Internet Freedom vs. Control

I was asked this week to write an essay taking a stance on internet regulation and the freedom / control issue. My research into the topic lead me into discussions of the House's recent passing of the CISPA cybersecurity bill, and other dubious propositions for internet regulation and surveillance. 

The Internet:

According to a 2012 article by Josh Hansen, the last decade “has witnessed the irresistible rise of online media and it is becoming increasingly obvious that it is steadily encroaching into the area held by the traditional media.”[1] Online social media platforms don’t just serve as networks to connect people across time and space – they are increasingly becoming a major source of news content. Internet search engines have replaced libraries and other platforms for information seeking. Today, traditional media including magazines and newspapers rely on social media platforms for their readership and impact.[2] And conversely, social media platforms, digital news sites and blogs have become a primary means of self-expression by lay citizens. In the information age, and the age of the Internet, the public has an unprecedented opportunity to respond to elite news sources, newspaper stories, political discourse and other forms of traditionally top-down communications.

The internet also offers what seems to be a potential solution to problems of representative democracy involving weak ties between citizens and politicians and low public participation. The internet is a potential platform for enhanced deliberation and public participation and interaction in political affairs. It offers an avenue for enhanced social capital through online networks, as well as dialogue between citizens and government. However, this potential is rarely fully realized, as government often fails to integrate citizens’ online deliberations with policy decisions.

The internet also serves the democratization of information, an integral component of a well-functioning democracy according to liberal theory:

[T]he word ‘democracy’ originates in the Greek language and means ‘the people’s government.’ It is related to a political regime that is based on the people’s sovereignty. To ‘democratize’, in its turn, means ‘to make accessible to all classes of people; to make popular’. In this context, it seems to be very easy to make a link between democracy and the Internet, the world-wide network that has transformed the physical boundaries in the globe into mere geographical reference points.[3]

A free and open internet has become a “powerful engine of social and economic freedom and job creation,”[4] a source of innovation and a platform for free expression. However, the democratization of information by the world-wide web depends on factors including access and literacy, and can perhaps be compromised by online filter bubbles and ‘slanted’ news, in the end resulting in a misinformed and misguided public. The democratization of information depends on a ‘free’ digital media, free from government control as well as unrestrained ‘Big Business’ forces. But this freedom, especially in a post-9/11 world, has become a murky business of security and online content control issues.

I believe that one of the largest values and benefits of the internet and social media platforms is the role that they can and do play in bolstering individual freedoms of expression and speech. By providing an avenue for individual citizens to express their opinions at large, through blogs and social media, the internet enhances the marketplace of ideas. The internet empowers individuals and serves innovation, education, civil rights and community development through individual freedoms of expression online. I agree that the internet “empowers freedom of expression by providing individuals with new means of expressions.”[5] As such, I believe that it is important to maintain an open and free internet in order to maintain individual freedoms in the digital world. John Horniblow, presenting the 2012 Internet Freedom Fellows at the 2012 UN Human Rights Council, said that “[t]he freedoms we cherish and strive for in the offline world must be protected in the online world,” including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association[6]. According to American computer scientist Vinton Cerf, “From the very point of inception of the internet and the development of the very TCP / IP protocols that it was built upon, freedom was the key […] Freedom to build networks, freedom to interconnect them, freedom to design.”[7]

However, with the increased ease of communication provided by the internet have come increased efforts by government to police online content. According to Ryan Gallagher in a 2012 Slate article, “a new era of augmented international cooperation over policing the Internet is on the horizon.”[8] Internet freedom activists have protested attempts to police and regulate online content on the grounds of individual rights including privacy and freedom of expression. While government surveillance of internet activity in order to protect national security, combat terrorism, protect copyrighted material and minimize highly offensive content including child pornography seem justifiable, it may be difficult to draw the line between internet surveillance that only targets these areas and surveillance that violates Americans’ constitutional rights. Net-neutrality is another controversial issue with respect to government regulation of the Internet; Adam Thierer recently argued against such regulation as an encroachment on First Amendment rights: “[t]he First Amendment was intended to protect us from tyrannical, coercive government power, not the silly mistakes of private [cable] companies.”[9]

