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Rights, Operating Systems and Digital Freedom

By Audrey Tang, E. Glen Weyl and the Plurality Community

Rights, Operating Systems and Digital Freedom


     In traditional Mandarin (used in Taiwan), the character signifying "digital" overlaps with "plural," motivating the title of this book. Our premise is that political systems and technological systems share tight analogies and a synthesis offers a powerful way to improve both, compensating for either deficiencies while drawing on their strengths. In this section we begin to develop this synthesis more deeply. In particular, we argue that systems of rights are foundational to democracies in the same way that operating systems are foundational for applications running on top of them.

     Our fusion of the digital and the plural is quite literal, and resolves the tensions between technology and democracy, yet advancing both. Whereas technical development would benefit from encoding greater moral responsibility and expressing greater social preferences, politics would benefit from more dynamism of rapidly evolving technological systems.The protocols underlying a plural, network society directly fuses these two elements: they define the rights that exist in digital life while simultaneously serving as the operating system on which applications can be built. As such our fusion of the digital and pluralism is quite literal and contrast sharply with monistic politico-technical systems.

Rights as foundation of democracy

     Rights are a ubiquitous feature underpinning democratic life. Most simply imagined, democracy (etymologically "rule of the people") is as a system of government, of collective decision-making by the people, rather than a set of actions a government takes towards its people. Yet evolving from its ancient Athenian origins, carved by great philosophers from the Enlightenment and forged through revolution, democracy came to also enshrine a set of fundamental freedoms and rights. While these "rights" have varied across across democracies in both time and space, broad patterns are not only identifiable, but have formed the foundation of documents such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), including equality, life, liberty, personal security, speech, thought, conscience, property, association—to name a few. While there are many good reasons to believe these rights are fundamental and universal, what we are most interested in is why they are so integral to democracy as a system of government and why so many people and organizations believe a democracy cannot exist without protecting these rights.

     One of the great contemporary philosophers of democracy, Danielle Allen, has articulated the link between democracy and rights in her recent book Justice by Means of Democracy. The argument is simple: government cannot respond to the "will of the people" if their will cannot be safely and freely expressed. If votes are coerced or if acting honestly in civil society is personally dangerous, there is no reason to believe that outcomes reflect anything other than a coercer’s will. If citizens cannot freely form social and political associations, without undue pressure or duress, they cannot coordinate to contest decisions by those in power. If they cannot seek livelihood through a diversity of economic interactions (for example, because they are enslaved either by the state or a private master), we should expect their expressed politics to obey their masters, not their inner voice. Without rights, elections become shams.

     Many prominent democracies have "committed suicide" through undermining the rights from which they were forged. Perhaps the most famous example was the Weimar Republic that governed Germany for most of the 30 years between the World Wars and ended in the election of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party to a plurality of seats in the parliament, or "Reichstag. This famously led to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. Yet, today many democratic societies have elected leaders and governments that have curtailed liberties in a manner that converts them from democracies to what political scientist Steven Levitsky has labeled "competitive authoritarian" regimes. Concerns about unfree societies undermining democratic functioning are neither abstract nor theoretical, but current.

     Almost all democracies share a focus, and expect others to share a focus, on the preservation of some strongly overlapping set of such rights of speech and association as basic preconditions for democratic functioning. For example, Scandinavian countries have emphasized the importance of what might be called "positive freedom of speech," namely that every citizen regardless of means has a viable path for their voice to be heard, whereas others such as United States, emphasize "negative freedom of speech," that no one may impede through government intervention the expression of a view. Some societies (e.g. in Europe) tend to emphasize the importance of privacy as a fundamental right necessary for civil society to exist independent of the state and thus for politics to be possible. Others (e.g. in Asia) tend to emphasize rights of assembly and association as more central to democratic function. Despite these variances, the underlying assumption of rights of speech and association is that they protect agency, so citizens may have autonomy to form and advancing associations for their common interests, so these common interests can be heard politically.

     National (and subnational) governments, especially judicial systems, often play a critical role in ensuring that rights are respected and adjudicating their boundaries.Yet thinking of rights only in terms of national legal systems is misleading. Rights represent deeply held beliefs and values rooted in a range of diverse cultural contexts (national, subnational, transnational, etc.). Rights not only carve the possibility space for human action, they confer legitimacy. For example, private workplaces or internet platforms generally may restrict speech. Yet expectations of rights of free speech put severe limits on the kinds of restrictions on speech employees and customers are willing to accept. Similarly, although documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are not legally binding, they still inspire and influence laws in many countries, including decisions made by the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa. Institutions of different scale (courts, corporations, civil society groups, etc,) are crucial in ensuring these shared cultural expectations are upheld, and no one institution on their own is the "enforcer" or "source" of rights. In this sense, rights may be thought to exist above and beyond states, even if states are one critical defender of them.

     Rights are also often aspirations and goals, rather than fixed and attainable realities. Much of the history of the United States is a drama about the fulfillment of founding aspirations to equality that were long denied. Many positive rights (e.g. a quality education, decent housing) are outside the capacity or mandate of governments, especially in developing countries, to immediately deliver but nonetheless are testaments to the deepest aspirations of a people.

