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Let's Talk About Internet Freedom

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Flickr: Wesley Fryer
Flickr: Wesley Fryer

January 18th is #InternetFreedomDay: the one-year anniversary of the collective uproar that derailed the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills from being signed into law. What should have been a euphoric celebration of a hard-earned victory, however, has instead become a memorial for the loss of one of the cause's bravest defenders; a life, incidentally, that might have been saved had the cause come to fruition sooner.

In the year since the battle against SOPA/PIPA was won, the fate of the Internet remains unresolved. In fact, the discussion had nearly disappeared from our national discourse. That it took a personal tragedy to bring the debate back into the spotlight is an unsettling reminder of how far down on our list of priorities Internet policy has fallen.

Given that neither lawmakers nor law-abiding citizens have the luxury of halting the digital revolution in order for policy to "catch up," we cannot afford to wait for a more opportune moment to act. Without establishing an ongoing, thriving national conversation about an ideal future for the Internet, we will be left to repeatedly fight defensive battles against countless future SOPAs as they are pushed through Capitol Hill. On the international stage, the stakes are even higher and the competition is even fiercer.

The anti-SOPA blackout demonstrated the Internet's capacity for meaningful collective reaction. For now, we can call that stalemate a victory in the fight to protect the digital domain. But unless we learn to act proactively, we're fighting a war of attrition that we cannot win.

Progress on a number of fronts is, at least ostensibly, underway.

A handful of preternaturally tech-cognizant members of Congress such as Rep. Zoe Lofgren have recently taken public strides to rectify the archaic, insufficient and easily-abused legislation currently on the books. Whether or not the momentum will spread to other policymakers, including many who are unsurprisingly hesitant to the touch Internet issues after last year's toxic SOPA meltdown, remains to be seen.

What can we do as citizens to amplify this conversation?

First and foremost is to share your thoughts with your elected officials. Vote thoughtfully. Join and support organizations that lobby for progressive Internet policies. Become an ambassador for the cause both online and offline. The Internet itself doesn't have a single voice from which to defend its independence. That responsibility rests primarily on us, its users and beneficiaries.

The second step is education. Fluency in the language of technology is a pre-requisite for both defending the Internet and convincing others to join the cause. We are still decades away from a time when millenials will hold substantial numbers in Congress. The concepts and virtues of open access that seem innately comprehensible to many of us may still seem mysterious and unwieldy to decision-makers at all levels and on all sides of the debate. Voting out of fear of the unknown is a well-proven recipe for disaster.

Not surprisingly, some of the most vocal leaders in the Internet generation have been exploring inventive and effective ways -- both online and offline -- to spread the message.

In early October 2012, as the election season was nearing its peak, Alexis Ohanian and Erik Martin -- both known for their instrumental roles behind Reddit, among many other things -- corralled a smorgasbord of like-minded individuals, journalists and supporters for a widely publicized, crowdfunded bus tour to spread awareness about Internet policy. A remarkable film documenting the Internet 2012 bus tour, Silicon Prairie (produced by Nimblebot), was screened earlier this week to policymakers, journalists and tech enthusiasts at both CES and in Washington, D.C.

The film -- which will be available online in the near future -- offers an upbeat glimpse into the young, growing companies in America's heartland that are utilizing cutting-edge Internet technology to reinvent business. The premise of the film is clear: Businesses of the 21st century will thrive by embracing -- not resisting -- the inevitable paradigm shift ushered in by the Internet. Their success, however, is at risk of being thwarted by unsound, outmoded and unfair policy.

An open and free Internet does not mean the end of business or the end of new ideas. The countless rising successes of the new economy are an ongoing testament to that reality. But we desperately need our laws to catch up in order to foster, not stall, the innovation that will power our evolving modern economy.

The era of the Internet as a wild, untapped frontier is drawing to a close. While this transition is yet another bittersweet moment for longtime Internet users and advocates, we must accept that we also have a vested interest in establishing fair contours for law and order online. It's a conversation that will take place with or without our participation. Without our voices, however, that conversation will be hopelessly one-sided and the result detrimental to us all.

Let this be our chance to shape the future of the Internet. The conversation begins now.