On Tuesday, the GOP announced that “Internet freedom” would be one of its primary concerns — clear evidence that Web users’ protests against government actions like SOPA, CISPA, and ACTA have shaken Washington to its core. For any of us who opposed such efforts, the GOP’s focus on an open Internet is fundamentally positive. But as I’ve mentioned in the past, Internet freedom and openness means different things to different people and groups. So, just how pro-Internet is the GOP’s “Internet freedom” platform? Let’s break it down.
The GOP’s promise to fight for Internet freedom reads as follows:
The Internet has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more rapidly and extensively than any other technological advance in human history. Its independence is its power. The Internet offers a communications system uniquely free from government intervention. We will remove regulatory barriers that protect outdated technologies and business plans from innovation and competition, while preventing legacy regulation from interfering with new and disruptive technologies such as mobile delivery of voice video data as they become crucial components of the Internet ecosystem. We will resist any effort to shift control away from the successful multi-stakeholder approach of Internet governance and toward governance by international or other intergovernmental organizations. We will ensure that personal data receives full constitutional protection from government overreach and that individuals retain the right to control the use of their data by third parties; the only way to safeguard or improve these systems is through the private sector.
FCC = bad
So, the GOP’s detail-free stance takes on three main issues: U.S. government regulation, ongoing attempts by member states of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to gain more control over the Internet, and user privacy. Here, we’ll look at each stance individually.
Given the GOP’s long-held stance against anything that looks or smells like “big government” intervention, promises to “remove regulatory barriers” should come as no surprise. The question is, which regulatory barriers?
“Coming from any other source, I might be tempted to think this provision was advocating weaker copyright and trademark protections. After all, those are the sorts of regulations that felled Napster, arguably the most innovative online music service ever,” writes Dan Turner in the LA Times. “… But given that it’s the GOP’s work… it’s safer to assume that the barriers in question are the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which was actually co-authored by Republicans), the current administration’s approach to antitrust enforcement (e.g., blocking AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile), and the Net neutrality rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.”
Indeed, it is. In the platform’s next provision, entitled “A Vision for the Twenty-First Century: Technology, Telecommunications and the Internet,” the GOP goes in full attack-mode against President Obama, the FCC, the Telecommuncations Act of 1996, and Net neutrality rules. According to the GOP, Obama is “frozen in the past” with respect to technological advancement. The FCC’s powers over the Internet and telecommuncations companies are “not a good fit,” and the agency has used its Net neutrality rules to”micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network.”
“It inherited from the previous Republican Administration 95 percent coverage of the nation with broadband,” reads the provision. “It will leave office with no progress toward the goal of universal coverage – after spending $7.2 billion more.”
The $7.2 billion the GOP refers to was money allocated as part of Obama’s 2009 stimulus package — money intended to subsidize broadband Internet access to underprivileged homes with school-age children. In 2010, the FCC furthered President Obama’s initiatives to make high-speed Internet more accessible through its National Broadband Plan, which seeks to provide 1 gigabit per second Internet to Americans. It’s safe to assume that the GOP opposes these efforts.
Bottom line: If you consider “Internet freedom” to mean that companies should be able to exactly as they please, then the GOP’s position against the FCC is a good one. If, however, you see great value in the FCC’s efforts — especially its Net neutrality rules, which prohibit companies from favoring one type of Web content (i.e. content they have a financial stake in) over another — then be wary of any push against the FCC.
Further, it is clear that both the Obama administration and the GOP agree that more Americans need access to high-speed Internet. The difference here is how that happens. The GOP wants to let the market work it out. Obama believes government subsidies can do the trick. At this point, however, there is little evidence that either approach can get more than 95 percent of the country hooked up to broadband.
ITU = bad
As you might have heard, the United Nations is trying to “take over the Internet.” That characterization is not accurate — but the consequences remain the same: Member states of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a 100-year-old organization that is now part of the UN, want to have more control over the global Internet. Some want to impose fees on websites. Others want the ability to more tightly censor the Web. If ITU member states choose to go this route, the governments of the world will have unprecedented control over the Internet, its underlying technology, and the Web itself. All in all, this is a risky — if not downright terrible — prospect for the global Internet as we know it.
When the GOP says it “will resist any effort to shift control away from the successful multi-stakeholder approach of Internet governance and toward governance by international or other intergovernmental organizations,” this is what they are talking about. And it’s reassuring to know that this is their stance — but it’s not a particularly surprising revelation. Nearly all interested parties in the U.S. — Republicans, Democrats, telecommuncation networks, and Web content providers (like Google) — are against these ITU proposals. Expect the Democrats to issue a similarly hard-lined stance against the ITU.
Bottom line: Taking a stance against giving the governments of the world more power over the Internet is a good, though expected, stance for the GOP. In my book, this is positive on all accounts, but will not likely differentiate the GOP from the Democrats.
Privacy = good
Lastly, we have the GOP’s promise to “ensure that personal data receives full constitutional protection from government overreach and that individuals retain the right to control the use of their data by third parties.”
The privacy protection stance is a promising one: One of the primary problems with CISPA (the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act) and other cybersecurity legislation is the potential for the federal government to collect private information on Web users in the name of national security, and then use that data for other purposes. If the GOP truly plans to protect personal privacy, legislation like this won’t make it through Congress.
