Death of a Libertarian Fantasy: Why Dreams of a Digital Utopia Are Rapidly Fading Away
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There is no mystery why libertarians love the Internet and all the freedom-enhancing applications, from open source software to Bitcoin, that thrive in its nurturing embrace. The Internet routes around censorship. It enables peer-to-peer connections that scoff at arbitrary geographical boundaries. It provides infinite access to do-it-yourself information. It fuels dreams of liberation from totalitarian oppression. Give everyone a smartphone, and dictators will fall! (Hell, you can even download the code that will let you 3-D print a gun.)
Libertarian nirvana: It’s never more than a mouse-click away.
So, no mystery, sure. But there is a paradox. The same digital infrastructure that was supposed to enable freedom turns out to be remarkably effective at control as well. Privacy is an illusion, surveillance is everywhere, and increasingly, black-box big-data-devouring algorithms guide and shape our behavior and consumption. The instrument of our liberation turns out to be doing double-duty as the facilitator of a Panopticon. 3-D printer or no, you better believe somebody is watching you download your guns.
Facebook delivered a fresh reminder of this unfortunate evolution earlier this week. On Thursday, it announced, with much fanfare and plenty of admiring media coverage, that it was going to allow users to opt out of certain kinds of targeted ads. Stripped of any context, this would normally be considered a good thing. (Come to think of it, are there any two words, excluding “Ayn Rand,” that capture the essence of libertarianism better than “opt out”?)
Of course, the announcement about opting out was just a bait-and-switch designed to distract people from the fact that Facebook was actually vastly increasing the omniscience of its ongoing ad-targeting program. Even as it dangled the opt-out olive branch, Facebook also revealed that it would now start incorporating your entire browsing history, as well as information gathered by your smartphone apps, into its ad targeting database. (Previously, ads served by Facebook limited themselves to targeting users based on their activity on Facebook. Now, everything goes!)
The move was classic Facebook: A design change that — as Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told the Washington Post – constitutes “a dramatic expansion of its spying on users.”
Of course, even while Facebook is spying on us, we certainly could be using Facebook to organize against dictators, or to follow 3-D gun maestro Cody Wilson, or to topple annoyingly un-libertarian congressional House majority leaders.
It’s confusing, this situation we’re in, where the digital tools of liberation are simultaneously tools of manipulation. It would be foolish to say that there is no utility to our digital infrastructure. But we need to at least ask ourselves the question — is it possible that in some important ways, we are less free now than before the Internet entered our lives? Because it’s not just Facebook who is spying on us; it’s everyone.
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A week or so ago, I received a tweet from someone who had apparently read a story in which I was critical of the “sharing” economy:
I’ll be honest — I’m not exactly sure what “gun-yielding regulator thugs” are. (Maybe he meant gun-wielding?) But I was intrigued by the combination of the right to constitutionally guaranteed “free association” with the right of companies like Airbnb and Uber to operate free of regulatory oversight. The “sharing” economy is often marketed as some kind of hippy-dippy post-capitalist paradise — full of sympathy, and trust abounding – but it is also apparent that the popularity of these services taps into a deep reservoir of libertarian yearning. In the libertopia, we’ll dispense with government and even most corporations. All we’ll need will be convenient platforms that enable to us to contract with each other for every essential service!