Internet Freedom for the few?

A coalition of individuals and organisations from the US has released a very interesting initiative, the Declaration of Internet Freedom:

We stand for a free and open Internet.

We support transparent and participatory processes for making Internet policy and the establishment of five basic principles:

  • Expression: Don’t censor the Internet.
  • Access: Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.
  • Openness: Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.
  • Innovation: Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don’t block new technologies, and don’t punish innovators for their users’ actions.
  • Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.

These are excellent and concise principles. If you can read between the lines, they cover most hot-button legal topics, including disconnection, privacy, software patents, open source, open access, intermediary liability, free speech, censorship, and governance.

However, I have some minor quibbles with the above. As the initiative is mostly from US academics, citizens and organisations, the declaration seems geared towards the American market. Of the places where individuals can sign-up, only Free Press and Access offer the option to select the country (by the way, the eagle logo in Free Press made me groan). None of the sites offer any links to translations. The Access principle places too much emphasis on speed and price, instead of the real goal, which is universal connectivity. Let’s get everyone connected to the Internet first, then we can think about price and speed.

Interestingly, a group of US Libertarian organisations has released its own competing Declaration of Internet Freedom. These contain some of the expected non-government rhetoric that seems to obsess these people. Similarly, the principles are completely pro-industry, seemingly ignoring that a lot of threats to Internet Freedom come from enterprises and private parties.

What worries me is that we are starting to see a political split as to what Internet Freedom means. Personally, I like the first declaration better. I suspect that the Internet as a whole may too.

But please, please, please, abandon the conceit that the Internet is mostly about the few. I’ll do my part and will get started on a Spanish translation ASAP.

Edited: Here is a quick translation in Spanish, help appreciated.

Comments 4

  1. Digitale Gesellschaft and Bits of Freedom are from Germany and the Netherlands respectively, both have translated the text. Nevertheless, it is a shame that not more (like La Quadrature du net) are on board.

  2. Did you actually read our Declaration? Far from being "completely pro-industry" or "ignoring that a lot of threats to Internet Freedom come from enterprises and private parties," we recognize that corporate power can be a problem. As a general matter, we think that's best tamed by competition, disruptive technological change and healthy criticism. We leave open a role for government but suggest, as our #2 principle:

    When you must intervene, start small. Regulation and legislation are broad, inflexible, and prone to capture by incumbent firms and entrenched interests. The best kind of “law” evolves one case at a time, based on simple, economic principles of consumer welfare — alongside the codes of conduct and practices developed by companies under pressure from competitors and criticism. Worst of all, when regulators act without legal authority, or regulate by intimidation, they undermine the rule of law, no matter how noble their intentions.

    We illustrate, in two areas, the kind of role we'd prefer government to play if it's gong to intervene:

    Competition. Antitrust is regulation. It’s generally preferable to other forms of regulation when grounded in rigorous economic analysis, but even then, it usually fails to foresee what ultimately serves consumer welfare. The monopoly explanation for innovation in business models, corporate structure, and pricing is usually wrong.
    Privacy. Don’t coerce private companies to disclose consumers’ data. If law enforcement needs private data, they should follow the procedures required by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which generally means convincing a court to issue a warrant. Prevent private companies from abusing data about consumers: Punish deception and enforce corporate promises. Develop common law against “unfair” data practices — those that cause real harms without countervailing benefits, and where user empowerment is inadequate.

    I went into much greater detail on the privacy point in my Senate testimony last week, explaining how the FTC could do more to protect consumers if it better explained its analysis:

    The FTC’s effectiveness should be measured not by counting settled cases, but in the development of a quasi-common law of privacy. Yet today, companies have only FTC complaints and consent decrees to guide them. I suggest the agency take four steps:
    1. Explain its analysis in consent decrees;
    2. Issue “no action” letters when deciding not to sue; 3. Issue advisory opinions upon request to guide industry on how the agency might evaluate new privacy practices; and 4. Issue guidelines explaining how it has applied Unfairness and Deception in past privacy cases and plans to do so in the future—clarifying especially the boundaries of privacy harm.Congress should ensure the FTC has the resources necessary to do all these things, and to keep pace with ongoing technological change.

    So, if you (re-)read our Declaration, I think you'll see it's not about knee-jerk anti-government libertarianism but, to use Virginia Postrel's word, dynamism.

    And, PS. we have a number of non-US groups on board, and are gathering more such groups.

    1. To begin with, your declaration is very US-centric, so it won't travel well. This is an advantage of the other declaration, which is almost entirely neutral (with the exception of the point mentioned above). Being US-centric is not a bad thing of course, but the Internet IS NOT the US, so maybe you could rename yours to be called a Declaration of US Internet Freedom.

      As to your points, it may be the fact that I am quite familiar with a lot of output from US libertarians makes me read between the lines. Anti-trust is one of the few accepted forms of regulation to libertarians, and the fact that it gets mention in this declaration is quite telling.

      Similarly. the phrase "Government is the greatest obstacle to the emergence of fast and affordable broadband networks" is demonstrably wrong when you compare speeds from around the world, and the reason for those speeds.

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