The Freedom to Innovate and the Freedom to Investigate

But, that is not the purpose of the post! The purpose of this post is to explore an idea that came up along with a subsequent session, on Security & Privacy and the Internet of Things. The thought that struck me the most out of this session was that the tension — or depending on how you look at it, codependence — involving the”freedom to innovate” and the”liberty to research “.

Adam is one of the most thoughtful people looking at innovation from a libertarian standpoint, and is the author of a book on the topic of permissionless invention . The gist of permissionless innovation is that we — as a society and as a marketplace — want the ability to experiment. Therefore, as a general rule, policy must prejudice towards allowing experimentation, instead of prescribing fixed rules. This is the basis of what I call Legislation 2.0[1].

Repping the Freedom to Research was Keith Winstein in the Stanford CS department (who jokingly entered his twitter handle as @Stanford, which was reprinted in the seminar materials and picked up in the IPD tweetstream). Keith has been investigating the notion of the”Freedom to Research”, or, as he put it in this recent piece in Politico,”the right to eavesdrop on your items”. To put it differently, if we want to trust the many services and devices we use, we have to have a right to inspect them to”audit” what they’re saying about us. With this transparency, we as customers and a society don’t have any means of holding service providers accountable, or of having a truly open marketplace.

The question I asked was: are those two ideas in tension, or are they free?

Adam gave a very good answer, which was basically: They are free — we would like to innovate, and we also need this sort of transparency to make the industry work. However… there are limits to the types of transparency we can induce on private businesses — plenty of information we might want to audit is sensitive for a variety of reasons, including competitive issues, trade secrets, etc.. And Kevin appeared to agree with this general sentiment.

On the net (within platforms such as eBay, Airbnb and Uber), this sort of commerce is the bedrock of producing the platforms work (and based on what I wrote about in Legislation the online Way). Users are given the freedom to innovate (to market, write, post, etc), and platforms hold them accountable by keeping the freedom to explore. Everyone gladly makes this transaction, knowing in the center of things, that without the freedom to research, we can’t attain the level of trust required to give the freedom to innovate!

So that leaves the question: how do we achieve the advantages of these two things that we want: the freedom to experiment, and also the freedom to explore (and because of this, hold actors accountable and make marketplace decisions)? Realistically speaking, we can not have the freedom to innovate without some sort of the liberty to investigate. The tricky bit comes when we attempt to implement this in practice. How can we design such systems? What’s the lightest-weight, least heavy-handed strategy? Where can this be experimented with using technology and the current market, as opposed to through a policy or legal lever?

[1] Close readers / critics will observe a clear tension between a”law 2.0″ strategy and policies like Net eutrality, which I also prefer . Happy to deal with this in more detail but long story short, Net Neutrality, like many other questions of rights and regulations, is a matter of whose freedom are we talking about — in this case, the liberty of telcos to operate their own networks as they please, or the liberty of program developers, content providers and consumers to deliver and pick from the widest assortment of programming and services. The internet neutrality debate is about which of these freedoms to prioritize, in which case I side with program developers, content providers and users, along with the broad & awesome invention that such a choice leads to.

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