The boundaries of our personal rights have been summed up more or less concisely in the observation that they end where those of others begin. And this is a perfectly good lamp by which to guide our actions in many cases. But the Internet has led to the destruction of location and identity as necessary considerations when calculating our rights and privileges. This deserves a long and careful consideration, which I am incapable of giving in the space of this column, but this week furnished some interesting examples of how things are shifting — and warnings of where it could lead.
On the pedestrian end of things was the farcical incompatibility of Minnesota state law with Coursera and other online education services. Briefly stated, the state requires (reasonably enough) educational establishments that offer a certain level of service to register with the state and pay a not-insubstantial fee. It transpired at some point that people taking courses online with Coursera and others were technically doing so against the law, and it’s imaginable (if the legislators were more hawkish) that the service itself could face fines.
Of course, it is a perfectly natural occurrence for modern technology to collide gently with aging laws, and it will serve to spur the state into updating its policies. But it’s a small example of the type of conflict that is changing the way all law must work. Coursera, by means of the Internet, was able to reach the citizens of Minnesota — for good, as it happened, but it could just as easily been for ill. Why should it be a one-way street? Should Minnesota be helpless to say, within reason, this is how things work in this state?
They should, to a certain degree. But the scope of its sovereignty, already modest, is being reduced further by the simple fact that the Internet is no respecter of borders. The state line is irrelevant, even invisible.
In Minnesota this will, in this case at least, be a welcome and modernizing influence. But what about in Germany, where Twitter has finally exercised its ability to block users on a per-country basis? Here, as many people noted when the policy was announced, is a tool for a corrupt state, dictatorship, or otherwise malfunctioning government to suppress free speech. But as Twitter noted at the time, a global service must make concessions to the customs and laws of local government, because that is simply how sovereignty works.
The problem is that, again, the Internet does not have the capacity to respect laws, just as a hammer does not have the capacity to discriminate between a nail and a hand. The hammer strikes, and the Internet communicates. The best you can do is tell people not to hammer each other, but in that case there is a clear violation of rights — specifically, your right to not be hit by my hammer. In the case of the Internet, you have very little if any clear violations of rights. What you generally have is a reduction in the capacity of any authority to regulate communication — deadly to dictatorships, of course, but that’s not all.
It may be used in Germany to hide from sensitive and well-meaning eyes the ravings of a group of bigots, but are we to take good intentions for universal permission? Doubtless Mao Zedong meant well when he suppressed literature he felt was damaging to the state, which to him was of course synonymous with the people.
And when there is clear evidence of harm, or misuse, of communication for ends universally discouraged, the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” of the Internet — such as the case of Michael Brutsch, known as Violentacrez on Reddit? It gets awfully complicated, so much so that it would be pointless to embark on an analysis here. But if the bad guys have to pay for the universal access to free and anonymous communication, let’s not pretend that the good guys don’t as well. This coin has two sides, and while one side empowers the oppressed and disenfranchised, the other grants impunity for acts we imagine to be widely abhorred. The pyre for tyranny is also a furnace for atrocity.
So when we find ourselves wishing for the indictment of a ne’er-do-well like Brutsch, we are in a small but very real way attempting to curtail speech in the same way as a dictator would, though we defend our actions by saying we have just intentions. But that’s a more difficult call to make than we think. When protecting your rights means subtracting from another’s, that’s not a consideration to take lightly. How that compromise is made defines entire cultures, and as we find the existing compromises to be, as in the cases above, unsuitable, we must take care that we do not redefine it poorly.