The Internet needs its own ‘declaration of independence’

A new ‘Declaration of Internet Freedom’ should spark a much-needed discussion about online rights and privacy.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File
Anti-piracy legislation protesters gather at City Hall in San Francisco to demonstrate against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) being considered by Congress in January 2012. A new Declaration of Internet Freedom aims to revive a discussion of what constitutes freedom online.

Consider just two facts about the Internet:

1. More than 2 billion people (about one-third of the world’s population) now go online. Nearly half of them are under the age of 25.

2. Kansas City is about to receive, courtesy of an experimental Google project, Internet service 100 times faster than the US national average. The city was chosen from among 1,100 who applied. Kansas City expects the ubiquitous, fast connection will make it a hotbed for start-up companies and all other manner of innovation.

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It’s hard to overstate the importance of a cheap, fast, reliable flow of digital information to both economic growth and political freedom around the world. A city offering superior Internet service now might be akin to one located on a river in the 18th century or a railroad line in the 19th, a decisive advantage.

Yesterday, an impressive coalition of companies and Internet and human rights activists endorsed a Declaration of Internet Freedom that aims to start a discussion about the basic principles that should underlie online access. Among the 20,000 groups or individuals already signing on to the declaration are Mozilla (creator of the Firefox browser), Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Internet deep thinkers such as Microsoft’s danah boyd and Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain.

The document’s five points are simple, brief statements that oppose Internet censorship; encourage universal access, openness, and innovation; and advocate for privacy.

The declaration’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: It contains very little with which most people would disagree. But at the same time it’s so vague and general that it doesn’t begin to pick away at the Gordian knot of problems our digital world presents. The document is a lofty declaration of independence, yes, but without the necessary bill of rights that spells out just what is and isn’t acceptable.

The generalities are intentional, the declaration’s framers say in a preamble: They want the document to be a set of talking points that engender a deeper conversation. “Let’s discuss these principles – agree or disagree with them, debate them, translate them, make them your own and broaden the discussion with your community – as only the Internet can make possible.”

That discussion is badly needed. Efforts by governments to censor the Internet are only one important part of the debate. What right to privacy should individuals expect online? What if it conflicts with governments’ need to track down criminals or terrorists? Or companies’ desire to market their goods? How can individual or corporate rights to creations (such as music and movies) be maintained in an Internet world that allows instant mashing up, sharing, and copying – and the boost to new creativity those practices can give?

Earlier this year the well-intentioned Stop Online Piracy Act (US House) and Protect IP Act (US Senate) were shot down through the efforts of many of the same groups now endorsing the declaration. The legislation failed to find a satisfactory middle ground between protecting intellectual property rights and maintaining online free speech and innovation. Well-known Internet players such as Google, Wikipedia, and Craigslist were among those who protested the bills.

America’s Declaration of Independence didn’t set out any specifics on how to create a nation or govern it. That was left to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

If the Declaration of Internet Freedom can ignite a similar revolutionary passion about preserving the freedom of the Internet, for today and for future generations, it could become a landmark statement too.

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