Will the Internet Ever be as Free as Air?

An Essay by James K. Glassman

Thanks to the Internet, billions of people have access to an unfathomable amount of information in their pocket. But the full potential of the Internet won't be met if governments act to limit freedom online to protect their regimes.

By most standards, the Internet is a raging success. There are now more than three billion users, a figure that’s tripled in just 10 years. By 2019, global Internet commerce is expected to total $28 trillion, or one-eighth of all the sales in the world. The Big Connect has brought more prosperity, better health and education, and closer social ties. What it has not brought – despite early predictions – is more global freedom.

The annual Freedom House report, “Freedom in the World,” has found a “10-year slide” in freedom, as defined by factors in two dozen categories. From 2005 to 2015, some “105 countries have seen a net decline, and only 61 have experienced a net improvement.” Last year, the ratings of 72 countries fell – the most since the slide began.

The Internet started strong

 The Internet got off on the right foot. A “Galactic Network” is what J.C.R. Licklider of MIT called his concept of interconnected global computers: “Everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site.” In 1962, Licklider became the first head of the computer research program at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and a decade later ARPANET was up and running, linking government and university research centers.

In the 1990s, the Internet made its critical transition, expanding from a network mainly scholarly to a network mainly commercial and personal. President Bill Clinton’s advisor, Ira Magaziner, established a credo that has guided U.S. policy for two decades. 

“The first principle,” Magaziner wrote, “is that, in general, the Internet is a medium that has tremendous potential for promoting individual freedom and individual empowerment. Therefore, where possible, the individual should be left in control of the way in which he or she uses this medium. We should maximize the opportunity for human freedom.”

To ensure that happened, Internet governance derived from what was called the “multi-stakeholder model.” Groups of users, engineers, businesses, NGOs, and governments made decisions – mostly technical – by consensus. In 1994, Mitch Kapor, co-founder of Lotus, the software company that produced the digital spreadsheet revolution, declared, “We are entering an era of communication of the many to the many… [T]he nature of the technology itself has opened up a space of much greater democratic possibility.”

As it’s turned out, “greater democratic possibility” is not universally admired. Authoritarian regimes find their positions of power threatened by the disintermediation of the Internet, just as have previously protected businesses.

Authoritarian regimes find their positions of power threatened by the disintermediation of the Internet, just as have previously protected businesses. Challenges to those in authority were much easier to mount on the Internet than through pamphlets, wall posters, on radio and television, or in the streets.

Challenges to those in authority were much easier to mount on the Internet than through pamphlets, wall posters, on radio and television, or in the streets – and the new online challenges can come from beyond national boundaries. In the early days, despots were blissfully unaware. They’ve now responded with a vengeance and with coordination.

Authoritarians respond

Demonstrators carry banners and pictures of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated reformist candidate, during a march on Karimkhan Street, Tehran, June 17, 2009.  (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images) Demonstrators carry banners and pictures of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated reformist candidate, during a march on Karimkhan Street, Tehran, June 17, 2009. (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

The Green Movement – the uprising in Iran that followed the disrupted elections of 2009 – was the authoritarians’ wake-up call. “The movement,” wrote Abbas Miliani of Stanford University, “was widely seen as a new non-violent, non-utopian and populist paradigm of revolution that infused twenty-first century Internet technology with people street power.”

Dissidents were suppressed by state violence in the streets, but to prevent the Internet’s use by citizens clamoring for freedom and democracy in the future, regimes in Iran, China, Russia, and the Middle East took strong steps, learning from each other. As a result, Freedom House reports that Internet freedom has declined for five consecutive years. Specifically, in 2015:

  • Content removals increased: Authorities in 42 of the 65 countries assessed required private companies or Internet users to restrict or delete web content dealing with political, religious, or social issues, up from 37 the previous year.
  • Arrests and intimidation escalated: Authorities in 40 of 65 countries imprisoned people for sharing information concerning politics, religion or society through digital networks.
  • Surveillance laws and technologies multiplied: Governments in 14 of 65 countries passed new laws to increase surveillance since June 2014 and many more upgraded their surveillance.

