An interesting philosophical question was raised during what many had dismissed as nothing more than drama/infighting. For those of you who aren’t regular readers I’ll summarize; if someone uses deceit to deprive you of a thing of value, but that thing of value is not a physical object, is that fraud in the context of the non aggression principle? Does it create a right in the target of the deceit, to use of defensive/retaliatory force?
Stephan Kinsella, a patent attorney and libertarian speaker best known for his criticism of intellectual property, says no. His contention is that although there is value in property, there is not property in value.
It began with a question of Facebook. A group of leftists took issue with me, and decided to report all my posts to Facebook for racism and violence, even though said posts had nothing to do with said topics. Although Facebook has moderators who are supposed to be reviewing such claims, those posts were removed from Facebook, and I was banned for 12 hours at a time, 6 times within a week. This website is a business, and 70% of its traffic comes from Facebook. I also purchase Facebook advertisements from time to time, not only for myself, but also for clients of another business I am involved in, and I cannot do that while banned. There is no dispute, that I was deprived of value, through use of deceit. It was my premise then, that I was aggressed against, in violation of the non-aggression principle, and thus had a claim for use of force to recover damages and prevent further attacks.
This threat of retaliatory force worked. I haven’t been reported to Facebook since it was issued. My detractors continue to lie and defame me, but my Facebook usage is now uninterrupted.
Kinsella however contends that I have no right to force, because reputation is a type of intellectual property, and intellectual property is a State fiction. According to him, when the attackers lied to Facebook about my activities, all they did was defame me. Facebook can choose whether or not to provide me with services based on any criteria they wish, even if that criteria is incorrect. While the attackers clearly violated their contract with Facebook by creating fake accounts, using fake names, and making false reports, I am not party to that contract, and therefor have no claim. If people deceive Facebook into denying me services, then my only recourse is to find a better service provider.
Before we tackle the philosophical question any further, I’d like to point out that this is one of the reasons infighting is a good thing. What we’re all seeking to do here after all, is find ways of handling conflicts and disputes better than society presently does. Right now, when someone feels wronged, they tend to call upon the State, and more and more people are finding both the means and the ends of that system repugnant these days. No matter which side of any given issue you may find yourself on, the fact that we’re working these problems out within our community, without resorting to statism, even if we resort to use of force ourselves, is a sign of progress.
I will stipulate, that I have no right to use of force to protect my reputation alone. People say despicable and untrue things about me all the time, and I’d find myself a rather busy man if I pursued damages and retaliation against all of them. I will also stipulate that Facebook, or anyone else for that matter, has every right to disassociate from me, even if they are doing so based on the lies of someone else, again, this happens all the time.
I still however contend that I have claim to damages. People who don’t make money off of social media have a difficult time understanding this, because they haven’t put a great deal of effort over the course of years into building an audience that provides an income. Let’s take a similar example that more people can relate to.
My contention is that this campaign against me was a denial of service attack. People who are savvy to IP networking will understand this term, but I will try and put it into layman’s terms. Suppose you have a website, that website is hosted on a server inside of a data center, and that data center is connected to the outside world through a series of routers. If I wanted to silence your website without the consent of you or the human being that is your service provider, one way for me to do that is to bombard the network of your provider with bogus network traffic, until it is no longer capable of providing services to others.
All any computer system does, is process requests for information. All computer systems have limitations. Thus, even without any advanced understanding of technology, anyone can flood any computer system with bogus requests until that system fails to handle legitimate requests. Absent some as of yet unimagined advancement in technology, this will always be the case.
Any moral code, standard of conduct, or legal system that fails to address this, is obsolete and hopeless in the modern digital world.
This is not a simple question of intellectual property, as Kinsella is used to addressing it. In the case of software and media piracy, the producers and distributors of that content don’t actually lose anything when we copy it. Nothing is actually destroyed, in fact, more of it is produced. In the case of reputation, I can tell you from experience there is no such thing as bad press. When people tell lies about me, that either falls on the ears of people who are familiar with me and disregard it, or it falls on the ears of people who haven’t heard of me, and either visit my website to find out more, in which case I gain audience members, or they do not visit which leaves me in the same position with them as I was before the defamation. The only way I’m actually harmed by the words of others is if those words are true and my actions are wrong, in which case they are not committing any dishonest act for this article to address.
Tricking a computer system into denying service is a completely different thing. Whether it is a flood of false reports to Facebook, or a flood of bogus requests to a server or router, one uses deceit to deprive me of access to resource I have put a lot of labor into building. The attacker’s contract with the provider or lack thereof is irrelevant to my interest in the resource.
Let’s take another example, Bitcoin. Kinsella says that if someone steals my bitcoins, I am welcome to create a new cryptocurrency, this means that bitcoins are not a scarce resource, and so I have no right to use force to reclaim my bitcoins. By his logic if I am quote “dumb enough” to not protect my private key, all the attacker has done is change entries in a ledger (the blockchain), and since entries in a ledger are not scarce resources, libertarianism does not provide a remedy to this problem. My only recourse is to seek out a more secure system.
Unlike Facebook, none of us have a contract with bitcoin, it is a decentralized, unowned, peer to peer system. Anybody can download the blockchain, and while it is impractical to guess private keys, it is theoretically possible. Additionally, there have been massive bitcoin thefts in the past through other methods.
There was one incident for example, where hackers managed to obtain access to the Mt. Gox database. The hackers downloaded it, and ran wordlist attacks against user passwords on the system. The hackers managed to gain access to wallets of users with weak passwords, used that access to create a massive bitcoin selloff, thereby dropping the price of bitcoin dramatically, then buying up bitcoins at the lower price, before transferring them all into a wallet not controlled by Mt. Gox, making off with millions of dollars worth of bitcoin.
By Kinsella’s logic, none of those bitcoin holders have any claim against the thieves, because the only physical resource violated was the servers of Mt. Gox, and the bitcoin holders don’t own those servers. Their only recourse is their contract with Mt. Gox, to hold Mt. Gox accountable for the loss. If some savvy user managed to track down the thieves, and could use force to extract their stolen bitcoins, they would have no right to do so.
I think that for better or worse, most of us can agree that if a million dollars worth of ledger entries had been taken from us without consent, and use of force was an option to get it back, Kinsella’s opinions be damned, we would do it. If, as Kinsella contends, libertarianism provides us with no remedy for this situation, then that is a failure of libertarianism that simply cannot stand in the marketplace of ideas.
What ultimately grants us property rights over scarce resources is our mixing of our labor with the resource. Dirt, in and of itself, does not have a high value placed upon it. It is our tilling of the soil, our building structures upon it, our shaping of the wood, our mining of the minerals, and our protection of its boundaries that we assign value to. To take from us by force or fraud, the labor that went into making these resources valuable, is to enslave us, and so we forbid it, and protect it with violence. Whether this is a handful of dirt, a stick, a rock, a dollar, a bitcoin, a website, or a Facebook account is of little relevance, what we are protecting is the labor. In a digital world, an ever increasing amount of labor is being poured into digital things, and if libertarianism does not address it, then another system will, and libertarianism will rightfully be resigned to the dustbin of history.