The Printing Press
One of the biggest examples of liberty-enhancing technology in the last one thousand years is the printing press. For countless centuries only the political and religious powers that dominated civilization had the resources to be able to distribute information to the masses. Education and moral guidance almost exclusively came through official channels. Thus, the population was controlled by the control of information. The printing press changed everything.
Eventually it became possible for almost any person or institution to publish information to the public with only a relatively modest investment. Suddenly the average individual could access knowledge that he could use to benefit his own life. Before the printing press existed, the only published knowledge the average individual received most likely only benefited the ruling class. Because of the printing press, people could have more choices available to them that governments could do little to stop. Knowledge spread far and wide and the technology could never be un-invented.
I believe that the first tool to actually outdo the printing press was the internet. I view the internet as a second-generation printing press because all the benefits to the average individual are essentially the same, just amplified to a much higher degree. Similarly, the losses to those in power are augmented in the same way.
While the authorities would absolutely love to police and regulate content on the internet, they are basically powerless to stop determined individuals or groups from making their content available in some way (and determined users can always find ways to access any content - even in places like China). A classic example of this phenomenon is The Pirate Bay. The Pirate Bay is a website that hosts links that enable people to download files through the BitTorrent protocol. Many files shared through this protocol are protected by copyright like movies and TV shows. Because of this, there are many people in positions of power who want to ban such websites from the internet. The Pirate Bay has a long history of interference from various governments but it has endured. It doesn't matter if internet service providers are ordered by governments to block access to the site because there will always be ways around this. It seems that no entity will ever be able to permanently take it offline or make it unavailable. Appropriately, The Pirate Bay's slogan is "The galaxy's most resilient BitTorrent site".
This example shows that online content, no matter how dangerous to those in power, will always be available as long as there is an internet.
Some early internet pioneers envisioned all computers connected to the internet acting as equals as they shared and edited content, but a big chunk of the internet evolved to utilize the client-server model of computing. This model basically means that one central server provides a service, like email or social media, and clients (the computers of people like you and me) request that service from the central server. This means that, while we have many ways to share our own content, a lot of that content is only available because a certain entity allows it to happen. This model introduces a point of failure for whatever service or content is being made available. If the central server goes down, the entire service goes down.
On the other hand, peer-to-peer (P2P) networking is a decentralized model. In P2P networking, each computer that is connected to the network is literally a "peer" to all the other computers (they are all equal in terms of supplying and consuming resources). No central authority is required to coordinate this activity. In this manner, even if one or more computers were to go offline for some reason, all the other computers would be just fine. There is no single point of failure. It doesn't matter what any single actor does because the network will continue to work without him.
Peer-to-peer networking is not an isolated technology, since it relies on the internet, but I believe it represents a huge step in increasing liberty. P2P is what makes things like BitTorrent possible. Each computer using the BitTorrent protocol is one of many peers, all sharing files with each other. Short of confiscating every single computer or turning off the internet somehow, it is impossible for any government to shut down such a protocol. Even identifying individuals who use the protocol is difficult if users employ proxy servers or VPN services. Things like BitTorrent have a bad reputation in the minds of many people since a lot of the files that are shared are copyrighted materials. While it is debatable whether copyright protection is valid, there are many other things being shared that were originally intended to be shared freely. People should absolutely be allowed to share such things if they desire. And, with great tools like BitTorrent, they have that choice, with very little chance of being stopped.
The internet and P2P networking are extremely useful now, but we have only scratched the surface of their potential. Many liberty-enhancing tools have already been built on top of these things and many more tools will continue to be developed. In the next post we will explore what I believe is the most significant invention for those who seek to be free: Bitcoin.
Other Parts in the "Technology is Liberty" series:
Part I: The Formula
Part III: Bitcoin
Part IV: What can Bitcoin do for Me?
Part V: A Decentralized World
Part VI: What Comes Next?