Freedom and the Internet

Posted on 12/02/2015


Better late than never? Some scribbles on civil liberties and technology from 2014…

gravestone of the internet

[Image: “Here lies the Internet, 1969-2015”. Source: TheMediaFix]

Yet another year another – in 2014, the Internet hit 25 (depending on exactly the year its various inventors lay claim…). But instead of reaching full independence like any adult would, has the Internet become more controlled than ever?

The past few years have continually challenged the independence of the Internet. We’ve had the Afghan warlogs, Embassygate and the pursuit of Julian Assange. Authoritarian regimes have even tried to stamp out revolution by removing citizen’s internet access. We found that the NSA were tapping much of the world’s communications; encrypted social media communications are still being challenged by governments.

[Image: Internet-in-a-suitcase, via the New York Times].

[Image: Internet-in-a-suitcase, via the New York Times].

In response, hackers have attacked companies, law enforcement, established anonymous ways of communicating and disrupting surveillance. In the UK we saw the battle between Twitter users and celebrities who want to hide their private scandals from the press. At Playful last year, Dave Murray Rust even suggested we purposefully create fake data about ourselves to confuse watchers. It’s getting messy and there’s a growing struggle between groups who want a controlled internet and those who want absolute liberty.

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. However, the Internet occurs in both international and national territories; it isn’t a non-lieu, it’s a space in its own right. For that reason it needs a different approach.

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.

There’s definitely a need for individuals to be protected online but, ultimately, protection becomes its own form of restriction. One of the vital qualities of the internet is that it is free and it needs to stay like that. Remove this and we’ll fall well short of our potential: accessible democracy, education for all, efficient working and unrestricted innovation could exist, but only within an unfettered Internet.

As I see it, we’ve managed thus far with mainly technology dictating the protocol. We’ll continue to manage and be better off without extra limits on the Internet.