David Brin on freedom, governments, and the internet

December 9, 2012 – 8:05 pm by John

In his post A Threat to the Internet as We Know It, science-fiction author, scientist, and futurist David Brin writes about the recent United Nations summit and the threats to internet freedom that it portended:

A United Nations summit has adopted confidential recommendations proposed by China that will help network providers target BitTorrent uploaders, detect trading of copyrighted MP3 files, and, critics say, accelerate Internet censorship in repressive nations. Approval by the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union came despite objections from Germany, which warned the organization must "not standardize any technical means that would increase the exercise of control over telecommunications content, could be used to empower any censorship of content, or could impede the free flow of information and ideas."

Internet activists are warning that this month’s meeting of the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations body charged with overseeing global communications, may have significant and potentially disastrous consequences for everyday Internet users. Some of the proposals for the closed door (though leaky) meeting could allow governments more power to clamp down on Internet access or tax international traffic, either of which are anathema to the idea of a free, open and international Internet. Other proposals would move some responsibility for Internet governance to the United Nations. Things could get scary. Rule changes are supposed to pass by consensus, but majorities matter and can you imagine the internet run by majority rule in the UN? Not by the world's people, but by the elite rulers of a majority of bordered nations?

To be plain, I consider one of the watershed moments of human history to be a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when powerful men in the United States of America chose a course of action that, in retrospect, seems completely uncharacteristic of powerful men... letting go of power. I know some of those -- for example Mike Nelson, now with Bloomberg Government -- who served on staff of the committee under then Senator Al Gore, drafting what became the greatest act of deregulation in history: essentially handing an expensively developed new invention and technology, the Internet, to the world. Saying: "Here you all go. Unfettered and with only the slenderest of remaining tethers to the government that made it. Now make of it what you will."
Yet, it seems that now we're at a turning point. The world's powers, especially kleptocratic elites in developing nations where middle class expectations are rising fast enough to threaten pinnacle styles of power, have seen what the Internet can do to all illusions of fierce, top-down control, fostering one "spring" after another. Responding to reflexes inherited from 10,000 years of oligarchy they seize excuses to clamp down and protect national "sovereignty."

I am reminded of how the film and music and software industries, dismayed by the ease with which people could copy magnetic media, sought desperately for ways to regain control. As you will see (in my next posting) I am not completely without sympathy for copyright holders! But those industries went beyond just chasing down the worst thieves, or fostering a switch away from magnetic media. They forced hardware makers to deliberately make our DVD players and computers cranky, fussy, often unusable, even when we weren't copying a darned thing! Capitalism failed and consumers were robbed of choice, leaving us with products that were in many ways worse than before.

And yes, that is what will happen to the Internet. Not just a betrayal of freedom and creativity, but a loss of so many aspects that we now rely upon as cool, as useful and flexible. As our inherent right. Nor is the threat only from one direction. As Mike Nelson just commented: "while everyone is fixated n the UN meeting in Dubai, nations are taking independent actions that could have chilling effects. It is not just the Great Firewall of China and Iran setting up it's own easy-to-censor Iranian intranet. It's includes Australian efforts to block certain types of content, the French three-strikes-and-you're-out law, Korea's effort to prohibit anonymity online, and Russia's new Internet law." Worth noting, as an aside; some of these endeavors are being propelled not by brutal dictatorships, but by political correctness on the left. The all-too human impulse for control is ecumenical.

I wonder if open/free internet advocates and those of us who warn of the dangers of every new internet-regulating proposal will come to be scoffed at the way hyperinflation scare-mongers are: "Oh, you've been predicting dire consequences and mass mayhem for decades; will you give it up already?" The fact that the professional criminal classes of country after country after country keep coming up with new ways to regulate, control, restrict, and police the internet suggests that the destruction of the internet as we know it is a very real possibility, whether it happens fast or slow.

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