Liberalism Unrelinquished: An interview with Dan Klein

Liberalism Unrelinquished (LU), is a new project by Prof Daniel Klein and Kevin Frei which aims to reclaim the word ‘liberal’ from those people who want to ‘governmentalize’ social affairs. So far it has been signed by around 350 people, including Alan Macfarlane, Charles Murray, Deirdre McCloskey, Richard Epstein, and Alan Charles Kors — as well as several members of the ASI. Dan spoke at the ASI back in 2012 on“Mere Libertarianism”, his synthesis of Hayekian and Rothbardian strands of libertarianism. I reviewed his rather excellent book Knowledge and Coordination here. I spoke to Dan about his new project.

Bio: Daniel Klein is a professor of economics at George Mason University (where he leads a program in Adam Smith), the JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at GMU, a fellow of the Ratio Institute in Stockholm, editor of Econ Journal Watch, and the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation(Oxford University Press, 2012).

What is Liberalism Unrelinquished (LU)?

LU is a declaration of no surrender on the word liberal. The 250-word Statement is as follows:

In the 17th and 18th centuries there was an ascendant cultural outlook that may be termed the liberal outlook. It was best represented by the Scottish enlightenment, especially Adam Smith, and it flowed into a liberal era, which came to be represented politically by people like Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, and John Bright. The liberal outlook revolved around a number of central terms (in English-language discourse, the context of the semantic issue that concerns us).

Especially from 1880 there began an undoing of the meaning of the central terms, among them the word liberal. The tendency of the trends of the past 130 years has been toward the governmentalization of social affairs. The tendency exploded during the First World War, the Interwar Years, and the Second World War. After the Second World War the most extreme forms of governmentalization were pushed back and there have since been movements against the governmentalization trend. But by no means has the original liberal outlook been restored to its earlier cultural standing. The semantic catastrophes of the period 1880-1940 persist, and today, amidst the confusion of tongues, governmentalization continues to hold its ground and even creep forward. For the term liberal, in particular, it is especially in the United States and Canada that the term is used in ways to which we take exception.

We the undersigned affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.

Thus far, about 350 people have signed the statement.

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Piracy deal ahoy!

After years of impasse, UK Internet Service Providers and the copyright holders of the entertainment world look set to sign off an agreement on internet piracy.

According to the Beeb  a ‘voluntary copyright alert programme’ is to be agreed. Under this, ISPs will identify the IP addresses of alleged copyright offenders and send them ‘educational’ letters on copyright violation and legal alternatives to piracy. Whilst a similar ‘six strikes’ scheme in America sees ISPs able to impose sanctions (such as slowed internet speeds) on persistent offenders, the UK scheme does not. The amount of letters that ISPs can send is capped, and no individual will receive more than 4 letters. Following these, no further action will be taken.

This voluntary agreement breaks a deadlock between content giants, the government and ISPs caused by the Digital Economy Act (DEA). Rushed through in the parliamentary wash-up of 2010, the DEA’s copyright provisions instruct ISPs to keep a database of persistent downloaders, and to restrict then finally suspend internet access to those who ignore written warnings.

These provisions are deeply problematic. They force ISPs to police their own customers, burden the companies with compliance costs and ask them to protect another’s intellectual property. Punishing alleged copyright infringers without judicial involvement also undermines the rule of law. Criticized by many politicians, civil liberties groups and the ISPs themselves, none of the Act has been actually implemented.

On the face of it, it’s good that the new agreement is such a watered-down version of earlier proposals. It’s certainly a far cry from what the content industries really want: effective barriers to piracy and access to a list of infringers to hit with ‘compensatory’ legal action. Advocates of internet freedom should be pleased. That said, the agreement doesn’t change the power of copyright holders- they can still get infringing content removed and websites blocked under existing legislation.

Furthermore, skeptics might think that the entertainment industry’s acceptance of the new scheme is just them playing the long game. The programme is meant to run for 3 years but be regularly reviewed. Rights holders have warned that should the scheme prove ineffective they will push for the “rapid implementation” of measures in the DEA.

