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``If there is something called freedom of information on the internet, we now know a few things that it isn't ...''


Fiona Steinkamp started the second run of ``mii-dem'' with a short reminder of her contribution that had been available in the ``Democracy Workshop.'' While previous discussions had dealt with the tendency to idealize democracy she was concerned with the ideals commonly associated with the Internet. Those ideals show, as it were, a close affinity to Enlightenment values that constitute modern democracy.

I guess my concern was with one basic question and two related meta-questions. That is, the primary question was ``Which ideals does the Internet promote?'' and the sub or meta-questions were
(a) are these the ideals it should promote? and
(b) is it successful in promoting those ideals?

The examples I gave were: -

Ideal 1: ``All voices are equal''
(a) are they? (examples about anonymity, problems of vocal minorities etc)
(b) should they be? (e.g. is freedom of voice, freedom enough?)

Ideal 2: ``Freedom of Information''
(a) is it? (e.g. ``closed'' discussion lists, paying for connections)
(b) should it be? (e.g. pornography)

A third question hinged on whether freedom of information went hand in hand with freedom to inform and whether freedom to inform goes hand in hand with freedom to misinform.

(Apr. 29, 1996)

``The Internet'' may be almost as difficult to define as ``Democracy,'' but its characteristics (and deficits) seem to be closer at hand. General statements like the examples given by Fiona Steinkamp can be checked by reference to daily experience in ``cyberspace'' (which is itself a remarkable melange of myth and technological expertise). Is there really a need to talk about ``ideals of the Internet?'' ``Are these ideals which are simply perceived (or assumed) to be possessed by the medium, and, if so, by whom? If these people are simply committing hasty generalizations (as was, I think, suggested), then need we be theoretically concerned with what they consider the ideals of the Internet to be?'' (Stuart Broz, Apr. 29, 1996) In other words: Why care for unicorns? In the case of Internet ideals the motive probably is the remarkable chance to turn the medium into a means of personal (professional and moral) advancement.
It is difficult to separate experience from practicality. For example, the sense of freedom or of liberation experienced when one realizes that one can use (share) html files is one which is experienced only by those with a certain degree of familiarity with the Net. Similarly, to take Herbert's previous example, communicating with others whom one does not know at all apart from Net communications is possibly exhilarating only for those who actually participate.


If the above is true, then those with greater expertise (indeed, I could use the word ``experience'' here rather than ``expertise'' and it would, in this context, be understood to mean ``practical experience'') will be those who will be ``the beholders'' of the greater freedom available, although, ironically, the upshot of this is that the greater freedom is not equally dispersed, but dispersed only to those who already have access to that freedom.

I suspect something like this line of thought lies behind Herbert's comment that it may be true that ``all drinks are free'' but you nevertheless still ``have to pay for your dinner.'' That is, perceived advantages to the Net may be there, but some investment - in terms of learning how to use it, for example - is necessary in order to gain those advantages.

(Fiona Steinkamp, May 6, 1996)

In one sense this was a replay of the balancing act that had already taken place between the ``idealists'' and ``realists'' earlier on. Confronted with the unprecedented potential of media technology one is almost instinctivly torn between hopes finally coming true and a strong awareness of the need to urge caution. A new element entered the discussion at this point, however. Fiona's questions concerning equality of voice and freedom of information had put the problem into a more specific context. As it turned out they could be answered in different ways, depending on the concrete conditions envisaged. A first approach to a new phenomenon is often instinctivly metaphysical. Once one gets involved with particular circumstances this superficial depth gives way to more extensive description. Gregor-M. Killing reminded the group of some basic facts.
>Ideal 1: ``All voices are equal''
>(a) are they? (examples about anonymity, ...vocal minorities etc.)
>(b) should they be? (e.g. is freedom of voice, freedom enough?)
(Fiona Steinkamp 1996/04/29 17:15)

The typical Net-surfer is white, male, +/- 30 years old and has a so called ``higher education.'' Therefore the INTERNET is NOT an image of the existing world but a real subset of real-world-interests. Voices may be equal but the receptions of opinions and/or contributions are no´t (see below).

>Ideal 2: ``Freedom of Information''
>(a) is it? (e.g. ``closed´´ discussion lists, paying for connections)
>(b) should it be? (e.g. pornography)
(Fiona Steinkamp 1996/04/29 17:15)

The freedom of Information issue is connected with the censorship debate (see also: At the moment I have no idea how to find a consensus between the ``American'' point of view: ``No censorship'' and the ``European'' or at least ``German'' point of view: ``Freedom of speech may not cause limitations to the human rights of other people.'' (Cf. the case of ``Ernst Zuendel'' and responses on the part of the Nizkor-project:

(May 8, 1996)

