When we hackers say “information is neutral” and “information should be free,” a common response to this is, “What the hell are you talking about?” They then would, of course, cite the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse (terrorists, drug dealers, pedophiles, and organized crime) and other examples of how information is not neutral. To which we would assert that the same violent response, according to reason, should inevitably follow when we say something along the lines of, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Clearly some information is very harmful, and clearly humans are not at all created equal, nor do they have some abstract, intrinsic, inalienable rights. These are objective facts, nothing more, nothing less.
When we say these things, we mean they ought to be as we say they “are” insofar as something even greater is concerned.
Human rights may be social myths, nothing more than meaningless abstractions. But do not say this to that one particular social organization that holds a monopoly on violence in human society, that is used as an instrument for the suppression of one class over another: the state. Because if you say that to the state, you might end up with something similar to the modern People’s Republic of China where there is no real negative liberty (freedom of the press, speech, protest, religion, etc.) at all. Similarly, some information causes real world harm and shouldn’t exist. But don’t tell that to the state or to your local Internet Service Provider. They just might censor your access to certain information, and their ability to see what you are doing at all poses a serious threat to the existence of individual liberty as such. You might end up with an incredibly filtered Internet where downloading a song that turns out to be pirated can land you serious jail time. This is what we mean when we say “information is neutral” and “information should be free.”
This is what we mean when we say “all humans are created equal, and have certain inalienable rights.” We are not idiots here. Sometimes it is necessary to say things as they ought to be, not as they are. This is necessary precisely because the result of doing so is benevolent to society as a whole, and not doing so is to society’s detriment.
Human rights do not exist, but they should be respected. No individual or institution should have the right to murder you because of something unfavorable you wrote about me.
Information is not neutral, but it should be free. No individual or institution should have the right to censor and monitor you.
The inevitable result here, of affirming things as they are, is for the worst possible scenario to be derived thereof. This is why social myths are necessary in human society. Do they cause harm? Certainly, and these harms should be mercilessly combated. “Human rights” are constantly an excuse imperialism uses to justify its own nefarious ends under the cloak of benevolence. But even with these truly terrible abuses, the net social harm caused is far less than the net social harm that would be caused without them. Just ask anyone working on the Tor Project why their work is necessary in spite of the known abuses of the Tor network. Without a formal recognition of human rights, every country in the world would likely have its own Stasi or Gestapo. This is why when you ask me, I say “Yes, information is neutral and should be free.” This is why when you ask me, I say “Yes human rights exist and should be respected.”
We as hackers have a responsibility to promote a free and open Internet where information is free, and if that means using the same social myths that human rights advocates use, then I say it’s worth it.
Written by us (Red_Liberty), published in the August 2019 edition of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly