Last week in Geneva the Internet elite gathered to celebrate the inaugural class of inductees for the Internet Hall of Fame at a very fitting moment. The Internet is experiencing a coming of age as not only has it surpassed television in terms of daily consumer usage, but it also is flexing its political muscle in capitols across the globe.
It was not too long ago that the tech industry was almost indifferent about Washington. Ultimately when it did engage, as it did in 2006 in its first major public policy skirmish over net neutrality, it ended up being crushed by the telecom industry despite strong grass roots support. The industry's progression from political flyweight to heavyweight was on full display earlier this year in the battle over the Stop Online Piracy Act ("SOPA") which the New York Times called its "political coming of age."
Republicans believed that betting on Goliath (in this case the entertainment industry) in a battle with David was not only a safe bet but they had hoped to score some political revenge by making a "political piñata" out of Google in the process. After the largest online protest in history in which thousands of sites went black, however, 13 Senators flipped from supporting to opposing the bill including SOPA co-sponsors and David once again had felled a giant.
Months later, when Pakistan had the audacity to openly solicit proposals for Internet censoring software, activists again mobilized to pressure U.S. software companies not to participate forcing Pakistan to abandon its plan after no bids were submitted.
As attendees arrived in Geneva, the European Parliament was debating the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement which has been characterized by some as "SOPA on steroids" and whose fate was in jeopardy after thousands demonstrated throughout Europe. Across the Atlantic, Washington was abuzz with "Cyber Week" which culminated in a rush vote in the House of Representatives on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act ("CISPA"). CISPA, which would permit online providers to share information with other entities or the government on cyber security matters without prior notice or consent and "notwithstanding any other provision of law," has also been a target of criticism from the net community (aka "netizens").
Unlike SOPA, however, Google, Facebook and other Internet companies support CISPA as it would immunize them from liability for sharing information. As a result, the battle over CISPA was the first test of a new political force in Washington -- Netizens. Netizens are in essence a citizens' brigade connected via social media and blogs such as Ars Technica and TechDirt who are ably mobilized and led by dedicated groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, FreePress and others.
While netizens succeeded in putting CISPA supporters on the defensive and getting the White House to issue a veto threat mainly over the bill's lack of privacy protections, its sponsors would not yield and were able to ram the bill through the House in a rush vote Thursday night. Goliath, after all, rarely loses two in a row (although six sponsors ultimately voted against the bill).
In passing the measure, the House not only refused to address the privacy concerns raised but instead expanded the areas in which information may be shared beyond just cyber security -- a move which is adding fuel to the opposition as the bill moves to the Senate.
There is much to praise in the achievements of the men and women who gathered in Geneva for the Hall of Fame ceremony and who are responsible for the development and growth of the internet. People like Vint Cerf who is considered the "Father of the Internet," Al Gore whose legislation paved the infrastructure for the information superhighway and Craig Newmark who has made a name both as an internet pioneer and e-philanthropist.
As impressive as these feats may be, empowering citizens to speak forcefully in the corridors of power in Washington and across the globe is equally amazing if sustained. When authoritarian despots' greatest fear has shifted from worrying that their enemies might get access to weapons to fearing they will get access to YouTube, you have changed the world immeasurably.
The Hall of Fame ceremonies in Geneva gave us reason to pause and reflect on the achievements of the Internet to date. The debates in Washington and Strasbourg, however, call us as netizens to be vigilant and engaged in defending and protecting this vital tool of liberty.