The Internet’s Growing Pains
By Timothy Karr, Senior Director of Strategy for Free Press
At 15, the OSCE’s office for media freedom is now half the age of the modern Internet.
In 1983, engineers of what was then known as the ARPANET switched over to a communications protocol called TCP/IP. This technology allowed computers to transmit “packets” across a linked network.
By the end of the 1980s, Sir Tim Berners-Lee had designed an open information-sharing protocol that became the lingua franca of the World Wide Web, giving everyone online the power to build websites and connect.
Conceived around these humble networking principles, the Internet has since evolved into the most open and democratic communications tool in history.
But like the OSCE, the Internet is no longer a child. And with age come new challenges and responsibilities — including the need for online users to guard the health of our network.
Right now the Internet is under attack from governments that view the open network as a threat to centralized power.
The Chinese government has the most sophisticated regime of controls. China’s “Great Firewall,” which also turns 15 this year, includes multiple methods of regulation and content filtering. The Ministry of Public Security has scared homegrown social media companies like Weibo into self-censoring, imposing harsh curbs to free expression.
And China is not alone. Its example has inspired other nations, including Cuba, Iran and Vietnam, to build firewalls that silence and sequester dissenting voices.
In the West, Internet freedom advocates are struggling against the mass surveillance of all digital traffic as governments try to ferret out perceived threats to national security. U.S. and British intelligence agencies are now monitoring millions of simultaneous communications, examining our emails, our browsing activity — even our contact lists.
It’s a less direct form of censorship than what you find in China — but it still has a chilling effect on free speech.
Other threats come from the private sector. Internet companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo have been implicated in aiding government mass surveillance. Phone companies have allowed intelligence agencies to tap their lines and gather “metadata” on unsuspecting users.
Internet service providers (ISPs) in the U.S. like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have undermined online freedoms. While these companies don’t own the Internet, they often act like they do, and try again and again to wrest control of Internet content away from its users.
Verizon recently argued in a U.S. court case that it has the First Amendment right to “edit” the Internet. Should the court agree and let ISPs act as digital gatekeepers, it would have very real — and very negative — consequences for the rest of us.
The good news is that in the last decade, Internet users have risen en masse to protect our rights and keep the network open.
When the U.S. entertainment industry tried to push an Internet-crippling copyright bill in 2012, more than 15 million people urged Congress to stop it. When we discovered the full extent of government spying, hundreds of civil liberties, human rights and Internet freedom groups joined together to protect our rights to online speech and privacy.
As the Internet grows up, the Internet freedom movement must grow with it. There is a role for activism and advocacy, but also one for governments to promote the public interest by ensuring everyone’s rights to connect and communicate.