On The Declaration of Internet “Freedom”
After the fight against bills such as SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, and the just defeated ACTA treaty, all of which would allow government greater power to regulate the internet in a way that introduces forms of censorship and chills innovation, a broad coalition of internet activists, companies and organizations drafted the “Internet Freedom Declaration”.
The draftees and signers already involve a number of high profile organizations including FreePress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reddit, Amnesty International, Mozilla, TechDirt, SEOMoz and many others. The FreePress hosted declaration page contains nearly 28 thousand signees as of this writing. High profile tech news sites such as TheVerge have already covered it. Suffice it to say that the awareness of it, and support for it, is spreading pretty quickly since its introduction just three days ago (July 2nd).
The declaration is pretty brief, outlining five principles that are supposed to represent what Internet Freedom is about. Here is the declaration in full:
“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.”
The brevity and simplicity of the declaration reflects its draftees desire to build consensus by positing principles that would have broad appeal. Unfortunately, I think they are still missing the mark.
This declaration is seen as the first step towards eventual policies, government policies, regarding the regulation of the internet. It is assumed that the internet will be regulated, and that it is only a matter of how and whose interests will be represented. FreePress campaign director Josh Levy said this: “I don’t think the way for Congress to get these principles and understand them is to get big public companies to lobby — it’s getting individuals to lobby.”
“We’re all lobbyists,” he concluded, and by that summed up the prevalent mentality behind this declaration, and the reason why the whole effort is flawed. It is not really about keeping government away from the internet. It is about including everyone in the process of government involvement. It is about, indeed, making everyone a lobbyist, making everyone play that dirty game.
“Policy” is just another word for government meddling in the affairs of the people, the use of force to compel a certain way of behaving, and governments don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to preserving freedom. Typically they all just gradually take it away, as has been the case in the US itself for a long time now. So why on Earth do so many people still think government is the solution to these kinds of problems? It’s almost like a compulsion, a rut that everyone is stuck in; this whole idea that social problems can only or primarily be solved through government.
Secondly, the idea about including everyone, about making everyone participate in the charade; it will never happen. This never works in practice, and as much as the authors wanted the declaration to speak for all internet users, it doesn’t. It can’t, and never will.
The whole thing is political groupthink, a bunch of people thinking instead of everyone else, and proposing to speak for everyone else, in order to influence government legislation which itself never represents everyone, and always leaves someone shortchanged of their own freedom.
Groupthink is collectivism. It reinforces centralization. The internet, on the other hand, is decentralized, and its decentralization is one of its most valued characteristics. So to propose some kind of unity, around a single document to represent us all, kinda goes against one of the fundamental characteristics of the internet itself.
This isn’t to say that I have a problem with the idea of declaring something and having people whom agree with you sign it. Just don’t pretend it represents everyone, no matter how many signatures and big name organizations you get onboard, and don’t try to get government on everyone’s backs, following your “principles”.
Freedoms or Entitlements?
And the principles aren’t exactly entirely innocent either, when looked at in this context and this phraseology. I’d be perfectly fine with a declaration that effectively tells the government to keep its hands off the internet, because it can hardly do any good to it, but this declaration defines freedom by five principles not all of which necessarily have anything to do with freedom, fundamentally.
They reflect a common misunderstanding of the issue of freedom. Freedom is singular, and cannot really be subdivided. It also doesn’t apply to things or collections of things such as the internet; only to individual persons. Freedom is also inevitably negative; making your own choices in life without fear of violent reprisal if you make certain choices, so long as those choices don’t involve force upon someone else.
As soon as we start talking about freedom to something other than making our own choices we aren’t speaking of freedom at all, but entitlements, and we could then proclaim just about anything a “freedom” or a “right”. The most popular example of this may be the “right to free healthcare”, as if there is such a thing as “free healthcare”.
When we begin thinking of entitlements as freedoms we begin thinking of freedom as a parasitical concept, since in order for you to have that something you are supposedly entitled to, someone has to provide it to you whether they like it or not; their most basic freedom to choose for him/herself is infringed.
And there are a few principles in this declaration which reek of entitlements rather than freedom. For instance there is “access”; will this principle lead to legislations that mandate ISPs to provide free or cheap access to fast networks (government price control) because you supposedly have the “right” to fast internet access?
Then there is “privacy”. What is this even doing in a document about freedom? I suppose this announces possible policies which will mandate companies which collect your data in any way to provide certain controls or use that data only in certain ways, again intruding into these businesses ability to do business freely. How does this not violate the “innovation” part by placing roadblocks to how you may or may not design your online services?
When people go about signing up to services by Facebook, Google etc. and then cry how their right to privacy is being violated when these services collect their data and track their movements, they are literally acting like spoiled brats. If you don’t want to be tracked or your data collected, then don’t use these services. But no, you want to have it all, and you want the company to somehow be obliged to serve your every whim, and thus you proclaim this little wish into a “freedom” to give it mighty legitimacy for inclusion in political drafts such as this one.
I think I’ve said enough, and made my point. How about an alternative declaration of “internet freedom”:
“Governments of the world, and anyone else whom might want to use the coercive power of government to dictate how we live our lives and do our business on the internet: stay away!”
Political solutions are ultimately no solutions at all, other than blocking every single attempt of political intrusion. It would’ve been better if we stuck with improving the process and infrastructure for blocking intrusive legislations, to the point of making it too expensive and too tiresome for interests driving such legislations to keep doing it. Calling this path “unsustainable” is just a major excuse. I’d bet that those using such an excuse just want their own pet theory about how the internet should function like be coded into law; and that in fact makes them fundamentally no different than the lobbies of those whom they perceive as threatening internet freedom.
Not to be entirely negative I recognize that the effort is driven by largely good intentions, but as the cliche saying goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, and it’s easiest to exploit the ignorant. The younger generations of the western world seem to be predominantly liberal, and with the tolerance and openness to things like alternative sexual orientations and religions (or no religion) unfortunately comes a confusion about what it actually means to be free. The idea that government actually isn’t necessarily instrumental to social change is so alien to some liberals that they can hardly even grasp the idea of questioning it, let alone to actually start questioning.
This is why I expect my criticism of the declaration and the underlying efforts to be taken in disbelief by some. How can I be critical of something so obviously noble and good? Because we’ve been on this path before, for one. Every effort that started with lofty sounding, but flawed principles, and flawed underlying strategy ultimately morphed into a yet another form of the problem it was supposed to attack. Politics is dirty business. Governments are meant to rule, not to liberate. Haven’t we established this by now?
The principles in this declaration are pretty good ideas in their own right, including access and privacy. Some of them just aren’t fundamental if it is freedom that is at stake. I wholeheartedly support promoting cheap access to the internet so long as this promotion wont involve government mandating. I also definitely support pressuring companies like Google and Facebook to offer privacy controls and discipline themselves with the way they use the data they collect, but I don’t support legislating rigid requirements to impose on them. Vote with your wallet, scream with your voice, but don’t pull the government trigger.
I hope, if anything, it gives a few people pause. Otherwise, I know who will listen. The choir always listens. Sigh.