by Harry J. Friedman
A free and uncensored Internet is an essential indicator of a nation’s commitment to free speech. The Internet has revolutionized the way we share and receive information, liberating us from centralized media and enabling us in unprecedented ways to organize in defense of issues we care about. The unregulated nature of the Internet with no regard for state boundaries is what has made it a network of networks, allowing information to flow to all parts of the world and connecting people from all walks of life. It’s an incredible thing when a child in Nigeria can watch the same Youtube video as a corporate CEO in the US. But of course, so much freedom was bound to be constrained and intruded upon. In We the Media, author Dan Gillmor calls it the clampdown. Cyber liberty is currently hanging in the balance, as governments, corporations, and the public struggle to deal with issues of net neutrality, communications surveillance, and web zoning.
The revolution of online expression over the past decade is now being followed by an explosion of communications surveillance. According to a report by Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, as information and communications technologies have developed, so have the means by which states can monitor people’s’ activity on the web. Gillmor touches upon this in Chapter 11, pointing out how the Internet’s original architecture was designed in a way that no one could find out which pages you visited. The advent of Cookies, little files placed on users’ computers, have basically made people’s private data a commodity. The right to privacy is essential to the freedom to express oneself. Interfering with people’s’ privacy limits the free development and exchange of ideas. Governments are using these surveillance technologies in the name of national security. And many people give their support to that end. But what La Rue confirms is that states must make a commitment to protecting human rights in their communications surveillance framework (La Rue).
The issue that has perhaps sparked the biggest uproar about Internet freedom is net neutrality. In this case, the controversy is around maintaining fair, open, and equal access to information. After all, what’s the point of free speech if your words can’t be heard. When Senator Ted Cruz tweeted that “net neutrality is obamacare for the Internet,” the knuckleheads over at The Oatmeal responded with an article to educate Cruz about the actual meaning of net neutrality. It has much less to do with government regulation and more to do with telecommunications companies squeezing the Internet to fit their business needs. The Oatmeal provide a key example to illustrate what the effects would be if these companies discriminated against various types of web traffic. Comcast could create a search engine that only produces search results if you pay extra. Then they could force you to use that search engine by slowing your internet access, bombarding you with advertisements, or flat out blocking your access. As it turns out, Comcast already did this to Netflix, making them pay millions of dollars by slowing down the movie streaming speeds (Oatmeal). Again, it is a beautiful accomplishment for humanity that a child in a third world nation can be educated through accessing the Internet to lift himself out of poverty. And it was another great accomplishment to put SOPA back on the shelf. But it is imperative that we continue to raise our voices against any corporations or laws that intend to restrict the Internet only to those who can afford it.
The Internet is stateless. Information on the web, for the most part, flows freely without regard for state borders. However, as governments ramp up their surveillance efforts and countries struggle with questions of jurisdiction, the creation of a “Splinternet” becomes more and more realistic. According to Emma Llanso, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Free Expression Project, governments are calling for all of the data of their citizens to be stored locally, within the boundaries of the country. This would essentially create a world with country-specific Internets that don’t connect to form a global network. This relates to the two previous issues discussed. First, local data laws would give national governments much easier access to their citizens’ communications. Second, the cross-cultural dialogue that is a central tenet of the Internet would pretty much end (Llanso). Gillmor discusses the issues with zoning content on the Internet, explaining how what a person in one country sees on a given website would be different from what another person sees in a different country even when both type in the same web address. Gillmor’s argument deals with jurisdiction laws, where content accepted in one country may not be acceptable in another country. Regardless of the reasons, zoning the Internet would be a devastating step backwards in the march to global connectedness.
These issues pose a serious danger to free speech across the Internet. I’m concerned about people’s willingness to raise their voices. The scale of these issues seem so blatant. The people we elect to represent us are explicitly acting in opposition of what the people want. When I voice my opinions, I have to assume that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I don’t want my privacy invaded. I don’t want to be cut off from the rest of the world. I don’t want to have to pay extra to access different parts of the web. I don’t want to have the standards of the Internet set by the most restrictive jurisdictions. These are issues that affect billions of people. SOPA, which would have removed enormous amounts of non-infringing content from the web, was defeated by way too narrow a margin. Wake up people!
I remember in my sophomore year at Temple University, I read a book called Why it’s Kicking off EveryWhere, by Paul Mason. In it, Mason attributed the wave of revolutions and protests across the world to social media. News became news when someone posted an update on Twitter. Gillmor loves that. He loves that news is transforming from a 20th century mass media structured lecture where Big Media tells you what the story is, to a conversation where the communication network has become a medium for everyone’s voice. That is a shift to be inspired by. This brings to mind a quote from The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo: “the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything because it’s all written there.” Coehlo was talking about intuition and enlightenment. For those of us who are not yet in tune or enlightened, we have the Internet.