With attacks on the open Web coming from all sides — from Big Entertainment lobbyists to politicians to oppressive nation states — activists for a free and unfettered Internet launched today an offensive action: It’s called the Declaration of Internet Freedom. Its goal: To energize the millions of people who fought back against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) into fighting for the establishment of laws that will ensure that the powers that be cannot destroy the Web as we know it.
We hold these truths to be self-evident…
“We believe that a free and open Internet can bring about a better world,” reads the “preamble” to the Declaration. “But to keep the Internet free and open, we must promote these principles in every country, every industry and every community. And we believe that these freedoms will bring about more creativity, more innovation and a better society.”
The principles currently established in the Declaration of Internet Freedom document include: freedom of expression and the abolition of Internet censorship; access to “fast and affordable networks”; openness, which allows everyone the ability to “connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create, and innovate”; the ability to innovate with new technologies, without interference or punishment of innovators “for their users’ actions”; and a right to privacy and the ability to control how one’s “data and devices are used” by companies and governments.
First created by Free Press Internet campaign director Josh Levy, Reddit co-found Alexis Ohanian, and a tight group of other Internet movers and shakers, the Declaration of Internet Freedom seeks to establish an “international movement” that will take action in order to build these principles and freedoms into law. The exact language and principles laid out in the Declaration, however, remain up for discussion, debate, and refinement from the Internet community at large.
“At this point, [the Declaration is] a set of suggested principles drafted by a lot of the people that were essential to the fight to stop SOPA and PIPA,” Levy told me in a phone interview today. “And it’s kind of our vision of what Internet freedom looks like, and what we should be fighting for. We see this as the start of a long-term campaign to prompt this discussion among the public, and to get every-day Internet users — may of whom took action on SOPA and PIPA — to think about the political nature of the Internet and why it should be protected.”
Toward this end, Mike Masnick of TechDirt, one of the people involved in drafting the Declaration and a vocal supporter of these principles, has set up a Step2 discussion page for the Declaration where users can comment on the living document, and offer changes or additions. A Reddit community, /r/InternetDeclaration, has also been started as another way to build the community. Political activist wireless company CREDO has set up a petition in support of the Declaration, as have Access, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
According to InternetDeclaration.org, which is operated by Free Press, more than 90 organizations, including Mozilla, the ACLU, Reporters Without Borders, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and startup incubator Y Combinator, have signed on in support of the Declaration, as have more than 40 individuals, including professors from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT; Vinton Cerf (one of the Internet’s “founding fathers” and “Chief Internet Evangelist” at Google); Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh; authors, civil liberty advocates, and many others.
The point of the Declaration is not, as Levy mentioned, to simply have a list of big names; it’s to engage average Internet users in a discussion about what the open Internet should be, and how to ensure that it is able to remain or become that ideal.
“This is a real opportunity to have a robust public discussion about the role of the Internet in our lives, about how to protect it,” said Levy. “So, that’s the goal here. The goal is not to have everybody just nod their heads at these principles, but to get that discussion started.”
Fight the fatigue
I asked Levy about rising fatigue that I have witnessed in comments and discussion threads surrounding legislation and other governmental actions that threaten the principals outlined in the Declaration, but Levy remains confident that the Declaration of Internet Freedom movement is different.
“It’s the human condition to feel beaten down by the powers that be, right? That’s a fact of life,” said Levy. “So what’s interesting is that, you know, I’ve seen some comments or threads where people say, ‘Well, this is just yet another declaration.’ It’s like, well, sure! You could say that about pretty much anything…. People have tried these things before. The thing I think is different here, and the kind of thing that will help overcome that fatigue you’re talking about, is that we’re responding to a moment when more than 13 million people took action and felt uniquely empowered, and were also woken up to the fact that the Internet was under threat.
“Unlike other issues, Internet connectivity is something people feel very acutely because we are a wired nation and we are increasingly a wired world,” he continued. “And when people don’t have access to the information that they want, or they feel like that access could be taken away, that affects them very personally. So that urgency, combined with the human aspect of connecting with other people who also feel intimately connected to this issue… I think that could be very powerful.”
The signing of online petitions and leaving comments about the Declaration is simply the first phase in a long-term plan to motivate Internet users to take action offline. Soon, Free Press and other organizations behind the Declaration of Internet Freedom will begin to encourage “people and communities across the country to form Internet meetups, to have dinner, or watch a film, or have a mimosa — do whatever in order to talk about Internet freedom issues and why it’s important,” said Levy. “And to talk about this Declaration, and then come up with their own response to it… the idea is to take those groups that form and have them go meet with members of Congress in their districts, and have their members of Congress sign onto the declaration as well.”
In the end, the Declaration of Internet Freedom is simply meant to serve as a catalyst for democratic action — to provide a vehicle for anyone who cares about keeping the Internet open and free, and about maintaining its power as a platform for free speech and innovative businesses. It’s so any user can drive to the doorsteps of power and say, ‘This matters to me, and it’s your job to ensure that the Internet remains a useful force for all people.’
“People liked to be asked to participate in something that’s meaningful,” said Levy “…I think the challenge is to take this burst of enthusiasm and channel it into something proactive where people feel like it’s not just about adding your name to something online (which is important enough) but that it’s about working together and connecting with other Internet users, and understanding the role that everybody can play, and helping to protect this fragile and open Internet that we’ve all come to love and depend on and that could go away if we’re not careful.”
Following the release of the Declaration of Internet Freedom by Free Press, Web activist groups TechFreedom and the Competitive Enterprise Institute released their own, competing vision of what the fundamental principles of an open Internet should look like. While some of the principles echo that of the Free Press version, proponents of the second draft — which is also called the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” — say the first version gets it wrong.
“We celebrate our unknown and unknowable future,” said Ryan Radia, associate director of the Center for Technology & Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in a statement. “Rather than enshrining particular consumer preferences, like ‘universal access,’ we focus on core principles like humility and respect for the rule of law. Our vision emphasizes what truly matters to Internet policymaking today: the process of technological evolution, not the end result.”
Regardless of which Declaration you agree with — or oppose — one thing is clear: The fight for the open Internet is real, and it’s not going to end anytime soon. The only way to ensure that you are not simply living by someone else’s rules, on someone else’s Web, is to participate. Join the battle, speak out, organize, and whatever you do, don’t give up. Surrender must not be an option.
Updated with additional information at 7pm ET