Freedom by Design

Break the chains with technologies of freedom and tyrants will lose their power.

By Ann Cavoukian and George Tomko

Look around you and notice the tremendous impact the surveillance-friendly Internet has had on culture, which has changed morality, and now politics. Where democracy, once the rule of a thoughtful electorate, has now become the tyranny of a fearful majority, leading to collectivist policies that eschew freedom and privacy, and which have historically always failed society. These ideas of collectivism have been exploited with the help of technologies of surveillance. If technology was the handmaiden that brought us to this state, can the appropriate technologies also reverse this cultural trend toward tyranny?

Human culture may be characterized by the predominant behaviours within society, those that translate into both prereflective and reflective memes — social, commercial, religious, ritual and so forth. Although some may view these behaviours as influenced by morals, it actually has more to do with how individuals are connected, which is strongly dependent on technology, as we will attempt to show; morals are a contextual offshoot. But what changes culture? Could one really make the case that it is technology that leads culture, which in turn, influences morality and politics? And if that is the case, could one design technology which leads to greater freedom for society and away from the current trend towards surveillance and authoritarianism? This implies the “species” of technology select which ideas are best leveraged? That is, if technologies of freedom, as opposed to surveillance, are introduced, could the ideas of liberty be leveraged to achieve a widespread audience? We say yes!

But unfortunately, true technologies of freedom can no longer be implemented within the current political system. They will either be regulated, censored or outright banned.

“The foremost aim of despotic government is to prevent any innovations that could endanger its own supremacy. Its very nature pushes it toward extreme conservatism, the tendency to retain what is, no matter how desirable for the welfare of the people a change might be. It is opposed to new ideas and to any spontaneity on the part of the subjects.”

Political dissident and former President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel expanded upon this in “The Power to the Unpowerless,” and wrote that in times of authoritarianism, parallel structures, outside of the system are required. Most important are parallel structures of economic freedom and privacy, particularly financial freedoms compatible with not only privacy, but also creativity, innovation and prosperity. It is only by placing its citizenry in economic chains that authoritarian states can survive.

Break those chains with technologies of freedom and tyrants will lose their power! These technologies expand our degrees of freedom for the purpose of survival. We use the term “degrees of freedom” to signify the number of independent ways a person can act to achieve a goal and which are also integrally tied to morals. That is because only moral actions sustain and enhance life in a universe which is not always conducive to that end, which itself is contextual. One’s life may comprise a singular, living, breathing me, or it may also include my loved ones, my neighbors – however many degrees of separation I deem to be appropriate.

Expansion of our degrees of freedom was “selected for” in nature. Initially, by evolving sensorimotor properties such as appendages and articulated joints which, in turn, through experience increased our cognitive capacity to optimize the use of these physical appendages (internal technology). For example, through experience, a toddler learns to run and to pick up objects with its fingers, which then modifies neuronal patterns and increases its degrees of freedom. In fact, nature had been “doing” technology from the beginning. However, in hindsight, there was a limit to the number of appendages any species could sustain and still survive.

Taking the liberty of anthropomorphism, nature “still needed” to expand its degrees of freedom, thus evolving the faculty of reason. With this increase in cognitive capacity, primates and especially humans started to create tools (external technology) to further increase degrees of freedom when interacting with the world. These tools extended our minds by giving us new skills and capabilities, which further augmented our degrees of freedom, especially with science which leveraged the development of a hierarchy of utility.

However, with the expansion of degrees of freedom in society, many culture adopted a top-down system of regulating bad behaviour. And as it is with human nature, function creep set in — more regulations to limit not only immoral behaviour but also those deemed illegal by the rulers. It prompted Lao Tzu to observe some twenty-five hundred years ago that “The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.” And over 200 years ago, political philosopher Edmund Burke noted, “Some may do the worst of things without being the worst of men.” In addition, Nicholas Christakis in “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society” elaborated on this:

“Good people can do bad things (and vice versa) simply as a result of the structure of the network (society) in which they are embedded, regardless of the convictions they hold or that the group espouses. It is not just a matter of being connected to bad people; the number and pattern of social connections is crucial.”

He continued with an analogy:

“If you take a group of carbon atoms and connect them one way, you get graphite, which is soft, dark and perfect for making pencils. But if you take the same carbon atoms and connect them another way, you get diamond, which is hard, clear, and great for making jewelry.

There are two key ideas here. First, these properties of softness, darkness, hardness, and clearness are not properties of the carbon atoms — they are properties of the collection of carbon atoms. Second, the properties depend on how the carbon atoms are connected. This is the same with social groups — the phenomena of wholes having properties not present in the separate parts is known as “emergence” and the properties are known as emergent properties; connect people in one way and they are good to one another. Connect them in another way and they are not.”

This is an important point, society is not comprised of atomistic units of people, but of relationships — consisting of connections, as we alluded to above. Who or what am I connected to — meaning how is the network configured in terms of individuals, organizations and repositories of knowledge? And what transactions am I able to carry out within my connections  — that is, what are my degrees of freedom? And while it is beyond the subject of this paper, these connections are initially affective, not cognitive, which gives rise to moral qualities.

As such, society is emergent and exists on at least two levels – the level of individuals and their degrees of freedom, and the meta-level corresponding to the pattern of configuration, in the aggregate. These two levels constitute social structures such as our political system. The graph of society may be compared to a multidimensional fabric: High degrees of freedom relate to a more flexible, dynamic fabric. Restrictions on configuration and/or degrees of freedom relate to a brittle society that breaks and malfunctions when exposed to untoward stress.

Most people fail to distinguish between these two levels, mistakenly slipping between them to attribute properties of one level to another. If people in a society treat each other badly at the meta-level, they will slip down to the individual level and infer that people are bad. Instead, they should be inferring that the way we have connected people via the political system is possibly the cause of the bad behavior. This unfortunately further reinforces the need for greater control by the State—even more authoritarianism.

