Dapper Disputes: The Declaration of Internet Freedom

Dapper Disputes is a feature where editors at The Airspace debate the merits and purpose of relevant issues in culture, technology, and scholarship.

On January 18th, 2012, Internet powerhouses like Wikipedia, Reddit, and Google halted their normal operations in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP acts that were sitting in Congress–pieces of legislation threatening the equality and neutrality of the Internet. The blackout was a pivotal moment for the online community. It proved that web pervades life to such a severe degree that those who built and control the Internet can effectively sway policy. Even though SOPA and PIPA were killed in Congress, countless new acts keep popping up, each with different levels of severity, but all directed at regulating the Internet.

The strongest defenders of Internet freedom haven’t stopped working since the January blackout. Academics, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and online denizens first met at SXSW 2012 to casually talk about Internet policy. Since then, the group has worked to coalesce a community of like-minded people supporting Internet freedom. Led by Josh Levy, of Free Press, and Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” is the result of the groups cumulative effort to issue a standard protecting the web. At 105 words, the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” outlines five tenets for a free internet: Expression, Access, Openness, Innovation and Privacy.

Is this a movement in the right direction for the Internet? Will the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” be remembered as the moment the web demanded the attention it deserved? Or will it be scoffed at by policy makers for years until it’s ultimately forgotten? Airspace editors Blake J. Graham and Tony Russo weigh in.

This is not the document the Internet needs

The Internet developed in the early 1970s is scarcely compared to the ever-present, inter-connected mesh network one-third of the Earth’s population coexists with everyday. So what is the Internet? A bunch of servers strung together? Something you connect to via dial up? A new market that can produce $100 billion IPOs? A distribution platform for musicians? A series of tubes?

The Internet is a fussy mistress when it comes to categorizing and defining it. Most of modern life in America directly connects to or secondarily interfaces with the Internet. Yet, the Internet is an incredibly ephemeral thing. We are accustomed to the hardware and services used to access the Internet, but the web itself is beyond our immediate grasp. No wonder the Internet is so confusing to groups like Congress. It’s these complexities that the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” fails to address. The Declaration caters to vague descriptions of liberty that fail to articulate how these liberties can be uniquely protected on the Internet, and who will be doing the actual protecting.

Articulation is an essential word here. The American Declaration of Independence took prevailing thoughts from enlightenment thinkers, and articulated those thoughts in alignment with 18th century sentiments toward the British crown. The document’s structure includes a substantial, often forgotten, list of grievances directed at King George III and the specific policies agitating the colonists. It is this type of articulation where the Declaration of Independence stands tall, and the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” wobbles over like a toddler drunk on milk.

The five tenets (Expression, Access, Openness, Innovation, and Privacy) are ostensibly good. But without elaboration they serve no real purpose. These tenets are supposed to “support transparent and participatory processes for making internet policy,” yet none of them directly address any type of policy, or who will be responsible for making this policy. In fact, the largest problems with SOPA and PIPA were predicated by Congress’s complete lack of knowledge about the Internet. A call for Congressional education, or better methods of communication between Congress and citizens would be more beneficial than a vague declaration of principle. There was too much hesitation, or a desire to avoid specific policy issues, in the crafting of the document that turned its text into vain pleas for freedoms hardly unique to the Internet.

Blake J. Graham

The start of something revolutionary

“I know it when I see it” is a famous cop-out. Infamous, actually. It comes off as hilariously lazy. Yet it also served as the basis for obscenity laws for nearly a decade and is strikingly true to one’s everyday experiences. That is because several concepts, however rooted in the real world they are, are notoriously tricky to define or categorize. The Internet, in all likelihood, is one of them. But so are freedom and liberty, but our internal conception of these is strong enough to provide the backbone for nations and unite people across centuries.

With “The Declaration of Internet Freedom,” Josh Levy of Free Press and Alexis Ohanian of Reddit faced a particularly difficult challenge of creating the same passionate acceptance of ethereal principles on the Internet. And my first impression is that they have succeeded. The have succeeded in articulating the points of consensus for those who care about conserving and extending the sanctity of Internet principles that many already hold.

The idea that the Internet is under attack is across Reddit (e.g.), and with good reason: the SOPA and PIPA legislation in January of this year represented a challenge to the freedom and access many enjoy online. The acts got some things right and a lot of things wrong, and they were only brought down after a concerted effort of action by popular sites like Wikipedia and Reddit. After this, little else was accomplished, but the Internet was in essence no more safe than before—evident by the CISPA legislation. Those intent on protecting the vague principles of a fair and free Internet (what the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” finds as Expression, Access, Openness, Innovation, & Privacy) need to look to as a basis for debate. The “Declaration of Internet Freedom,” undoubtedly a high profile and highly symbolic move, will create that groundfloor upon which people can stand and point to acts like CISPA and say this is wrong. In that sense, the “Declaration” can protect both the essence and substance of our series of tubes.

