Commerce's NOI on the Global Free Flow of Information

A couple weeks back, the Commerce Department released their Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on the Global Free Flow of Information on the Internet. Basically, Commerce is looking for responses from stakeholders to help the Department advise the President on how information freedom is restricted on the internet, what impact those restrictions have on the U.S. economy, and how to craft policy in an intelligent way to allow the internet to continue to be a driver of economic growth in the U.S. Just by itself, the Notice is a good primer on these subjects, and I'd encourage you to give it a read.

This is part of a broader effort of Commerce's Internet Policy Task Force, which has put out similar NOIs on issues surrounding privacy, copyright, and cybersecurity. In this latest NOI, all of these issues come together in the section on "intermediary liability." How we answer questions about how the internet industry will work with (or be forced to work with) governments on issues of copyright, privacy and security will have profound impacts on online freedom of information and expression.  From the NOI:

Governments must balance the interests of users who post information on the Internet, and other parties who access the user-generated material. In seeking to prevent the distribution of objectionable or illegal material, many governments have looked to Internet intermediaries to serve a role in implementing governmental restrictions on information. However, the burden of screening, analyzing and carefully filtering each piece of user-generated information is a task beyond the resources available to most Internet intermediaries. Moreover, if governments burden intermediaries with excessive or ill-defined responsibility for content not their own, then they will have no choice but to exercise harmful restrictions on the free flow of information, goods and services online. Governments therefore need to consider the effectiveness of requiring intermediaries to enforce or implement information restrictions against the costs that may deter intermediaries from operating in particular jurisdictions or from creating new Internet business models.

More broadly, it's good to see the Commerce Department taking up these issues. While I've always been an advocate for human rights, I have no trouble seeing that "restrictions on internet freedom violate the universal human right of access to information" might be less persuasive to some people than "restrictions on the free flow of information is bad for business." Both approaches are valuable, and I hope Commerce and State will continue to harmonize their efforts on these issue.

In July, we hosted Anita Ramasastry of the IPTF for a discussion on online information freedom. A recap and video of the event is here, if you'd like to check it out.