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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Internet Access as a Human Right

David Brin

Contrary Brin

April 04, 2011

President Obama has declared that access to the world of information, via the Internet, should be considered a basic human right.

This is, of course, something you’d expect me to agree with. In The Transparent Society, I made a case for such openness based on multiple levels:
1. It is morally and ethically imperative.

2. It is the best way to achieve justice.

3. Our basic societal “organs”—including fair markets, democracy, science, and even art—function better when all players can make decisions based upon full knowledge.

4. It creates a situation in which Enlightenment Civilization will ultimately “win.”

Now, we’re being a bit redundant here, since desiderata 1, 2 & 3 are only positive things from the viewpoint of people who are members of an Enlightenment Civilization. These traits are not orthogonal. Even the way I know some of you reacted to point number 4—by frowning over my chosen words, my notion of one civilization “winning” against its competitors—even that reaction is itself a trait of having been raised in the Enlightenment’s modern liberal societies.

Few cultures ever saw moral fault in hoping for their own success, at the expense of others. Survival was a zero-sum game, until the Enlightenment discovered positive sum virtues.

netThe ultimate irony is that, in order for positive-sum thinking to prevail in the future world of our children - and for diversity to reign in peace—the overall worldview of enlightenment values (values that appreciate diversity) will have to “win” in the most general sense. Freedom, and especially the freedom to know and to speak that is embodied in the Internet, must prevail… and those forces that restrict freedom must fail.

This is why the world’s despotic regimes reacted so negatively to President Obama’s assertion of a right to Internet access. They know that:

A) open information flows, especially a secular trend toward more transparency worldwide, will be inherently lethal to their mode of rule, and;

B) increases in light flowing over fully engaged enlightenment nations and their institutions only makes them stronger. Sure, some doses of light can be inconvenient to individual leaders, parties or clades. But the overall societies only get healthier.

Let’s deal with each of these assertions.

Transparency as an Openly Aggressive Weapon Against Despots

We begin by quoting liberally from a recent article in Wired:

When Hosni Mubarak shut down Egypt’s internet and cellphone communications, it seemed that all U.S. officials could do was ask him politely to change his mind. But the American military does have a second set of options, if it ever wants to force connectivity on a country against its ruler’s wishes. There’s just one wrinkle. “It could be considered an act of war,” says John Arquilla, a leading military futurist and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

The U.S. military has no shortage of devices — many of them classified — that could restore connectivity to a restive populace cut off from the outside world by its rulers. It’s an attractive option for policymakers who want an option for future Egypts, between doing nothing and sending in the Marines. And it might give teeth to the Obama administration’s demand that foreign governments consider internet access an inviolable human right.

Consider the Commando Solo, the Air Force airborne broadcasting center. A revamped cargo plane, the Commando Solo beams out psychological operations in AM and FM for radio, and UHF and VHF for TV. Arquilla doesn’t want to go into detail how the classified plane could get a denied internet up and running again, but if it flies over a bandwidth-denied area, suddenly your Wi-Fi bars will go back up to full strength. That leads to another possibility: “Just give people Thuraya satellite phones,” says John Pike of The cheapish phones hunt down signals from space hardware.

I’ve been talking about this concept with John Arquilla and his colleagues for many years. Back in 2001—at the CIA and at several defense agencies—I described more than a dozen methods to cheaply spread key elements of an international civil society into closed or despotic nations, in ways almost guaranteed to create win-win situations and to corner tyrants, at little risk to ourselves. I cannot claim that the tools listed above originated with those speeches. (I get contradictory reports about that, and in the end it doesn’t matter.) Still, I am glad there’s been movement in the right direction.

There are many other measures not listed in the Wired piece that can be effective across a wide range of circumstances. At one extreme—that of open but not-yet-violent hostility—calls for particular and peculiar aggressiveness. During the run-up to the latest Iraq war, at the same meeting where I proposed most of the measures listed in the Wired article, I also suggested the ultimate in people-empowering and tyrant-disempowering technologies…

...developing and then dropping into such a nation several million “volksradios” that would provide Iraqis with an entirely separate system of packet-switched conversation, outside the dictator’s control. Also, incidentally, such a system would provide our intelligence services with vast amounts of information on the ground.

(This is related to my civil defense proposal to make western countries more robust, but simply enabling our cell phones to pass text messages on a peer-to-peer basis. To read about much simpler-cruder methods, have a look here.)

Of course, over the long run, we’d rather not let it come to that. Dropping in several million gifts to a nation’s citizens may not be an act of war—I defy anyone to make that case—but it certainly is a pugnacious violation of sovereignty. So is the freezing of a regime’s foreign assets.

