Between Truth and Power

Mireille Hildebrandt & Bibi van den Berg, eds., Freedom and Property of Information: The Philosophy of Law Meets the Philosophy of Technology, Routledge, 2014, Forthcoming

20 Pages Posted: 29 Oct 2013  

Julie E. Cohen

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: October 28, 2013


The injunction to “speak truth to power,” now employed most frequently as a banal protest trope within the genres of street protest and critical theory, originates in the title of a pamphlet in which intellectual leaders of the Quaker faith opposed the ongoing Cold War and advocated its peaceful resolution. They offered an account of the polarization of the geopolitical landscape that moved beyond the continuing threat of horrific violence to reckon with what a contemporary economist might call the opportunity costs of militarization. Those costs were both moral and material; resources devoted to the production and strategic deployment of expensive weapons were resources that could not be devoted to improving standards of living for the world’s neediest people. For the writers, the most important kind of power was the power to choose between using American might to achieve military domination and using it to advance the cause of human wellbeing.

The pamphlet authors’ appeal to the power to choose between domination and human flourishing remains fundamental, and yet their conceptions of both the exercise of domination and the exercise of principled resistance now seem dated in one critical respect. To understand both domination and resistance in the twenty-first century, we must take account of the ways that networked information technologies mediate the ongoing dialogue between truth and power. Arguments about the freedom-enhancing potential of the network too often rely on a conception of networked information technologies as inherently connective and egalitarian in their operation, but they are neither. Between truth and power is the code — the technical infrastructures that facilitate information flows between people, and between people and the entities that wield power in their lives — and the code has fractal effects on both power and truth. Code can become a means for resisting domination or a vehicle for embedding it, but even that formulation is too simple. Through its capacities to authorize, exclude, and modulate information flows, code can become a means for multiplying and extending power, and for privatizing and fragmenting truth.

The problem of control over information flows thus emerges as an important vantage point from which to interrogate “the idea of Power itself, and its impact on [Twenty-First] century life.” Access to information and control of information are intimately related to the choice between domination and flourishing, and debates about state censorship are only one piece of a larger puzzle, which concerns the extent to which global circuits of information flow are settling into patterns that serve larger constellations of economic and political power. This chapter uses the evolving landscape of law and policy in the areas of copyright and information privacy/data protection to explore the issues of control and power in the emerging networked information society, illuminating the ways that code and law together have become tools for structuring contests over the material conditions of understanding, participation, and self-determination.

Keywords: Code, Power, Copyright, Takedown, Privacy, Data Protection, Modulation, Interdiction, Human Flourishing, Information

JEL Classification: K20, K40, K42, O33, O34, Z10

Suggested Citation

Cohen, Julie E., Between Truth and Power (October 28, 2013). Mireille Hildebrandt & Bibi van den Berg, eds., Freedom and Property of Information: The Philosophy of Law Meets the Philosophy of Technology, Routledge, 2014, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Julie E. Cohen (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9871 (Phone)
202-662-9411 (Fax)


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