threatened by the same future that the politicians are trying to understand. And in this, the lawmakers obtain a frame of reference where the legacy industries’ continued and undisturbed operations is the self-evident status quo which must be defended against disturbance, instead of thinking in terms of defending basic liberties – freedom of expression, privacies of correspondence and data, freedoms of assembly and trade – and just letting outcompeted industries fail. (Once they’re not competitive, no amount of delaying the future is going to change that fact, anyway.)
The legislative focus should be on preserving liberty, not on preserving old jobs that aren’t coming back anyway.
This is why we’re dealing with the old national telecom monopolies trying to dictate how the Internet should work (to protect their legacy cost structure, not to maximize the utility of the agreement that is the Internet and the following liberty). This is why we’re dealing with insanities from the copyright industry while the upstart liberty entrepreneurs aren’t heard at all in the legislative debate. This is why our children don’t have the same basic liberties – privacy of correspondence, privacy of identity, privacy of location, privacy of information – as our parents had.
And that’s a problem we need to solve long term, big picture, instead of jumping between brushfires. Privacy remains your own responsibility at the end of the day.