This Declaration of Internet Freedom Is Vague

As a reaction to SOPA and other complex legislative efforts to regulate the Internet, online activists have created a Declaration of Internet Freedom, which consists of five very broad principles to keep the Internet free and open. And yet, at fewer than 100 words, the declaration remains frustratingly unclear.

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As a reaction to SOPA and other complex legislative efforts to regulate the Internet, online activists have created a Declaration of Internet Freedom, which consists of five very broad principles to keep the Internet free and open. At fewer than 100 words, compared to the convoluted anti-piracy bills it's a response to, the declaration's length seems itself to be an attack on the anti-Internet contingent. Unlike the big bad government, which buries information in its confusing thousand-page long legislation, the authors of this concise declaration seem to be aiming for a transparent document for Internet transparency. That sentiment not only embodies the pro-Internet contingent, it also shows why these two sides have yet to come together to address Internet regulation.

This Declaration of Internet Freedom was put together by a large coalition of privacy groups, Web sites, and individuals, which Free Press has listed here on its site. TechDirt, one of these founding parties, suggests the document is in the discussion phase, pointing readers to Reddit and cheezburger pages where they can continue forming the document, meaning this thing will get beefed up a bit, maybe? We haven't found anywhere that details the process further, though. Perhaps this is just to get the Internet talking to itself.

With what we have so far, these two sides are vague in two very different ways. The Declaration of Internet Freedom speaks in broad generalizations, calling for ideals like "access" and "freedom" without any details of how we can achieve these things. CISPA and SOPA, the two big Internet piracy and privacy bills, presented the masses with the kind of complex plan the government often makes, using open-ended terms the Internet crowd didn't like. Under CISPA, for example, the government could seize Internet information in the face of a "cyber-threat" -- a term meaning what exactly? "Efforts to degrade, disrupt, or destroy government or private systems and networks," read the legislation, giving us more words, but less clarity.

As a response to those many empty-seeming words, the other side gives us what it fancies a solution. The document's brevity does indeed make it easier to read and understand. But we run into the same problems as we did with the government legislation. What does it really mean? Here's the blurb for piracy, for example.

  • Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.

We understand the sentiment, but how do we do this? It doesn't give policy makers much to work with, only inviting antagonism. Or, government intervention, which might not turn out as the Internet activists like as Tech Liberation's Adam Thierer notes: "I like the sound of the 'Innovation' bullet ('Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don’t block new technologies, and don’t punish innovators for their users actions')," he writes. "But is that protecting the freedom to innovation and creation without permission from the government or does this entail something more?"

We're not the only ones to find this declaration too simple. As a direct response, TechFreedom and the Competitive Enterprise Institute have created their own Declaration of Internet Freedom. "We’re not convinced Internet policymaking can be effectively guided by something as short as the 'Declaration of Internet Freedom' issued by Free Press and other groups," explains the site. "Rather than enshrining particular consumer preferences, like ‘universal access,’ we focus on core principles like humility and respect for the rule of law. Our vision emphasizes what truly matters to Internet policymaking today: the process of technological evolution, not the end result," adds Ryan Radia, associate director of the Center for Technology & Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in a TechFreedom post. Some of it provides more direct solutions. Like the piracy bullet has actual prescriptions.

Privacy. Don’t coerce private companies to disclose consumers’ data. If law enforcement needs private data, they should follow the procedures required by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which generally means convincing a court to issue a warrant. Prevent private companies from abusing data about consumers: Punish deception and enforce corporate promises. Develop common law against “unfair” data practices — those that cause real harms without countervailing benefits, and where user empowerment is inadequate.

However, in other places the document gets abstract, moving away from specifics of the Internet and giving us even bigger generalizations. Like, this opening point: "First, do no harm. No one can anticipate what the future holds and what tradeoffs will accompany it." No harm to whom?

As long as these two sides continue to use vague, open-to-too-much-interpretation language, we're not sure we'll ever see a solution. In light of this, Theirer has put a moratorium on Internet Declarations of Freedom. We, however, would settle for a few more specifics.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.