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Rights, Operating Systems and Digital Freedom

By Audrey Tang, E. Glen Weyl

Rights, Operating Systems and Digital Freedom


     A core premise of this book is that there is that technological and political systems have tight analogies that can be used to improve both and that a synthesis of the two offers a powerful way forward for both. The title originates with the character overlap in Taiwanese traditional Mandarin between "digital" and "plural". In this section we begin to develop this synthesis more deeply. In particular, we argue that systems of rights play an analogous role as a foundation for democracies to that which operating systems play as a foundation for applications running on that operating system. We argue that both sides can learn from this analogy, with technical development taking on moral responsibility and political philosophy gaining an appreciation of dynamism.

     But the core starting point for the rest of this section of the book is that the protocols underlying a plural, network society directly fuse these two elements: they define the rights that exist in digital life and at the same time they are 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 the similar fusions that underlie monistic politico-technical systems.

Rights as foundation of democracy

     Democracy (etymologically "rule of the people") is most simply imagined as a system of government, of collective decision-making, rather than a set of actions a government takes towards its citizens. Yet in practice, one of the most fundamental characteristics of governments typically called "democratic" is a set of basic freedoms that their citizens enjoy. While these "rights" and vary across across democracies in both time and space, certain 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, etc. While there are many good reasons to believe these rights are fundamental and universal human values, what we are most interested in here is why they are so important to integrity of democracy as a system of government, why so many people and organizations believe a democracy cannot exist without protecting these rights.

     One of the great philosophers of democracy of our time, Danielle Allen, has articulated the dependence of democracy on such rights perhaps most clearly in her recent book Justice by Means of Democracy. Her basic argument is that is that government cannot respond to the "will of the people" if such will cannot be safely and freely expressed. If votes are coerced or if participating in civic activity honestly is personally dangerous, there is no reason to believe that outcomes reflect anything other than the will of the coercer; they are shams. If citizens cannot form social and political associations, 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 not expect their expressed political convictions to obey their masters, not their inner voice.

     Nor are these concerns about unfree societies undermining democratic functioning abstract or theoretical. In practice, many prominent democracies have "committed suicide" through the abolition of the freedoms on which they depended. 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 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 and the establishment of one of the most infamous dictatorships in human history. Yet, without taking too strong a stance on the contemporary politics of many countries, it is easy to recognize that 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.

     One way to think about why democracies depend on rights is that democratic governments have baked into them certain assumptions. These include that citizens are agents capable of shaping desiring a shape for and thus shaping the collective life of the community they democratically participate in. They are capable of forming and advancing associations for their common interests, so these common interests can be heard politically. These dependencies are not absolute, and are often the subject of debate. For example, some societies that are widely seen as democracies (e.g. the 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; others (e.g. the United States) put greater emphasis on "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 put a greater emphasis on rights of assembly and association, seeing these as more central to democratic function. But almost all democracies share a focus, and expect others to share a focus, on the preservation of some strongly overlapping set of such rights as basic preconditions for democratic function.

     National (and subnational) governments, especially judicial systems, often play a critical role in ensuring that rights are respected; adjudicating such rights is often a central function of national high courts and this is part of the reason that above we refer to "societies" (associated with nation states). Yet thinking of rights only in terms of national legal systems is misleading. Rights are a belief system that are deeply ingrained in a range of cultures (national, subnational, transnational, etc.) and that influence life through shared expectations of values and legitimacy. For example, freedom of speech is not generally a legal requirement for workplaces or internet platforms. Yet expectations of rights of free speech put severe limits on the kinds of restrictions on speech employees and customers are likely to accept. They also animate contributions to non-profit organizations that organize to support rights within and across countries. Legally unenforceable documents like the UDHR have nonetheless created significant cross-national legal influence with, for example, the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa greatly influencing rulings in other countries. Institutions of all sorts (courts, corporations, civil society groups, etc,) are crucial in ensuring these shared cultural expectations are upheld, and no one of these on its 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 social (e.g. a quality education) and economic rights (e.g. decent housing) are outside the capacity of governments, especially in developing countries, to immediately deliver, but are testaments to the deepest aspirations of a people.

Operating systems as foundation of applications

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

     OSs roughly define the landscape of the possible for applications that run on them. There are basic traits in terms of performance, appearance, speed, machine memory usage, etc. that applications running on a particular OS share and must respect to work on that platform. To take a simple 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 directly and what it can rely on underlying processes for.

     These boundaries are rarely extremely sharp. While Macintosh was the first mass-market computer with a graphical user interface (GUI) OS, earlier computers with command-line interface sometimes had programs that included elements like a GUI. Today, while virtual and augmented reality headsets are much more effective, 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 precisely 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 constantly receive updates to the OSs on smartphones to defend against security threats and overtime phones have moved from having users make "emoticons" and "emojis" with combinations of characters to incorporating them into the base OS typing systems. Other changes are dramatic: for example, Google's introduction of 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. Often applications built on an OS are used both to support development within it and the development of updates and new OSs that help it adapt or even compete with it. And while different OSs differ and compete, they share many common affordances and at least partially attempt to allow cross development and backward and forward compatibility (viz. that applications designed for previous versions continue to work, and that applications are "future proof" to new generations) to ensure their users can access a wide range of applications.

