World: Is a Declaration of Internet Freedom What the Internet Needs?

On July 4, a group of digital rights and other advocacy organizations unleashed a set of rights and principles for the Internet dubbed the Declaration of Internet Freedom. Amongst its initial signatories were organizations such as Free Press, Access, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as Global Voices Advocacy.

Also included in the initial list of individual signers were several Global Voices authors, as well as co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon.

Though the plan is for participants to contribute to, re-mix, and otherwise encourage the evolution of the document, the simple declaration was published as such:

Declaration of Internet Freedom logo. Image from <a href="">Free Press website</a>, used with permission.

Declaration of Internet Freedom logo. Image from Free Press website, used with permission.

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.

Individuals and organizations are encouraged to sign the document or participate through the efforts of other organizations listed on the site. The Declaration has garnered more than 1,300 signatures thus far and continues to gain momentum.

As it spreads, bloggers have begun to comment–and critique–the document and the process behind it. Here are just a few reactions:

Can we live without the Internet? Definitely! Should we? No.

The above statement comes from Lebanese blogger Micheline Hazou, who offers a summary of the process behind the Internet Declaration, as well as the recent resolution made by the United Nations Human Rights Council to protect freedom of the Internet. Hazou, who previously offered an international perspective on the US copyright bills SOPA and PIPA, lends her support to the Declaration, writing:

If I sometimes look back in time, I wonder whether the Lebanon civil war would have lasted 15 years had the Internet existed in 1975. How different my life would have been…

Whereas now we can’t live for a couple of hours without being connected, we spent all the war years trying to forget telephones existed. The fax was the great novelty that we could only contemplate because there were no telephone lines!

But that’s history!

I am a firm believer and defender of a free and open Internet as a Human Right as well as free WiFi.

Do Not Censor the Internet. But what is censorship?

That is a question asked by Spanish blogger Guillermo Julián, who recently wrote a critique [es] of the Declaration. Though Julián believes that the Declaration is a set of “basic principles on which we should all agree,” he takes issue with the vagueness of the Declaration's wording. On the first principle, he writes:

Si ahora mismo preguntas a los promotores de la ley SOPA, o sin irnos tan lejos, a la exministra González Sinde, si pretendían instaurar un sistema de censura en Internet, te dirán que no. Ellos sólo pretendían proteger los derechos de autor, no prohibir que nadie se exprese.

Y ese es el problema de este punto. Nadie ha dicho qué es la censura. ¿Es censura el derecho al olvido? ¿Podríamos considerar censura el cierre de páginas de pornografía infantil?

En los extremos es muy fácil saber qué hacer: bloquear páginas con pornografía infantil es bueno, bloquear páginas con opiniones que no le gustan al gobierno de turno es malo. Pero, ¿qué hacemos en los intermedios? Es algo que depende tanto de la interpretación de cada uno que incluso la SOPA podría respetarlo…

If you ask the promoters of the SOPA bill, or not even going so far, the former Minister González-Sinde, if they wanted to establish a system of Internet censorship, they will say no. They only intended to protect copyright, not prohibit anyone from expressing himself.And that's the problem here. No one has defined censorship. Is censorship the right to forget? Could we consider taking down pages of child pornography censorship?In the end it is very easy to know what to do: blocking sites with child pornography is good, blocking pages with opinions that are against the current government is bad. But what do we do in the interim? This is something that depends on the interpretation of each one that even SOPA could respect…

Who is “we”?

One criticism of the Declaration made by several individuals is that it does not define who constitutes “we.” On the Above the Law blog, Elie Mystal writes:

I hate to get pedantic about things involving the internet — it’s the internet, not a Ken Burns documentary — but defining your terms is crucially important when you are trying to advocate for “freedom” of any kind. It’s all well and good to walk around saying “give us free” if you are in chains, but freedom means different things to different people. I’d like to be “free” to make money off the internet, for instance. Can I still be part of the “we”? The fact that so many different people use the internet for so many different purposes is exactly why we struggle to come up with broad-based consensus on how the internet should be regulated (if at all) in the first place. Defining the “we” is half the battle! “WE” are Americans. “THEY” are followers of a inbred crazy person with a fancy hat. Let’s play our game.

Mystal concludes the post with the following sentence: “Just remember to define your terms. Remember, the Constitution tells us who the “we” is in the first line.”

In the Atlantic, Nancy Scola, who interviewed several of the creators and signatories of the Declaration, has a similar concern:

Arguably, the lesson of the years since [John Perry Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace] is that “the wider Internet community” does have something to fear from governments and other powers-that-be — thus the need for this new Declaration of Internet Freedom. Governments didn't really stay away from the Internet when Barlow told them to do so. To be useful, does a document like this new one need to figure out where its authority comes from and what it means to do about enforcing its principles? After saying goodbye to Great Britain, the United States decided upon a geography-based winnowing into local and national representative legislatures. Certainly, there are other ways to do it. But defining representativeness is one way to avoid the swapping of one kind of tyranny for another. And it's probably fair to say that harnessing representativeness and authority is something online politics hasn't really figured out yet. In theory, nearly everyone can participate. How you judge that participation, though, is something that everything from to Americans Elect to folks who try to email Congress need to wrestle with.

This is not the document the Internet needs

In a point-counterpoint hosted by Dapper Disputes, Blake J. Graham states the above claim, adding that 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.” Graham elaborates:

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.

Writing for the ACLU's blog, Jay Stanley defends that same vagueness as being strategic:

True, there’s always a danger that a broad concept like “privacy” can become like “the environment” in that everybody is “for” it, even when they’re gutting it. But in the history of environmentalism, it was still a major accomplishment to get to a point where nobody could be “against” the environment. If indeed we are at such a point with regard to the principles articulated in this declaration, that is no small accomplishment, and marking that accomplishment is well worth doing. There’s such a thing as “consolidating your gains.”


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