Freedoms and Rights

I want to talk a bit about the relationship between rights and freedoms, and what they are. I think building a mutual understanding around this is important as I dig deeper into conversations around digital rights and software, user, and technology freedom.

A right is like a privilege in as much is that it’s something you’re allowed to do, however rights are innate and not earned. They are things to which everyone is entitled. A freedom expresses a lack of constraints related to an action. When we have a particular freedom (freedom X), we have an unrestrained ability to do X — we can do whatever we want in relation to X. You can also have the right to a certain kind of freedom (e.g. freedom of speech). I talk about both digital rights and digital freedoms. I view digital rights are the extension of our rights into digital spaces, and digital freedoms as the freedoms we have in those spaces. We have the right to free expression when speaking in a room; we have the right to free expression when speaking on the Internet.

Typically, we frame rights and freedoms in terms of government restrictions: governments are not allowed to keep you from exercising your freedoms, and they are there to protect and ensure your rights. It is becoming increasingly relevant (and common) to also talk about these in relation to companies and technology. It is important to also shift this discussion to include companies and technologies — especially computing software. As computing becomes more pervasive, we need to make sure that the software we’re writing is freedom protecting and rights respecting. These freedoms include the freedoms we typically associate with free and open source software: the unbridaled ability to use, study, modify, and share. it also includes freedoms like expression (to express ourselves without constraint) and the freedom to assemble (to get together without constraint). All of these freedoms are freedoms we have the right to, in addition to other rights including the right to digital autonomy and the right to consent.

I want to dig a little into a specific example, of the play between freedoms and rights, and the way we see computing fits in.

We have the right to freedom of speech — to communicate unfettered with one another. Free expression is something to which everyone is entitled, and there is a societal, social, and moral imperative to protect that right. Computers connect us to one another and enable us to express ourselves. They also give us safe spaces to develop the ideas we want to express in public ones, which is a necessary part of freedom of speech. However, computers can also infringe upon that right. Home surveillance devices, like home assistants, that are listening to and recording everything you say are stepping on your right and restricting your freedom. They are taking away your safe space to develop ideas and creating an environment where you cannot express yourself without restriction for fear of possible repercussions.

This is just one example of how computers play with the things we traditionally consider our rights and freedoms. Computers also force us to consider rights and freedoms in new contexts, and push the boundaries of what we consider to “count.” Our right to bodily autonomy now includes which medical devices, which computers, we allow to be implanted into our bodies; what happens with our medical and biometric data; and when and how our bodies are being monitored in public (and private) spaces. This includes the near future, where we see an increase in wearable computers and recreational and elective implants.

We have freedoms, we have rights, and we have the rights to certain freedoms because it is moral, ethical, and necessary for a just world. Our digital rights and digital freedoms are necessary for our digital autonomy, to borrow a phrase from Karen Sandler. Digital autonomy is necessary to move forward into a world of justice, equity, and equality.

Special thanks for Christopher Lemmer Webber.