The Practical Quesitons of Internet Freedom

Well, I just wrote a long blog post and then accidentally deleted it. But it's probably just as well, since it was basically a less-good summary of Ethan Zuckerman's recent essay about the merits and limitations of circumvention technologies-- tools that allow people in repressive states like China and Iran to get around their censors by using a remote server to mask their identity-- and, more broadly, about how we will actually go about the business of promoting internet freedom around the world.

Point is, go read the post.  But I will quote here a couple of my favorite passages. Here, he lays out the case for internet freedom in deeply convinving language:

I think much work on internet censorship isn’t motivated by a theory of change – it’s motivated by a deeply-held conviction (one I share) that the ability to share information is a basic human right. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The internet is the most efficient system we’ve ever built to allow people to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, and therefore we need to ensure everyone has unfettered internet access. The problem with the Article 19 approach to censorship circumvention is that it doesn’t help us prioritize. It simply makes it imperative that we solve what may be an unsolvable problem.

And then, at the end, Zuckerman offers a few ideas that begin to answer the question of how we can actually support internet freedom. These three struck me as particularly right, and you may hear me riffing on these themes in coming weeks:

- We need to shift our thinking from helping users in closed societies access blocked content to helping publishers reach all audiences. In doing so, we may gain those publishers as a valuable new set of allies as well as opening a new class of technical solutions.

- If our goal is to allow people in closed societies to access an online public sphere, or to use online tools to organize protests, we need to bring the administrators of these tools into the dialog. Secretary Clinton suggests that we make free speech part of the American brand identity – let’s find ways to challenge companies to build blocking resistance into their platforms and to consider internet freedom to be a central part of their business mission. We need to address the fact that making their platforms unblockable has a cost for content hosts and that their business models currently don’t reward them for providing service to these users.

- The US government should treat internet filtering – and more aggressive hacking and DDoS attacks – as a barrier to trade. The US should strongly pressure governments in open societies like Australia and France to resist the temptation to restrict internet access, as their behavior helps China and Iran make the case that their censorship is in line with international norms. And we need to fix US treasury regulations make it difficult and legally ambiguous for companies like Microsoft and projects like SourceForge to operate in closed societies. If we believe in Internet Freedom, a first step needs to be rethinking these policies so they don’t hurt ordinary internet users.