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State of the Web: How Washington could ruin the Internet freedom debate

washington internet freedom capitol hill net neutrality election 2012With the 2012 election season now in full swing, the Republicans and Democrats have each released their official party platforms, those pandering documents that vaguely outline the parties’ positions on everything from health care to foreign wars. But this year, both platforms included one topic that has never before made an appearance as a standalone provision: Internet freedom.

The inclusion of Internet freedom as a primary point of concern for the two leading U.S. political parties follows a year of unprecedented activism on behalf of the Web. The famous Internet blackout on January 18 against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) kicked off a string of protests backed by millions of newly invigorated citizens. Intense battles against the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CIPSA), and the contentious U.S.-backed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) followed, as did backlash against various cybersecurity bills. And a fight over the increasingly hated Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is brewing hotter at this very moment.

It is this activism that has pushed Internet freedom to the forefront of American politics — a position that should encourage Washington politicians to place Internet-related issues even higher on their agendas, and citizens to stay informed and active in the process. In many ways, this is good for the Web, and for the people and businesses that rely upon it.

Us vs. Them

Unfortunately, the addition of “Internet freedom” on the political platforms also has the ill effect of further politicizing the Internet, a transition that could lock Internet issues into the Us vs. Them impasse that plagues so many issues important to our country and the world. 

At the moment, here’s how this fight breaks down: Republicans define “Internet freedom” as freedom from government control. (Surprise, surprise, I know…) Specifically, they oppose regulations like the Federal Communications Commission’s Net neutrality rules. Not only do they believe that Net neutrality infringes upon businesses’ ability to innovate, some on the Right assert that Net neutrality — which prohibits Internet companies from discriminating against certain Web content or access to content — violates companies’ First Amendment right to free speech.

Verizon recently filed a brief in federal court asserting exactly this. In its brief, Verizon stated that the FCC’s Net neutrality rules are unconstitutional because “broadband networks are the modern-day microphone by which their owners engage in First Amendment speech.” A number of right-wing advocacy groups, including The Free State Foundation, TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute, have filed an amicus brief in support of Verizon, with the goal of having FCC Net neutrality rules thrown out by the court.

So that’s one side. In the other corner we have the Democrats, most of whom strongly support Net neutrality principles on the basis that they protect Web users and small businesses from the greedy wrath of corporate giants. Interestingly, the 2012 Democratic National Platform makes no direct mention of Net neutrality. Instead, it declares support for the things Net neutrality supporters believe the principles achieve.

“President Obama is strongly committed to protecting an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, creativity, consumer choice, and free speech, unfettered by censorship or undue violations of privacy,” the platform reads. The Democrats also tout their commitment “to preserve the Internet as a platform for commerce, debate, learning, and innovation in the 21st century.”

In other words: Democrats support Net neutrality even if they don’t say so explicitly. That’s what “protecting an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, creativity, consumer choice, and free speech” means, after all.

Fateful split

Battles like the one over Net neutrality are entirely inevitable. But I fear that the dividing line over this issue will only lead to further partisanship over all aspects of Internet regulation (or deregulation) — partisanship that could leak deep into the cracks of the American electorate, and divide Web users in the same way that issues like abortion and same-sex marriage divide us now.

We cannot let this ideological split define the debate over the open Internet. The reason the protests against SOPA/PIPA were so monumentally successful is that we, the Web users, were firmly united in opposition to these poorly crafted pieces of legislation. (Not to mention the support added by companies like Google, which, incidentally, has a complicated relationship with Net neutrality.) But if we let the same petty bipartisanship rule over our senses when it comes to Internet issues, such uniformity will become increasingly unstable and eventually fall apart. 

Last word

As it stands now, the debate over what “Internet freedom” means remains fluid — we are able to support or oppose each new piece of legislation or other government action based purely on merit, not on meaningless factors like which political party supports this or that bill. But this balance has already begun to shift towards a more partisan dynamic, one that makes clear-minded analysis nearly impossible.

I am pleased with the inclusion of “Internet freedom” on the party platforms for the sole reason that it means we are doing something right — that we have Washington’s attention. I fear, however, that by getting its attention, we have ushered in the end of the “the Internet” as a solid, pragmatic force against the creaky, entrenched powers-that-be.