Keith Curtis dropped out of University of Michigan to become a proprietary programmer at Microsoft, to quit and become an author and film-maker about free software. He talks on conflicting choices that any user today makes with the State and the Internet.
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Shardul Pandey: These days when the world is gripped in to Snowden syndrome, people are getting cautious and confused about the conveniences, internet is giving to them. Sometime back Dr Richard Stallman said to me, “I see that the Internet is turning into a scheme that gives people convenience in exchange for their freedom. Disservices such as Facebook invite people to share lots of personal information with a company that can make use of it, and hand it to the state as well.” Before also he used to say like that more often than not but with Edward Snowden’s act almost all his apprehensions are established as absolute facts. On 11 June 2013 in his political notes he said, “This man is a hero comparable to Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning.” How do you asses it?
Keith Curtis: RMS is right that the Internet is to some extent exchanging convenience for freedom, but that is also a simplistic perspective. The Internet is changing everything: education, business, science, culture. How many know of the Harlem Shake phenomenon? That is a trivial example, but it demonstrates a global mind and that physical distance is no longer a barrier to the exchange of (generally good) ideas. Billions have heard of Wikipedia and benefit from it, either directly or indirectly (you use a Boeing airplane and a Boeing engineer used it).
In the case of Facebook, there is nothing on that site that I wouldn’t post on any other as well, and often do post to multiple sites. If what I write and like allows them to pick custom and more targeted advertising, I have no problem with that. I’d rather someone try to find things interesting to me than just purely random content. Rather than just railing against things, it is better to have more specific criticisms and suggestions. Facebook has greatly improved their privacy settings.
As for Snowden, I am torn between the idea that the government must do dirty things to keep us from getting blown up, and protecting privacy and freedom. Terrorists must talk to each other over the Internet like the rest of us do. I don’t think that mass surveillance is a good idea, but I do like the ability for the government to be able to listen to particular conversations sometimes. If your job was to protect other people from being killed, you’d want some surveillance capabilities. Unfortunately, because it isn’t being run in the private sector, they end up building more than they need. There is absolutely no need for them to listen to my phone conversations. If they are bothering with it, then they are just stupid and wasting resources.
When I think about how the government is taking away my freedoms, I don’t worry about them listening into my phone calls as much as I think about how they are creating massive debts which I will have to repay, they are devaluing the currency to “stimulate” the economy, the retirement systems are going bankrupt, they create policies which have the unintended consequence of making healthcare very expensive, they have stupid energy policies which raise the cost of travel, food and everything, etc. A national healthcare system takes away a lot of freedom.
Shardul Pandey: Internet is not only about taking away freedoms but it has given many unprecedented freedoms to people across all countries. May be it has become a double-edged sword in the hands of humanity so how to further it for not to harm the privacy of individual user ?
Keith Curtis: Yes, the Internet is a double-edged sword. At the same time, we can try to fix things with specific suggestions. If you are worried about Internet freedoms and other freedoms, then vote for libertarian leaders who will do a better job balancing the tradeoffs. Obama is the opposite of a libertarian. A 50-page piece of legislation would fix our healthcare system. Obama’s was 2,700 pages and which puts the government in even greater control and overall makes the system more expensive and worse. Given he doesn’t care about freedom in healthcare, you can be sure he doesn’t care about it for the Internet either. So many people have cellphones because of the free market, not because of any government mandate. We need programs to help the poor, but single payer healthcare controls everyone. Surveillance is a minor issue. Anyone who gets upset about it clearly doesn’t realize all the other ways government is taking our liberty. The lack of freedom, in software, and in society, are the biggest challenges that face us.
Shardul Pandey: Obviously surveillance is a minor issue that certainly doesn’t upsets that much but the major issue, people of all countries are getting upset about, is that the ability of US Government has evidently invaded the sovereignty of independent governments of other countries by compelling American internet companies for stealing and sharing users’ data across all countries alike. For instance as per the laws of land in India, American companies functioning here could even get booked in a strong case of cross-border espionage if political will persists here at any point of time so where it is going to end after all with what ultimate universal solution?
Keith Curtis: I’m not exactly sure what you are referring to. There are terrorists in every nation, and governments need to be working together to listen in on the bad people making plans and recruiting. This can be done in a way that respects the law, and sovereignty of every nation, in a targeted manner, and even with the checks and balances of a judge like what happens with the FISA courts in the US.
