Single Issue Politics is Undermining the Internet

The worldwide diffusion of the Internet is one of the most promising technological developments of the 21st Century. Over 2 billion people use the Internet with large proportions of North America and West Europe online, but larger numbers of users – and growing fast – in such rapidly developing nations as Brazil, Russia, India and China, what I have called the ‘New Internet World’. For example, there are more Chinese online that Americans on the planet. It is a core infrastructure for economic development in developed and rapidly developing nations alike, and is enabling networked individuals to hold governments and other institutions accountable in ways that are as powerful as the press in earlier eras, such as in the significant role the Internet’s social networking platforms played in the Arab uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.

However, the vitality of the Internet, Web and related technologies is being placed at risk by an ideologically blinkered standoff between two single-issue groups – one seeking to protect copyright versus another protecting freedom of expression. The Internet and Web grew out of a culture of sharing and free expression within academic communities, but to this day, over 40 years since the invention of the Internet, users around the world are very supportive of online freedom of expression. In fact, Internet users in the New Internet World are as supportive of free expression as are those in the Old Internet World of North America and West Europe. And support is growing with experience with the Internet. Given the high levels of support for this underlying culture of Internet use, it should not be surprising that threats to freedom of expression have created major counter-reactions.

Threats have come from legislation aimed at criminalizing and putting a stop to illegal file sharing of music, films and other copyrighted materials, such as through the UK’s Digital Economy Act and, in the US, through the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (Pipa). The music industry and other creative industries are trying to use the law to protect business models that are not sustainable in the digital age. These legislative routes to protecting copyright would have a chilling effect on the Internet, as they would usher in greater surveillance of Internet users, and governmental sanctioning of the blocking of Internet content as well as the disconnection of Internet users. That is why Wikipedia, Google and other responsible stakeholders in the Internet have protested SOPA and Pipa, such as by Wikipedia blocking its own content for one day.

At the very moment that protests over these legislative actions appeared to be gaining ground among US elected officials, the Department of Justice raised the stakes. It took the domain names of a file sharing Web site (Megaupload) offline, charged its founders with violating piracy laws, and arrested four employees. In response, an Internet ‘hackivist’ group, Anonymous, launched a denial of service attack on FBI, DoJ, and music industry Web sites. The actions of nearly every stakeholder in this conflict have been seriously uncompromising.

In the short-run, it is time to talk and to stop these flame wars. Each side has failed to be open to discussion, but that is exactly what is needed. In the long-term, the creative industries must focus on new business models that are sustainable in the digital era. Government can help support the research and development to enable these innovations.

More generally, all stakeholders need to understand that freedom of expression and copyright cannot be pursued as single issues. Both are part of a larger ecology of policies that have major interactions. Responsible policy discussions need to reign in single-issue politics. It is tempting to say that freedom of expression trumps all other values and interests, but the evidence is right before us that freedom of expression is being eroded by copyright, liability, privacy and data protection, public safety and other concerns. Single-issue political posturing could undermine the Internet’s future.

References

Dutta, S., Dutton, W. H. and Law, G. (2011), The New Internet World: A Global Perspective on Freedom of Expression, Privacy, Trust and Security Online: The Gobal Information Technology Report 2010-2011. New York: World Economic Forum, April. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1810005

Dutton, W. H., Dopatka, A., Hills, M., Law, G., and Nash, V. (2011), Freedom of Connection – Freedom of Expression: The Changing Legal and Regulatory Ecology Shaping the Internet. Paris: UNESCO, Division for Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace.

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