But because the Internet is global, these domestic activities are insufficient to suppress freedom. Now, authoritarian states are trying to control global Internet governance. As scholar Christopher Walker wrote:

"The focus of such efforts is not merely defending authoritarianism at home, but reshaping the international norms that stigmatize such governance. The Internet has given an urgency to this effort. Behind the smoke screen of “Internet sovereignty” and “Internet security,” authoritarian regimes are doggedly working to neutralize democratic discourse and organization in cyberspace. Oppressive governments now routinely seek to apply repressive local standards to platforms such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube, with the aim of constraining the free flow of independent information and quarantining democracy."

Freedom on the Internet presents thorny policy issues, even for democratic countries. Nearly every nation, for example, has its own definition of free speech. Before the Internet, countries could bar or censor publications that violated its rules, but the Internet makes communications across borders far easier. Should a nation with tighter controls on speech be able to block speech travelling by Internet from a freer country?

Freedom on the Internet presents thorny policy issues, even for democratic countries. Nearly every nation, for example, has its own definition of free speech. Should a nation with tighter controls on speech be able to block speech travelling by Internet from a freer country?

The United States excludes speech that is defamatory, obscene, or fraudulent, or that advocates the use of force for an imminent lawless action. But Germany’s definition prohibits the promotion of Nazism (as well as ridiculing the national anthem), and France has lately been trying to block videos by citizens of police arrests of minorities.

In his new book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford historian, writes that “the internet is…history’s largest sewer.” Flowing through it are exhortations to terrorism, lies and conspiracy theories, bullying and harassment.

According to a Pew survey in 2014, one-fourth of users have encountered physical threats on the Internet. Garton Ash, in a book of nearly 500 pages, struggles to compose a set of guidelines for free speech in an Internet age. It’s not easy.

The Internet still offers hope for freedom

 

In the short term, increased Internet access has led to more attempts at government repression, but, in the long term, there’s reason for optimism. While nearly everyone in the U.S. and Europe is online, the proportion in China is only about half and in many Asia and African countries, far less. 

As the economic and cultural benefits of the Internet reach practically all citizens, it will be difficult – impossible, even – to take that connection away or even limit it. The Internet will become as essential as air. For that reason, physical access should be one of the two goals of global Internet policy for the United States.

As the economic and cultural benefits of the Internet reach practically all citizens, it will be difficult – impossible, even – to take that connection away or even limit it. The Internet will become as essential as air. For that reason, physical access should be one of the two goals of global Internet policy for the United States.

The second goal is one the U.S. government has championed for the past 20 years: the right to connect as equivalent to the right to assemble and speak freely. Cultural differences in the definition of free speech will be difficult to reconcile, but those differences can’t be an excuse for repression. It is encouraging that the United Nations General Assembly this summer passed a non-binding resolution that declares that people should have the same human rights online as they do off-line.

But merely declaring rights is not enough. The U.S. and other democracies must use all opportunities to advocate Internet freedom, condemning and undermining attempts to abridge access and speech, including providing training and technology to help people in authoritarian countries navigate around obstacles presented by their governments.

What if we fail? 

The worry is that the Internet will become fragmented, and its greatest asset – immediate global connectivity – will be sacrificed. And, again, it’s not just the authoritarian nations, like China, that are talking about their own internets. The Snowden revelations and other disclosures about National Security Agency spying on leaders of such countries as Brazil and Germany led to widespread outrage and to calls from some countries to circumvent U.S.-based Internet services -- or, in the case of Chancellor Angela Merkel, to create a separate European Internet.

The worry is that the Internet will become fragmented, and its greatest asset – immediate global connectivity – will be sacrificed. And, again, it’s not just the authoritarian nations, like China, that are talking about their own internets.

John Perry Barlow, a famous Internet activist of the early days, said in his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996 that governments “have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement that we have true reason to fear.” This kind of optimism seems quaint. In 2005, just 400 million users lived in the developing world; today, there are more than 2.1 billion, and the regimes that run those countries fear the Internet as a threat to their authority, and they’re doing something about it.

In the end, however, the Internet could still prove Barlow correct – but only if technology’s pursuit of freedom receives a big helping of will, moral support, and good policy.

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