A Critique of the Freenet Philosophy – A Reply by Ian Clarke

P1: Total and absolute free flow of information will result in some amount of harm to people. This result will be indirectly causal in some cases, such as the case of child pornography – It would be difficult to argue that the existence of an undetectable method of distribution for such material would not increase the demand for it, and this demand increase supply; a supply which inherently harms people.

Its not central to my argument, but have you considered the possibility that the existence of child pornography might act, with a pedophile, in a manner similar to that in which methadone acts with a heroin addict?

In other words, have you considered the possibility that access to child pornography might actually reduce the likelihood that a pedophile will assault a child?

I do not claim that this is the case, but I do not take it for given that it isn’t either – and it demonstrates that even this most emotive of issues is not black and white.

In other, more direct cases, for instance those of free flow of information for terrorists, drug cartels, prostitution rings, etc., such a channel would make these activities feasible to entertain without fear of legal consequence and infinitely more difficult if not impossible to detect and effectively suppress; again resulting harm to people.

It is true that bad people could use any tool, Freenet included, to do bad things. You have not shown that the harm caused by these bad things is greater than the good that comes from good people using that tool to do good things.

P2: [The Millsian harm principle:] is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. – John Stuart Mill – On Liberty (1869)

I don’t find this principle particularly persuasive.

If one was to accept this principle, or at least the application of this principle as you seek to use it, George W Bush (for example) can legitimately take action against any individual that criticizes him – since such criticism could be said to harm him (specifically, harm his chances of reelection).

There many ways one could harm someone that are perfectly legal. For example, I could harm Bill Gates by creating software that competes favorably with his software and giving it away. Despite this, it would not be appropriate for the government to prevent me from harming Bill Gates in this way.

What P2 misses is that there is no universal “harm”, often one person must be harmed to protect another. The question is which will lead to the least harm overall. My argument is that the benefits of making government censorship impossible far outweigh any disadvantages.

E1: The only way rape and murder could be suppressed is by providing an authority with the ability to monitor and control behaviour.
E2: Since supplying such an ability will invariably provide that authority with the opportunity to abuse it, by controlling arbitrary behaviour (including free speech and distribution of content), it cannot be allowed.
EC1: Therefore, rape and murder should not be suppressed.

You are correct that some forms of government control are tolerable, but it does not then follow that all forms of government control, including control over our ability to communicate, must be tolerated.

Government control over the means of communication is different to other forms of government control due to the nature of how governments in democratic countries acquire the right to exercise any control in the first place.

Governments in democratic countries gain their legitimacy from the fact that they were chosen and are answerable to those they govern. If such governments have the ability to control the ability of those they govern to acquire and exchange information, then they have the ability to prevent the population from holding them to account, and indeed, prevent the population from knowing that they are being prevented from holding them to account.

Thus, to safeguard the legitimacy of a democratic government, that government must be prevented from controlling the information its citizens have access to.

B: Reject the harm principle and in turn reject all forms of effective controls of liberty.

No, I reject one form of effective control of liberty for reasons outlined above and in Freenet’s philosophy document. You cannot imply from this that I reject all forms of control on liberty, and thus your argument collapses.

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