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The Future of Information Freedom - Smári McCarthy

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



Freedom of expression as known today is the philosophical descendant of hundreds of years of thought about the rights of man. The vindication of free expression came in its present form from the French and American revolutions, and were ingrained in the constitutions which followed.

But that was two hundred years ago. Since then we've had an industrial revolution, two world wars, and we've seen the dawn of an entirely new mode of communications which completely alters our perception of expression. Through these massive changes to our world, almost all countries have put in place an elaborate set of exceptions that limit or punish truly free expression, and in many countries around the world the right to free expression has never been granted.

Persecution or prosecution for exposing the truth, going against the grain of the reigning ideology or embarrassing the regime that implements it is not uncommon - it's common enough that naming examples from countries such as China, Iran or Sri Lanka would be superfluous. Less commonly known examples are the western countries which have implemented state or corporate censorship in a plethora of forms, many based on such obscure legislation that the chilling effect goes unnoticed, many based on such complex networks of ownership and influence that the depth of the problem is unseen through the opaque surface. Government transparency is to an alarming extent mythical, and where it exists it is obscured by poor information management and rampant jargon.

We deserve better.

We're two hundred years down the line, and we have developed our capacity for the aggregation and dissemination of information to a point where it is high time we reconsider freedom of expression. It needs to be redefined in terms of our knowledge of information theory, with clear rights for individuals to transmit, receive and store information in any form, and to apply transformations as they see fit.

We deserve a return to the guiding principle that no restraint on the publication of information is acceptable, and that punishment for infringement on social values must happen after the fact, not before.

We must grow out of our tendency to pay lip service to the notion of privacy without defining privacy in terms of its utility. If an argument is made for privacy that does not specifically protect the physical security or personal wellbeing of an individual, it it moot, and should be disregarded.

Corporate opacity is therefore unacceptable. There is no reason to hide the behavior of corporations behind veils of privacy, banking secrecy or trade secrets. No good has ever come of such secrecy, and no evils have ever come from exposing it. Those industries that are built around manipulating information and exploiting unequal access to information can be replaced with new industries. Prosperity needn't come at the cost of other peoples' freedom.

Further, we need to realize that the argument of "national security" is only valid insofar as we accept the concept of "nation" - this artificial construct and the governance models it is designed to support and protect may not be allowed to interfere with the right to know and the right to share what you know - exposure of government secrets has never harmed societies, only governments, and there is very little reason to believe that this will not be the case for all information.

The future we deserve is one where information freedom is absolute insofar as it does not harm people. Individuals, as the fundamental unit of society, and the rights of individuals, as is necessary to protect their existence, must be the one and only assumption upon which we base the freedom of information.