“This is a big victory for the Internet: Lawmakers abiding by this language would have opposed both SOPA and CISPA. It’s important for politicians to know that if they act contrary to these Internet freedom principles, they’ll risk the wrath of their party’s most committed activists,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, in a statement. “Democrats should act quickly if they want to keep up, and if they don’t want to lose their position as the party of the ‘net. It is clear today that censoring the internet or monitoring internet users is wildly unpopular, and we urge Democrats to join the fight to protect the Internet today by forming their own party platform plank. “
I am far more skeptical than Mr. Segal on this point. SOPA, as you may remember, was the work of Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas. CISPA’s primary co-sponsor was Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, and passed the House thanks to overwhelming support from GOP congressmen and congresswomen. And another Republican-backed cybersecurity bill, the SECURE IT Act, had just as many problems for Web users’ privacy and civil liberties as CISPA does.
These are just a few examples — and many Democrats are equally guilty of ignoring Web users’ rights. Furthermore, some in the GOP — most notably Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) — have fought back against such efforts. And Rep. Issa has led the fight for Internet freedom at the federal level. Still, the GOP’s track record on matters of personal rights on the Web is far from stellar. And many of Issa’s colleagues in Congress could brush up on the First and Fourth Amendments.
As for Web users’ “right to control the use of their data,” this too is a positive step — and one that lines up nicely with efforts already under way by the Obama administration. In March, the Federal Trade Commission issued its “Privacy by Design” plan, which seeks to give Web users more control over their personal data through the use of Do Not Track, and increased transparency of data brokers, which make money from selling profiles on people’s Internet usage, among other personal details.
Bottom line: Saying you’ll protect people’s privacy and Constitutional rights on the Web and actually pushing legislation that does so are two different things. I need more than just a sentence in a platform statement to believe this one — and that goes for the Democrats, too.
Danger: MPAA praise & censorship afoot
One aspect of the GOP’s platform has given me serious pause — and it’s not what Republicans say in the text. In a statement released to the press today, Chris Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of American (and former Democratic Congressman) praised the GOP platform as a win for intellectual property rights holders, like the MPAA and RIAA — the same groups behind dangerous bills like SOPA and trade agreements like ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement).
Here is Dodd’s statement in full:
The Republican Party platform language strikes a very smart balance: It emphasizes the importance of us doing more as a nation to protect our intellectual property from online theft while underscoring the critical importance of protecting Internet freedom. As the party points out, the internet has been for its entire existence a source of innovation, and it is intellectual property that helps drive that innovation. Copyright is the cornerstone of innovation; it allows creators to benefit from what they create. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — herself once a Republican elected official — wrote, ‘It should not be forgotten that the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.’
I agree wholeheartedly with my friends in the Republican Party that we must protect the free flow of information on the Internet while also protecting American innovators. It is imperative to our national economy and our national identity that we protect an internet that works for everyone.
Given the MPAA’s history of attacking Internet freedom, I would think twice before being happy about anything Dodd wholeheartedly agrees with.
Another troubling portion of the GOP’s platform, entitled “Making the Internet Family-Friendly,” says that, “The Internet must be made safe for children.” The provision goes on to say that this responsibility should fall on Internet service providers (as opposed to the government), but efforts to combat child pornography and online predators must also respect First Amendment rights — that’s good.
Unfortunately, the GOP goes on to say that, “Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.” A number of obscenity laws, like 18 U.S. Code Section 1465, prohibit the interstate transmission or distribution of “any obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy book, pamphlet, picture, film, paper, letter, writing, print, silhouette, drawing, figure, image, cast, phonograph recording, electrical transcription or other article capable of producing sound or any other matter of indecent or immoral character.” Do so, and you could face fines and/or up to five years in jail.
According to Patrick Trueman, president of right-wing advocacy group Morality in Media, vigorously enforcing U.S. obscenity laws means that anyone who provides hardcore pornography, whether on the Web or on TV, should be put behind bars.
“Distribution of obscene or hardcore pornography on the Internet is a violation of current federal law,” said Trueman in a statement. “Yet, most children in America have free access to obscene pornography as soon as they learn how to use a computer. The average age of first exposure to obscene Internet pornography is now eleven.”
Now, the relationship between the Internet, obscenity laws, and the First Amendment guarantee of free speech are extremely complicated due to the fact that content on the Web is (mostly) global, making terms like “interstate distribution” far more difficult to define. Still, if the GOP truly stands by its word on this one, a large portion of Web content — not just pornography, but anything that a “community” (another tricky term) deems obscene, be it music, art, film, or forum comments — could be under threat.
The simple fact that both the Republicans and the Democrats are taking up Internet freedom issues is a positive step forward. And overall, the commitments made by the GOP in this area are promising. Of course, the devil’s in the details, as they say. And at the moment, the GOP platform offers very few for us to consider.
Furthermore, the Republicans’ definition of Internet freedom could result in problems for individual Web users — not because of the government, but because of corporations taking advantage of a deregulated environment.
At the end of the day, however, this process of defining the rules (or lack thereof) for the Internet is an inevitable one, and it will go on endlessly, just as the process for defining the rules of life offline continue to this day. The good news is, we, the Web users, have got Washington’s attention. Now comes the tough part of pushing them to do the right thing.