Dear Internet, can we talk? We have an information pollution problem of epic proportions.
Phillip Smith
5610

Dear Philip:

Let me begin by noting my concurrence that the issue of digital misinformation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that to properly and cogently address it, we need to understand its cause(s), and its various manifestations. To my mind, we need to begin at the beginning — to explore how a vision of “internet freedom” lead us astray, and how the internet as a tool of potential empowerment has instead frequently become a tool of oppression — how a surfeit of “democracy” has reduced the ability to engage in actual and informed democracy. The early visionaries of the Internet, including most famously John Perry Barlow, defined freedom as the absence of constraint, and envisioned that an unencumbered and global communications medium would be self-governing and altruistic. But, as Isaiah Berlin notes: “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.

President Lincoln offered the following:

We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names, liberty and tyranny. The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.

To build the foundations of a more functional marketplace that advances the human condition, we must take account of the disparate impact of various definitions of freedom, and reject the clearly-failed premise of the early tech utopians that decontextualized and defined freedom in a way that removed it from any sense of responsibility. Chaos favors the wolves, so we shouldn’t be surprised when wolves make the most of such opportunities. The issue of “fake news” or digital disinformation flows directly from the lack of accountability for the consequence of one’s actions that was baked into Internet theology 1.0 as expressed by Barlow et al, and then weaponized by the captains of the internet economy as a way to avoid corporate liability.

To effectively address disinformation, we must reject the underlying intellectual underpinnings of an internet economy based on artificial ubiquity. More isn’t better…it’s just more. And permissionless innovation should be celebrated only in instances where society isn’t better served by permission, and should never be an invitation to misappropriate the labor or property of third parties. To challenge false news and other societal ills, we must build an internet society that respects the role of consent of the governed — consent of the networked as regards privacy as articulated by Rebecca MacKinnon (https://consentofthenetworked.com), and just as importantly, consent of the speaker. We must recognize that freedom is predicated upon restraint and the application of rules, not their absence. We must establish incentives for responsible conduct rather than rewarding malfeasance or inaction.

It is thus with some astonishment and disappointment that I read in your piece that you are hoping to continue a conversation about misinformation at this year’s Mozilla Festival. I am not suggesting that Mozilla shouldn’t have a place at the table — they should. But they are not well-positioned to set the table. Indeed, Mozilla has been one of the principal cheerleaders for the lack of internet accountability that is responsible for our present mess of disinformation and misappropriation. One of the high priests of a failed ideology. See the following:

We created Firefox to build openness and opportunity in our lives and into the Internet industry. That is our mission. And it is a mission that is even more relevant today than it was 10 years ago.

Today, this goal is at risk again. Many of the principles we associate with the Web — openness, decentralization and the ability of anyone to publish without asking permission from others — are endangered.

Normally, infrastructure is built to be highly centralized. The bigger it gets, the more centralized it is. And the more centralized it gets, the more one has to get permission to be able to do anything. The World Wide Web is a rare exception. It is explicitly designed to have no center, and to allow people on the edges — that’s you and me and the rest of humanity — to make decisions. Ordinary people and small businesses can create opportunities and try things for ourselves without asking some large centralized business for permission. The Web allows boundless innovation from everywhere; it is a connection point that does not dictate what happens as people connect.”

Mozilla continues to ignore the world we can taste and whose air we can breathe in favor of an idea of human behavior that has failed to materialize, based on a naive and immature vision of liberty and freedom that contemplates only speaker and not audience. This is the ideology that brought us to our present situation, and we must not double down on failure. If we are going to have any hope of effectively addressing digital misinformation, we must begin by rejecting the facile definitions of freedom that lay at the heart of an ecosystem without adequate checks and balances. As my friend David Newhoff preaches, we must not be blinded by the illusion of more. Sometimes, it is essential that we say “stop.” Time for a course correction, and Mozilla is part of the rear-guard defending a poorly considered idea. I am afraid it’s in their DNA.