The Duck of Minerva

Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, People Do.

3 January 2011

Clay Shirky has the lead article in this month’s Foreign Affairs on social media and world politics. Although both governments and activists both seem to be assuming that the effects are a boon to civil society, Shirky begins by pointing out that the record of such effects on political mobilization is a mixed bag:

“The use of social media tools – text massaging, email, photo sharing, social networking and the like – does not have a single pre-ordained outcome… the safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question ‘do digital tools enhance democracy?’ is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run – and that they have teh most dramatic effects in states where a public sphere already constraints the actions of government.”

Given this, Shirky argues that the clearest way in which social media empowers citizens is not through information dissemination per se but by providing them tools and platforms through which to coordinate and mobilize – privately – among themselves to buttress and enhance the public sphere so indispensable to democracy. He thus critiques “internet freedom” policies that focus primarily on preventing states from censoring outside websites and argues that the key is a thriving public sphere (which can be faciliated by social media among other things), not information freedom per se:

Although the story of Estrada’s ouster and other similar events have led observers to focus on the power of mass protests to topple governments, the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere – change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months… The US government should maintain internet freedom as a goal to be pursued in a principled and regime-neutral gashion, not as a tool for effecting immediate policy aims country by country… internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

An interesting piece full of insight, but it also has a number of important blinders; I’ll mention two here.

First, it’s interesting to see Shirky’s article framed as a critique of the State Department’s internet freedom policy on instrumental grounds rather than in terms of the disconnect with evolving US practice. The US comes off here as a well-intentioned yet empirically misguided champion of civil society’s right to information on the basis of its official agenda. Recent events, however, situate the US less as a champion of internet freedom and more as a powerful government in search of tools for suppressing that freedom. Whether or not you believe (as I do not) that organizations like Wikileaks should have the unlimited right to access and publicize private documents, it is alarming to see a powerful government actively searching for ways to prosecute such behavior as illegitimate speech rather than seeking to regulate it.

[To be fair, Shirky has much to say about this on his own blog:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.}

But second, let’s take the opposite tack. If Shirky’s argument about the coordinating power of civil society through social media is accurate, an important question about the extent to which “information freedom” policies help or hurt needs to be directed not just at policymakers in the State Department but also information freedom activists like Assange himself and the movement for which he remains a figurehead.

Shirky’s claim is that the real value of social media is in “allowing citizens to communicate privately among themselves;” in the off-cited “boomerang effect” this communication often crosses boundaries and involves dissidents within one country seeking alliances with civil society networks and sympathetic governments abroad. The public sphere, in other words, is increasingly internationalized. The strategy of capturing and leaking digital evidence of such communications, while intended to hold governments to account, predictably produces blow-back effects on dissidents as well by exposing their connections with those governments abroad. Belarus and Zimbabwe are two recent country contexts where this allegations of this dynamic are coming to light.

Similarly, as privacy controls on social networking sites and laws protecting the privacy of text messages are increasingly whittled away, will this not dampen precisely the public sphere that translates social media into political power? As plausible as Assange’s argument that transparency will hobble the ability of state bureaucracies to organize wrong-doing in secret is the threat that transparency will hobble citizens’ ability to organize dissent and protest against the state. If so, strengthening laws, norms and media architecture to protect the right to control who can view and disseminate one’s digital artifacts – be they governments, corporations or individuals – would perhaps be a more important step toward freedom than condemning information censorship. And this is an argument to be pitched not just at the US State Department but the wider elements in global civil society that want a rights-based internet architecture that works for people.

[On some key distinction between private control and institutional control over data, see John Lanier’s recent essay and Zynep Tufekci’s riposte.

And that brings me full circle to an important conceptual point. What I am describing is not information freedom. Is it the freedom of individuals to control how information about themselves and their socio-political activities are shared and with whom. And this – like the ability to peacefully assemble and organize – is a prerequisite to the achievement of other important rights.