Back in 1993 a group of intrepid Mac users started the Low-End User eZine (LEU). The eZine was created to serve the needs of low-end Mac users. These were people who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) buy the latest and greatest computers and were often ignored by the major publishers. The LEU also included articles that were somewhat philosophical and addressed some of the moral and political issues relating to technology.
I was the editor of the publication. It lasted a few years and even was mentioned in MacWorld, but then faded away. Recently, Dan Knight (of Low End Mac fame) emailed me about the LEU and asked about putting up some of the old articles on the site. I hadn’t thought about the LEU in years, and went searching for the old disks. Modern Macs, like my iBook G4, don’t have floppy disk drives. I do have a USB floppy drive, but it won’t read 800K (DD) floppy disks. Fortunately, I have an old PowerBook 5300cs with the old style Apple drive, so I was able to transfer the files from the 800K disks to the 1.44MB disks and then to my iBook. All in all, it was a suitably low-end adventure.
I enjoyed being the editor of the LEU and, looking back, I miss the innocent enthusiasm I had in those long ago days.
In honor of the LEU, here is an article I wrote 14 years ago. Interestingly, while the technology has changed, the fundamental issues raised by this essay are still important today.
Computers, Freedom, and Molotov Cocktails (1994)
Although I do not watch all that much television (I have a low tolerance for badness), I have noticed a definite surge in media focus on computers. Some of this focus is highly positive, if not downright over-hyped. However, some of it is negative in character. Some of these negative reports are warranted, while others are actually ominous. One trend that I have noticed is the increase in stories about (or even advocating) placing restrictions on what might be called “electronic freedoms.” The basic idea behind electronic freedoms is that we retain the same rights in the context of the electronic “reality” (such as online services) that we possess in the “real” world (such as freedom speech). Before getting into the issues, I will briefly discuss two groups that seem to be leading the attack.
One group (using the term loosely) that seems enamored of restricting electronic freedom consists of politicians. The Clipper Chip, which was discussed in great detail in an earlier issue) is a prime example of this. Recently, I have observed various politicians express their desire to impose restrictions on the flow of information in the “electronic world.” This desire is hardly surprising, since most politicians are primarily interested in power. Secrecy and control are keys to power, so it is no wonder that an unrestricted exchange of information (such as the Internet) would strike fear into their hearts. However, it should not be assumed that everyone involved in the government is opposed to freedom. Some worthy individuals are clearly advocates of liberty. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer people like this these days.
The second group seems to be as vehement in its attacks, but the identity of this group is a bit of a surprise. This group consists of certain aspects of the mass media. In a recent news show (which will remain anonymous) I observed a reporter who made it quite clear what she (or perhaps her employer) thought about the unrestricted exchange of information via electronic means. In this particular case, the reporter did her best to convince the audience that the unrestricted exchange of information on the computer networks was almost entirely responsible for a series of juvenile crimes. Of course, it might be the case that certain media elements do not have anything against the computer networks as such and that they are simply going along with the “pass the blame” policy that seems to have become enshrined. For example, in the news “report” in question, the reporter was doing all she could to place the blame for the actions of the juveniles (they were building and using bombs) on the BBSs where they acquired the information to construct explosives and the people who uploaded or posted the files. At no point was it even suggested that the juveniles might have been responsible for their own actions.
In one sense, it is surprising that some elements of the media are supporting the position that the flow of information should be restricted. After all, the whole point (in theory) of the media is to provide a free flow of information. Perhaps they fear competition from the nets or perhaps they have simply fallen prey to a poorly considered ideology. But, for whatever reason, it is clear that there is some support for the restriction of freedom among the media elements. Fortunately, there are also clear advocates of electronic freedom in the media (most notably in the computer press, of course).
The main concern is whether restrictions should be placed on electronic means of communication, such as the Internet, BBSs, email, and so forth. Those who support placing restrictions on the flow of information do have arguments in support of their position. One argument is that since other means of communication (such as phones, television, speech, and print) have restrictions on them, then so should computer based communication. For example, television shows are forced to conform to certain rules, phones can be taped, and there are some limits as to what can be printed and distributed with impunity. Since restrictions exist in these areas, they should also be placed on other means of electronic communication, such as BBSs and such. This argument isn’t particularly good. After all, if you don’t believe that the current restrictions are acceptable, you are certainly not going to accept their extension to new areas.
The best argument that those who wish to place restriction have is a moral one. The argument is this: the unrestricted means of communication allow information to be transmitted that can result in harm. The specific arguments tend to center around the potential harms to children. Two prominent concerns are that children can and have acquired information about how to build explosives (such as pipe bombs and Molotov Cocktails) from BBSs and that children can get access to sexually explicit material via BBSs. Clearly, it is not a good thing for children to have access to this sort of information. For example, some of the children who learned how to make explosives used them to blow up mailboxes and others were seriously injured when they had an accident while trying to produce bombs.
This argument, which I shall call the “harm argument”, is a reasonable one. After all, if it could be shown that the unrestricted exchange of information via electronic means results in clear harm to children, then we should advocate such restrictions. However, the harm argument is flawed.
In the United States there is an established legal and moral basis for the free exchange of information. The best known legal basis for certain exchanges of information is in the Constitution. The importance of the free exchange of information has been well argued in the past and is an essential part of a free society. I shall assume that the United States is (in principle, if not in actuality) a free society and that the burden of proof rests on those who intend to restrict freedoms. In order to meet the burden of proof, those who support the harm argument must show that restricting the free exchange of information via electronic means will prevent the perceived harms without creating worse harms. It is my contention that this cannot be done.
