Internet Freedom of Speech
Ian Lurie Sep 8 2008
I’m speaking tomorrow at the IAMAW’s Grand Lodge Convention about free speech and the internet. These are my remarks. I would GREATLY appreciate comments and feedback, today, so I can adjust if I’m about to say something moronic. So, a little detour today from internet marketing to freedom of speech. I’m a leftie, no doubt…
Update: You should be able to watch me swallow my tongue tomorrow, around 9 AM EDT, via live streaming at this address: http://www.goiam.org/iamglc2008/video
The internet can open up speech and communications like nothing else. It has the potential to let almost anyone speak out.
But we face three huge challenges that prevent it from reaching that potential:
- The web is international. What we do here in the US can impact journalists and citizens in China, the middle east and everywhere else. American companies take actions that lead to imprisonment in China, or censorship in Iran.
- 90% of policy makers are utterly, utterly clueless about the internet. We currently have a president who refers to the world wide web as ‘the internets’ and senators referring to the internet as ‘a series of tubes’. My daughter is in 1st grade and better understands the issues. This isn’t a slap at anyone’s intelligence. It’s about learning and experience with the internet. And at the policy level we have very little.
- 1 and 2 have created a huge imbalance of power over corporations who often participate in muzzling of free speech and surveillance online. Right now investors and governments abroad are often the only voice heard when someone’s rights are at risk. Corporations only hear the other side of the story after the fact.
You may think this doesn’t affect you. You’re wrong. This affects everyone.
First, you get less reliable information from around the world. Journalists, bloggers and communicators like Shi Tao, who sent an e-mail, anonymously, from his workplace via Yahoo e-mail to the NY Times. Yahoo!, upon request of the Chinese Government, turned over the information. Shi Toa is now serving 10 years in prison in China.
It’s a tragedy for Shi Toa and his family. It’s also one for us, as his writing is now squelched.
Censorship, Active and Passive
Second, you experience censorship when people DO publish online. Go to China and try to look up a web site about human rights abuses. Even better, walk down the street and try and look up a web site about breast cancer or gay rights in a public library. Chances are the library’s filtering software is locking those sites out.
At the same time, major web services like Google and Yahoo! filter out ‘controversial’ sites within countries like China.
Internet service providers and other web service providers like search engines are storing more and more data about what you do. Some internet service providers recently attempted to store every packet of data you send back and forth – think of it as fingerprints on your mail – for later use. They failed, thanks in large part to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But they won’t stop trying.
Understand this: These restrictions, and limiting access to online newsgroups, and everything else businesses and government does to limit access – THEY DON’T DO ANYTHING to prevent online crime and pornography. I have an 8 year old son who reads better than I do. I want him to be safe. But these steps don’t do it. WE have to exercise that control, ourselves, at home. No one else can do it.
And these restrictions don’t stop terrorists, either. Yesterday we talked about fear. These kinds of measures are driven by fear and, again, by policy makers who just don’t get it. I can download free software and in 5 minutes totally circumvent any and all efforts by ISPs and content owners to stop me from accessing information, or track what I do online.
What this monitoring does do, though, is chill open discussion online. If I know you’re tracking everything I do online, I’m less likely to write. That’s passive censorship.
Access and Net Neutrality
Third, we have the assault on net neutrality. Net neutrality means all web sites have access to the same tier of internet bandwidth and services. It’s a good thing.
If network neutrality ends, network operators would create a structure where web sites have to pay for the amount of public access they want. If you don’t have enough cash to pay for faster acess, you end up “in the slow lane”, as Senator Obama put it: Your web site will load more slowly.
Guess who wants to end net neutrality: John McCain. He says network providers should be able to profit from their investment.
I’m a small business owner – I’m not against making a profit. But guess what? These network providers already DO rake in great, sticky piles of money.
Guess who supports net neutrality? Barack Obama.
How do we fix this?
Right now you have a terrible balance of power in the US: On this side, you have web-illiterate policy makers making bad policy. On that side, you’ve got corporations and ISPs who are pressured by other governments to turn over information and are storing more and more information about what we do online so they can sell more advertising.
Fixing this is about restoring the balance of power exerted on those who decide when and when not to censor or hand information over to governments. Restoring it by raising our voice.
We need to create an environment where a company like Yahoo! at least pauses to think before they turn over records or otherwise take action that’ll cause innocent citizens and journalists harm.
We need to speak to elected officials and let them know we don’t like what ISPs and internet corporations are doing when they start storing and retaining more and more information about what we do online.
And, we need to pressure our leadership to support net neutrality, and keep their promises about protecting it.
We can’t be bystanders. We need to demand that leadership really understand how this all works.
Three things you can do when you walk out of here – head right down to the Cybercafe and do it!:
– Support the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (eff.org)
– Support Reporters without Borders.
– Read the Cyber Dissidents Handbook
Most important, vote for candidates who demonstrate they understand these issues and will act to protect free speech.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More