Earlier this year, activists were able to shut down twin bills that could have changed the Internet as we know it. Wikipedia and other sites went dark for 24 hours to rally 13 million people, which was enough to derail SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Project IP Act).
In the wake of that success, organizers realized they couldn’t fight future bills one at a time at all levels of government, and instead, created the Declaration of Internet Freedom.
Last week activists released the declaration, which is essentially a petition, supported by more than 100 companies and civil leaders, as well as more than 25,000 individuals.
Big name signatures include Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, British author Neil Gaiman, Internet activist and founder of MoveOn.org Eli Pariser and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. The rallying cry has been taken up by Twitter users and has spread to other social media sites, including Facebook, Google+ and even picture-perfect Pinterest.
“There’s a new sensitivity in the general public that the Internet has become a battlefield,” said Andrew Rasiej, the chairman of New York Tech Meetup, who helped spearhead the Internet Freedom movement.
While Rasiej’s statement brings to mind the violent protests throughout the Middle East when governments shut down the Internet to prevent the spread of unrest, the power of online communication was made clear in the U.S. as well. The Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood controversy, along with the Kony 2012 campaign, showed how quickly support can grow — and wane — for issues that are important to an Internet population that now numbers more than 222 million Americans, according to Nielsen.
“Everything from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street is empowered because of human connectivity across the Internet,” Rasiej said.
And sometimes, as with SOPA legislation, technology gets in the way of good intentions. The bill’s supporters reversed their position after becoming aware that unintended consequences could “break the Internet.”
If the Declaration of Internet Freedom gains widespread support, where will it take us?
“We want to prevent Congress from passing legislation in the first place that infringes on personal freedom,” Trevor Timm, Electronic Frontier Foundation activist, told TechNewsDaily. “The declaration is an early warning system.”
The document contains just five concepts — no tech jargon like net neutrality and patent reform — expression, access, openness, innovation and privacy.
Expression and openness go hand-in-hand. “If we didn’t have the freedom to express and share what we want online, our laptops, tablets and phones would be little more than 21st-century television sets,” Josh Levy, the lead on this project and Free Press founder, wrote on his blog.
Access supports fast and affordable networks for all, which the Obama administration has tackled in its federal broadband plan. Innovation aims to allow people to create freely without fear of being punished for users’ actions or thwarted by larger companies. Currently, Verizon is fighting for its right to block competing services like Skype from its phones.
The last principle, privacy, is probably best understood by the majority of Internet users. Rarely a week goes by without a news story about companies using what should be private data for their own gain.
However, Timm said that there are two issues that require immediate attention.
“Americans have less privacy protections for their email than they do for physical mail.The email law was written before we even had a World Wide Web,” he said. “It needs to be updated.”
Further, the EFF says Congress should refuse to renew FISA — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, also called the “warrantless wiretapping act” by its critics — without privacy reforms. And Rasiej has his eye on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, saying that the cybersecurity legislation is the most dangerous for Americans with its absence of proper government accountability.
“The open Internet is being eroded as we speak in small and big ways,” Rasiej said. “It’s not guaranteed into the future.”
While FISA is shaping up to be the next big Internet battle — the House Intelligence Committee unanimously voted to pass the bill out of the committee on June 28, 2012 — supporters of the Declaration of Internet Freedom hope that the document will head off such clashes in the future.
Activists plan to make the declaration a prominent topic in this fall’s elections.
“We’d like candidates to sign and pledge to take these principles into consideration,” Timm said. “And then take action.”
It’s just as important for voters to understand the document’s principles and then weigh the risks and benefits of proposed policies and laws against a standard for Internet freedom.
After the fireworks have faded and we’ve put away the patriotic bunting for another year, we’ll still have reason to think about Internet freedom and what that means to each of us.
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