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Net Neutrality at Home Is Key to Promoting Democracy Abroad, say White House, State Department

11/24/2009 04:55 pm 16:55:27 | Updated May 25, 2011

If we as a nation don't preserve Network Neutrality at home, we undermine our diplomacy goals and pro-democracy initiatives abroad. So say senior officials at the State Department and the White House, who spoke Thursday at an academic conference organized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Their comments came just days after President Obama praised Net Neutrality during his visit to China and attributed some of his electoral success to the Internet.

Alec Ross, the State Department's Senior Advisor for Innovation, and Andrew McLaughlin, the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer at the White House, stated that the United States would lack credibility abroad without a strong Net Neutrality rule here. Net Neutrality is the principle that ensures users' access to the speech, content or software of their choice online, without interference from Internet service providers. It keeps the Internet open to everyone's speech, from the largest corporation to the newest blog, and the FCC is seeking comment on its proposed rules to strengthen Net Neutrality.

Ross and McLaughlin's reasoning is simple: If we don't protect an open Internet at home, we make it far too easy for autocrats abroad to impose limitations on Internet access in their nations. These autocrats could point to the United States and say, "Hey, Americans also have Internet gatekeepers," even if US gatekeepers are Comcast and AT&T, not the government.

While Ross and McLaughlin didn't delve into the details, it's important to know that the Chinese and Iranian governments buy their blocking and spying technologies from the same vendors that U.S. phone and cable companies like Comcast use. While obviously Comcast doesn't share the same motivations of political censorship as the Chinese government, the technologies they both use have the power to conduct total surveillance of Internet content and targeted blocking of websites. In 2008, Comcast got busted by the FCC for using these technologies to engage in secret blocking of popular multi-media software, prompting complaints by free speech scholars, consumer groups and organizations like the Free Culture Foundation that provide online speech technologies. In addition, the telcos have already revealed what a controlled Internet could look like. Verizon, which opposes Net Neutrality, claims to have gatekeeping control over text messages; it notoriously denied access for "controversial" text messages about abortion-rights organizing, prompting a joint Pro-Net Neutrality NARAL/Christian Coalition op-ed. (Verizon backed down only after public outrage.) AT&T censored the rock band Pearl Jam on an AT&T site--bleeping lead singer Eddie Vedder when he sang lyrics criticizing then-President George W. Bush. Verizon and AT&T now want to "manage" the Internet by controlling the speed of websites and services and steering consumers to preferred areas online. They also want to set up toll booths, turning the Internet into a pay-for-play media that destroys its egalitarian spirit of competition and free speech.

Eliminating Net Neutrality would not only be anti-speech and anti-innovation, it would also be terrible foreign policy, as Ross and McLaughlin reminded us. Our foreign policy depends on our moral authority--leaders as different as President Obama and former President Bush agree on that point.

Ross and McLaughlin's argument about moral authority is a basic principle of foreign policy that was most memorably advocated perhaps by civil rights leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Vietnam War. While our nation preached democracy to the North Vietnamese, we didn't practice democracy in the Deep South or the Northern ghettoes of our country. In King's well-known phrase, we were sending young black men "to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem." Just as the civil rights movement was a test of our democracy, so too is the fight to keep the Internet an open platform for free speech and democratic participation.

Whether we preserve Net Neutrality will be a test of our democracy. President Obama ran a noble campaign to change a Washington controlled by special interests and lobbyists, and part of his platform was to adopt Net Neutrality. If our nation can't adopt the right policy solutions because of the tremendous lobbying power of the phone and cable industry, our democracy would fail this test, with the world watching.

Ross and McLaughlin should be commended for standing up for democratic technologies, at home and abroad, despite the expected, over-the-top lobbying backlash. Ross has seen how open technologies support democratic participation, and how controlled technologies undermine it. He heads the State Department's 21st Century Statecraft initiatives, which depend on using open technologies to promote U.S. diplomatic goals in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Pakistan, central Africa and Mexico. McLaughlin, a long-time lecturer at Harvard Law School, worked with international non-profit organizations that promote technology to reduce poverty in developing nations. He then served as head of Google's global public policy, where he had to deal with Google's complex and controversial problems with Chinese censorship. In the White House, he has worked on issues involving the Iranian government's use of censoring technologies. Both Ross and McLaughlin approach Net Neutrality with a deep understanding of the problems associated with a government or ISP exercising absolute control over the Internet access of everyday citizens.

Americans deserve to have the same liberties at home that our leaders preach abroad. The fight for Internet freedom - and thus, 21st-century democracy - is a fight that the world is watching - and ultimately, a fight that requires the resolve of the American people and our leaders to win.