Technological Libertarianism

Jesse Alan Gordon, 1995

I am a nerd. I am also a libertarian. There are many deep-rooted reasons why the latter follows from the former, for me and for my fellow nerds. Nerdy people are at the core of the computer revolution and people with nerdy characteristics will likely be at the core of most future technological revolutions. Understanding the relationship between nerdiness and libertarianism, therefore, is essential to making a workable technology policy. This article explores the implications of "technological libertarianism" for the "Information Superhighway" and other technology policy.


I am a nerd who has been a freelance computer software analyst for the last eleven years in Boston's 128 Belt (sometimes known as "America's Technology Highway"). I like sitting in front of computer terminals until dawn breaks; I find electronic games highly addictive; I use wierd phrases like "wysiwyg" and "pop the stack"; I don't consider a document "safe" until it's on my hard disk (versus misplaceable paper).

I am a libertarian who has been an active advocate of libertarian philosophy for the last ten years. I believe in legalizing suicide, drugs, and prostitution. I'm a card-carrying member of the ACLU and I support anything that reduces the role of government in our personal liberties and personal lives. On the economic side, I support GATT, NAFTA, lower taxes, and anything else that reduces the role of government in our economy and in our business lives.

One of the US Libertarian Party's biggest constituencies is computer programmers (some of the other big constituencies are motorcycle enthusiasts, Randian Objectivists, and Survivalists; this amalgamation makes the LP the third largest political party in the US). Many of my computer-nerd colleagues are members of the LP, and most are philosophically libertarian-leaning. As more and more Americans become computer-literate, get hooked on "e-mail," start "telecommuting," and become more like today's nerds, more and more of them will adopt the associated libertarian outlook. Policies which affect technology will affect more than just us nerds in the future. Future technology policies should recognize and address the libertarian tendencies inherent in the high-tech world -- let's start by exploring why that tendency is inherent.


Technology is power. Technology invests power in individuals rather than in governments. How can government restrict freedom of the press, for example, when anyone with $1,000 can get a word processor and a laser printer and "desktop publish" anything they believe in? How can governments restrict imports and exports of services, for another example, when anyone can consult internationally by fax in minutes, can communicate on an worldwide network in seconds, and can transfer information abroad in milliseconds?

Governments can only restrict personal freedom and economic freedom in the Information Age if they exclusively control technology. George Orwell's predictions of worldwide fascism by 1984 required that the government maintain strict control over all technological devices and all technological innovations. Real-life totalitarian regimes recognize this requirement too. For example, after the Tiananmen Massacre, the Beijing government posted a censor at every fax machine in the country, to stop the flow of news being faxed in from abroad.

Decentralization of power is the primary policy goal of libertarian politics. Technology is proving to be one of the most powerful forces of decentralization in the history of humankind. (Decentralization is also a motivation for the LP's motorcyclist constituency, who consider their freedom of mobility to be a reflection of their freedom from central government control). Technological advances tilt the balance towards personal power and away from government power, and I believe this is the main reason that technology users support decentralization and the libertarian political philosophy that advocates it.


Technology allows independence. The Hollywood image of the lone hacker -- working at his keyboard in isolation from the rest of the world except for his modem and his fax -- is persistent because it is based in truth. Computers and modems have made "telecommuting" possible and have the potential to change the face of the American workplace. Telecommuting allows occupational independence -- the news magazines tout the possibilities for at-home work for new parents, for working at one's own choice of hours, for "job sharing" and multiple part-time jobs, and so on. Occupational independence is alluring -- I myself would have trouble working "regular hours" at a regular office after years of being a telecommuting make-my-own-hours independent worker.

The high growth rate of the computer industry in the 1980s and of other high-tech industries today promotes occupational independence. Small start-up firms are prevalent in high-tech industries, and small start-up firms go bankrupt on a regular basis, which encourages workers to be more reliant on their own independent skills than to rely on a company for employment. High-growth industries also find office space at a premium as they outgrow it, which encourages telecommuting. Perhaps most importantly, the computer industry has been entirely unregulated, which encourages independent contractors and creative job situations.

Independence is the primary characteristic of libertarian psychology. Technology is proving to be a powerful force for creating occupational independence. (Independence is also a motivation for the LP's survivalist constituency, who value it so highly that they attempt to live "off the grid," or independent from the rest of society). Occupational independence fosters independent thinking about non-occupational aspects of one's life, and I believe this is a strong reason that technological workers support independent lifestyles and the libertarian psychology that is promoted by such lifestyles.


Technology favors self-regulation. On a large scale, the technological revolution has been mostly self-regulated, and on a small scale, computer networks have had mostly self-monitored rules. A decentralized and independent industry populated by people who believe in decentralization and independence requires that the industry be self-regulated, so this is not surprising. The computer industry's self-regulation encompasses eveything from maintaining free network access to copyright rules.

