The Digital Revolution programme one team and presenter Aleks Krotoski met and interviewed John to discuss the history of the internet and the web as part of the 'great levelling' - of free information access and communication across the world.
What do you think? Does John's sanguine view that 'in a completely open information environment the truth will out' ring true in the information age? Or does the open and immediate communication of the web offer even more danger and damage in terms of Mark Twain's adage 'A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes'?
Your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.
John Er, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is, is an organisation that exists and has existed since 1990 to try to assure to humanity the right to know. I mean which is a, a right that hasn't been previously promulgated because it was a, it was an impossibility. But our dream is that anybody anywhere may have access to anything that human beings do with their minds one day. Because that you know, that capacity is being given us by the internet and that can change everything er, in a lot of interesting ways.
But we want to make certain that, that anybody who's got something to say can say it and anybody who wants to listen can hear. And anybody who doesn't want to listen can ting them out and which is an essential part of your freedom of expression is the right not to, not to listen. Um, and we believe that that can, that can be conveyed by making certain that the architecture of the internet er, is designed in such a fashion so as to be both ubiquitous and, and open.
Intv What are the threats?
John Well the powers that have been of course. I mean there are a lot of er, you know, outside of, outside of er, raw weaponised force the principle way in which power exerts itself is by creating reality distortion fields around the control of information. You know, you don't have to control people much if you can tell, if, if you can control what they believe. And you can control what they believe if you control what they have access to. If you can control what they can know the rest of it is a very simple matter.
John The threats to, to the right to know are, are er, are the usual powers that have been who would rather that you didn't know certain things because that's how they control people. Er, you know, I mean er, that's why for example when the, when Martin Luther er, came along it wasn't just that he nailed some thesis to the door, it was that he came along about the same time as Gutenberg who could give everybody a bible. And suddenly the bible was not something that was, was strictly interpreted by the church you know, ex cathedra, the bible was something that anybody could read and figure out for himself. You know, that, and that changed fundamentally changed the power of the church. And changed the power of all, all social organisation in Europe. Er, and we just think you know, the human mind has its limitations but we just think that, that humans are more likely to achieve their ultimate purpose whatever that may be if they have the capacity to completely explore the possibility space of what can be known. Er, you know, and I have a, a mystical belief in this and, and, and, and EFF does as well. We want people to have, I mean I'm pro choice, but you can't make a choice unless you have some... I mean all good choices are informed. Now I, I would grant, I mean I can imagine there are people listening to me say that and, and say well yeah what about all these, what about the new reality distortion fields that, that spin themselves up in the rumour mill of the internet where you get you know, like people who, who are going around claiming that Obama's a Muslim or that he's, he wasn't born in America or you know, any, any number of silly things that get spread around. And, and you know that happens. But I, I ultimately think that in a completely open information environment the truth will out.
Intv But at the same time the, the distortion fields are... in order to cope with all that information we seek those things that confirm. I mean the internet is criticised for its confirmation bias...
John Well sure no, no, no but look I mean what do you think mass media are about? Mass media exist to confirm the, the pre existing beliefs of the masses. You're, you're working in one. I mean how easy is it for you to get a programme, programme on the BBC that says true things to people that they don't already believe? You know, I think you'd have a hard time.
Intv So is the objective to lay it out there and let people find out...
John I just you know, I want it, I want, I want there to be an open smorgasbord and you know, that anybody can, anybody can roam at and, and, and EFF has been, I think remarkably successful in, in maintaining this. The, the Electronic Frontier Foundation as an organisation and as a er, you know, as a, a kind of mission that a lot of people just decided to adhere to whether they were members or not, has I think, has been you know, if I died today I would still feel like I did something useful.
Intv At its core it feels as if the, the ownership of ideas is part of what you're fighting for?
John Well see that's, that's, you know, and this is the real, see you can't own free speech. And you know, I, I saw this very early and you know, this was a, actually not an EFF issue, it was something that I identified er, I, I wrote a piece for Wired Magazine in, in '93 which they called The Economy of Ideas. And I recognised that the only reason that copyright had worked was because it was hard to make a book. And that suddenly anything that a human being could do with his or her mind would be infinitely reproducible at zero cost and infinitely distributable. And given that there is a fundamental quality in human nature that likes to share information. I mean if you think something is, is cool or interesting what's the first thing you want to do with it? Tell everybody you like. You know, and if, and if it's not just simply saying I read this great book you should go out and buy it but you can just sort of zap the book right in to the other persons mind practically, you're gong to do that. And you're not going to have much regard for, for copyright. Er, and so the powers that had been suddenly saw copyright as being a splendid way to control this scary new liberty. Er, that exerting powerful controls on owned word would be the, would be the real method of clamping down on this, this thing. You know, so that, I, I knew was going to be where the push really finally came to shove. Er, and they, they had a pretty good, good run there at least legally and legislatively. You know, they, they managed to win every place where there was an established power. But where they didn't win was where it really counted which is that you know, they were trying to set up technical obstacles to the free flow of information er, usually involving cryptography or something like that and you got a bunch of you know, 55 year old greed heads that are up against you know, 17 year old electronic Hezbollah that they have seriously pissed off by their previous depredations on that community.