Freedom and the Internet

Posted on 29/12/2011

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Another 12 months, and another year older. But instead of gaining its independence, is the internet now more controlled than ever?

The past 18 months have challenged the Net’s independence. We’ve had the Afghan war logs, Embassy-gate and the pursuit of Julian Assange. In response, hackers attacked companies that had refused to host the Wikileaks website. Weeks later authoritarian Arab governments were trying to stamp out revolution by removing citizen’s internet access, and elsewhere citizens who are granted unrestricted access to the net successfully hacked Sony’s Playstation network and stole huge amounts of user data. In the UK we’ve witnessed the battle between Twitter users and celebrities who want to hide their private scandals from the press. It’s getting messy and there’s a growing struggle between groups who want a controlled internet and those who want absolute liberty.

I’ve found three things that illustrate this conflict:

1. The Stuxnet virus

Is this the world’s first cyber weapon?

2. Internet activism

Are groups like Lulzsec good rebels (Star Wars):

Rebels in Star Wars

or bad ones (Your only live twice)?

When does digital activism become terrorism?

3. DIY revolution

With Western governments trying to reign in rogue elements at home (by rogue elements read: anyone from hackers to file sharers), they seem to be adopting a different policy abroad, with freedom kits like this.

Internet suitcase
Another example of this confusing approach (or hypocrisy) is Hilary Clinton demanding freedom of the Internet abroad while the US government restricts websites at home.

On the one side we have governments and organisations that would prefer a more monitored internet. This can be in the interest of protecting internet users but it’s also a step closer towards internet censorship, which we have seen in
Egypt, Syria and of course China.

For a long time, the internet has been largely self-regulated, and this is what most advocates of a free internet want. These people support the freedom to exercise their full individual and political rights online and in principle I’m with them. At times, however, this strays towards anarchic and illegal activities. Are the actions of hackers like Lulzsec the first instances of internet terrorism? This feels like people taking their Internet freedoms too far.

There are international statutes that cover shipping and air travel because they take place in international territories. The internet occurs in both international and national territories. It’s not some third space, it is a space in its own right. The net allows transmission of services, of money and, fundamentally, data from one place to another. Information and ownership of that information is something we’re only just beginning to tackle at a national level, and something most of us still don’t understand. To enshrine it in international law seems overly pre-emptive and restrictive; it’s the people, not the government who benefit most from this.

I support the need for individuals to be protected online but all too often protection becomes restriction. One of the vital qualities of the internet is that it is free and it needs to stay like that. Remove this and all the benefits that Don Tapscott talks about in The Net Generation are lost (accessible democracy, education for all, efficient working and unbridled creativity).

Access to the internet is becoming a fundamental human right. As with all human rights, they are defended as long as they don’t restrict another individual’s rights. Freedom of expression, of information and of opportunity should exist online and be protected, whether marauding identity thieves, hackers or restrictive governments.

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