Intro to Cyberlibertarianism

Book Review: Permissionless Innovation (2014) by Adam Thierer

In the early 2010’s the digital pirate and porn wars ended. While there is still pirated content out on the internet, and there is plenty of digital pornography available, it does not set the tone for the  internet’s policy debate. New platforms, such as Spotify and Netflix, brought simple, legal availability on a scale pirates never could. It put a chink it the movement’s ideology of being the ones ”getting the internet”. Pornography may still shock, but it has been limited by social norms and to designated areas of the internet.

The present’s internet policy debate concerns issues of privacy and the nature of innovation, the benefits and disadvantages of the internet’s open architecture and the effects of digital culture.

Three broad camps are visible. The techno-optimist camp stems from the thoughts of Nicholas Negroponte and the early days of the dot-com boom promoting the open internet as an exception to society. The techno-pessimist camp stems from the thoughts of Neil Postman and the early internet panics promoting a controlled and regulated internet. The third camp is the techno-realist, stemming from the thoughts of economist George Gilder, the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, futurist Alvin Toffler and popularised by Virginia Postrel’s book The Future and its enemies. Because of its proximity to libertarian policy, the term cyberlibertarian is also used.

Adam Thierer is one of the present’s most important cyberlibertarian thinkers. He is the previous president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a free market think tank that studying digital public policy between 1993- 2010. Currently, he is a researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Thierer originally gathered his thoughts on innovation as a post on the cyberlibertarian blog Technology Liberation Front, and then expanded them into a essay book of slightly more than one hundred pages. Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom makes for a quick read, the text flows quite well and is laudable for its clarity.

The central fault line in tech policy today is defined by Thierer as “the permission question”. Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations? Up until 1989, commercial use of the internet was banned and the internet was mainly a private club for a few computer engineers and government administrators. None of them envisioned the sprawling world-changing applications free experimentation would bring forward.

The problem with the precautionary principle, prescribing that new innovations should be curtailed or disallowed until proven harmless, is that technology might get stuck in considering worst-case scenarios and that the best applications are never imagined. Thierer advocates Wildavsky’s necessity of experience, of wisdom being born from daring to do mistakes and occasionally fail. The web is such a complex technology that no one is able to overlook it at once and formulate a precise policy (a ”Goldilocks” policy). The “tradeoff neglect” pointed out by legal scholar Cass Sunstein often means that the full ramifications and costs of a one-shot intervention are seldom accounted for when regulators are doing a cost-benefit analysis.

The book underlines the importance of the law. At the same time, ”bottom-up” rules are needed for a complex world, while keeping in mind that not every social norm, or industry best practice is a suitable public policy prescription. Experiments are necessary, and Thierer advocates the importance of sunset regulation, that laws automatically expire after a given period of time. This policy builds more resilient and adaptive innovations, than rigid prohibition and inflexible anticipatory regulation. There is a danger that policy debate stops in just discussing if something is to be regulated or not, the ”how” harms are prevented or remedied is indeed important. Experimentation and technological empowerment is also the antidote to the wide-spread notion of technological determinism.

In some parts a reader new to tech policy would have appreciated if Thierer had elaborated more on the background. Thierer does partially address this shortfall, as he includes a number of well-written vignettes explaining various emerging technologies such as wearables, drones and Big Data.

In its brevity, Permissionless innovation is one of the better introductions written to cyberlibertarian thought on innovation. The book is written with the American public debate in mind, but provides also a useful perspective in a European context, while challenging preconceptions is not a good way to make law. Law has to arise from decentralised and dynamic processes like customs, contracts, and agreements.

Waldemar Ingdahl
CEO, think tank Eudoxa