One of the consequences of Obama’s expanded drone program is that we are blowing up rather than capturing and interrogating terrorists. Obama is happy to kill where there is no risk of Americans losing their life. Death of Americans brings decreased poll numbers and donations. However, if we aren’t interrogating and getting the contact lists of the terrorists, there is little point in having a surveillance program.
I can imagine that governments will always have the ability to listen in on particular people. Surveillance is a limited but very useful power. Libertarians aren’t anarchists. Instead of the NSA building a $2B datacenter, it could just build a small cluster. How much computing power does it take to track 1,000 dangerous people?
The solution to getting rid of the greatest need for surveillance is to end terrorism. Given this is a problem that goes back decades, it will take a while to fix as well. Today, There are schools and cultures that teach hate. And in the many countries where there is economic stagnation and misery, people are much more prone to be radicalized. Governments use hate to distract citizens from their own misery. The US economy has been pretty stagnant since 2008, but in general the opportunities for an average American are still much better than what exists for most young men in the Middle East.
Many countries have terrible economies because the government has created laws with bad unintended consequences. Obama’s policies are uniformly if unintentionally creating negative economic results. Unlike in software, where you can test if your idea is a good one, an economist would have to run for office or invade another country to learn if their grand scheme is a disaster or a good idea. Therefore, most today are quacks and have no idea what they are talking about. Most of the economists in the world today would be complete failures if their theories were ever actually implemented. Paul Krugman is probably the most famous genius-idiot.
The reason why so many countries have misery and bad economies is because so many countries have Marxists in their economic departments. The philosophy of higher education in one generation becomes the philosophy of government in the next. The key link many don’t understand between freedom and prosperity is that when the government gets out of the way, more people will have jobs and will be happier. If societies could purge themselves of Marxist thought, and the people who govern according to it, happiness for average citizens would increase, and terrorism would mostly disappear.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of every citizen to pick leaders who will create policies that bring them hope and happiness, but unfortunately, most sources of media advocate liberal economic policies and liberal politicians, and so people often unintentionally vote against their own interests.
Suppose I stated that Sarah Palin would be a better President than Obama. Many reading that assertion would question my grasp of reality to make that statement. I believe it to be true, but the point is that the mainstream media and culture turn some people into a Messiah (ignore the shortcomings) and some people into the devil (exaggerate the shortcomings) and for the most part, even very intelligent people don’t notice propaganda. There is inaccurate and pervasive propaganda and groupthink in every country.
Shardul Pandey: Yes the misinformation has been very much a case along with governments unnecessarily wasting enormous public money. That is why some people are sacrificing all their conveniences just for opening up the governments in public interest. Actually implementation of INTERNET PROTOCOL got a global public trust established by making global networking open, free, fluid, live and ONE although prior to that our governments only failed in building any mutual trust among people across the political geography, while wasted a lot of public money in the name of protecting us from each other. Now if we fail in keeping ourselves one and open, we can not succeed in fighting misinformation that all governments yet use to spread.
One internet is sure to reinvent business, technology and media worldwide. Not only GPL, GNU, Linux or Android but google.com, wikipedia.org or twitter.com are also global faith structures. Ever-growing readership of SANGKRIT.net is getting global. It has already attained far greater internet influence than both major-most political parties of India have despite expending a lot of money for that.
You see people across all time zones have started believing more in internet companies than in their own respective governments as through every crisis caused by this or that government, domain registrants bothered more for not to trade-off social privacy of individual users rather than any respective government did so. Consequently isn’t it a case coming up that domain registrants now be given some sort of limited sovereignty so that they can safely refuse to disclose user information out of their domains?
Whether an international law can help for protecting internet users’ individual freedom and social privacy for ascertaining further growth of internet as open, free, fluid, live and above all as one thing in general?
Otherwise the US usage of concurrent internet for FREE SURVEILLANCE may consequently lead in to BALKANIZATION of INTERNET since it violates the sovereignty of so many independent nations so how to resolve this upcoming threat once forever along with addressing the lack of freedom in software and society as biggest challenges that face us?
Keith Curtis: The Internet exists, and yet lies by governments are still pervasive. Fixing misinformation requires a different strategy than just focusing on an open, etc. Internet. Who decides whether a politician is a Messiah or a fool? Why are so many governments running massive deficits without citizens demanding better?
It is true that in the marketplace of ideas on the Internet, the good ideas will eventually win out, but there are new lies being produced daily:
Here is another reason why bigger government provides a more just and moral society.
Listen to the latest dumb thing a conservative said.
Here is another anecdote that proves the tea party is racist.
