Liberty in the Information Age (1988)

While searching for something else in my boxes of decaying paper files recently, I ran across a couple of articles I wrote for publication in 1987/88. Neither one was published; one was submitted to Reason, and they gently declined it as “not of general interest.” The other one was written on a handshake with a telecom trade journal editor, but he lost his job between that handshake and the time I got the article written.

I think they’ve held up reasonably well. Obviously, I got some things spectacularly wrong. (In particular, if you had told me that I’d be living within a mile of BellSouth (now AT&T) headquarters in the year 2010 and still couldn’t get fiber to my home, I’d have thought you were crazy. On the other hand, I consistently get 10 Mb/s on my Comcast cable modem, so I’m pretty happy with that.) And I thought CD-ROMs were going to be important.

On the other hand, I think I got a few things spectacularly right. I not only think I predicted the World Wide Web, but I predicted the “Net Neutrality” scuffle, too! I obviously haven’t edited these at all; I ran them through OCR and added HTML tags. So… into the Wayback Machine, and enjoy!

(The other blast from the past is here.)

Liberty in the Information Age

submitted to Reason Magazine, 4 December 1988

Popular books, magazines, and television shows loudly proclaim that the Western world is entering an “Information Age.” Personal computers, advanced telecommunications networks, even photocopiers and fax machines are all used as examples of the unprecedented explosion in information storage, retrieval, and manipulation technologies. This is touted as a new age of access to information that will, in the most optimistic views, ring in an era of peace and prosperity around the world.

But what do the new information technologies mean to free minds and free markets? There are some disturbing conclusions that can be drawn from America’s first brush with the new era. First, however, let us examine the technology that will be used to provide the new services to individual homes and businesses.

The Impact of Fiber Optics

New access to information services will be driven by two basic technologies: microprocessing and fiber optics. Microprocessors have had a head start, and have spawned the personal computer revolution of the past decade. This revolution, and its effects, have been abundantly analyzed elsewhere. Optical fibers, on the other hand, are a fundamentally new communications technology. Instead of sending signals over metallic wires, signals can now be sent as pulses of laser light over hair-thin strands of glass. The technical and economic advantages are many-fold, and optical transmission systems will dominate communications planning for the remainder of the century.

Much of the original work in optical communications was performed by Bell Telephone Laboratories prior to the AT&T divestiture. Throughout the 1980s, optical fiber systems have been put into service in every large local and long-distance telephone company in the United States. Optical systems first were used for “long-haul” communications between cities; more recently, they have been used to connect telephone company offices within urban areas. The next step is to connect fiber optic cables to the home.

In contrast to the copper wires that connect your telephone today, optical fibers have an essentially unlimited information capacity. They can transmit any amount of data — voice, music, video, photographs, or computer files — at breathtaking speeds. For example: to transmit the text of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica over standard phone lines using common 1200 baud modems would take approximately six weeks, operating 24 hours per day. Optical fiber systems currently operating in laboratories will be on the market within a year transmitting the same amount of information in under two seconds. Adding all the color photographs would take only ten seconds longer. Retrieval of smaller amounts of information — say, a novel or an audio compact disc — will occur about as fast as you can request it.

The race is on right now to bring optical fibers into every home and business in the land. Although the effort will not be complete until sometime early in the 21st century, preliminary installations by some of the largest corporations in America are in place today. As fiber optic systems and the associated technologies start to become common in the mid-19903, issues of concern to libertarian thinkers will assume crucial importance.

Why should esoteric communications technology be of such concern? Consider. Computer and communications networks will continue to skyrocket in size and complexity, with many of the functions coalescing into a shared global Worldnet. With fiber optic links into this Worldnet, a new home appliance will be invented combining the functions of television, VCR, telephone, personal computer, and fax machine. By the early 21st century, anyone above the poverty line will have access to such a machine, either in their own home or (on a tax-paid or fee- paid basis) somewhere in their community. He or she will be able to access any information requested, instantly, without requiring any particular programming knowledge — or even knowing where the information is stored. In the other direction, individuals will be able to create information of their own, for free or fee-paid access by others. Careers will be pursued, romances will be kindled, fortunes will be made and lost, and the intellectual battles of the 21st century will be fought — not on paper or on video, but on this electronic, international Worldnet.