Freedom vs. Control:

Ryan Gallagher writes in a recent Slate magazine article:

The Internet is often seen as a place of chaos and disorder, a borderless world in which anonymous trolls roam free and vigilante hackers wreak havoc. But […] there are fears governments are secretly maneuvering to restructure and rein in the anarchic Web we have come to know and love, perhaps even ushering in a new era of pervasive surveillance. So just how real is the threat of change and what might it mean?[10]

According to an article by Alex Wellerstein, the “border-less Internet” is a myth, as both authoritarian governments as well as more liberal governments, including the United States, attempt to regulate internet “content generation, sharing, and communication in the name of copyright.”[11] Since 9/11, government surveillance of foreign and domestic net traffic has also increased in the name of threats to national security.[12] These attempts to regulate have increased at the same time as forms of online ‘piracy,’ hacking, prohibited content and government information ‘leaks’ have increased. Jane Mayer writes in an article in The New Yorker:

When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined.[13]

As Mayer writes, the years since 9/11 have witnessed the emergence of “a vast new security bureaucracy” and “huge expenditures on electronic monitoring, along with a reinterpretation of the law in order to sanction it[.]”[14] Foreign and domestic spying, carried out using government algorithms and software, have increased since 9/11. One such piece of software, called ThinThread, was in the end rejected by the National Security Agency. While it was intended to intercept foreign communications, it violated Americans’ privacy rights when it followed communication trails into the U.S., as federal law forbids the monitoring of domestic communications without a probably cause, known suspect and court warrant.[15] However, other warrantless domestic surveillance programs went into effect after 9/11, likely violating U.S. constitutional privacy rights:

“Few people have a precise knowledge of the size or scope of the N.S.A.’s domestic-surveillance powers. […] [William] Binney, for his part, believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later.”[16]

Thomas Drake, a former  senior executive at the National Security Agency (NSA) who was charged under the espionage act after he highlighted waste, fraud and illegal activity at the intelligence agency, said during a recent National Press Club luncheon speech, “freedom means everything to me – especially when I face the prospect of having all my freedoms taken away from me, and placed under all kinds of restrictions in movement and monitored activity […] Do we really want the government listening in on and tracking the lives of so many others? […] If we starve liberty for the increasingly myopic sake of security, what will we have left to defend?”[17]

I believe that the Internet should be protected from government censorship just as much as any other traditional communications medium has been. I would take an approach to the internet freedom/control issue based upon a tradition of liberalism, in which individual rights and freedoms should be protected at all costs. With respect to internet regulation and surveillance, these rights include individual rights to privacy, due process, freedom of expression and freedom of information. I endorse a self-regulation approach to the internet as a marketplace of ideas. In particular extreme circumstances – those governed by the “clear and present danger” tradition – of threats to national security, or threats to the basic human rights of others (as in child pornography), regulation of internet content is advisable. However, other forms of internet regulation and surveillance encroach upon individual rights to privacy and freedom of information. For example, I oppose the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which has the potential to violate individual privacy rights in the name of cybersecurity. CISPA “would allow Internet Service Providers and other Web-themed companies to share information about their users with the government and one another under the guise of ‘cyber-security’ – with increased protection against any privacy lawsuits that their users might bring as a result.”[18] I think that this type of internet regulation is dangerous, as it borders on unconstitutional abridgment of individual rights in the name of national security. I agree with Gary Shapiro, who recent wrote:

As the world’s technology leader, the U.S. must lead the way in preserving a free and open Internet. The Internet is the lifeblood of our economy and helps individuals create businesses, trade goods and services, access low-cost banking resources, facilitate open communication and more. America must provide the example and walk the walk – not just talk – about preserving Internet freedom.[19]