There are also generations of journalists who are taught that their job is to report stories that conform to their world-view. A story that Obama is a Messiah is news, an event where he did something poorly is not reported because he’s doing his best and it must be someone else’s fault. Obviously in other countries there are lies with different names and circumstances. Note that the pervasive lies in the news media do infect things like Wikipedia and Twitter.
I think it should require a court order for domains to be forced to give up user information to the government. Otherwise, what information about a user is made public is up to the user and the website. On Facebook, I make my profile public. Other people can make other choices. Facebook would refuse you if you asked for private information about me. Privacy is a bigger topic than government surveillance.
I think there are many laws that could be passed to further improve the Internet in the ways that you desire: laws that would decrease the use of DRM would help with the spread of content. Outlawing software patents and genomic patents would help with the faster spread of science. Governments creating laws that force themselves to use and contribute to free software would also help. Governments getting out of the business of producing news would also help. I think the government could get involved in fostering standards in healthcare, which would help with the sharing important medical records in a reliable, secure and private way over the Internet. Also governments can keep building up more-unified resources of information about medical research like the NCBI (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/). It could require that all public funds for research never be given to a proprietary technology or be patented.
I’d like to pass a law that would outlaw Marxism in universities and government. Of course, such a law is hard to implement, but I do believe that the people who make up the Internet would be much happier if such a thing could magically happen. The more prosperous and free the society, the better the Internet will become.
Shardul Pandey: Massive public usage of Internet certainly curbs down all misinformation. German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called for new European Union laws on data protection and a ban on American companies that violate them although in recent weeks, German foreign intelligence service BND was under attack for its own collaboration with NSA. German Justice Minister has to say that BND must finally put all the facts on the table. To protect user information, Jimmy Wales challenged entire industry to make encryption a human rights issue.
A few days back in Berlin during ceremony of Internet Hall of Fame, when Aaron Swartz was posthumously inducted, the rest of living inductees gave an standing ovation. He could not be there because US laws didn’t permit his creative freedom. John Perry Barlow accepted his induction on behalf of Assange, Manning and Snowden. Chairman of BJP Parliamentary Party in India L K Advani greeted and complimented Richard stallman for encouraging other champions of freedom like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. RMS thanked and said he is very gratified that LKA admires them whom he too admires. John Perry Barlow tweeted, “How the hell can we put someone away for most of his life when about half the country thinks he deserves a medal?” Misusing Internet for free surveillance is an international crime since it violates the sovereignty of other independent peoples.
Still how for a free society we can make arrangements of individual freedom with social privacy? Whether encryption be made human rights issue or domains be allocated virtual sovereignty or ICANN be given diplomatic immunity so that internet industry can refuse from compromising any user information on the basis of one international law or should we simply start an Internet Hall of Defame by voting for Obama to start with?
Keith Curtis: It is true that increased usage of the Internet curbs down misinformation, but when there is so much of it produced every day by governments, government-sponsored media, and journalists who advocate for government, that the trends might be in the right direction, but progress is very slow. The Internet is a great mechanism for the broadcast of lies as well as truth, and many journalists don’t even realize when they are unintentionally spreading lies. Students who go to University in the US don’t realize that they are being taught almost exclusively liberal political and economic ideas. There are billions of people who think Sarah Palin is stupid. I can’t defend her here, only use it as an example of how groupthink is pervasive even over the Internet. People in Cuba are “sure” Karl Marx is the best economic philosopher and the Internet hasn’t changed that. There are countless other examples, and different ones in every country.
I don’t think a ban on companies is a great idea. Why not try to work things out? There is a lot of anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism. Don’t quickly follow what some liberal Eurocrat advocates. I don’t think encryption as a human right is a good idea. It is so low on the priority list of ways to make human life better it isn’t even worth discussing. And again, companies are improving. Facebook has dramatically changed their privacy settings over the last years, presumably with input from privacy experts.
Aaron Swartz’s situation is tragic, but the US has laws to protect creative freedom. There is a balancing act, and different perspectives on how to do that. I agree the US government should have lead in pushing for open access, but in general, these are private entities producing the journals, and it is private companies and universities like MIT that got it wrong. The question you have to ask is, why wasn’t everyone at MIT already pushing for open access?
