The New Politics of the Internet: Everything Is Connected
WHEN dozens of countries refused to sign a new global treaty on internet governance in late 2012, a wide range of activists rejoiced. They saw the treaty, crafted under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as giving governments pernicious powers to meddle with and censor the internet. For months groups with names like Access Now and Fight for the Future had campaigned against the treaty. Their lobbying was sometimes hyperbolic. But it was also part of the reason the treaty was rejected by many countries, including America, and thus in effect rendered void.
The success at the ITU conference in Dubai capped a big year for online activists. In January they helped defeat Hollywood-sponsored anti-piracy legislation, best known by the acronym SOPA, in America’s Congress. A month later, in Europe, they took on ACTA, an obscure international treaty which, in seeking to enforce intellectual-property rights, paid little heed to free speech and privacy. In Brazil they got closer than many would have believed possible to securing a ground-breaking internet bill of rights, the “Marco Civil da Internet”. In Pakistan they helped to delay, perhaps permanently, plans for a national firewall, and in the Philippines they campaigned against a cybercrime law the Supreme Court later put on hold.
“It feels like when ‘Silent Spring’ was published,” says James Boyle, an intellectual-property expert at Duke University, North Carolina. The publication of Rachel Carson’s jeremiad on the effects of pesticides in 1962 is widely seen as marking the appearance of modern environmental awareness, and of the politics that goes along with it. Fifty years on, might the world really be witnessing another such moment, and the creation of another such movement—this one built around the potential for new information technology to foster free speech and innovation, and the threats that governments and companies pose to it?