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.

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 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."

One possible hitch with those approaches, though, is that legislation as blatantly badly-crafted as SOPA and PIPA doesn't come along every day.

Cheezburger's Huh raises an intriguing alternative interpretation: this Declaration of Internet Freedom is, more than anything else, an internal pact. When I float comparisons to the U.S.'s own declaration of freedom from Great Britain, Huh responds that "one of the challenges we faced when we were looking at this was how diverse the Internet is. The Founding Fathers had a closed system of people that they worked with." In contrast, "when you're looking at a declaration of freedom for the Internet, you have to think about a corner of the world that you've never been to. You have to think about an innovation that hasn't occurred yet. You have to worry about speech that hasn't required protection." And so you cope with that diversity by, for one thing, making sure people can debate and edit the principles on their own, but also by embracing the idea that any sort of enforcement that happens takes place at home. "What's really critical here," explains Huh, "is that there's an individual accountability that we want to add to this which is, 'I, in my actions, in my business and as a person am willing to uphold these principles." He goes on. "If you want to think of a declaration of the Internet age, I think the only [people] you can hold accountable [are] the organizations you represent."

Of course, the Internet has seen something similar before. Back in 1996, with the United States considering its far-reaching Telecommunications Act, Grateful Dead lyricist, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder, and now-retired Wyoming cattle rancher John Perry Barlow penned the landmark The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Barlow spoke directly at "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel." Barlow's message? "On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."

Sixteen years later, I get Barlow on the phone on, fittingly, July 4th. Is it wrong to worry about who a second declaration of Internet principles might represent? "That's always the problem with the 'Net," he says. "When you have all of humanity, roughly, represented, and you have some subsection of that trying to weigh in, it's obvious that it's not going to be a particularly democratic process." He points out that while he was telling governments to shove off in his '96 declaration, he was arguing for the idea that individual rights needed to be protected. He just thought that with governments out of the picture, norms would organically emerge that would make sure that would happen. ("Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract.") That's worked pretty well, argues Barlow.

As for this new Declaration of Internet Freedom, sure, its first batch of supporters amounts to "a list of my friends," says Barlow. (He is, in fact, a little miffed that he wasn't asked to be one of them.) But if a group of people were needed to set the standards for life online, it's a good batch of folks to do it. "It's a pretty conscious group of people," says Barlow. That said, he says, the fact is that no one can expect to meaningfully control the evolution of the Internet. The medium just doesn't work that way.

With more than 15 years of hindsight, would Barlow have written his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace any differently? He laughs. "I mean, I wrote it in the middle of a party at the World Economic Forum while drunk and dancing with a bunch of graduate students from the University of Geneva." In other words, yes.

For one thing, Barlow says, he would have described his belief that the online and offline worlds are joined as body and mind, instead of "some kind of sublime abstraction between the Internet and the physical worlds that I didn't believe in at the time." For another, though he believes that there is indeed a "we" of people around the planet who want a free-flowing Internet, and see in it the potential to meaningfully connect humanity, "I would have made it more clear that I was speaking for myself." Barlow also says that he would have made more of an attempt to make the document plainly descriptive, not prescriptive. "I was declaring a condition that I thought already existed and would exist. It wasn't like, 'We are hearby severing our relations with you or we are declaring ourselves to be free as a result of our actions in this document and subsequent military activity. It was more like, I don't think -- me, personally -- that we have much to fear from you."

Arguably, the lesson of the years since is that "the wider Internet community" does have something to fear from governments and other powers-that-be -- thus the need for this new Declaration of Internet Freedom. Governments didn't really stay away from the Internet when Barlow told them to do so. To be useful, does a document like this new one need to figure out where its authority comes from and what it means to do about enforcing its principles? After saying goodbye to Great Britain, the United States decided upon a geography-based winnowing into local and national representative legislatures. Certainly, there are other ways to do it. But defining representativeness is one way to avoid the swapping of one kind of tyranny for another. And it's probably fair to say that harnessing representativeness and authority is something online politics hasn't really figured out yet. In theory, nearly everyone can participate. How you judge that participation, though, is something that everything from to Americans Elect to folks who try to email Congress need to wrestle with.

To make it a truly meaningful document, advocates for the Declaration of Internet Freedom might want to spending some time working on those questions, too. Why? Because there are some pretty powerful and well-organized forces that -- whether or not they say they back the openness, access, innovation and the like -- seem to have a different vision for how the Internet plays out over the next sixteen years.

*I should mention that I consider Free Press's Josh Levy a friend.