First, in order to justify such restrictions, it must be shown that restricting electronic means of communication will significantly curtail such exchanges. After all, if we assume that the exchange of information was harmful, it would still be irrational to waste time, energy and resources trying to restrict a means of exchange when that restriction would have little or no impact. Anyone who is familiar with the way information is exchanged on computers knows that the main virtue of such means is their speed and convenience (in most cases). However, it is also well known that the information exchanged can be acquired via other means. In certain areas, such as scientists exchanging information, the speed and convenience is vital and restricting it would create a significant impact. Now, what about information that is considered potentialy harmful, such as information about bombs? Could the government significantly curtail the flow of such information by restrictions in the realm of computers? Clearly not, because there are so many alternatives. There are books, movies, television shows, pamphlets, as well as speech. When I was growing up, there were no personal computers, BBSs, modems, or email. However, during that time kids had more than enough information to do all sorts of harmful activities. Unless things have really changed, children probably get most of their information (and misinformation) from non computer sources. Thus, the only way to significantly curtail the exchange of such information is to severely restrict all forms of communication. Not only would this be infeasible, it would also run afoul of the nature of a free and open society. Also, if it were the case that computers were a significant source of harmful information for children, then there would be a clear correlation between computer access and the degree of harmful activities a child engages in. However, it does not appear that this is the case. Hence, it is very unlikely that such restrictions would reduce the flow of information, given these considerations.
Second, to justify such restrictions it must be shown that it is the information that leads to the harm. To be more specific, it must be shown that the information that is considered to be harmful actually has a relevant causal role in bringing about the perceived harms. To make the discussion more concrete, I will use the example of the bombs. However, this argument can easily be generalized to other situations. It would be foolish to argue that information about bombs does not play a role in the construction and use of bombs. After all, children who know nothing about bombs do not build them. Thus, those who create and distribute such information do have a degree of responsibility for their actions. However, this responsibility is extremely difficult to define. For example, suppose someone posts a warning about a product that turns into a poison gas when exposed to a common household chemical. Now suppose some children kill another child using that chemical. Is that person responsible for the death of that child? If so, he should be punished. However, it would be odd to send him to jail for posting a warning that was misused. Now, suppose he posted it as a fact, without the desire to protect others. In this case, it would still be strange to punish him, since it is not his fault someone misused the information. Now, suppose he advocated that people use this gas to kill others. In this case, he would be encouraging immoral behavior, which would be wrong. Is this individual responsible for those who follow his suggestions? To some degree, but not completely. After all, few people are such robots that they automatically obey every suggestion. People (yes, children are people) have the capacity to make decisions about what they will and will not do. A person who does not have the capacity to make decisions requires someone else to watch out for them. In the case of children, if they are incapable of making decisions properly, then their parents or guardians must assume responsibility for their actions. Thus, if a child is capable of making decisions, her actions are her responsibility. If a child is incapable of making decisions (such that they are mere putty in the hands of others), then the parent must assume full responsibility. So, in the bomb case, if a child makes a bomb, then either it is his responsibility or his parents. If he uses the bomb to harm himself or others, then he or his parents are to blame. If it is his responsibility, then he has failed himself and others and must pay the price. If it is his parents’ responsibility, they have failed the child, themselves, and others. Mere information does not make a person take an action anymore than the mere existence of a gun makes a person a murderer. Without the decision to act, there can be no action. Information does not make decisions or take actions. People do, so people have to take the responsibility for their own actions.
Third, to justify such restrictions, it must be shown that such restrictions will prevent more harm than they create. What harm can be done by imposing restriction on electronic means of communication? In itself, a rule forbidding the posting and exchange of information about explosives via electronic means might not be particularly harmful. After all, anyone who has a legitimate need for information about explosives can simply get the information from thousands of other sources. The same is true about any other type of information. However, such a restriction would set a dangerous precedent. I will not claim that such a restriction would lead to the death of freedom or some such nonsense. After all, that would be a slippery slope fallacy (an “argument” in which something extreme and often terrible is claimed to inevitably follow from a first step without any argument for that inevitability). I do argue that such a restriction sets a dangerous precedent. Once a restriction is set on the exchange of information because somebody believes that such a restriction will prevent a possible harm, it becomes increasingly easier to place further restrictions based on whatever political or moral ideology happens to be fashionable at the time. I simply do not have enough faith in the reasoning abilities of those in power to be willing to allow them such control. What might well happen, as has happened in other media, is the gradual erosion of freedom. What is even worse is that such activities also result in an increase in the power over the medium by those who simply do not understand it. It is a dangerous thing to allow the politicians into this electronic realm. After all, look at what they have done to the real world. Should we let them get a foothold in the virtual world?
How do we keep our freedom? The key seems to be responsibility. If we are responsible in our actions as members of an electronic society, we will not give the politicians any excuse to intrude to “protect” us. As creators and distributors of information, we should take responsibility for that information. If you must write about bombs, take the responsibility of warning people about the dangers. If you have to distribute the information about bombs, make sure people know what they (or their kids) are getting into. As receivers of information, we must take responsibility for the actions we take using that information. If you simply must build a bomb, be careful. If you think you simply must blow up your neighbor’s mailbox, get help. If we are responsible for others, such as children, we must take the time to know what they are doing. If you are a parent or a guardian, and your child has access to a computer, take the time to learn about what they are doing. Whether they have access to computers or not, be a responsible parent. If we cannot assume responsibility for our actions, then we will have no one to blame but ourselves when we lose our freedom.