Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Networked justice

In the 18th century, Thomas Paine argued that the structure of an agrarian society demanded a particular notion of justice relating to the use of land -- what he called "Agrarian Justice". His basic idea was that for us to live as free persons, we must have a set of rights that allows us to survive as a full participant in the economic system of our society. I'm thinking that it is time for us to reconsider our list of basic rights, due to our increasing reliance on networked computer systems. Perhaps this would be called "networked justice".

The basic problem is that most Americans rely on markets for almost everything -- even our most basic and immediate needs. We don't grow our own food, or even stock more than we would eat in a week; instead, we make regular trips to the grocery store. But we don't even make direct payments to the grocer anymore; instead, we rely on a bank to debit our account and credit the grocer's account. This reliance on intermediaries for all of our commercial transactions creates a serious danger arising from the risk of being cut off. As our institutions become increasingly dispersed, and we exchange money with people all over the planet, we become increasingly reliant on other people's computer networks, such as those owned by banks.

As we have seen with the recent Wikileaks drama, the risk of being cut off is real. Accounts can be shut down on the flimsiest pretense, even without formal criminal charges. This type of attack on a person would have been impossible a few decades ago, since it is essentially equivalent to convincing everyone in a community to refuse to sell anything to a person. In today's cashless society, this boycott can be enforced with the cooperation of only a handful of companies.

It isn't only limited to bank accounts. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has repeatedly warned, we are even more vulnerable to similar attacks on our ability to communicate. We increasingly rely on internet service providers or hosting services to communicate with our far-flung associates, yet all of this can be cut off on the basis of nothing more than suspicion of copyright infringement.

I can see three ways out of this. None of them is totally satisfying, so all three probably deserve some attention. One option is legal reform, which would protect service providers from pressure to cut off services from clients in the absence of a criminal conviction, or at least an indictment. The second is to establish alternative institutions, where services are provided by a distributed network of our peers. The goal here is to create electronic cash-like systems for commerce, and word-of-mouth like systems for communication. Many dedicated activists are working to build systems that provide basic social services on a mutual-aid model, but there remain substantial technical and organizational hurdles, not to mention the fact that they are competing with the state-subsidized establishment. The last option is live lifestyles that are less sensitive to the disruption of services. This can only take us so far before the economic costs become too large, but Americans are complacently disinterested in economic self-sufficiency. That is, we are disinterested until we lose our jobs or are struck by a natural disaster which cuts off services -- by which point it is too late.

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