There’s been some buzz in the last few days about the Declaration of Internet Freedom penned by some prominent libertarians.
I wish I could sign on to this document. Actually, considering who appears on the list of signatories, I consider the fact that the composers didn’t involve me in drafting it to be a surprising mistake that I can only ascribe to a collective fit of absent-mindedness.
But, because neither I nor anyone else from the hacker tribe was involved, it has one very serious flaw.
Humility, yes, Rule of Law yes, Free Expression, yes, Innovation, Competition, Privacy…most of this document is good stuff, with exactly the sort of lucidity and bedrock concern for individual freedom that I expect from libertarians.
But it all goes pear-shaped on one sentence: “Open systems and networks aren’t always better for consumers.” This is a dreadful failure of vision and reasoning, one that is less forgivable here because libertarians – who understand why asymmetries of power and information are in general bad things – have very particular reasons to know better than this.
In the long run, open systems and networks are always better for consumers. Because, whatever other flaws they may have, they have one overriding virtue – they don’t create an asymmetrical power relationship in which the consumer is ever more controlled by the network provider. Statists, who accept and even love asymmetrical power relationships as long as the right sort of people are doing the oppressing, have some excuse within their terms of reference for failing to grasp the nasty second, third, and nth-order consequences of closed-system lock-in. Libertarians have no such excuse.
In the context of this Declaration, this defect is particularly sad because the composers could have avoided it without damage to any one of the other pro-market positions they wanted set forth. I actually agree that, as proposed in their next sentence, closed systems such as iOS should be free to compete against open systems such as Android; as the Declaration says, “let technologies evolve and intervene, if at all, only when an abuse of market power clearly harms consumers”. The proper libertarian stance in these contests is to tell government to butt out and then vote with your dollars for openness.
I am disappointed in the Declaration’s failure to get this crucial issue right. I hope there is still the option to amend it; and if not, that my objection and correction will reach as many people as the Declaration itself, and the two together will convey important lessons about what we must do to preserve and extend liberty.