Computer networks have successfully disallowed commercial use of the "Internet" since its inception, solely by Internet users enforcing against it themselves. In a well-known case last year, a legal firm sought clients by simultaneously transmitting an advertisement to multiple Internet bulletin boards (a practice derisively known as "spamming"). Hundreds of Internet users responded by electronically inundating the legal firm with notifications that they were misusing their Internet privileges (a practice known as "flaming"), until the legal firm repented. (This self-regulatory system is weakening nowadays, with the entrance of thousands of non-technologically-oriented users onto the Internet.)

Software copyright protection is unenforceable because software is so easy to copy electronically. Commercial software producers tried to make "software piracy" difficult by using ever-more sophisticated devices to prevent copying. Hackers consistently responded by finding ways to defeat the protection devices (a practice known as "cracking"). The compromise solution between commercial producers and hackers is to make software available in a form that can be freely copied, but with documentation books and support services only available to legitimate purchasers. I know of no cases where "software piracy" has been legally prosecuted. I know of many cases where hackers own dozens of cracked programs and pirated programs, but also own a few legal programs which they purchased to get the books or support or just to get the latest features. The self-regulating system -- piracy is tolerated but services are paid for -- requires no government legal involvement, keeps software producers profitable, and keeps hackers happy.

Self-regulation is the primary cornerstone of libertarian morality. Computer technology may prove to be a successful case of an industry which regulates itself without the need for government intervention. (Self-regulation is also a motivation for the LP's Objectivist constituency, who would base their entire legal system on self-reliance and self-enforcement). The successful self-regulation of the computer industry serves as an example that self-regulatory mechanisms can work in a large-scale profitable industry, and I believe this is one reason that technological participants support self-regulation and the libertarian morality that espouses it.


The "Clipper Chip" was a device which, after being "voluntarily" added to every computer, would allow the federal government to monitor communications from that computer to other computers. The Clipper Chip would include "unbreakable" security codes which would only allow monitoring by court order. The Clipper Chip never got off the White House drawing board because of strong political opposition. Let's analyze the opposition in terms of how the Clipper Chip directly opposes all of the bases of technological libertarianism described above.

First, the Clinton Administration promised that all use of the Clipper Chip would be voluntary. However, it would only be useful if its inclusion in computers was universal, and anything universal implies centralized control. The control "keys" for Clipper Chips, in fact, would have been kept in a central repository in Washington -- anathema to the technological libertarian's political philosophy of decentralized power.

Second, having a Clipper Chip in one's computer implies that one's independence is lost. When hackers see the phrase "unbreakable security codes," we are immediately inspired to work at breaking them. Had Clipper Chips been foisted upon us, legions of hackers would have dedicated their every waking minute to "cracking" them (and we would have succeeded -- as evidenced by the Israeli hacker who "cracked" the US Defense Department's "unbreakable" encryption algorithm last year). To independent-minded computer nerds, a Clipper Chip in our computers would feel like a serial number tattooed on our wrist. Like the wrist tattoo, the Clipper Chip itself is benign, but it symbolizes a loss of sovereignty -- wholly unacceptable to the technological libertarian's psychology of independence.

Third, the Clipper Chip would have imposed upon us a regulatory mechanism from outside the computer industry. To us, it would have felt like the first step toward a fully regulated industry. It would have sounded the death-knell for all who believed that we could regulate ourselves better than the federal government ever could. The Clipper Chip seemed like a simple policy to the Clinton Administration, and they were shocked by the depth of opposition in the computer industry -- because the Clipper Chip was incompatible with the technological libertarian's morality of self-regulation.


The Clinton Administration is pushing forward with its concept of the "Information Superhighway." What are the implications of "technological libertarianism" for this policy? How can the federal government avoid future Clipper Chip fiascoes? If the US government wants the computer industry to prosper, it should account for the mentality and preferences of the computer industry's participants. That means it should design the Information Superhighway as a decentralized system, should respect the independent-mindedness of its primary users, and should not impose outside regulatory mechanisms. The US computer industry has thrived because it has adhered to those characteristics. By analogy, other high-tech industries and other Information Superhighway-based activities would similarly benefit by respecting the technological libertarianism of their technologically-oriented participants.

Let's explore what the Clinton Administration's technology policy should be, if they wish it to fit in with the philosophy outlined above. A technological libertarian on Clinton's technology policy committee would have readily predicted the negative response to the Clipper Chip, because it was so against our belief system. What else would a technological libertarian recommend?


There is a precedent for government involvement in computer technology: the ARPA-Net, a government-sponsored project, was the original basis of the Internet and other current global computer networks. The ARPA-Net succeeded because its sponsoring agency, the Department of Defense, set up the network and then got out of the way once it was well-established. (In fact, the decentralized nature of the Internet is based on DoD's desire to make it less subject to enemy attack of a central command post). DoD is nowhere to be seen in the Internet today, except as users just like any other users.

It is a tribute to the foresightedness of the Defense Department that they could yield control of the ARPA-Net when their centralized control was no longer necessary. There will be a great temptation for the agency that oversees the Information Superhighway to stay in control once the system is set up. Such control would be contrary to the philosophy of decentralization and I believe it would ultimately incapacitate the Information Superhighway.

