For A Free Internet

Periodically the Internet comes under attack  by governments who either want to control, censor or tax it.  This time the desire to control the Internet was probably precipitated by the recent Wikileaks release of State Department cables that left officials scrambling to control the disaster. But this piece is not about Wikileaks or any isolated incident that has occurred and will, undoubtedly, occur again in the future. It is about government control of a resource that is at its foundation about free expression and the free exchange of information as originally conceived by the DARPA inventors in the late 70s.

Prior to the Internet the free press served as a sort of watchdog on our culture, the goings on of governments, and a forum for the free expression of the people, what’s left of it still does. Today the internet serves much the same purpose especially as the traditional media tries to figure out how to survive in the age of the world-wide web and make use of this resource. Indeed for some, rightly or wrongly the Internet IS the press. Of critical importance the internet has also given a voice and an outlet to the people through blogs in addition to the millions of web sites.

The fight for a free press worldwide continues be it print or electronic media. Remember the flap over the Pentagon Papers and government lying during the pre-Internet Vietnam era? Is todays Wikileaks any different?

We are all painfully aware that governments have this need for power and control over the people in complete disregard for the will of the people and any constitutional mandate. One needs to look no further than our own Patriot Act or the Internet censorship in China. Reasons of national security, in the case of the Patriot Act, is usually the only excuse they need. Sadly, in this age some government snooping seems necessary. However, for China it is control, plain and simple.

As recently reported on NPR the U.N. is considering some form of governance over the Internet to benefit “those governments who simply favor more control over the Internet and for those who want to see the network reformed for the benefit of less powerful countries.” Some governments don’t like the free flow of information and are looking for rules to limit the political impact of the Internet.

The FCC  in their Net Neutrality statement, FCC-05-15, encourages broadband deployment and the preservation and promotion of the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet. On 12/21 the FCC adopted new rules that prohibit ISPs from selectively slowing the performance of rival websites for landline subscribers but excludes such prohibitions for wireless devices.  Some providers claim that the ability to control the performance of some sites is just a way to manage the network traffic. So much for net neutrality.

As the issue of net neutrality rages some envision a future FCC “Internet Decency Statement” or an “Internet Lawful Use Policy”  or an effort by Congress to give the FCC authority to regulate ISPs who would be required to filter or otherwise monitor their users to ensure compliance. We have already seen evidence of filtering and monitoring by ISPs in the case of Wikileaks but this seems to have been done on a voluntary basis.

Taxing the Internet has, so far, pretty much been limited to the collection of state and local sales taxes which has been inconsistent and unenforceable. To solve this problem President Obama has introduced the idea of a nationwide tax on Internet goods and services in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Plan. Presumably this is designed to unburden entrepreneurs and small businesses from having to deal with a myriad of state and local tax laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that, in general, out-of-state retailers can’t be required to collect sales taxes unless Congress changes the law. But will Congress protect small Internet retailers and the consumers they serve from another Internet tax scheme?

We also need to be watchful that Congress does not interpret “goods and services” so broadly as to include taxation of the Internet itself.

It must be noted in closing that advocacy for a free Internet, however, does not include or condone cyber attacks in any form. This includes those in the hacker community who believe that just because information resides on a computer it is fair game for illegal retrieval or those self-appointed cyber vigilantes that presume to test and expose computer security weaknesses in the misguided belief that they are performing some public service. Nor does it include invasions of privacy such as tracking usage for marketing purposes.

UPDATE: On March 9, 2011 the House voted to reverse the FCC Net Neutrality ruling on the grounds that the rules will discourage phone and cable companies from investing in costly network upgrades by barring them from offering premium services over their lines or prioritizing traffic from business partners in order to earn a return on those investments.


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