In Defence of the Bright Line – Aggression and Harm in the Digital Age
By Duncan Whitmore
In a recent discussion concerning the regulation of so-called “Big Tech”, Jeff Deist has raised the question of whether the proliferation of digital technology requires us to reconsider the traditional, libertarian conception of unlawfulness:
The larger question for libertarians is whether their existing conceptions of property rights, harms, torts, and free speech still work in a thoroughly digital era. Principles may not change, but facts and circumstances certainly do. Rothbard’s strict paradigm for what ought to constitute actionable force, especially as discussed in part II of The Ethics of Liberty, requires some kind of physical invasion of person or property. In doing so, Rothbard necessarily distinguishes between aggression (legally actionable) and the broader idea of “harm.” The former gives rise to tort liability in Rothbardian/libertarian law; the latter is part of the vicissitudes of life and must be endured. Theorists like Professor Walter Block and Stephan Kinsella have expanded on this “physical invasion” rule, applying it to everything from blackmail to defamation to (so-called) intellectual property. Aggression against physical persons or property creates a legally actionable claim, mere harm does not.
But Rothbard’s bright-line rule seems unsatisfying in our digital age. If anything, the complexity of modern information technology and the pace of innovation make the case against bright-line tests. For one thing, the sheer scale of instantaneous information ought to inform our view of aggression vs. harm. A single (false) tweet stating “famous person X is a pedophile” could reach hundreds of millions of people in a day, ruining X’s life forever. This is a bit worse than a punch to X’s nose in a bar fight, to put it mildly.
To avoid taking these remarks out of context, it should be noted that the main purpose of Deist’s article is to reject the option of a “sclerotic federal bureaucracy” resolving problems created by digital technology, in favour of evolutionary regulation arising from the adjudication of real cases. As such, one suspects that Deist is thinking out loud so as to raise possible issues rather than constructing a carefully considered argument regarding the scope of actionable harm. Nevertheless, he does reach an unqualified conclusion:
Libertarians and conservatives should broaden their conceptions of tort and contract remedies, and support the evolution of what constitutes harm in a digital era.
Given such certainty, a detailed examination of the matters that Deist raises is warranted.Continue reading