Protecting the Internet as a Global Medium for Freedom

12/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Leslie Harris President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology

The Internet is at a crossroads. Down one path lies a future where digital technology enhances constitutional freedoms, spurs innovations in expression and entrepreneurship, and fulfills its ultimate promise of connecting and empowering the world. Down the other? A future where the Internet is turned against users, where government spying runs unchecked, and where innovation is stifled by a closed and locked system, controlled by a handful of entrenched players. The next president will play a key role in determining which path we take. This is the last of a six-part series looking at the critical technology and civil liberties choices facing the next president of the United States. Our complete transition guide for next president is available online.

Since the Internet's earliest days, it has been an article of faith that the medium's global expansion would herald a new era of freedom, unrestrained by the world's governments. We were told that "information wants to be free," or as one early Internet visionary put it, "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." Under that utopian vision, government efforts to exert territorial authority would fail and what little governance may be needed would emerge from the user community. That vision has fallen by the wayside, as countries of all political persuasions step into the regulatory breach.

Even so, in much of the world, the open Internet remains a powerful tool for human rights and democracy as well as economic growth. While there are a myriad of disagreements about when and how government should intervene, power remains for the most part with innovators and users at the edge of the network, and as our presidential election season has shown, online civic discourse flourishes.

This is not the case in most repressive and authoritarian regimes where the Internet's uniquely disruptive nature is viewed as a threat to the regular order. As the numbers of users increase along with the sheer number of devices that connect to the Internet, the ability to control what people do and see online diminishes and the threat to totalitarian governments escalates. Some countries, including China, have embraced the Net's economic power while at the same time erecting an elaborate censorship and surveillance apparatus. Other regimes simply encourage citizens' self-censorship by spreading rumors of the existence of such monitoring, and in still others access itself is limited or banned outright. Increasingly, repressive governments are turning to Internet companies and other technology intermediaries to assist with censorship and surveillance.

The next president has an important role to play in promoting global Internet freedom. He has powerful tools at his disposal including diplomacy, trade policy, and foreign aid, and a willing and diverse set of stakeholders ready to join in such an effort. Congress, for example, has been considering action on global Internet freedom for several years. And while their preferred solution, the Global Online Freedom Act, includes some provisions that we believe may be counterproductive, a president ready to take bold steps on this issue should find willing support in Congress.

High-tech companies and human rights advocates are poised for action, too. Just this month, we joined with three Internet giants -- Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google -- and a powerful group of human rights groups, free press and Internet advocates, investors and academics to launch the Global Network Initiative which aims to help tech companies act responsibly when facing challenges to Internet freedom globally. The GNI is also committed to collective action to support Internet freedom. Here too, the next president will find a willing set of partners.

The new president has the tools and the support to take firm action on global Internet Freedom. What we need now is leadership.