Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Internet and Freedom

"Some say that ending tyranny means 'imposing our values' on people who do not share them, or that people live in parts of the world where freedom cannot take hold. That is refuted by the fact that every time people are given a choice, they choose freedom."
--President George W. Bush, June 5, 2007, in a speech at the Czernin Palace, Prague, Czech Republic

As recent events in Africa and the Middle East have shown us, there is no greater force for freedom in the modern world than the internet.  The recent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have shown us how the internet and its social media networks can be instrumental in mobilizing the public in oppressed countries in order to inspire change.  This is further confirmed by the fact that it seems like the first thing a dictatorial regime will do when faced with opposition is to shut down the people's access to the internet and Twitter.  Twitter hashtags like #jan25 have been used to network the grassroots anti-establishment movements in these oppressed countries, and dictators all over the world are nervously eying their own populations, looking for sparks of dissent that need to be stamped out before they engulf the regime in the flames of counterrevolution.
This is why people should be very wary when our government starts throwing around terms like "net neutrality" and "the internet kill switch".  Both of these movements, while well-meaning at heart, need to be very carefully monitored by the American people in order to make sure that we do not end up in a similar situation to the Egyptians and Libyans who found themselves cut off from the world and had to communicate by fax, ham radio, and dial-up modem in order to get their messages out.  These two issues are different, so I'll go through them separately, but they have a common underlying theme:

  • Net Neutrality: This is the concept that the internet's data pipes should be "content agnostic"--meaning that if I use Comcast's network, Comcast should not prioritize content coming from its services (E.g.: NBC-Universal, Versus, PBS Kids Sprout) to the detriment of content coming from other services (E.g.: Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video on Demand).  This doesn't mean that ISPs aren't allowed to manage their networks, but it does mean that if subscribers pay for a certain level of service, then they should be allowed to use that service however they want, no matter whose content they are viewing.
    While net neutrality is a great concept, and I fully support the idea behind it, having the government as an enforcer in this arena is a recipe for trouble.  If the FCC would regulate net neutrality, it would create yet another level of regulation which would hurt ISPs, their shareholders, their employees, and ultimately their subscribers with decreased levels of service across the board.  However, I fully understand the arguments the other way: If corporations can decide which subscribers get which content, then the openness which has characterized the Web since its inception would be in jeopardy.  If the Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T versions of the internet are all different, the ubiquitous access to information that we have been enjoying over the last 15 years or so will quickly disappear.  The current situation, an uneasy compromise between the FCC and the ISPs which (kind of) enforces neutrality on wired networks while leaving 3G and 4G networks exempt, may be satisfactory for now, but people need to continue watching both the government and corporations in order to make sure that the open Web is preserved.
  • The Internet "Kill Switch": Several times during 2010, Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced a bill which would give the president authority to shut down the internet in case of a "national cyberemergency"--without any judicial oversight or review!  While, again, the people behind this bill mean well--we have to protect our vital infrastructure in case of attack!--this bill is a huge overreach on the part of the federal government.  While I don't think the current president would ever abuse power under such a bill, who is to say a future president wouldn't?  It isn't too much of a stretch from declaring a state of emergency when the nation is under attack by Chinese hackers to shutting down Twitter if public opinion turns against the administration.
These issues, combined with what we have been seeing in the Middle East over the last few weeks, show what a precious commodity internet freedom is, and how people have to be vigilant in protecting their rights.  As we have seen, freedom of the Web is a powerful force for freedom in real life.  Hopefully, the Obama Administration will realize this, and go easy on its regulation of our online freedoms.

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