Technologies of financial freedom

Currently in the financial sector, there are a large number of regulations surrounding money and banking. The rationale of course, is that these regulations prevent criminality such as money laundering, loan sharking, and loss of financial assets because of “shady” commercial entities. In other word, the regulations are supposed to promote moral commercial transactions. But they have also prevented, or made it a struggle for entrepreneurs with new ideas, to enter into the market space. The regulations protect the existing financial players from the onslaught of real competition under the guise of “protecting” the consumer. But even more, the possibility of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) warns of even greater surveillance and control by governments — in doing away with anonymous fiat currency and the ability to monitor all of our financial transactions, and furthermore, to allow only “permitted” ones. If you are obese, you can’t purchase a Krispy Kreme donut!

Within this context, a parallel structure would be a system that would allow all commercial transactions to take place, without the need for government oversight and its requirement to conform to a myriad number of regulations and permits. These transactions could be anonymous and strongly encrypted. However, in today’s world, if one were to set up a web/mobile service to provide microloans or transfer money across borders, without obtaining national permits, one would almost immediately be shut down by the authorities. Why? Because they would be able to identify the individual or entity behind the microloan or money transfer service, which had not obtained the necessary permits.

A counterfactual: What if, like Bitcoin, “no one but everyone” was behind the service? Satoshi Nakamoto invented the Bitcoin process, but it was implemented by “everyone” as open source, and millions of pseudo anonymous patrons use it. In fact, Bitcoin, a decentralized cryptocurrency, is a parallel structure to fiat currency, developed to disintermediate and circumvent the manipulation and devaluation by central banks. Under this scenario, no one could be targeted as the “provider” of the service — “everyone” would be providing it. This would be a radical decentralization of service provision, in that the authorities would be hard put to shutting down the service, without shutting down the Internet itself!

This is Freedom by Design: build it into technology using blockchain, peer-to-peer networks, smart contracts, machine learning, graph databases, end-to-end mobile and cloud encryption, decentralized finance (DeFi), and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO). But build them as parallel structures, not integrated into the existing surveillance Internet.

The concept of Freedom by Design means that the only way we can take back our liberty without violence is by building parallel structures which are immune to government control, and which add more value as well as stronger privacy, and anonymity if desired. We are now in a battle between liberty and authoritarianism — not liberal vs. conservative, republican vs. democrat, or even left vs. right. All of these ideologies represent top-down power structures, with their own ideas of what they believe is good for society which often exclude the individual’s own needs.

However, for such services to be accepted and to scale, they would have to ensure that transactions are moral — that ordinary customers would not lose their asset by theft or fraud. In addition, the argument against parallel structures such as Bitcoin is that it is a conduit for “dirty money” — terrorism, drugs, gambling, sex and so on — in other words, “immoral” transactions. While this already happens with Central Bank controlled fiat currency, let us dig deeper.

Malicious actors come in three flavors: first, there are the “common criminals” who violate a victim’s right to life and property using aggression (fraud being a subset); second, there are the State “commerce criminals” who break the rules of the governing jurisdiction with victimless acts such as selling drugs, sex, and even, laughingly, a child’s lemonade stand without a permit; and third, there are the “State criminals,” who create the commerce criminals, with the commercial rules they impose, but also create other rules under the guise of “good intentions” which directly harm the civilian population — from lockdowns and mandatory medical procedures, all the way to the full brunt of an authoritarian regime.

Eliminating the second and third types of criminals by removing coercive governing structures, would reduce some of the major problems in society, but realistically that will not happen any time soon in the “real world.” But we can make it happen in the cyberworld and even in the future metaverse, if we build freedom and privacy into it. The task is to implement financial parallel structures that minimize victimless crimes and immoral commercial transactions, circumvent prosperity-killing government regulations and defend against online common criminals without government oversight. With Freedom by Design, novelty emerges out of the conflict of opposites.

But to many, technology is the problem. How could more technology solve the problems that technology created in the first place? Technology’s value is a function of the context in which it is embedded, and the overarching context to-date in Western civilization is top-down power structures — governments and their crony corporations that use surveillance-friendly technology to push their authoritarian agendas forward. Freedom by Design represents a paradigm shift: technologies where no one but every one is responsible, agent-like technology which constrains its actions to a set of agreed upon standards, which incorporate Privacy by Design, thereby building much-needed trust.

To all the liberty-loving entrepreneurs and technologists, this is your moment to shine! Build freedom into your technologies!

Read the original version of this blog at the publisher’s website here.

Dr. Ann Cavoukian is a member of our Board of Directors for the Probe Foundation. Dr. Cavoukian is the Executive Director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University. Recognized as one of the leading privacy experts in the world, Dr. Cavoukian is an avowed believer in the role that technology can play in protecting privacy. Her ground-breaking 1995 paper, Privacy-Enhancing Technologies: The Path to Anonymity, laid the foundation for her magnum opus, Privacy by Design (PbD) – which is now recognized as the world’s gold standard in privacy protection. Dr. Cavoukian is well known for her former role as Ontario’s longest serving Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Dr. George Tomko is a member of our Board of Directors for the Probe Foundation. He was recently appointed to the post of Expert-in-Residence in IPSI at the University of Toronto. Dr. Tomko is best known for having invented the privacy-enhancing technology called “Biometric Encryption,” as well as “Anonymous Database,” both of which were the subject of numerous patents in the 1990’s. Later he invented “SmartData,” and is presently working on developing Smart Intelligent Agents. Dr. Tomko served for three years as the Chairman of Photonics Research Ontario, one of four Ontario Centres of Excellence.

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