If the objective is to deter piracy it’s obvious that the scheme will be next to useless: sending ‘educational’ letters will do little to change the behavior of serial downloaders. What it does do, however, is let the entertainment industry claim that a soft approach doesn’t work, and gets ISPs creating a database of copyright infringers that rights holders might win access to in the future. Playing ball now gives the copyright giants credibility to push for more extreme measures later on.

This might seem cynical, but the established entertainment bodies are reluctant to let go of their increasingly outdated business models. Returning to the DEA also gets governments back in the picture, whom copyright bodies often have great success in lobbying. From the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’ of 1998 to the recent EU extension of the copyright in sound recordings, entertainment groups have a knack of preventing their goods from falling into the public domain, and ensuring that governments favor their industry’s profits over actual economic sense.

Understandably, media groups want people to stop illegally sharing their stuff. But instead of lobbying for legislation and slapping fines around the most effective deterrent is to understand consumer’s preferences and offer them valuable alternatives to piracy. Whilst movie bodies get angry at Google for linking to copyrighted material without really tackling their problem themselves, Spotify’s quite probably done more to combat music piracy than blocking The Pirate Bay ever has. However, instead of evolving the copyright industry seems to go out of its way to antagonize consumers, rent-seeking and objecting to even the most eminently sensible of copyright reforms.

Given the entertainment industry’s determination to protect their intellectual property, it’s unlikely that efforts to tackle piracy will end with a voluntary alert system. Whilst innovating companies will continue to find new ways of sharing and monetizing content, for the time being the copyright-holding giants of the entertainment world will remain preoccupied with the wrong prescriptions for piracy.

Technology, Privacy and Innovation in 2014

Prediction lists for the coming year are always revealing, though perhaps more of the current public mood than the future. A write-up of the tech trends for 2014 by Fast Company’s design blog is hardly controversial, but what is interesting is how the areas they’ve chosen highlight the existence of two wider and seemingly divergent technological trends. This apparent conflict in the way technology is heading is far from problematic. On the contrary, it shows our success in adapting and experimenting with new ideas and in response to shifts in the social and political context, without the need for any central guidance.

One thing clear from Fast Company’s list is that 2014 will bring a continued increase in the volume and depth of the personal data we create. Things like Google Glass, the ‘quantified self’, hyperpersonalised online experiences and the interconnectivity of theInternet of Things all create new reasons and mechanisms for data capture. This in turn increases the value of our data to ourselves, the companies with access to it and, in some situations, the state.

However, the article also predicts that 2014 will see increasing concerns over cyber-privacy and a movement towards greater digital anonymity. Users will increasingly chose to control their own data and how this is profited from, whilst we will begin to discover the joy of ‘disconnecting’ from the digital world and see the creation of intentional blackspots.

The fact that we seem to be embracing deeper technological integration yet simultaneously finding ways to mitigate and avoid its consequences is certainly interesting. Does this show that we’ve raced forward too fast and are trying to claw back a space we’re realising we’ve lost? It’s perhaps possible that this is the case, but far from giving us cause for concern the two-track path we’re seeing shows the ability of consumers and the tech sector to adapt over time, and in turn gives some hints on the optimal tech policy.

Continue Reading…

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Motorways, pubs and nannies

A new pub has opened in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. That's news in itself, given that around 1200 pubs closed down last year, thanks (or no thanks) to the weight of retail and employment regulation that makes pubs so darn expensive to run.

But the Hope & Champion is of doubt interest, because it is in the Extra Motorway Service Area at Junction 2 of the M40. So the people who go there are almost certain to get there by car. So naturally there have been plenty of critics complaining that this initiative sends out all the wrong signals about drinking and driving.

Well, pubs in the UK are licensed, precisely because we know the potential problems that can go with alcohol consumption. But the fact is that the local police did not object to the licence, nor did the local authority. And the local paper is giving the new pub splash coverage. So local people don't think there's a problem here.

