Global Internet Freedom Should Work Here Too
Global Internet Freedom Should Work Here Too
Global Internet Freedom Should Work Here Too

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    Wouldn’t it be nice if the grand concept of Global Internet Freedom applied to the U.S. as well as to the rest of the world?

    Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) recently held a hearing of his Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law that hit all the right themes and said all the right words when referring to the. At the top of the list was “Internet freedom,” in all its glory. There was testimony about sophisticated computer routers being used to hamper the free flow of information and about restrictions to free speech from Google, Yahoo and Cisco.

    Our government seems to think it’s a big deal. The State Department established a Global Internet Freedom Task Force a little more than two years ago. “The Internet is a potent force for freedom around the world, but challenges to its independence by repressive regimes threaten its transformational power,” the Department said at the time.

    Three House committees have approved legislation (HR 275), the “Global Online Freedom Act of 2008,” although the bill is currently stalled. The U.S. Justice Department said in a May 20 letter to Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the acting chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that “freedom of expression on the Internet should be protected,” although it doesn’t like many specifics in the bill.

    Durbin said he called the hearing to examine “the role that American companies play in internet censorship, and displayed a lot of passion on the issue. He asked whether Congress should find that it’s wrong for an American company to in any way cooperate with censorship and repression. He looked at the company representatives and asked, “When you are asked be complicit through your companies in restricting the flow of information for the public good and the public health, aren’t hands a little dirty at the end of the day if you participate in that?”

    That’s a good question. Admittedly some of the circumstances involved in the global fight against Internet censorship are different from some of the challenges faced in the U.S. So far, no one has been thrown in jail for posting dissident messages online and so far the government hasn’t blocked access to the Internet, as has happened in other countries, some times as a result of information supplied by American countries doing business in places like China.

    On the other hand, U.S. companies and trade associations argue they should be able to monitor (that is, spy on and peek into) everyone’s Internet traffic on behalf of the movie and record companies. U.S. network operators want to be able to throttle and control traffic in the name of “network management,” and to censor Web content, as AT&T did in censoring Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam. They have the U.S. government on their side. Every agency in the Administration that has weighed in so far opposes Net Neutrality, arguing that the companies controlling the access to the Internet should have the right to play favorites among content providers, to the disadvantage of consumers.

    Carlos Gutierrez, the Secretary of Commerce, told the cable industry’s trade show in a speech earlier this week that, “government should avoid overly prescriptive regulations that can’t keep pace with technological change.”

    In his May 19 speech, Gutierrez added: “Broad regulations that limit the ability of operators to price or manage their networks could actually deter and delay investment and innovation. The result would be fewer choices and higher prices for consumers.” That’s the code words for their opposition to domestic Internet Freedom policies, aka Net Neutrality. Just for the record, it’s difficult, but not impossible, for there to be fewer choices than the one or two most consumers have now. That’s hardly the “competitive market” the Secretary extols.

    The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), of course, has its much-debated “policy statement” on the rights of consumers. While the Commission has so far declined to come out in favor of a non-discrimination policy online, it appears at least willing to start to set some parameters for bad behavior, such as practiced by Comcast and Cox in blocking BitTorrent.

    Sen. Joseph Lieberman (party of One), the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security Committee, asked asked YouTube to take down videos he said were produced by al Qaeda and other “Islamist terrorist” groups and were used to encourage violence and spread propaganda. YouTube, to its credit, declined. While they took down some videos that appeared to violate community standards, YouTube said on its blog that it would not take down legal, non-violent videos or videos that didn’t indulge in “hate speech.”

    YouTube said: “We believe that YouTube is a richer and more relevant platform for users precisely because it hosts a diverse range of views, and rather than stifle debate we allow our users to view all acceptable content and make up their own minds. Of course, users are always free to express their disagreement with a particular video on the site, by leaving comments or their own response video. That debate is healthy.”

    As a result, when Google Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong testified to Durbin’s subcommittee that the company favors free expression and access to information, her international policy view matched the domestic actions the company takes to support Internet Freedom here at home.

    One of the witnesses, Yahoo! Vice President Michael Samway was eloquent when he told the Subcommittee, “Our company was founded on the principle that promoting access to information can fundamentally improve people’s lives and enhance their relationship with the world around them.” Yahoo!, he said, wants “to protect the rights of our users, improve their lives, and make the extraordinary tools of the Internet safely and openly available to people around the world.” That’s a lovely sentiment. It would be nice if Yahoo! were as eloquent and dedicated to protecting Internet freedom at home. The company has been MIA in the Internet Freedom debates on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington since 2006.

    Cisco testified at the hearing. The company, which opposed Internet Freedom at home, pleaded technological neutrality at the hearing, saying it sold the same routers around the world, and wasn’t responsible for how they were used.

    Ironically, the solution to domestic Net Neutrality concerns could be found in the Global Internet Freedom area. It may be that in order to protect out open Internet here, we have to use the same tools that dissidents and others use to protect their Internet freedoms abroad. The Global Internet Freedom Consortium has a whole suite of software tools available to get around official government censorship. They encrypt traffic, mask IP addresses, and generally work to protect the privacy of the users.

    It would be a tragedy if U.S. users were forced to take those measures as well. Yes, it would be nice if those supporting Global Internet Freedom abroad supported it here as well.