Freedom is such a loaded word. And what makes it harder is that there is not a single “freedom”. There are many freedoms, that are intertwined and often in tension with one another.
In yesterday’s Times, Cornell economics professor Robert Frank notes:
while almost everyone celebrates freedom in the abstract, defending one cherished freedom often requires sacrificing another. Whatever the flaws in Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal, it sprang from an entirely commendable concern: a desire to protect parents’ freedom to raise healthy children.
Here is a case of one freedom (the freedom to sell and buy whatever we please) is in tension with another: the freedom to make healthy choices. To the critique that the wide availability of and social norms around sugary drinks doesn’t restrict that second freedom, Frank responds:
Unless we’re prepared to deny, against all evidence, that the environment powerfully influences children’s choices, we’re forced to conclude that rejecting Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal significantly curtails parents’ freedom to achieve the perfectly reasonable goal of raising healthy children.
Regardless of what you think about the soda ban, it’s a good example of the problem. And a microcosm of the large tension around freedoms between the right (“lower-level” personal freedoms) and the left (“higher-level” social freedoms).
This tension of freedoms is also at the center of the debate over the open internet. I just finished reading Susan Crawford’s new book, Captive Audience, which makes an impassioned argument that we need to prioritize our freedom to connect to the internet and our freedom to innovate on the internet over certain other freedoms (namely: the freedom to build network infrastructure without government regulation).
In Crawford’s view, data is the new electricity — a utility and commodity that must be provided openly and non-discriminately to all Americans — and should be regulated as such (much the way that electricity underwent regulation in the early 20th century, with the result of ensuring equal access). And she argues that the freedom to connect (as individuals) and the freedom to innovate (as companies) are much more important to society than the freedom to operate a broadband network sans regulation.
Many on the right don’t agree with this view — either because of fear of government surveillance and control, or a belief that the infrastructure market, left alone, will get the job done.
On this particular issue, it will be really interesting to see what happens this year, as FCC chairman Julius Genachowski leaves office (along with his net neutrality foe on the right, Robert McDowell).
I personally find Crawford’s argument compelling, at least in that we must choose to prioritize the freedom to connect and the freedom to innovate. It’s clear that we’re quickly falling behind other countries in this effort (e.g., our target connectivity for 2012 is 4mbit up / 1mbit down, while South Korea is targeting symmetrical gigabit connections for every citizen this year). As we continue to prioritize our freedoms, we should choose the ones that embody the greatest amount of potential and opportunity - and to my mind, that’s freedom to connect to and innovate on top of an open internet.
But we must also distinguish between the notion of government ownership & control of the internet and government regulation of internet access. Fred Campbell’s argument on Red State frames Crawford’s argument as a play for government ownership and control — e.g., data is not like electricity because data is speech, and it can’t be controlled or owned by government. I’m with that — but in practice I don’t believe that a privately operated network is any safer from government’s prying eyes than a publicly operated network (see CISPA).
So the real question seems to me to be: what can we do to ensure that people have freedom of choice at the application layer? That’s where the innovation is happening, where the biggest opportunities for growth and progress are, and where we should be placing our freedom chips.