The real problem is the message that the critics send out, yet again – that the political class in Britain thinks the adult population of their country are completely incapable of making their own choices, and that their lives have to be micro-managed for them. This pub, like most others these days, is basically a restaurant that also serves alcohol. It opens at four in the morning and starts selling alcohol at nine – though apart from one stalwart getting stuck into a pint for the cameras, most people there this morning were getting stuck into nothing more life-threatening than a Full English Breakfast. And if a group of people want to stop off the M40 for lunch or dinner, why should the passengers be denied the pleasure of a small sherry just so that drivers are 'kept away from temptation'?

Weatherspoons, the pub owners, are a responsible chain. Their menus carry Drink Aware slogans and information. Their staff do not serve people who have already had enough. People know that there are legal limits on drinking and driving – and they know that even drinking below the legal limit can slow down your reactions. So most drivers who visit the pub, alone or with a group, would probably not have alcohol anyway, and their passengers would probably not want them to.

So as the police and local authority figure, there's no problem. The only problem is all those people who deem it their business to treat us like children.

The Internet Watchmen

As Tim Worstall notes, new government plans to block online terrorist and extremist content are extremely worrying. Along with the introduction of default ‘opt-out’ porn filters and the criminalisation of rape porn, they are another example of Cameron’s politicised censorship of the web. Whereas reducing the proliferation of child abuse images is a good thing, this new measure results in the censorship of ideas. Furthermore, whilst it is relatively straightforward to identify child abuse imagery, it is much less so (and arguably impossible) to decide which ideas are ‘too dangerous’ to viewed in the UK.

Aside from these issues there is also the question of how such a content block would work in practice. In many ways, how to block can be as problematic as the censorship itself.

The government has said that it wants to model the new blocking unit on the Internet Watch Foundation: a part-EU, part internet industry-funded UK ‘hotline’ for child abuse imagery. The IWF assesses material submitted by the public and flags up UK-hosted content to be removed by service providers. Content from outside the UK is added to a URL ‘blacklist’ which ISPs then block UK access to.

There are a number of issues with this model. First, there is no guarantee that what the IWF flags up is actually illegal. With no legal clout, the IWF acts on content it deems ‘potentially illegal’ – and there is little to stop legitimate content getting wrongly marked. One controversial case saw a picture of an album cover on Wikipedia getting blocked until the backlash forced the IWF to reverse their decision. Appealing against the IWF’s decisions can be a difficult and opaque process, not least because of the difficulty of appealing against the illegality of an image you can’t even see.

Despite the IWF’s lack of legal authority, the Open Rights Group claims that their blacklist has never been assessed by a court or legal body. This makes their actions rather murky. Given its sensitivity ISPs can’t see the content of the blacklist to make their own judgement; they must either block all of it or none.  On top of this, there are also problems with the technology ISPs use to actually block the URLs – which can be unreliable and block too broadly.

In addition, from April 2014 the IWF will shift from a being reactive body -acting only on content sent to it – to a proactive one, actively seeking out images of abuse behind pay walls and on peer-to-peer networks.  This approach is another step in the active policing of the web, and is also likely to be followed by the new anti-extremist unit.

Issues of political and religious censorship are much more complicated than that of child pornography. The unaccountability of the IWF and its lack of judicial oversight  therefore make it a poor model to copy for what is an incredibly controversial (and dangerous) policy. Since the new unit will be publicly funded, its decisions may come under greater legal scrutiny. On the other hand, a government-funded body could become politicised and overzealous in its mission. In any case, a clear due process and a rigorous appeals system will be absolutely essential.

Crime & security minister James Brokenshire says an update on the proposals will arrive shortly, though the fact that civil liberty groups claim not to have been consulted on the matter is rather worrying. The sensible thing to do would be to scrap this idea altogether. Since this is unlikely to happen, both the politics and the technicalities of the initiative are bound to prove difficult indeed.

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