Such scenarios would normally be dismissed as science fiction today. The 20th century, however, has shown that science fiction is more often than not conservative in its predictions. All the elements to make such a Worldnet possible are in place today. On-line information services such as The Source and CompuServe are a primitive precursor. The cable television industry is fighting many of the opening skirmishes. The network will happen. The worrisome issue is who will control this technology.


The first issue of concern to libertarians is, of course, privacy.

During the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork, a newspaper obtained information from his local video store to find out what movies the jurist took home on weekends. Imagine this carried to its ultimate conclusion on a Worldnet — where all your information transactions take place over electronic and fiber optic links. An unscrupulous operator or skilled hacker could find out what music you listened to, which parts of a movie you paused and replayed, and which articles in the local electronic newspaper you skimmed or read in detail. Your mail, incoming and outgoing, could be read or modified without detection, as could the value of any financial transactions not conducted in cold cash. The targeted junk-mail possibilities alone are disturbing. The potential power for a anti-liberty organization (or government) are terrifying.

This is somewhat of a paranoid’s view of information technology, and many professionals in the field are quick to point to layers and layers of security meant to forestall just such instances. Others, however, point to well-publicized electronic break-ins or “virus” infections of some of the most secure computer networks in the nation: the NSA, the CIA, and the Department of Defense. No matter how sophisticated the security technology, the realities of human error, corruptibility, or misjudgment will always allow lapses, whether minor or major. Even for individuals with nothing to hide, the potential threat to privacy posed by tomorrow’s information technology is of concern to libertarians everywhere.


On a more subtle level, a careless or misinformed government could pervert a national or international network with the best of intentions. First, of course, is the issue of what information is accessible on the Worldnet. Who is to determine which novels are posted? Does Tam Janowitz get priority over Ayn Rand or vice versa? Are Fellini films made available to all users? What about X-rated pornography? Electronic editions of Penthouse magazine? If “special permission” is required — who is in charge of granting that permission? What if a minor steals his parents’ access code? Isn’t it easier to allow only bland, non-controversial works to be made available on the Worldnet?

It is certainly easier. It is also censorship, no matter how well intentioned. This same attitude on the part of the government led to the days of three near-identical television networks serving indistinguishable mental pablum, with public television interspersing the occasional wildlife special or British drama. Only the twin technological revolutions of cable TV and VCRs led to a relaxation of the enforced mediocrity and a new set of choices for the American viewer. Although the new broadcast/cable/cassette video marketplace of the 1980s is still over-regulated and far from perfect, it is immeasurably superior to the lowest-comon-denominator inoffensive television of a decade ago. The lessening of censorship, by whatever name! has increased the choices and freedoms available to us all .

The advent of an strategically and economically critical Worldnet will tempt paternalistic regulators to return to censorship. But no matter how virtuously the custodians of the Worldnet are chosen, who will watch the custodians? The only correct answer to “what information is stored on the Worldnet?” is all information, first-come, first-serve. The cruel but certain hand of market reality will serve to sort things out.


Equally vexing is the issue of indexing the information that is stored. Most information transactions on the Worldnet will not take the rigid form of database queries that are the norm today. Instead, users will browse among works of interest to themI following links as they see fit. These links are termed “hypermedia,” a technology in its infancy today. When reading an article about Mozart, a click of a mouse or other action could bring up a picture of the composer while playing a selection of his work in CD-quality sound. These links will be critical to a user interesting in expanding his overall knowledge of a topic rather than retrieving one particular datum.

