Open societies and open scholarship
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
September 14, 2001
by Peter Suber
There are complex and subtle connections between the kind of open society that is most vulnerable to acts of terror and the kind of open scholarship that is the focus of the FOS movement and this newsletter.  Open democracies can limit scholarship to those who can afford to buy it.  This was the norm before the internet gave us a viable alternative, and it is still the norm in most disciplines today.  But the converse tends not to hold.  Societies that limit democracy in the name of security also tend to regulate scholarship in the name of security.  The February jailing of Chinese scholar, Li Shaomin, for accepting Taiwanese funds to research subjects politically taboo in China is only one recent example in a dismally long list.

We should not confuse free as unpriced with free as uncensored.  Open societies can put a price on literature more consistently than they can silence it.  Leaving it uncensored is no barrier to charging money for it.  But putting it online free of charge is a barrier to censorship, even if it is one that governments around the world are gradually learning to surmount.

The U.S. is an open democracy.  It may fall short of your ideal of an open democracy, and even its own.  But when judged against past and present democracies, rather than ideals, it is far to the open end.  Yet the U.S. has convicted 2600 Magazine for publishing source code and linking to web sites that did the same.  The U.S. is prosecuting Dmitri Sklyarov for writing, discussing, and selling source code.  Edward Felten may be prosecuted for the same acts, and has yet to get a court to declare that he had a First Amendment right to publish the fruits of his research.

It already seems that one response to the attacks on New York and Washington will be the kind of diminution of liberty that facilitates law enforcement, for example, more airport searches, more sidewalk face scanning, more email eavesdropping, less strong encryption.  If so, then the U.S. will become a less open society.  But it will not on that account alone become less open with its scholarship.

So above all, let's not oversimplify.  Open societies do not guarantee open scholarship, and open scholarship does not guarantee open societies.  Within limits, each can take its lumps without the other suffering.  However, each is an important support, in a complex web of support, for the other.  Hence, they tend to thrive or suffer together.  Unfortunately, seeing them both compromised and limited is more common than seeing both thrive.  This is a reason for special vigilance in the months to come.

Li Shaomin, Jailers Who Thrive on Silence

Declan McCullagh, Anti-Attack Feds Push Carnivore,1283,46747,00.html

Declan McCullagh, Congress Mulls Stiff Crypto Laws,1283,46816,00.html


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