The underlying metaphor of the Information Superhighway should be, "If you build it, we will hack." Do the bare minimum necessary to construct an infrastructure, and leave the rest to us hackers. We will find the best ways to use it; we will come up with self-regulatory mechanisms; we will do what is necessary to ensure its integrity; we will come up with maintenance procedures and upgrades. The federal government should be involved only with construction.


All "unbreakable" codes can be "cracked," so there is no point in trying to build unbreakable security into the Information Superhighway. Design a system that does not require unbreakable security codes at all. I would recommend a system with no security at all, because "security" is inversely proportional to "user-friendliness." I make that statement based on years of experience programming both "secure" systems and "user-friendly" systems -- codes, passwords, cryptic commands and so on make for a secure but user-unfriendly system; on-line help, multiple access paths, English-based commands and so on make for a non-secure but user-friendly system. Since the primary purpose of the Information Superhighway is to make information accessible to people, it should focus on user-friendliness at the expense of security.


DoD has no useful role to play in the Information Superhighway and they should be kept out of it. Unlike with the ARPA-Net, there is now sufficient recognition of the utility of the Information Superhighway that we do not need a military pretext for building it. DoD involvement would assure that security becomes an issue, to the detriment of user accessibility, as discussed above. The "superhighway" analogy itself implies military involvement, since the Interstate Highway System was built for the purpose of use of the Department of Defense (to evacuate cities in case of nuclear attack, and to ensure mobility of army materiel). Those purposes made the Interstate system much more expensive to build and much more expensive to maintain. DoD should participate in the design of the Information Superhighway as one among many users, not as a primary motivation for its creation. While acknowledging the utility of the Information Superhighway for DoD, focusing on Defense needs will make the process more expensive and more security-minded, and hence less useful to civilians and less likely to succeed.


As a good libertarian, I'm always on the lookout for fascist implications of government activity -- and wow! the Information Superhighway has the potential for "Big Brother" written all over it! Of course Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore have the best of intentions, but their successors may not, and we should take care in the design of the system to ensure that no government can ever use the Information Superhighway to hurt the people of America. As discussed above, technology can decentralize power, or it can be controlled by a central government. We should put safeguards in place now against infringements of our civil liberties by misuse of the Information Superhighway by future governments. Such safeguards should include:

Disallow government agencies from tracking citizens' whereabouts by means of the Information Superhighway (easy to do, by tracking use of credit cards, telephone calls, passports, and so on, all of which will presumably be eventually included in the Information Superhighway).

Disallow one government agency from using information gathered for purposes of another government agency (like how the FBI is currently disallowed from using IRS information to prosecute crimes, and how the Census Bureau's data can only be used in statistically summarized form).

Disallow the federal and state governments from ever requiring the electronic registration of citizens, or from making an electronic list of all citizens by indirect means. Registration is convenient for all kinds of government activities, but it's simply too dangerous a tool to let the government have. Electronic registration would be an essential ingredient to the success of any 1984-style state, so we should disallow it for no other reason than that it precludes the initial formation of a electronic totalitarian state.

Establish the right of persons to control what is done with their personal information, and establish that each person "owns" information about themselves. This would imply, for example, that any person could request that their personal information not be included for specific commercial activities (like we can request to be removed from "junk mail" mailing lists today). It would also imply that citizens have a right to compensation when their information (which they "own") is used -- so we might get paid a royalty fee if comanies wish to include our information on electronic junk mail lists.

I would recommend a Constitutional amendment to ensure that these restrictions are maintained forever (but I'm a Libertarian, so perhaps that's asking too much). We should, in any case, build in legal mechanisms to ensure against insidious encroachment by government agencies into the Information Superhighway in the future, when future Americans might otherwise be less vigilant because they are more accustomed to the system.


"Victimless" crimes should have victimless penalties -- as long as hackers do only harmless hacking, they should be punished (if caught) by some appropriately weak slap on the wrist (perhaps a warning against committing crimes which do have victims). Electronic crimes on the Information Superhighway will of course occur, and some will of course have real victims. Real crimes with real victims should be punished with real penalties. But hacking around on the Information Superhighway, even if it breaks the rules, should be tolerated as long as the hacker behaves responsibly and does no harm. Letting hackers hack will ensure that we always have a next generation of Information Super-experts available, and that we always know the foibles of the system.


If the Information Superhighway is to succeed as well as the American computer industry has, we should follow the same basic rules. Avoid government regulation as much as possible. Keep government entirely out of pricing mechanisms. Remove government once the infrastructure is set up. Ensure that government cannot use the Information Superhighway to centralize power. Trust self-regulation instead of government regulation. Technological libertarianism has been the source of the success of America's high-tech industries. If we adhere to its underlying philosophy, technological libertarianism can be the source of the success of the Information Superhighway as well.

All material copyright 1995 Jesse Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Jesse Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 354-2805

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