Operating systems as foundation of applications

     Operating systems (OSs) are a ubiquitous feature underpinning digital life. Almost every digital interaction you have had depends on an underlying OS. Linux is the most ambitious and successful OSS project of all time. Windows, produced by one of our employers, is another ubiquitous piece of software. iOS and Android power most smartphones.

     OSs roughly define the possibility space for applications that run on them. There are basic traits in terms of performance, appearance, speed, machine memory usage—to name a few—that applications running on a particular OS share and must respect to work on that platform. For example, iOS and Android allow for touch interfaces, while earlier smartphones (like the Blackberry or Palm) relied on styluses or keyboard entry. Even today, iOS and Android apps have different looks, feels and performance characteristics. Applications are coded for one (or possibly multiple) of these platforms, drawing on the processes built into the OS to determine what their application can and cannot do, what it has to build bespoke and what it can rely on underlying processes for.

     Boundaries are rarely sharp. While Macintosh was the first mass-market computer with a graphical user interface (GUI) OS, earlier computers with a command-line interface sometimes had programs that included elements like a GUI. Similarly, while virtual and augmented reality headsets are much more effective today, there are some VR and AR experiences that can run on a smartphone, properly worn on the head. Furthermore, while OS designers try to include security protocols that defend against application behaviors that violate or threaten the integrity of the underlying OS, they can never hope to avoid them entirely. Many, perhaps most, computer "viruses" are precise examples of such violations. OSs thus define the normal behavior of applications on their system, providing tools applications can harness and reasonable expectations they can have about other applications, defining the terrain of the easily possible.

     OSs constantly must adapt to unanticipated behaviors by applications, both desired (so as to empower new applications) and undesired to defend against viruses. These adaptations may be minor and superficial; for example, we often receive updates to the OSs on smartphones to defend against security threats. Or, over time phones have transitioned away from users typing "emoticons" and "emojis" with character combinations to natively integrating them into the OS's typing features. Other changes are more dramatic: for example, Google introducing Android versions compatible with cars and televisions.

     OSs also defend their integrity in a variety of ways; while security patches are the sharpest and most adversarial, they coexist with developer education, the building of a broad ecosystem of developer support, the gradual development of customer usage and expectations, and more. Applications built on an OS not only support its internal development but also facilitates updates and even new OSs that can enhance or even rival the original OS. And while different OSs differ and compete, they share many common affordances. They at least partially attempt to allow cross development and both backward and forward compatibility, so that applications designed for previous versions continue to work and that applications are "future proof" to new generations, thereby ensuring users access to a wide range of applications.

     OSs are almost always works-in-progress. They aim to support and foster functionality they are incompletely able to support. From these repeated attempts, they recursively learn to offer better support. For example, the first prominent audio "smart assistant" released (such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa) were often comically low quality; quality improved over time with user participation through the systems themselves, enabling more profound oral functions over time in these operating systems.

Plural foundations

     Systems of rights and OSs have many common traits: they serve as foundations for the democratic societies and applications that run on top of them, have background conditions assumed in their processes, require special defense and protection to ensure the integrity of a system, and nonetheless, are often at least partly aspirational and incompletely fulfilled, at times in tension internally. And while they are often backed by powerful enforcement mechanisms, they are also part of a diffuse culture in addition to sharply defined institutions and code. Beyond these general parallels, however, there are two aspects of both rights and OSs that are particularly important and distinctive to a plural perspective, which we will draw out and contrast to monistic and atomistic approaches.


     OSs are self-evidently dynamic. Systems of rights are, on careful reflection, are also highly dynamic. This dynamism is central to pluralism. Rights support the democracies that rest on them and OSs support the applications that run on top of them. But the framers of rights and designers of OSs cannot anticipate (or cannot see except "through a glass darkly") how these foundations will be used, abused and reimagined, as different and sometimes adversarial actors harness (often through technological means) precisely the space they provide for such experimentation and innovation. The PRC’s Great Firewall, for example, restricts and censors internet content, codifying authoritarianism. Yet, global social media platforms endemic to democracies today have opened a hidden attention auction on citizens (even geo-targeted to swing states) for election interference and misinformation by autocratic adversaries. If democracies continue to facilitate public conversations over social aspirations, conversations will require evolving basic capacities that support public conversations and how rights express within them.

     Already our understanding of free speech is being challenged as a result of information technology. Free speech was once considered a reasonable expression of the right required to ensure citizens could form and build support for political positions free from undue interference. However, this view was formed in an environment where information was scarce and thus its suppression was one of the more effective ways to avoid voices being heard. The present environment is different, where information is abundant and attention scarce. In such an environment, it’s easier for adversaries who seek to suppress or censor inconvenient views (attacking the foundations of democracy) to simply flood the information commons with distractions and spam, rather than try to suppress dissidents and unwanted content (documented dramatically by the research of Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Molly Roberts). Under such attacks, ensuring diverse, relevant and genuine content is surfaced for attention is the challenge, not literal censorship. We suspect our protections around free speech will need to evolve correspondingly and discuss pathways to ensure this happens below.

