Internet Freedoms Come of Age

As many a policy wonk / green lobbyist / aging ex-frontman of the Boomtown Rats will tell you, there comes a time in the life of a political rebel when you cut your hair, put on a tie, put down the placard and walk into the building. Entering the corridors of power to make your case may involve a little compromise of your principles, but that's all part of growing up.

Similarly, it seems, the internet is entering a new age of responsibility. Where once the out-of-control look seemed sexy -- all off-the-cuff and emergent in an oversized Grateful Dead t-shirt -- now as the World Wide Web is increasingly finding its place in polite, and profitable, society, something a little more refined is in order. Something with a degree of self-control.

Before November's World Summit of the Information Society in Tunis, the idea that the internet could be controlled was anathema to the "network of ends". Then when Google went into China last month, it cast light into the shadowy corners of a regime bent on censoring the net and controlling the packets of data that pass between its citizens and the outside world, to perpetuate its iron grip over a nation by depriving them of information. The image of internet control that was projected back out to the rest of the world spurred the US Congress to draft the Global Internet Freedom Bill, bringing the impulse to legislate into the open.

But legislation to harness the net's unstoppable flow of information has been drafted, away from the public eye, ever since powerful rightsholder lobbies realised that the internet's potential to distribute information at zero cost had grave implications for the way they did business.

A disparate group of campaigners has been the only voice for internet freedom in this often rarefied and remote debate. Sitting in on working groups in forgotten corners of Brussels, attending endless hearings of court cases in Washington, it has marked up both defeats and successes in their quest to keep technological innovation in the information age free from inappropriate constraints pursued by rightsholder groups.

In January 2003, creative commons frontman Lawrence Lessig failed to persuade the US Supreme Court that extending the period of copyright to nearly a century hinders the progress of science and the useful arts. The case against copyright term extension is now being fought by Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive on free speech grounds.

In May 2005, the Electronic Frontier Foundation successfully persuaded the DC Circuit Court of Appeals that a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission to disable digital recordings of television broadcasts and criminalise the sale of hardware that did not conform to the specifications of rightsholder groups was beyond the organisation's remit. Following the US ruling's defeat, a similar piece of legislation developed by the Digital Video Broadcasting project is now making its way through Brussels.

In June 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that Grokster, the manufacturer of the peer-to-peer networking service Morpheus, was liable for copyright infringement that took place over its network. This reversed the precedent set by the famous Sony Betamax case against the video recorders, which decided that technologists working in the information field were free to create new ways of distributing and copying information so long as their inventions had significant non-copyright-infringing uses.

In July 2005, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject a European Commission recommendation to allow patents on software code, a development that could have led to the demise of free and open source software and the fossilisation of one of the most dynamic, innovative industries in "new Europe".

As these cases show, the fight between internet freedom and intellectual property law -- the "copyfight" -- is a never-ending one. Many characterise its protagonists as techno-utopians, or geeks worried that someone might take their toys away. But as the narrative of control over internet freedom joins the mainstream, it is worth remembering how long, and against what adversaries, the fight has been fought up until now.

The movement to keep the internet free will be the defining fight in the information age, just as the environmental movement is the defining fight of the industrial age. As our physical make-up is reduced to a string of ones and zeros, and knowledge replaces property and labour as the means of production, democratic access to information becomes a basic civil right.

The copyfight has many parallels with the early environmental movement. Valid interest in access to information unhindered by intellectual property law is diverse -- from librarians to scientists to developing world campaigners fighting for the right to distribute lifesaving generic antiretrovirals in Africa. These parties are beginning to organise together, as shown by Consumers International's recent condemnation of the UN World Intellectual Property Organisation's pursuit of tighter intellectual property controls. Just as peace campaigners joined with conservationists, animal rights activists with anti-nuclear protesters, so will the people who fight on the fringes of the information war join forces.

Copyfighters, like environmentalists, seek to protect a complex ecology. The abolition of copyright and patent law is not the goal of these defenders of internet freedom -- they merely seek a balance between the needs of creators to profit from their work and the needs of the public eventually to own it. As players in the knowledge economy continue to prospect in the pool of collective wisdom, copyfighters ask only that they do not over-farm.

Now that the fight for internet freedom has moved from the corporate to the political stage, it is likely to gain more exposure and more support. But it should be noted that the arguments used in this fight -- such as freedom of speech and transparency of government -- are similar to those used in the copyfight.

On 14 February, Condoleeza Rice announced a Global Internet Freedom Task Force. It will "consider the foreign policy aspects of internet freedom, including the use of technology to restrict access to political content and…efforts to modify internet governance structures in order to restrict the free flow of information." The fight for internet freedom has finally entered the corridors of power. Let's hope it remembers its roots.


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