Each case of Swartz, Manning, Assange, Snowden, etc. are different. I’m not going to argue they are all guilty or innocent, only that the question of what someone did is complicated and I think grouping a bunch of people together as all heroes requires a lot of work. You are welcome to your set, but I don’t worry about the increasing freedom achieved by leaking documents, for example, as compared to the fact I live in the world where Social Security has been going bankrupt for decades and yet nothing to reform this 1930s law has been done. This is another infringement on my freedom, much worse. It is common knowledge that half children in Detroit schools are functionally illiterate in the 8th grade. I wish documents would leak that would show the US is bankrupt. Maybe then American liberals would focus on it. You don’t even need leaked documents, the US government publicly announces that it has $100T in unfunded liabilities. Are any of these leaks providing us with any new knowledge that could be used to improve the quality of life for average citizens? Something isn’t valuable just because it was secret.
As for laws to protect freedom and privacy, I don’t encourage many laws that cross countries. It decreases the sovereignty of each nation, and there are many examples of international laws that have made things worse such as the situation in the EU. I really think that governments need to be cooperating to protect us from those who would blow themselves and others up. Laws which pretend that risk doesn’t actually exist are a mistake. Governments need to be trying to cooperate to stamp out terror, but in the meanwhile, we need to be finding terrorists. Can you imagine life if the police disappeared? There are embassies between every country. It seems like working through these issues would be one of their biggest jobs. Doing that in a limited and effective way is key.
Shardul Pandey: I am certainly not carrying a bunch of (my set of) heroes. I always try hard to help so-called great men meet some ordinary self.
Actually it is secrecy and sacrifice that leave awesome effect on everybody else up to the extent that mostly people become hesitant to say anything against the ideals involved. Sometimes an aura gets made around even not so wise things. Hero worship hasn’t ever helped any society in practice. All of sudden America is evolving a lot of heroes only because the US Government has become good enough in playing great villain.
Consequently what you find doing best for America in concurrent circumstance?
Keith Curtis: I think that hero-worship of the right people is a fine thing. It is good for children to be instilled with the right values, done through stories.
The problem is finding the right heroes, and many of today’s ones and the values promoted in modern society are wrong. We live in a technological age, but are culturally devolving. In every big city in America, there are many children who go to a “free” school, but are illiterate. Why aren’t these schools improving? Why doesn’t this get talked about much more than Snowden? Why do history majors at Universities learn that Gorbachev “won” the Cold War? Why isn’t every programmer already writing free software, which is in the tradition of science? Why is a President picked because of the palpable excitement around his skin color? Obama might be popular currently and considered a success, but the biggest thing he’s doing is hastening the demise of the welfare state, which is what he actually believes is the role of government.
Social Security has been going bankrupt slowly for many decades, but faster since he took office. The deficits are even bigger. The unemployment is 2% more than Bush’s average. Many people are part time, and high gas prices, higher food and everything prices, a stagnant housing market, and none of the longstanding social and societal problems are actually being fixed. We are moving towards the abyss faster. One day, there will be a big mess to clean up. Congress is basically dysfunctional with a Republican (libertarian) house and a (Marxist) Democrat Senate. The Republicans in Congress are ready to pass laws to unwind the welfare state, but they couldn’t get through the Senate. Obama believes that the job of government is increase redistribution so he would veto every one anyway.
I think calling the US a villain is over-stating things. A lot can be explained by incompetence. And there are a lot of times with past Presidents where the conventional history on what they did, and what they actually did, are very different. Anyway, whether the US is a villain is complicated because you need to analyze a lot of actions and the results and compare it to what would have happened if the US hadn’t been involved.
Milton Friedman’s solution is to turn the welfare state into a negative income tax, privatize everything, and pass laws that encourage competition (get rid of software and biotech patents) and also cooperation (invest in free software, open access journals, etc.) The idea that teachers should be working for the government is extremely ingrained in culture. There is the list of what needs to be done, and there is also the issue of (re)-educating people on the limited role of government so they can vote in people to do this.
Shardul Pandey: I find you politically very capable to hold on. Our this talk has already become very popular. It is being read globally alike. You make very good statements. Your country should be proud of you.
I do not consider United States as villain. Internet was born with its father’s salary coming from US treasury. Unfortunately US Government has given a chance to an entirely spy-managed state like Russia to become the hero of Internet. Hackers haven’t ever been dangerous guys but the world they tried to help has been dangerous to them.
Once free trade and free speech made American dream possible but now free surveillance has made furthering that difficult. I think US must not be getting short on free speech and free trade. One new book I’ve read is called The Liberty Amendments by Mark Levin. He describes some of the political solutions which can help enable the economic ones. It also give more context to some of the problems.
Other countries would require different political solutions, but they might also find some inspiration from this.