     Yet dynamism is not desirable for its own sake, nor should it be used in a pluralist vision to subsume the entire structure in the pursuit of some totalizing ultimate goal. Instead dynamism is an emergent property of innovative and adaptive systems discovering and adapting to their future while renewing and improving their ability to continue to adapt in the future. OSs and rights can and should evolve to support the applications and democracies that run on top of it, rather than collapsing to an external will—whether it be the narrow profit interest of a company or the national interest of a nation.


     A plural understanding of rights recognizes systems and groups as much as to individuals. Freedom of association and religion protects associations and religions themselves, as much as individuals who compose them. Federalist systems, like the US Constitution, recognize rights of states and localities, not simply individuals. Even commercial freedoms, while often conceived of in terms of individual choices and bilateral exchange, usually protect at least as vigorously the rights of corporate entities and their contractual arrangements. Similarly, OSs protect the interactions between applications and users, as much as applications and users separately. Thus, while some elements of a system of rights or OSs may be thought of as protecting or servicing individual users, there is nothing inherently individualistic. Similarly, speech, as a form of communication, inherently involves more than one party. Whether within OSs or in “the public square,” the viability of a communication network depends on the collective participation and consent of its many willing applications, users, and groups.

     Furthermore, the entities protecting and defending these freedoms are rarely simply nation states and their associated institutions. Commercial law is a leading example. As scholars such as Anne-Marie Slaughter and Katharina Pistor have highlighted, international networks of legal rules, trade agreements and mutual respect for precedents are central to important topics like intellectual property, antitrust and capital requirements for financial institutions. Each of these is governed by a different network of professionals, international institutions, and even lobbying groups.Thus, rights are not just held by a diversity of groups forming an interacting network; they are also defined by a similar intersecting network of cultures, institutions and agents. Rights emerge from intersecting people and social circles defending and protecting their networks of social interactions.

Contrast with monism

     The dynamic, networked, and adaptive foundations of plural rights and OSs that respectively support democratic exploration and the evolution of application environments stand in stark contrast to the political and technical monistic perspectives embodied in concepts like ES and AT. ES is based on a rigid and “immutable” set of well-defined historical rights, which primarily emphasize individual private property and the prevention of any "violence" that challenges these property relations. Under this view, rights are abstracted or detached from both other rights and any social or cultural context from which they emerged, and technical systems ought to insulate these rights as thoroughly and completely from any change or social intrusion as possible. On the other hand, AT is rooted in the notion of an "objective," "utility" or "social welfare" function that technical systems are designed to “align to” and maximize. Where the ES vision sees rights as absolute, unambiguous, static, and universal, the Algorithmic Totalitarian perspective deems them as mere obstacles, or encumbrances, in the pursuit of a definable social good.

Digital freedom

     However skeptical one may be of a future immersed in digital simulated worlds (sometimes called "metaverses"), few would deny that many people live large parts of their lives online these days. To the extent that what we do, say, and trade is constrained by the possibilities offered by our technologies that network us together—and thus weave our social fabric. The protocols that connect us define our rights in the digital age, forming the OS on which societies run. Intellectually and philosophically, the Plurality tradition we described in "The Lost Dao" focuses on the need to move beyond the simplistic frameworks for property, identity and democracy on which liberal democracies have been built in favor of more sophisticated alternatives that match the richness of social life. Technologically, the early networking protocols that provided a governance framework for inter-computer communication attempted to precisely accomplish this, fusing together the parallel but distinct ideas of rights and OSs. Here, interpersonal networking OSs aimed to provide the fundamental capacities to participants needed to support a plural conception of rights.

     Yet that project has at best barely begun, as we highlighted in "The Lost Dao". Most of the natural, fundamental affordances of networking are not available to most people even in wealthy countries as basic parts of the online experience. There is no native, non-proprietary protocol for identification that protects rights to life and personhood online, no protocols for the ways we communicate and form groups online that allows free association, no protocols for payments to support commerce on real–world assets and no protocols for the secure sharing of digital assets like computation, memory and data that would allow rights of property and contract in the digital world. These services are almost all controlled and often quasi-monopolized by nation state governments or more often by private corporations. If rights are to have any meaning in our digital world, this has to change.

     Luckily, it has begun to change. A variety of developments in the past decade have fitfully taken up the mantle of the "missing layers" of the internet. This work includes the "Web3" and "Decentralized Web" ecosystems, the Gaia-X data sharing framework in Europe, the development of a variety of digital-native currencies and payment systems and most prominently growing investment in "digital public infrastructure" as exemplified by the "India stack" developed in the country in the last decade. These efforts have been underfunded, fragmented across countries and ideologies and in many cases limited in ambition or misled by AT and ES ideologies. But they together represent a firm foundation on which to build Plurality. In this section of the book, we will show how to build on these projects, invest in their future and accelerate our way towards a plural future.