The internet brings freedom. More communication means more freedom, right? How could it be otherwise? It’s obvious on its face. Now that we have the internet and cellular telephones and a host of other electronic forms of communication, ideas will disseminate! Free speech and all kinds of other freedoms will spread! More freedoms will be the end result for everybody: we are entering the digital utopia! Rainbows will spread over clear streams where unicorns drink and trout jump!
I spend a big portion of my time reading on the internet. I like to think that I am better informed than I have ever been, because it’s so easy for me to keep up with my interests. If you are reading this, you may share some of my interests and habits. You might think you are better informed too. Digital utopia – We are living in it!
So what’s the problem? What’s the bee in my bonnet? I’ve got some doubts that the world works this way: more communication = more freedom. Over very long time frames this little equation might be true. I think this is especially obvious when we consider the example of books and the printing press. But in the short term, unintended, unforeseen consequences always lurk. Still, I’m not adding anything to the conversation by pointing that out, so in order to add to the conversation, I’d like to clear up two principles:
Internet freedom means at least two distinct things that frequently get conflated. Let me tease them apart: freedom of the internet, versus freedom via the internet.
Freedom of the Internet presupposes that the internet itself should be free.
In practice several ideas get bundled into freedom of the internet. Corporations should not sell equipment that is used for censorship or collude with governments to enable censorship. The privacy of citizens should be respected: personal email should be treated as private communication. Many Patriot Act provisions are in direct violation of this idea.
Freedom of the internet also sometimes includes “net neutrality by law”. Here I mean to say that some proponents of freedom of the internet feel that net neutrality should be enforced by the laws of the state. We do not practice net neutrality by law here in the US.
Net neutrality means that the internet should behave just like a power grid. There should be access to anybody, and everybody’s access is the same. Your refrigerator doesn’t get any less power than a huge bank of air conditioners owned by Google. Likewise any internet application should be able to connect to the internet and get the same level of service as any other. No (or very little) preferential treatment for certain applications is permitted. In other words, your bits get to ride the internet at the same speed and via the same public paths as the bits that belong to any large bank or commercial enterprise, just as electricity comes to you (mostly) without regard to how much you use.
Freedom of the internet means the internet gets treated like one of our commonly shared resources.
Freedom via the Internet is a different concept altogether. This is the idea that the internet is a pathway to freedom, and it is the idea most people think of first. Here is where I think most of the unicorns lurk. Increasing freedom is possible via the internet, because protests can be organized, because governments must become more transparent, because government publications and records are shared via the web. Social media can connect many more people allowing grass roots organizations to form easily.
This version of internet freedom also has a strong libertarian strain in it, and so mostly opposes net neutrality laws. According to libertarian thinking, the market will of course work out which applications deserve the most resources. Net neutrality enforced by the government would restrict the free market.
It’s clear to me that these two ideas don’t blend easily, in business and in government. Here’s a recent example from business that played out last year. What is Google’s role and responsibility in internet censorship?
China required Google to change its (Google’s) search algorithms in China so that certain topics would not be accessible. Access to Google in China was through Google.cn. Google.cn censored all kinds of information that was not censored through other Google portals. Many topics relating to recent Chinese history, notably the Tiananmen protests and the Falun Gong were censored. Other topics relating to religion were also censored.
Now clearly Google is a corporation dedicated to making money, and sees the huge Chinese market of more than one billion people as a large source of income. So Google went along with China’s rules. Eventually Google decided to restore more open searches in China, and received sharp criticism and threats from the Chinese government.
Does Google have a greater responsibility to its shareholders around the world or to its users in China? Even if the US government cannot directly change policies in China, can it exert more pressure on Google in order to further its own foreign policy? Should the US government and its allies stop companies from selling equipment and software used for censorship in China? Freedom of the internet seems to dictate a yes answer to the question of censorship equipment and software.
But the US government has reasons to oppose freedom of the internet within the borders of the United States, and it does, specifically through the Department of Justice. It hasn’t escaped the notice of other governments that the US has been acting hypocritically and inconsistently: Freedom of the internet for YOUR citizens and residents says the State Department; no freedom of the internet for OUR citizens and residents says the Justice Department. The Department of Justice wants mechanisms installed on the internet that permit tracking of criminals, domestic and foreign. It effectively wants less online privacy. It does not want freedom of the internet, as a matter of policy. Yet, our Department of State actively discourages other governments from implementing these same policies, in their countries, so that dissidents can freely criticize the government without fear of repercussions.
The US government, especially in the State department, tilts more towards freedom via the internet, and not freedom of the internet. There are some historical reasons for this.
Many of the people involved in foreign policy, in the United States right now, lived through the end of the cold war and its peaceful resolution in favor of the West. It’s very tempting and natural to draw parallels between the events of then and now because we won, and we think we know why. Humans, as ever, prefer simple solutions over complex ones. These former cold warriors think they can explain why we won. They think it was via defense spending and through communications. I found this insight in the talks and books of Evgeny Morozov. You can see a very interesting talk of his on the TED page.
There was an effort on the part of the West to smuggle communications equipment into the USSR, such as photocopy machines and faxes. The goal was to bring openness to the USSR by supplying the citizens with outside information through samizdat, or in English: self-publishing. Here is Vladimir Bukovsky, discussing samizdat:
“(…) I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and …get imprisoned for it. (…)”
There are many foreign policy makers who think that the USSR dissolved because the West forced it into an arms/spending race, and because the West supplied dissidents with tools to spread dissent, through self publishing. It’s no use arguing to some that the causes for the USSR’s dissolution might be more complex than that; that they might have originated inside of Russia and its client states; that the structure was rotten from within. These objections will fall on deaf ears in some parts, because humans love simplicity.
Self-publishing! Cold warriors immediately think: That’s exactly what the web is great at, that’s how we brought down the USSR! And now that we have the internet, we can repeat this situation in any number of countries, across the globe!