     OSs are almost always works-in-progress, aiming to support and foster functionality they are incompletely able to support. Often, the learning from attempts to support these functionalities allows them to be more fully supported at a future date. 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 a wider range of oral interaction functions in these operating systems.

Plural foundations

     Systems of rights and OSs thus have many common traits: they serve as foundations for the democratic societies and applications that run on top of the; they are background conditions assumed in those processes; they play a more fundamental role in system functioning than do any applications running on top of them and thus require special defense and protection to ensure the integrity of a system; nonetheless, they are often at least partly aspirational and incompletely fulfilled, in fact sometimes 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.


     As we noted above, OSs are obviously and systems of rights are on careful reflection always highly dynamic. This dynamism is particularly central to a plural perspective on rights (and OSs). 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 see except "through a glass darkly" how these foundations will be used, abused and reimagined harnessing precisely the space they provide for such experimentation and innovation. Democracies, for example, facilitate public conversations over social aspirations. Achieving these may require evolving the basic capacities that support them. In fact, there would be little point to nurturing democracy as systems of rights do if such democracies lacked the creativity to reimagine their own foundations.

     A nice recent illustration such evolution is the way our understanding of free speech is changing 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 quite different, one where information is abundant and attention scarce. In such an environment, as documented dramatically by the research of Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Molly Roberts, it is often most effective to flood the information space with distractions and spam, rather than to try to suppress unwanted content. In such a setting, ensuring diverse, relevant and genuine content has space is often more important than than ensuring it is free from literal censorship. We suspect our understanding of free speech will need to evolve correspondingly and in fact will discuss pathways to ensure this happens below.

     Yet dynamism is not desirable for its own sake, nor can it be used in a pluralist vision to subsume the entire structure in the pursuit of some totalizing ultimate goal. Instead it serves to concretely support the systems applications or democracies that run on top of it, to support their continued ability to innovate and discover their future within the bounds of renewing and improving their ability to continue to do so at a later time. OSs can and should evolve to support their application environment as its needs change, but it fails if it self-destructs for some larger, external purpose, whether it be the profit of a company or the national interest of some country.


     Another central element of the plural understanding of rights is that, while some elements of a system of rights may be thought of as belonging to individuals, there is nothing inherently individualistic about them. OSs offer certain assurances and capacities to individual applications and users and systems of rights obviously offer critical protections to individuals that they use to defend their most important values and interests. Yet rights speak to systems and groups as much as to individuals. Freedom of association and practice of religion protects associations and religions themselves as much as those who make them up. Federalist systems, like the US Constitution, recognize rights of states and localities as well as to individuals. OSs protect overall system function and the interactions between applications and users as much as individual applications and users. Communication and speech whether on OSs or in the "public square" always have at least two participants and the existence of a "public square" or a communications network depends on collective action participating in and securing it. 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 specific forms of contract they enter into.

     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 defining topics like intellectual property, antitrust and capital requirements for financial institutions. Each of these is governed by a different network of professionals, international institutions with different influential groups, etc. 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 are intersecting social circles defending and protecting networks of social interactions among people and social groups.

Contrast with monism

     Rights and OSs as dynamic, network and adaptive foundations for democratic collective self-discovery or application environment evolution contrasts sharply with the political and technical visions of monist visions like ES and AT. ES is grounded in a fixed and "immutable" set of clearly defined and historically rights (focused on individual private property and the prevention of "violence" defined by anything contradicting these property relations) that are thought of as abstracted from both other rights and any social or cultural context of enforcement or meaning and technical systems are seen as insulating these rights as thoroughly and completely from any change or social intrusion as possible. AT is grounded in the idea of an "objective", "utility" or "social welfare" function that technical systems are designed "align to" and optimize. The ES vision views rights as absolute, easily defined, static and universal; the AT vision views them as irrelevant encumbrances in achieving a definable social good.

Digital freedom

     Intellectually and philosophically, the Plurality tradition we describe in "The Lost Dao" focuses on the need to move beyond the simplistic frameworks for property, identity and democracy on which liberal democracies have typically depended, building up more sophisticated ways of articulating pluralism to match the richness of social life. Technologically, the Plurality tradition began to build networking protocols that provided a formal framework for doing just this in the governance of communication between computers. It thus fully fuses together the parallel but distinct ideas of systems of rights and OSs, seeing the creation of interpersonal networking OSs as providing the fundamental capacities to participants that are needed to support a plural conception of rights. Whatever one thinks of claims that we may one day spend extended periods in purely digital simulated worlds (sometimes called "metaverses") few would deny that many people live large parts of their lives online these days. To the extent we do, what we are able to do, say and be is determined by the possibilities offered by our technologies, particularly those that network us together and thus permit the formation of a social fabric. In this sense, the protocols that connect us in these networks truly are the rights of the digital age, by forming the OS on which societies run.

     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 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 development 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 grope our way towards a future plural.