A New Push For, And Old Worries About, Internet Freedom
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
Freedom champions take heart…at least a little bit. There were some moves this week that advocates for free online expression say point to a larger trend toward more, not less, freedom on the web. But the Internet being fickle, not all the news was so good.
First to the positive developments. On Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution affirming that people’s basic human rights – among them the freedom of expression – apply equally to the Internet. “A victory for the Internet,” declared Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt of the measure, the first of its kind to come before the Council. Six nations, including the United States, Tunisia and Nigeria, presented the proposal which ultimately was agreed to by 80 nations. Recognizing “the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms,” the measure calls on the global community to promote access to the Internet and establish uniform policies to ensure free and open communication. (This will no doubt feature at the upcoming ITU debates over Internet regulation, featured here earlier.)
Also this week, members of the European Parliament voted down the controversial anti-pirating treaty known as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. Proponents had been pushing the measure as a way protect intellectual property online and also put some teeth into enforcement options. However opponents’ arguments that it would unfairly restrict Internet activity and punish small enterprises carried the day, winning on a lop-sided vote of 478 to 39.
The ACTA debate mirrored earlier legislative arguments this year in the U.S. over the measures known as PIPA and SOPA, which also aimed to protect online content, and were also both turned down. While all three measures may appear dead, business analysts note that the issue of online copyright protection is still very much alive, and likely to return to both legislative bodies in the near future.
Speaking of, the future of expression on the Internet was the subject of a new study released this week by the Pew Internet Project and Elon University. Titled “The Future of Corporate Responsibility,” the study gathered opinions and prognostications from around 1,000 leading Internet researchers, critics and entrepreneurs around this central question: how far will Internet and tech firms go toward helping governments that want to restrict web access and spy on their citizens?
The views were unsurprisingly mixed, but several trends did emerge…notably of a pessimistic note. “A lot of people worry that firms will eventually give in to government’s requests to surveil and control individual’s activities,” says report co-author Janna Anderson, founder of Elon’s “Imaging the Internet” program:
“Overall, when we ask people about their hopes and fears for the future, everyone seems to respect the ability of the individual to perform as well as possible to serve global good. But they’re suspicious of governments, corporations, and other organizations. I think they feel that when people are in organizational settings they’re having to meet the needs of the organization first and humanity second. So whether that’s meeting the needs of humanity or proselytizing about a political position, we’ve found that people are very hopeful about the future when they consider how individuals would perform, and they’re doubtful and concerned about whether or not humanity will be served well when they consider organizations. Corporations have a lot of power in today’s societies; some of the people who answered this particular survey expressed the idea that they’re more powerful than governments. That says quite a bit, and has been a trend for a while now.”
Futurists such as Seth Finklestein, Jeff Jarvis, Marvel Bullinga and many others expand on this and other themes in the report, which is well worth the read for anyone curious about what the web may become. For example, many contributors propose that Internet freedoms will continue to vary greatly nation to nation, arguing against a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach that the E.U. appeared to turn down this week. It’s a complex document, but one trend that nearly all agree on is that Internet freedoms are a two-bladed sword that can cut against everyone. “One nation’s ‘good guy’ is another nation’s ‘terrorist’,” notes Anderson. “If you allow free speech and openness and all that wonderful ability to maneuver around and contact people, you’re giving it to organized crime, you’re giving it to terrorists, and you’re also giving it to people fighting for global good.”
In short: power online tends to be given equally, providing individual actors, organized groups and government authorities with the same tools for both expanding and limiting freedom. The side that wins in any future conflict will likely be the first ones to catch up with the latest technology.
Like we said: a mixed bad.