We're Living Our Lives On The Internet, And We Can't Be Free If It Isn't.

from the the-open-internet-is-more-important-than-ever dept

Last year, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ?offline? world suddenly became a lot more online. All around the world, people have struggled to adapt. Worst off are those who can?t take internet access for granted. The Federal Communications Commission will spend many resources on the domestic side of this challenge, further investing in internet connectivity reach, quality, and affordability. But the international side, known as ?internet freedom,? is a harder question.

Internet freedom may generate fewer headlines than a decade ago, when it was a signature issue of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But internet freedom is just as necessary now as it was then. For example, in China, crucial information about the spread of COVID-19 was often unavailable, and citizens resorted to using technical workarounds to upload and view videos about the pandemic on government-blocked YouTube. And in Iran, those who follow the Bahá?í faith are denied access to education, and depend on internet freedom technologies to give themselves the most basic opportunities. There are many more such examples in internet repressive countries around the world.

Fortunately, bipartisan support for internet freedom in Congress has kept funding levels robust over the past four years, and consistent leadership from within the Department of State and other funders has kept this work strong. But as with so many other areas of policy, the Trump administration not only did not add value, but actively made things worse by engaging in a harmful turf war. Partisan leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) disrupted the funding and operations of its independent grantee Open Technology Fund (OTF) when OTF chose to pursue good policy over bad politics, an approach that – to give one example – led the organization to support early development of the now-popular Signal secure messaging service.

The first internet freedom action by the Biden administration should be to reverse course and install leadership at USAGM that can work constructively with OTF, the State Department, and other funders to support scalable open source technology and community internet freedom solutions. Congress did its part through the defense funding bill passed on New Year?s Day (in the first-ever override of a veto by Trump), allocating substantial resources and setting the tone for open source to be at the heart of internet freedom efforts. And President Biden has cleared the way by firing Michael Pack, head of USAGM, on inauguration day. Now it?s President Biden?s move again, to make a better appointment at USAGM than his predecessor did.

Internet freedom is a human rights issue, but it isn?t just a human rights issue. As 2020 demonstrated so clearly, the internet is connective tissue for massive parts of our economy and our society. Thus, China?s Great Firewall does far more than just repress free expression: it also implements an economic protectionist agenda, and is a powerful tool for fostering nationalist support at home. To counter these challenges, the Biden administration should adopt a positive agenda of supporting the global free flow of data and information, to prove in practice the superiority of digital globalization over repression and protectionism. That means growing the internet freedom agenda further, well above and beyond the State Department?s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor where it was incubated, to embrace the economic and political divisions at State as well as the Department of Commerce.

Perhaps more than any other federal agency, the State Department is in need of a hard reboot. Under Trump, the United States reverted to being a unilateral bully, bringing back the ?Team America: World Police? spirit of the George W. Bush administration, forcing out centuries of institutional knowledge and expertise. Unsurprisingly, that strategy has failed. China in particular possesses many advantages on the global stage, and will be in an even better position in many respects after 2020. The United States faces a drastically weakened foreign policy position, and cannot turn any tides alone. In the context of internet freedom, the American agenda should include expanding efforts with the Freedom Online Coalition and other diplomatic avenues where we can work arm-in-arm with other countries who, frankly, possess more goodwill on the global stage than the U.S. does right now.

Finally, leadership starts at home. For at least the past decade, the U.S. approach to digital government surveillance has been outright hostile, highlighted by frequent battles in an ill-conceived war on encryption. President Biden has an opportunity to show strong support for privacy and security by shaping the interagency and National Security Council to better balance law enforcement with civil rights and internet freedom champions. The newly created role of a White House coordinator for democracy and human rights is a good start. It?s past time the U.S. stops pursuing backdoors that would put everyday internet users at great risk.

Where the internet isn?t open, the people aren?t free. Although the challenges facing the Biden administration in putting the United States back together will be many and broad-ranging, restoring American leadership on internet freedom should be a top priority.

Adam Fisk is the founder and president of Brave New Software, a leading 501(c)(3) developer of internet freedom technologies including Lantern and a recipient of U.S. government internet freedom support. Chris Riley is a strategic advisor to Brave New Software and a former member of the internet freedom program team at the State Department.

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Comments on “We're Living Our Lives On The Internet, And We Can't Be Free If It Isn't.”

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16 Comments
Koby (profile) says:

Incentives?

