Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité en Ligne

Yesterday, the French Senate heard Netopia following the report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical?. It was certainly encouraging for Netopia to be recognised by such a prestigious institution. The hearing was part of the Senate’s information mission on global internet governance.

Video will follow, in the meantime – here is my speech:

Monsieur le Président de la Mission Commune,
Mesdames et Messieurs les Sénateurs,
Mesdames et Messieurs,

Je vous remercie pour votre invitation, c’est un honneur d’être présent parmi vous. Mon nom est Per Strömbäck, je suis le fondateur et éditeur de Netopia, le forum pour une société numérique, dont le but est de réfléchir à de nouvelles perspectives sur les technologies, leur impact et leur force motrice. Par-dessus tout, Netopia s’intéresse à la question des droits de l’homme, de la démocratie et de l’Etat de droit en ligne. Netopia existe à travers l’alimentation régulière d’un magazine numérique – –  l’organisation d’évènements et la publication de rapports, dont celui qui nous réunit aujourd’hui Quelle éthique pour le monde numérique ? (Can We Make the Digital World Ethical ?). Il a été rédigé par Peter Warren, qui prendra bientôt la parole, Jane Whyatt, présente à mes côtés, et Michael Streeter. Il consiste en un ensemble d’interviews avec des représentants du monde académique, parmi lesquels le Professeur Murray Shanahan de l’Imperial College de Londres, qui prendra la parole cet après-midi.

Comme vous pouvez certainement l’entendre, mon français n’est pas excellent. J’ai fait beaucoup d’efforts pour apprendre votre belle langue, mais je n’y suis pas encore parvenu complètement. C’est pourquoi j’espère que vous me pardonnerez de passer maintenant en anglais.

As the Editor of Netopia, I commissioned this report – Can We Make the Digital World Ethical? – in order to ask the fundamental and philosophical question of Free Will. This question is as old as philosophy itself, but in recent times a new aspect has been added to the mix: the freedom of technology. According to a report from the American computer network technology manufacturer Cisco, before the year 2020 more traffic on the Internet will be generated by machines than by humans. This is a profound change. We are used to thinking about communication as something that happens between people. With digital technology, to some extent communication takes place between a human and her machine. And of course machines have communicated with machines for a long time on a mundane level: a light sensor sending instructions to a light post to switch on the lights as darkness falls at dusk. The automated brakes on a train actuating as it passes an activated signal on a track. But with the magnitude the Cisco report talks about, machine communication takes on a new form. It becomes machines making decisions on behalf of humans, communicating like humans, acting like humans, even tricking us into believing that they are humans.

Some present day examples: the scoreboards in the sports and finance pages of the daily newspapers are not put together by editors but by computer programs, but we humans read them just like when they were man-made. The trades on the stock market are to a large extent made by robots, but they are no different in practice than man-made trades – the shares change owners. If you play poker or chess online, there is a great chance that the person you’re playing against, is really a software robot. If you find it difficult to submit the best bid in an online auction, it may be because you’re bidding against software robots that can place bids milliseconds before the auction closes. All of these are commonplace today. Tomorrow, similar technologies are expected to be omnipresent in many parts of life and society: health care, security systems, law enforcement, the military, traffic control, power distribution, insurance and many more.

This development raises questions of freedom and responsibility. Who should be responsible for an accident caused by a self-driving car? The owner? The manufacturer? The software-developer? The software itself? Who should be held accountable if a patient is hurt during treatment by medical robots? What about the software robots that create editorial content: do they have protected freedom of speech? Are they responsible for such things as defamation or copyright infringement? Are works made by robots copyright protected and if so, who owns that copyright? Should machines have human rights? These are the types of questions that inspired this report.

So let me talk about “Free”:

Jean-Paul Sartre said “L’homme est condamné à être libre. Condamné, parce qu’il ne s’est pas créé lui-même, et par ailleurs cependant libre, parce qu’une fois jeté dans le monde, il est responsable de tout ce qu’il fait.”

“Free” is a particularly confusing word in English. Many languages have to words for free: one for free of charge, the other for free as liberty. In French there is “gratuity” and “libre”. In my native Swedish there is “gratis” and “fri”. The word free is often used in relation to the internet and digital technologies but the distinction is not always clear. We are often told that we must “keep the internet free”. But what does “free” mean? When it is spoken by representatives of Silicon Valley companies and so-called internet freedom activists, it most often means that the internet should be left unregulated by government. On a closer look, that is a curious definition of freedom. Would we accept something like that in normal society? Would we have greater freedom if there were no government? I would argue the opposite: public institutions are put in place to secure our individual rights, our freedom. We have the right to fair trial, but only thanks to the law and institutions like public defense lawyers. We have the right to property, but only because the legal system guarantees it and public institutions settle ownership disputes. Without law and institutions to uphold it, we exist in what Thomas Hobbes calls “a State of Nature” – bellum omnium contra omnes – The war of all against all. Anarchy.

But the internet of today, with little or no government regulation under the “keep the internet free” maxim, is not in a state of Anarchy for most of the users most of the time. Rather the current ideology hides a different regulator. Because it is not the governments of the nations of the world who make the rules online, it is those private companies that run the services and technologies that operate the internet who are the real regulators. By accepting the idea that the internet should not be regulated through democratic institutions, we also accept that it is Google who decides whose products and services are available to the consumer. We accept that Facebook decides what pictures and links are appropriate to publish. We accept that server hosting providers decide what content is appropriate and what should be taken down. It is regulation by Silicon Valley and it is very far from the values we normally connect with civilization. By coincidence, most of this regulation is done by software machines.

There is another type of “free” that is also often confused in relation to the internet. This is the idea of free as in free of charge, but only all too often mixed up with free as in free will or free of oppression. “Information wants to be free” is the first cousin of “keep the internet free”. It was a famous slogan in the early days of the world wide web two decades ago. The phrased was coined by this man: Stewart Brand. In the Seventies and Eighties he published a mail order catalogue called the Whole Earth Catalogue which some claim was like an early version of the web. Brand was one of the pioneers behind Silicon Valley’s odd combination of hippie-ethics and hardcore capitalism. But his insight was much more profound than the “information wants to be free” motto suggests. Here is Brand’s complete quote:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

So the insight was there from the beginning, free of charge is not the same free as liberty. There is even an old joke from the geeks of Silicon Valley from around the same time as Brand’s quote: “Free as in Speech or Free as in Beer?”

This insight was lost somewhere on the way and these days keeping the internet free not only means free of government regulation but also keeping its content free of charge. As you have guessed, I disagree with both these notions.

Where does this line of thought take us? My conclusion is that democracy is freedom and the way to achieve it is for democratic governments to take an active role online, regulating the technology, rather than letting technology regulate societies and citizens. This becomes more pressing as new technologies like decision-making machines and autonomous algorithms become common and gain more influence.

There are two main ways that governments can exercise such influence: firstly through research grants for new technologies: these should always include considerations of societal impact. Secondly through regulation of the companies that operate the services and networks that underpin the digital society. Our report looks closer at some of these aspects and provides additional detail, I hope you will find it inspiring.

Jean-Paul Sartre again “l’existence précède l’essence” and while that is true of humans, the opposite is true of machines: their essence precedes their existence. We design them for a purpose, then we build them. It is humans that rule the machines, never the other way around.



The videos from Netopia’s appearance in the French Senate are now online.

My intervention:

Prof Shanahan:

Peter Warren:


(All voice-over in French)