The Declaration of Independence’s timeless efficacy did not come from nowhere. Instead it derived from a rich history of high profile discussions of what compose natural and human rights. The Internet, for most, has no such history. This could, and in my opinion will, be a noteworthy step towards a more perfect Internet.

Tony Russo

It’s not a truly free Internet people want anyway

An equally famous phrase was popularized by the 1970s Canadian rock group Bachman-Turner Overdrive. “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” topped the charts in November, 1974, the same month John Lennon gave his last public performance. He played his six-string while Paul sang “Let it Be,” and perhaps that would be a better declaration for Levy, Ohanian, and their ilk.

It’s a momentous challenge to craft proper policy around something as ethereal as the Internet, or freedom for that matter. And you are absolutely correct to say that the Declaration of Independence, a reference I’m quite fond of, did not sprout from nothing, but was rather the result of seeds sown by a multiplicity of great thinkers.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense stirred the pot and motivated some to action, and it might be better to compare this declaration as something similar to Paine’s first inclination to write that famous pamphlet. But even if we speed forward to the American Declaration, it took us a war and two constitutions before we were really able to define what we, the people, meant when writing “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I can’t stress enough how much I respect the effort of the “Declaration of Internet Freedom,” but we must recognize the document’s infancy and question its purpose. The Internet itself is incredibly young, especially in the way we interact with it now. It’s incredibly difficult to predict how the network will function ten years from now. When it comes to the development of the web it’s best to realize, we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

In the hazy elysian neverland where the “Declaration” sits, I can’t seem to understand what rights or freedoms it stands for that are not expressly represented in our constitution. As for “transparent and participatory processes” for making legislation, I recommend participating in government. It’s as fundamental as voting. The process exists. When voting fails, groups can always bribe lobby Congress.

Creating a facsimile of standing American principles and labeling them as “the Internet’s” doesn’t create any value. The Internet is a global asset though, but if we look at the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” as a global document it appears even more childish than it already does. The United Nations is already looking at global standards and the UN Human Rights Council just passed a landmark decision calling for the equal protection of human rights online. The United Nations has the best intentions, plenty of real lawyers, and the capacity to create international policy through resolution. Even they will encounter massive obstacles in protecting and enforcing a standard.

Let me leave you with a dangerous thought. What if these tenets (expression, access, openness, innovation, and privacy) aren’t really part of the Internet we use now, nor will they likely be part of a future Internet?

Google is the largest portal to access content on the web, yet it is a private company, which filters the results it returns. In a truly open Internet, “safe search” would always be disabled allowing all visual content to filter through. (Image search for “sticky buns” and see what comes back.) In a truly free Internet there would have to be something, or someone to check that Google ranked and returned results equally. In a truly private Internet, Google can’t use your data to target ads at you, massively hindering their revenue. A free Internet doesn’t look so free for those looking to make money, nor is it a free Internet we currently have.

It appears this group is really interested in preserving the Internet we already know, one that is powered by private companies who run and maintain the web—private companies who, for some reason, freedom fighters assume are on their side. Note the complete lack of presence of companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, or Amazon on the document. Unless the “Declaration” delineated direct policy improvements, “Let it Be.”

Blake J. Graham

An ideal vision we can all gather around

Your last two paragraphs raise an extremely valid implication that I hope you don’t mind me unwinding: that the only way to guarantee the tenets of the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” is with an extensive government intrusion into the net. It is widely known that the American government, at the very least, is participating in a massive online surveillance and cataloguing effort; why not empower them to act when they recognize an injustice? “Internet policy” must after all require some sort of government interference, right?

The primary example to the contrary is the success of ICANN, the domain name nonprofit NGO. Before ICANN, the US government fully controlled the domain name system, and in this case they voluntary ceded control of a money making operation.

In the end, though, it comes to this: principled statements often undue themselves. It is something philosopher Jeremy Bentham called “nonsense upon stilts.” He was referring to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a successor to the US’s Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. He was, of course, right that liberty granted to all will inevitably lead to conflict, thereby undoing the very norm that the original assertion stood on. Yet the Declaration worked (sorta). At least it was revolutionary at the time, and much of the success of liberal ideals in Europe can be traced back to its momentous signing.

I can’t imagine the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” to be all that momentous, and it doesn’t have to be. It simply tries to solidify an ideal vision for the internet community to gather around, and in doing so it should, as I see it, create a spirit of the Internet. What should the Internet be for, according to this document?—not for making money but for connecting innovators. And it should be open to all to experience. The Declaration won’t achieve that goal. Just as even our democracy is shaped by various influences outside what one understands America to represent, the Internet will always been a hodgepodge. But this document guides our actions, I think every person with a human face would be happy with that future.

Regardless, the debates we should have been having on January 19th are fast approaching. The Declaration of Internet Freedom has raised a discussion on what we, as individuals, believe in about our Internet, and how we can get there.

Tony Russo