To counter these challenges, the Biden administration should adopt a positive agenda of supporting the global free flow of data and information, to prove in practice the superiority of digital globalization over repression and protectionism.

What incentives are in it for them? Why would countries that are attempting to firewall or splinter off the internet decide to go in the other direction? For example, if another country believes that a U.S. tech company could censor their head of state, yet they have free trade and can continue to sell goods and conduct business, why wouldn’t they seek to continue the splinter?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

If Twitter can censor the leader of another country, that leader has bigger problems to worry about — like, say, being do interviews with news outlets or call press conferences or literally anything else a head of state can do to get their message out. Twitter can’t do any of that. You know it can’t do any of that. And you’re being a disingenuous liar when you imply they can.

Get a better argument. This one is ten pounds of bullshit in a one-pound bag.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Incentives?

"Why would countries that are attempting to firewall or splinter off the internet decide to go in the other direction?"

Because in the end shutting out the rest of the world is fairly crippling unless you exert monumental efforts at maintaining a filter which shuts out only the communications you don’t want to happen.

China, for instance, invests enormous amounts of hardware and human resources in order to maintain the great firewall in a state which fairly well blocks webpages of the tiananmen square massacre or winnie the pooh while still allowing access to banks, online libraries and the apple app store.

The US, on the other hand, is not just utterly unable to justify that much money spent on a government effort, but unlike, as with China, screwups won’t be just something easily dismissed, but instead likely to generate massive amounts of litigation and public awareness.

Countries such as Iran do choose to cripple their own industrial infrastructure and growth by putting a blunt pair of scissors to their network trunk, but this is mitigated by the fact that thanks to their normal sanctioned status there’s very little industry to be meaningfully affected.

"if another country believes that a U.S. tech company could censor their head of state, yet they have free trade and can continue to sell goods and conduct business, why wouldn’t they seek to continue the splinter?"

Because if they want to continue free trade and conduct business today then they will have to either not fragment away from the global internet architecture in the first place…or be prepared to spend a whole lot of money and manpower dedicated to keeping the proper businesses open while still shutting out the undesirables. Most countries simply can’t afford this.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Please note: Internet freedom is important, except when it’s a private corporation censoring content we don’t like. -Techdirt"

No, no. Internet freedom is important, especially when it concerns private entities being allowed to dictate the rules applying on their own property.

I don’t know what is worse. Alt-right trolls being dumber than bags of hammer or them thinking everyone else is as bereft of brains as they are.

Let me know when Twitter can prevent you from going to Gab and post there, or when Facebook can force you to not say whatever the hell you like in public.

The only hypocrisy here is from people like you, Baghdad Bob, who try to make your butthurt over civilized people not allowing you to borrow their soapbox be a question of moral integrity somehow.

Here’s a clue, free of charge; Maybe if you stop being an obvious and obnoxious asshole people might stop "censoring" you by throwing you out of bars, parties, and the facebook pages.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

We never had all this censorship bullshit with the tv stations.. "I sent them a letter and they decided not to read it on the air.. wahh I’ve been censored!".. I don’t know what kicked off this massive entitlement such that "tech companies are suppressing us", but I have a hard time believing it was completely above board. Is it really just that those people are that entitled?

Anonymous Coward says:

not everyone is trying to ruin the Internet by restricting it or CHARGING for it, but i’ll bet a dollar to a pinch of horse crap that that is exactly what is going to happen! the biggest instigator, through total fear of becomming unnecessary, obsolete and skint is the entertainment industry, in particular, the movie, music and news sections. all these are ably backed up by the USA government, doing whatever they are told to do to not just try to preserve the decades old way the industries did things but to give them greater powers, greater scope and more ways to fuck things up for everyone else! how is that happening? by having changes and enhancements voted into law through the back-handed deals and ‘campaign contributions to politicians and to the courts. and it wont change until the industries (and the governments/security services) get all that they want, including total surveillance of everything that everyone does on the internet. land of the free, home of the brave! what a load of shite those words now are!

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Well, that's not **quite** true.

"Where the internet isn’t open, the people aren’t free."

Ought to be, "where the people aren’t free, the internet is deep". Not even China is that successful at preventing those who really want to go outside the firewall from going outside the firewall.

What the loss of freedom and increased restrictions and censorship do in reality is simply to restrict access to freedom to the skilled and those deliberately seeking it, removing it from open view.

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