Although it is tempting to delegate the tedious task of assigning links to a computer, this will probably not be feasible in the near future. This task requires a great deal of judgement and correlation of wide-ranging knowledge with the context in question. For example, consider a reference to someone being “like Caesar’s wife, above reproach.” This could logically be linked to articles on famous quotations, on the importance of reputation for public officials, or on Gary Hart’s 1987 campaign for the Presidency. However, it should not be linked to a biography of Calpurnia, wife of Julius Caesar — which is surely what any self-respecting computer program would try to do.

These links will have to be established by human librarians, which is where the weakness lies. Take, for example, a librarian setting up a database on economics. Assuming an uncensored storage system, the works of Milton Friedman would be included and would be accessible to anyone making a direct request. If, however, the librarian systematically refrained from adding links to Milton Friedman from other works — due to conscious malice or subconscious bias — the casual browser would have no reason to suspect that Milton Friedman even existed. This is a subtle and almost unprovable form of censorship that could be used to de-emphasize points of view that are unfavorable to the power structure.

Again, low-tech precursors of this can be seen in today’s world. Scan the newspaper articles of last November dealing with election results. You will look in vain for references to votes received by third-party candidates such as Ron Paul and Gloria Fulani. The information is accessible to one who knows to look… but the majority of readers would have no reason to suspect that third parties challenged the status quo represented by Bush and Dukakis. Malice on the part of newspaper publishers? Probably not. Subconscious bias? Possibly. Honest oversight? Probably. A disturbing indication of things to come on a Worldnet? Most definitely.

Electronic Samizdat

Finally, the topic of freedom to publish is of interest to anyone aware of the samizdat phenomenon in the Soviet bloc. “The power of the press belongs to whoever owns one.” In the Worldnet a decade hence, the power of the press will belong to anyone able to post information for public retrieval. Of course, this implies that the network will be cluttered with illiterate ramblings, bigotry of all sorts, and vicious screeds. Well-meaning bureaucrats will no doubt try to control the clutter by screening works submitted for electronic publication — or, worse yet, by only allowing publication of works by “certified! authors. Again, censorship can recur under the best of intentions. By refusing the right of anyone to publicize information on a Worldnet, the government (or other controlling entity) declares its authority to refuse the right of everyone to publish. The path to TASS and Pravda, though not guaranteed, is clear.

Free Markets of the Mind

What can be done about these emerging threats to libertarian ideals? The doctrinaire answer would be to let the free market take its course and provide alternatives. In this case, however, that argument does not hold. By the mid-1990s, someone will be trying to bring a fiber optic cable to your doorstep. This “someone” may be your phone company, your cable TV company, your electric company, or some entity that does not yet exist. The economic realities are such that, once you are connected to the world with a single optical fiber cable, there is little incentive for a second entity to try and sign you up. High-bit- rate connections to the public network will be a de facto, if not de jure, monopoly. If your local serving entity chooses not to carry a particular service, the chances of your gaining access are slim. Similarly, the advantage of a single Worldnet is that all information be made accessible through one gateway. The Worldnet will evolve from the fusion of multiple new and existing networks, without a single point or moment of creation. The economics of setting up a duplicate competing Worldnet would be impossible for any entity smaller than a major government. With a monopoly architecture, the opportunity for free-market competition is non-existent. We must rely on the network itself to provide a free market for the mind.

Within a decade, therefore, the groundwork will be laid for a worldwide multimedia communications network that will drive the economies of the 21st century. With current technological and economic realities, it appears that this network will be liable to monopolistic control and censorship at both ends: the subscriber access and the central clearinghouse. What can be done? Precedents must be set now for stringent privacy restrictions and unfettered right of access to electronic databases. New legislation will need to be written, new international covenants will need to be agreed to. And libertarians everywhere must be vigilant against the forces of regulation — whether well-intentioned or malicious — coming to dominate our future means of communication, entertainment, and intellectual exchange… without firing a shot.

—4 December 1988