Getting ‘Internet Freedom’ Straight
What is Internet freedom? The United States government has an “Internet freedom” agenda, complete with speeches by the Secretary of State and millions of dollars in program funding. A key United Nations official last year issued a major report emphasizing the right of all individuals freely to use the Internet. Taking a different tack, Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers and “Chief Internet Evangelist” at Google, recently argued in the New York Times that Internet access is not a human right. And Devin Coldewey parsed the debate in TechCrunch, noting that the Internet is an enabler of rights, not a right unto itself.
The answer matters. As an ever greater proportion of human activity is mediated through Internet-based technologies, the extent of our online rights — and what we really mean by “Internet freedom” — will take on greater importance in political and economic life. After a year in which new communications tools were used to dramatic effect throughout the Middle East, and at a time when autocratic governments are cracking down against online freedom, it is worth pausing to get straight the concept so many hold dear.
We might start by distinguishing between two linked but distinct concepts: freedom of the Internet and freedom via the Internet. Freedom of the Internet refers to the ability to engage in unfettered expression in cyberspace. This vision of Internet freedom, as scholar Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, represents freedom from something: censorship, government surveillance, DDoS attacks, and so on. The principles undergirding freedom of the Internet are articulated in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which describes as inalienable the right to receive and impart information without interference, “throughout any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In this sense, Internet freedom is little different from the notion of free expression, whose advocacy has been an element of U.S. foreign policy for decades. After all, American ambassadors have long pressed foreign governments to allow a free press, release jailed journalists and cease jamming unwanted broadcasts.