According to this Washington Post article, when the U.S. Treasury Department froze Libyan assets, they expected to find $100 million, but found over $30 billion—mostly all in one bank. To put this in perspective, in 2009, Libya had a gross domestic product of $62 billion.

Say what? Thirty billion dollars? If this cash pile is matched by similar revelations re Egypt and Tunisia and other toppled despotisms, can you doubt that economic transparency will become a truly radical cause during the twenty-teens? Perhaps even as much as I predicted back in 1989, in my novel Earth?

Only in this case, we’re talking about a “radicalism of reasonableness.” A militancy of moderation. A fervent and dynamic worldwide call for governments and corporations and oligarchs and rulers and economies and everybody simply to play fair. Compete fair. To rule fairly, the way Adam Smith and F. Hayek and nearly all cogent economists of left and right agree we must, if society is to be healthy at all.

A radicalism that Louis Brandeis spoke of when he prescribed the one thing that keeps a society healthy: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The Other Assertion: Light Only Makes Us Stronger

I’ve long-delayed my “WikiLeaks Analysis.” Events are still surging along. But one aspect that Julian Assange surely never expected when he spilled a quarter of a million State Department cables upon the world was the degree to which this leak helped Hillary Clinton and her colleagues at the exact moment when they needed maximum credibility in the developing world, and especially among Arab youth. The overall positive impression given by those cables—of skilled American professionals who despised the despots they had to deal with—overwhelmed all the tiny embarrassments that Assange expected to send heads rolling in Foggy Bottom.

The crux effect of this openness (one that I predicted at that 2001 speech, and since then) was to so enhance American influence at a vital moment, that I expect the Secretary of State—if she had the chance—would give Julian Assange a great big hug.

This doesn’t prove my assertion B, but it is highly indicative. Indeed, there is only one thing that prevents our skilled professionals, diplomats and political leaders from doing the obvious, from eagerly embracing a broad, general secular trend toward a world with few secrets as the surest way to accomplish their goal: a “win” for the overall civilization that employs them.

Alas, that one thing is a biggie: human nature.

An Idea To Further Us Along That Road

I would have let this rumination end there. But a fan of The Transparent Society sent in this piece of news and I really must share it.

India’s chief economic adviser Kaushik Basu has recently argued that to reduce bribery we should make the paying of bribes (not the demanding) legal.

Let’s have a little context here. There are two types of bribery. First comes the kind where the briber and the bribed are in collusion to perpetrate an illegal act. This problem exists worldwide and Basu’s proposal will do nothing about it. In the west, its occurrences are isolated, but extremely severe. Sophisticated schemes of collusion between politicians, corrupt bureaucrats and oligarchs can result in multi billion dollar theft from investors and taxpayers—and some contend that the last decade has been an especially busy time for such raids. But that’s not the topic here.

Rather, the issue is something that seems rare in the West, but that is endemic across the developing world. It is the sad fact that regular people often have to pay gifts to public officials, just to get them to do their jobs. To issue a business permit, for example, or a rental agreement, or driver’s license. So, here’s the idea:

“Under current law… the bribe giver and the bribe taker become partners in crime. It is in their joint interest to keep this fact hidden from the authorities and to be fugitives from the law, because, if caught, both expect to be punished. Under the kind of revised law that I am proposing here, once a bribe is given and the bribe giver collects whatever she is trying to acquire by giving the money, the interests of the bribe taker and bribe giver become completely orthogonal to each other. If caught, the bribe giver will go scott free and will be able to collect his bribe money back. The bribe taker, on the other hand, loses the booty of bribe and faces a hefty punishment.

“Hence, in the post-bribe situation it is in the interest of the bribe giver to have the bribe taker caught….Since the bribe taker knows this, he will be much less inclined to take the bribe in the first place. This establishes that there will be a drop in the incidence of bribery.”

Basu notes that he intends this to apply to bribes where the person paying the bribe is receiving only what they are entitled to receive, e.g. when you have to bribe to get a business license that you are entitled to or to get your rice rations or get an income tax refund.

This is a bit of brilliance, on a scale with Hernando de Soto’s scheme that has worked so well, in Peru, vesting property rights in poor farmers so that they can then use capitalist processes for their own benefit. Moreover—need I add—it is a pure and magnificent example of the cleansing, healthy power of transparency.

Final Note

Now, in closing, let me give you your your assignment till next time. Consider: If we find a solution to bribery, what about its vastly worse twin… BLACKMAIL?

Read this. Ponder it. Spread the word and make every public official… every person who ever thinks about seeking public office… think about it in depth.

It may be too late. Then again, perhaps it isn’t.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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