It is evident to anybody who takes an interest in free speech and its bedfellow free thought that the Internet is now the only battleground worth fighting over.
As such, any attempt by a journalist to publicise the likes of Aaron Swartz, one of the programmers behind Reddit – to name a lesser achievement – should be applauded, even if it is Laurie Penny.
But the trouble with Penny’s writing on this subject is that it is dishonest, and it fails to delineate the complex argument around distribution of information in the Internet age.
Anybody who followed Swartz’s legal battle against the US secret services – or like me read up on it later – will have been struck by the pettiness of the American authorities in prosecuting him for stealing a trove of academic journals.
Yet it’s ripe for Penny to claim that like Swartz she believes “that communication should not be hampered by states or bartered by corporations”, when she has pressed so hard for Twitter and the police to crack down on ugly speech online.
This is the woman that tweeted back in September 2015: “We can only have true free speech when women and minorities are able to speak freely without being silenced, harassed and abused.”
One doesn’t have to take a libertarian stance on free speech to recognise that criminalising online abuse by definition involves a certain amount of hampering by states, most likely in partnership with the corporates in Silicon Valley.
This is a kind of censorship. Britain already has statutes criminalising naming victims of sexual violence, publicly commenting on active court cases, and some types of bigoted speech, and this censorship all applies online to some degree.
Penny has been vociferous and frequent in her criticism of “hate speech” – an appellation I quote because of its strangeness, given the variety of people and things worth hating – and presumably supports the right of anonymity for victims of sexual violence.
As such it is hard to believe she is a true supporter of “the movement to protect the free internet from the interests of governments and corporations”.
If left unrestrained, the Internet would not merely be a network for sharing academic journals, but a place where people were free to smear their enemies, organise violent protest groups and distribute child porn. Penny and her ilk would hate it.
Even for proponents of very limited censorship, it does not seem wise to unequivocally support a world where communications are not at all “hampered by states or bartered by corporations”.
Governments elected and controlled by democratic process have a legitimate role in policing what goes on online, irrespective of the technical illiteracy of the likes of our home secretary Theresa May and her Snoopers’ Charter that was reintroduced to Parliament this week.
The alternative is an anarchistic platform where the strong are freely able to bully the weak, and mobs can harass whomever they please, as Penny should be well aware given her complaints on the matter.
As for the aged Internet slogan that “information should be free”, this ignores the costs accrued in collecting and organising useful information.
If we value good content we must be willing to pay for it somehow, if only for the reason that when we don’t it damagers creators’ ability to assemble it.
Since anybody who visits the New Statesman’s website with an ad-blocker turned on will be prompted with the notice that “good journalism is expensive”, this is presumably something Penny is aware of too.
Whilst Swartz was undoubtedly a prodigy, one gets the impression he was unable to reconcile himself with the limits of humanity, as well as the limits of governing any state whose citizens have differing values.
His life, best documented in The Internet’s Own Boy, highlighted the problems we face in adapting to an age where the cost of collecting, storing and distributing data has fallen through the floor, as well as the risks of government heavy-handedness.
But his utopian instincts will not provide the solutions to the above, and neither will those who purport to support the free flow of information whilst campaigning against it.
Image Credit – Aaron Swartz, January 2012 by MariaJesusV