Defining the 'We' in the Declaration of Internet Freedom

Left unsaid in a high-profile new document about Internet's principles is whose interests it represents--and how they'll be backed.

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Junius Brutus Stearns/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, a collection of Internet bold-faced names rolled out a Declaration of Internet Freedom. Groups like the advocacy organization Free Press and the New America Foundation's Open Technologies Institute took the lead on its creation, and the first batch of signatories included the likes of Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Harvard Law School professor and former Obama administration official Susan Crawford, Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, Internet pioneer and Google evangelist Vint Cerf, Ben Huh of ICanHasCheezburger.com and related sites, and a raft of other groups and individuals who make good livings on or around the Internet. The plan is for the public to debate, edit, and remix the document's core principles, "as only the Internet makes possible," as two of the planners put it. But here's what the Declaration of Internet Freedom held at its creation:

We stand for a free and open Internet.

We support transparent and participatory processes for making Internet policy and the establishment of five basic principles:

  • Expression: Don't censor the Internet.
  • Access: Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.
  • Openness: Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.
  • Innovation: Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don't block new technologies, and don't punish innovators for their users' actions.
  • Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone's ability to control how their data and devices are used.

With bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), treaties like  the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), and holidays like Independence Day (July 4th) in the news, it's an opportune time for a project like this. It's also the right time to poke at its meaning. For one thing, as Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield pointed out, the declaration's bare-bones founding principles are strikingly vague. The application of "defend[ing] everyone's ability to control how their data and devices are used" is going to get very complicated, very quickly, especially when so many of the social platforms and tools that Internet users love, like Facebook and Google, are built on a trade-off between data and access. And yet at the same time, the principles are easy to get behind. Few people think what they're doing is censorship, and it's a decent bet everyone from AT&T to the Motion Picture Association of America to even the Chinese government believes that they're abiding by some version of "openness."

But there's something else about the Declaration of Internet Freedom project that jumps out. On a press call announcing the declaration, tech policy activist and Techdirt publisher Mike Masnick, a signatory, talked about the fact that the document was an attempt to set forth the principles of "the wider Internet community." It makes you wonder how a project like this goes about establishing that it is, indeed, somehow representative of something bigger than a large handful of Internet luminaries and advocacy groups whose names are on the document.

In other words, when you write a Declaration of Internet Freedom, who's "we"? And what leverage do they bring to bear?

At the risk of being pedantic, historically declarations have tended to be things that (a) represent some defined body and (b) have some way of being enforced. Take the Declaration of Independence. It was "the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America," as represented in the rebellious Second Continental Congress. (Granted, the only folks represented were well-off white men.) For enforcement, the states had armed revolution at the ready. For the Virginia Declaration of Rights drafted by George Mason with an assist from James Madison -- and from which the Declaration of Independence was in part remixed -- was "made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia," and the means of upholding it was, well, active resistance against the British. The post-World War II Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a product of the United Nations' General Assembly. For member nations, enforcement happens in the U.N., though things are admittedly fuzzier for non-member countries. If the Declaration of Internet Freedom's constituency is the several dozen people and groups listed at launch, that's not nothing -- but it is limited. With notable exceptions, the signers on the document are clustered on the coasts of the United States. Of course, more signers will come, but what that means isn't entirely clear. Representative government has its imperfections, but it generally also has its rules for amassing authority laid out for all to see. With something like the Declaration of Internet Freedom, it's trickier to track what a presumption of authority might be based on.

The network of Cheezburger sites gets about 340 million hits a month. Do all those clicks amount to something akin to votes?

Huh's network of Cheezburger sites gets a reported 340 million or so hits a month. That's impressive. But it's a stretch to think that a click on one of his LOLcat photos is a vote in favor of his representing the interests of the billions of people who are on the Internet across the globe.

When the questions of representative participation and enforcement are put to the backers of the declaration, their answers suggest that they're still very much in the thinking-things-through stage. Techdirt's Masnick suggests that the declaration is about articulating norms that, when violated, "create a natural enforcement mechanism" like the mass public outrage that greeted SOPA and PIPA in the United States and ACTA across the globe. That dynamic "doesn't need to be written into the principles or in any particular regulation," argues Masnick. "[It's] just the recognition that the public accepts these things and that any effort to go against them will be opposed." For Free Press's Internet campaign director Josh Levy, the focus is on boosting the public's watchdogging of the rules governing the Internet.* (Thus the "We support transparency and participatory processes for making Internet policy" language in the declaration.) "They can't conduct business as usual when there are a million eyes watching them," holds Levy. "They need to know that they're being watched so that they can no longer try to conduct things behind closed doors, with special interests."

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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