Threats to Internet Freedom

The Internet is a remarkable technology and achievement.  It is owned by no specific entity (though there are many facilitators), it’s self-healing, global and provides an extremely democratic access to information and ideas.   In the US and through much of the civilized world, this profound level of interconnectivity has changed how we get our information, purchase products/services and communicate with others on this bright blue planet.

I’ve been a power user of the Internet since the early nineties,when there were less than a 1,000 websites and one browser to use (looking back, was it primitive!).  The belief in the nineties that the Internet would facilitate democratic ideals throughout the world and had the power to undermine totalitarian governments due to free flow of information.

Fast-forward to the second decade of the 21st century and a very disturbing trend has developed:  Free flow of ideas and information has been successfully stifled by various governments and other entities.    Governments have managed filter out and modify information and dialog that they see as threatening to their power and ideologies.  China, Myanmar and Turkmenistan have simply blocked several sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Gmail) and coerced Internet companies to modify the information for use by their citizens (e.g., Google in China).

Now, it appears that some governments have developed or are developing complete replacements for Internets within their borders.  There was a very interesting article in yesterday’s Boston Globe on this trend.   The article describes how the Iranian government is developing a fully self-contained Internet and they have made it illegal to transact banking using non-Iranian email services (which presumably will only be available on the Iranian Internet).  Cuba and North Korea also have their own self-contained Internets.    These countries have either shutdown the Internet within their borders or have hobbled it to the extent that there is little motivation to use it in lieu of the internal version.

OK … so, I’m an American in the good auld USA.  What does this have to do with me??   First and foremost, we need to be grateful that we have the access that we have and that in general, the Internet is a remarkable asset to living and working.

That said, there are threats to the freedom of the Internet coming from all angles.   SOPA (Stop On-line Piracy Act) was the latest attack on the free Internet by the US Federal Government.  Thankfully, it failed, but sadly many of the provisions are now being quietly slipped into other legislation on the Hill.   Though I strongly believe in protecting intellectual property rights, I also believe that the methods being used to achieve this goal is the equivalent of using a nuclear weapon to eliminate a bee hive.  It has the ability of achieving the objective, but with huge collateral damage.  One of the many concerns with SOPA was that it didn’t discriminate between proxy servers serving illegal movie downloads and those serving political discourse, such as the Arab Spring movement.

Services like iTunes and Amazon Kindle effectively limit access to music, videos, books and magazines to those with high potential to drive revenues, leaving niche and controversial items difficult to access (and worse, we don’t know about them).

Political and corporate entities have become very sophisticated in sculpting various information sources while subverting controversial and contradictory discussion.

Finally, though the Internet has made it easy for the average bloke to become a reporter and commentator which is largely good thing, it also has contributed to the polarization of our society by giving the minorities at the extremes of the political and social spectrum a loud voice.  This is pressuring (encouraging?)  governments to find ways to quiet these voices, especially under the umbrella of national security.

So, why do I raise this issue??  To remind you that an open, extensive Internet is precious and vital to our modern society and to encourage you to get involved when there are threats to the openness of the Internet.   SOPA was a ham-handed attempt to restrict our Internet rights, but most of the threats to the Internet are much more subtle.

There is an not-for-profit organization who’s mission is to aggressively monitor and address on-line threats to our privacy, security and the Internet.  It’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).  Besides monitoring, rallying and providing legal support for issues involving the Internet, they also have provided legal support for a variety of court cases effecting on-line privacy and security.  I encourage you to bookmark their site and to periodically visit their site to keep up-to-date on these issues.  When there is a movement that could restrict our Internet and/or it’s content, get educated and if applicable, join the discussion and push your agenda.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

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