The Undefended Principles of a Free Internet

For most of us who remember a time before widespread access to the Internet (it was mostly Donald Duck games on your Commodore), going online was a decidedly American-feeling affair.  One could be forgiven the thought, given that the largest internet service provider for years was….America Online.  And, largely, that tracked the history and development of the Internet (even though Tim Berners-Lee is British, and wrote the code for the Web while at CERN).  You may know that the Internet itself is simply a successor to the Defense Department’s ARPANET, designed to keep military posts connected in case of nuclear war.

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Not hilarious for a Cold War baby.

That belief hardly holds true today, when the number of non-US Internet users is now ten times the entire population of this country, and steadily growing.  Some of this has to do with the standard progression of new technologies from their countries of origin around the globe: high prices keep the technology from penetrating less-wealthy markets for some time, and then as competition increases and prices fall, new markets get the new, cheaper technology seemingly all at once.  It’s why there has been a massive proliferation of internet-connected cellphones throughout the Global South.

Even outside of technology and access, the nature of the Internet is changing.  The GDPR and other global laws, to be sure, are part of this change, but they are reactive, a response to the shift, and not predictive of it. The change, instead, consists of the seamless integration of the internet into our lives and a new approach, or mood, to its purpose and uses.  The former, sometimes called the “Internet of Things,” is already driving new business, innovation, and deep concern about the ever-listening sensors we deploy in our homes.

The Ups and Downs of the 2010s

But it is the latter concept — the purpose for, and limits of, the Internet — that concerns us today.  Although critics of the American model of leadership have long decried the “Wild West” character of the Internet, that characterization has far less purchase today than ten years ago. The deployment of the Great Firewall was a major step towards a fracturing of global attitudes towards the Internet, establishing the notion of Internet sovereignty within a nation’s borders.  The idea was simple: just as airspace is sovereign, cyberspace is subject to the control of the government in each country where it exists.

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“Twitter flame war” means something different to Dany.

Despite hemming and hawing, there was little the US or EU could do about the Great Firewall other than hope that the model didn’t catch on.  And, in fact, during the Arab Spring, it appeared that the notion of a free Internet had triumphed, with social media and messaging platforms fueling liberation movements across the region.  The presumption was that social media, as a tool, is so diffuse and so hard to control that it would be the engine of a new shift towards freedom across the globe – the more people connect, the more they want to be connected.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.  Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, governments simply ignored mass protest movements and, indeed, used social media platforms to track and punish dissenters.  In the West, by 2017, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian interference in Western elections demonstrated the potential for social media to unwind traditional electoral alliances, shake confidence in institutions, and generally wreak havoc.  The unfulfilled promises of a free Internet had begun to mount, and frustration did as well.


The counter-lesson in all of this was that, for governments looking to curb uncontrolled dissent, public communication, and social media assembly, the Chinese and Russian model was worth emulating.  Stringent new policies emerged around the globe, from monitoring rules in Vietnam to censorship in Turkey to increasingly harsh data localization and repatriation regulations in Indonesia.

And now, Russian authorities have begun the process of legislating for what they call a “domestic internet,” which is to say, a Chinese model of Russian-controlled Internet service capable of disconnection with the rest of the Web.  Although commentators have worried about the possibility of disaggregated Internet fiefdoms for some time, the threat is only now coming to fruition, and at a heady pace.  As it materializes, the response in the United States and EU has been muted, far more than it likely would have been even five years ago, a sure sign of public dissatisfaction over data privacy practices.

What does this mean?  Generally speaking, we believe that there are two key principles behind the Internet: freedom of access and freedom of activity.  The former principle includes both the practical/technological and regulatory components of being connected: the presence of a WiFi is as essential to Internet access, for instance, as the absence of government-imposed firewalls.  It is the ability to connect in the first place that makes the Internet, and the Web, so revolutionary — anyone, regardless of background, can have near-instantaneous access to the wealth of the world’s knowledge and endless torrents of information.

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I mean, it’s mostly cat gifs, but you get my point.

Which, of course, is precisely why freedom of access is under attack.  Now, rather than just shutting down the radio stations or taking over television networks, threatened governments simply shut down the Internet, like pulling a plug.  Even the democracies do it, typically in the name of national security of threat management.  As more governments assert the right to treat it as an attribute of nation-state sovereignty, rather than a global resource, the Internet will continue to splinter, creating a patchwork of national or regional Internet-management regimes.  The economic threats of such an outcome are obvious, but the technological risks are no less real: a disconnected Web is a slow, poorly functioning, unreliable Web.  Despite those risks, the Chinese-Russian model is gaining traction, as more countries see the power of a restricted Internet.  Freedom of access was the dominant theme of the first two decades of the Internet.  In the second two decades, it may be a luxury limited to the West.

The Enemy is Us

Well, you might think, at least the West will defend the free Internet principles.  And, indeed,  what you can roughly call the NATO bloc and its allies (the US, most of the EU, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Japan) do tend to take freedom of access seriously.  Expanding access to the Internet has become a stated goal in many of these countries, and universal, free Internet connectivity is something that repeatedly surfaces as a policy goal for the near future.

Yet, in just the last six months or so, defense of the other free Internet principle has begun to flag.  Freedom of activity, the right to do and say what one likes (within reason, of course) is, to be sure, also a well-defended proposition, in the US and the EU especially.  Governments, NGOs, and the people generally all espouse the view that free expression on the Internet and the right to use the Web as one sees fit are valuable and important components of our digital lives.

Consider, though, how public concern and government investigation about the risks of harm from extreme or dangerous content online have risen in 2019.  States see the proliferation of extreme content and “fake news” as, in some cases, an existential threat, while public support for controls over what can and cannot be said online has deepened.

Tapping into those concerns, some governments have begun imposing new restrictions on online content – we’ve already discussed the EU’s Copyright Directive and the UK’s proposals for curbing extreme materials.  The US government’s recent hearings on harmful material online have spurred a conversation about just how far regulation can go before it becomes censorship, and what the boundaries between a “safe” Internet and the First Amendment look like.  There have been no answers; indeed, there haven’t even been many compelling arguments.

The great risk in the Western approach to defending free activity on the Internet is that, if it is halfhearted or ill-considered, it risks undermining the entire notion of a free Internet to begin with.  Countries adopting the Russian/Chinese model of restricted access and closely monitored activity are hardly likely to be inspired to allow more freedom of speech by a haphazard, poorly executed approach to regulations in the US or the EU.  Not only does slapdash effort have little impact on preventing harmful content from appearing online, it undermines the arguments of free speech advocates around the globe.  The question their opponents will pose, a pointed one, is that if free activity on the Internet is so important, why does it consistently yield violent, dangerous content that the Western governments cannot even control?

The answer, of course, is that free activity is the raison d’etre for the Internet, and the second pillar upon which the entire project of shared human knowledge rests.  Fighting extreme content is a crucial task, but it has to be a complementary task alongside preserving the right to an open, free Internet.  Unless those who believe in that can identify ways to advocate compellingly for the right to free access and for safe, well-regulated, free activity, we will continue to do little more than pay lip service to either principle.  An Internet that is free in more than just name needs more than that.

It’s not always happy cat gifs, people.

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