Declaration of Internet Freedom Aims to Head Off Political Fights Before They Start
The day Wikipedia went offline, Internet politics hit home for Americans.
The 24-hour blackout of Wikipedia and other popular sites drew attention to anti-piracy House and Senate bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), that activists say could have changed the Internet as we know it. With 13 million online signatures in protest, the two bills were derailed.
In the wake of success, organizers decided they couldn't fight future bills one at a time at all levels of government and instead created the Declaration of Internet Freedom.
This week, activists released the declaration, supported by more than 100 companies and civil leaders, as well as tens of thousands of individuals (with a site encouraging more to join).
Big-name signatories include Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, author Neil Gaiman, MoveOn.org founder Eli Pariser and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. The rallying cry has spread to Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and even Pinterest.
"There's a new sensitivity in the general public that the Internet has become a battlefield," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and chairman of New York Tech Meetup, who helped put together the declaration. "It's very clear that the role of the Internet and the way that it's controlled is under threat globally by governmental forces that view it as a disruptive force."
Beyond the well-known example of online-coordinated protests during the Arab Spring, the power of online communication was made clear in the U.S. as well. Rasiej pointed to the uproar over the Susan G. Komen Foundation pulling funding for Planned Parenthood breast cancer screenings. The Web erupted with condemnation on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other social media sites. Forty-eight hours later, funding was reinstated.
"Everything from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street is empowered because of human connectivity across the Internet," Rasiej said.
If the Declaration of Internet Freedom gains widespread support, where will it take us?
"We want to prevent Congress from passing legislation in the first place that infringes on personal freedom," Trevor Timm, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) activist, told TechNewsDaily.
The declaration is free from tech jargon like net neutrality and patent reform and contains just five principles — expression, access, openness, innovation and privacy.
Expression and openness go hand-in-hand. "If we didn’t have the freedom to express and share what we want online, our laptops, tablets and phones would be little more than 21st-century television sets," Josh Levy said on his blog. Levy helped draft the declaration and is the Internet campaign manager of Free Press, an Internet activist organization.
"Access" refers to fast and affordable networks for all, while "innovation" refers to establishing a climate in which people can create freely without fear of being punished for users' actions and where new technologies are not blocked.
The privacy issue is probably most familiar to Internet users. Rarely a week goes by without charges of companies using what should be private data for their own gain. "Americans have less privacy protections for their email than they do for physical mail. The email law was written before we even had a World Wide Web," Timm said. "It needs to be updated."
Further, the EFF says Congress should refuse to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — what it calls the "warrantless wiretapping act" — without privacy reforms. And Rasiej has his eye on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), a piece of cybersecurity legislation that could allow companies to share your private data with the government.
While FISA is shaping up to be the next big Internet battle — the House Intelligence Committee unanimously voted to pass the bill out of committee on June 28 — supporters of the Declaration of Internet Freedom hope that their document will head off such clashes in the future.
Activists plan to make the declaration a prominent topic in this fall's elections.
"We'd like candidates to sign and pledge to take these principles into consideration and then take action," Timm said. The Internet pledge is reminiscent of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge launched in 1986 by the Americans for Tax Reform Foundation that asks candidates and legislators to oppose tax increases.
"SOPA and PIPA showed what the Internet community was against," Rasiej said. "But with the Declaration of Internet Freedom, the Internet community is demonstrating what it is actually for."