He also introduced another problem that had not yet been mentioned: ``information flooding.'' Freedom of information seems of little use if the Net buries its users under an avalanche of unrelated, undigested data-trash. Who will be best equipped to master this difficulty? It will obviously be those persons that know how to deal with similar confusions even before confronting the Net: ``... those who are willing to make the investment (of whatever kind) may be those who are already `in real life' more free than those who do not have the ability to make that investment in real life.'' (Fiona Steinkamp, May 8, 1996) This suggests that, despite all the excitement, Internet experience is not going to change ``real life'' an awful lot. Still, Fiona Steinkamp introduced a very unsettling feature of interaction on the Net within the very message that had also entertained the idea that there is nothing special about Net-freedom.
There is something rather interesting about the sense of greater freedom (or equality) being in part based on *lack* of information (and, indeed, within a medium which is allegedly praised for ``freedom of information''). In many ways communication on the Internet is like communication in a void (!) precisely because of this lack of information (generally) about the people with whom one is communicating. In another sense, it is also like creating out of a void - total strangers whom you cannot see reply to what may seem to be a thought put out into a void and I suspect there is a tendency to create ideas about the people one cannot see.

(May 8, 1996)

In UNIX jargon ``communication into a void'' is called ``piping to /dev/null,'' sending a message to a null device, i.e. trashing it. Spontaneous reaction to something written on another continent goes together with the loneliness of writing in one's office (or at home). Freedom and equality on the net are shaped by closeness, directly bordering on complete detatchment. If, as this discussion showed, ``closeness'' is not a natural given, but rather a quality available to a certain (privileged) group under certain circumstances, then the above observation establishes an interesting parallel to political liberalism. The latter is a doctrine constantly struggling with the tension between general claims - mainly articulated within a particular socio-historical setting.
Is the claim for a greater amount of freedom, more democracy, etc., just a self-serving move by those who already are in a privileged position - or can it be read as an attempt (on their part) to escape from the mechanisms of self-perpetuating structures of domination?

As Fiona rightly points out, if this is the crucial question we are on very familiar ground. Some such tension (paradox?) has been afflicting liberalism since it turned into a successfull political movement. There are some very specific historical circumstances under which it was possible for constitutional pluralism to succeed. And one of its main promises was to grant equal opportunity to all concerned.


Very briefly: a privileged minority produces promises directed towards the rest of humanity in order to further strengthen *and* to subvert its own position.

(Herbert Hrachovec, May 10, 1996)

Mythology provides for semi-real entities, strange aggregations of phantasy and facts. Does it help to regard ``democracy'' and ``liberalism'' under this perspective? It might, at least, increase people's readiness to deal with problems that do not offer clear-cut solutions one way or the other. (J. Derrida has recently employed the notion of a ``ghost'' to achieve a similar effect in political philosophy.gif The discursive format of a mailing list is very effective in bringing out the relevant discontinuities. Its automatic quotation mechanism can produce highly involved layers of information and can easily be misused (and ridiculed). But they can also give rise to examples of closely interwoven, computer-assisted ``dialogues'' like the following one that has Fiona Steinkamp quoting Herbert Hrachovec quoting Gregor-M. Killing and herself before further developing the thread.
> One of Gregor-M. Killing's remarks touches on the issue of (so-called)
> negative and positive freedom that I have just mentioned in my answer to
> Fiona.
> > The freedom of Information issue is connected with the censorship
> > debate. (see also:
> > At the moment I have no idea how to find a consensus between
> > the ``American'' point of view: ``No censor-ship''
> > and the ``European'' or at least ``German'' point of view: ``Freedom of
> > speech may not cause limitations to the human rights of other people''
> ``Writing into the void,'' as Fiona has called it, seems to be closer to
> the US position. But this cannot be the whole story. There is absolutely no
> point in having ``freedom of speech'' alone in the desert. The difference
> seems to come from the way a society thinks of itself. Whether it seems
> more important to guard one's autonomy or to cooperate in some kind of
> historico-hierarchical ensemble.

Yes, I guess that must be a key issue. It appears that as soon as you have a historico-hierarchical ensemble, there is also (by definition?) a privileged sector and a less-privileged sector. This ties up with Herbert's summary in which he (interestingly) compared the situation on the Internet with the problems with liberalism. Is the privileged sector in the hierarchy the one which both subverts and promotes itself?

(Fiona Steinkamp, May 16, 1996)

The discussion had moved from tentatively delineating the pattern of some ``ideals of the Internet'' to an awareness of their embedding within historical contexts of power and ideology. Paul Treanor, as it happened, had submitted several contributions forcefully attacking democracy's role in shaping the governing consensus (roughly) of NATO's sphere of influence. The ``Internet as hyper-liberalism,'' according to him, currently plays a prominent part in this deplorable development. The discussion now fell prey to a certain tension: ``... who protects the rest of the world against the Net and the Netists?'' (Paul Treanor) There are several things that can happen by feeding a system an input that is intended to destroy this very system.

next up previous
Next: ``But whereas power is Up: Lines of Thought Previous: ``real equality is still

Fri Jul 25 22:00:35 MEST 1997