Net Neutrality: A Human Right for the Digital Age?
Sitting at home reading one night, you come across the term “WikiLeaks.” Unaware of its meaning, you exhale forcefully, knowing what’s next. Donning a dark black hoodie, you walk out to the street and down to an abandoned alley that you know well, carefully finding the entrance that few know about. Inside the secret room, there are eleven individuals bathed in the electric glow of computer screens: you've found your neighborhood internet speakeasy. Surreptitiously you look around before you sink into the twelth chair and begin your internet search.
Though an internet speakeasy seems far-fetched in our age of free speech, it suggests why the neutrality of the internet is such a precious resource. Since its inception, the internet has existed in a largely uncontrolled and apolitical form, with few restrictions on its growth and eventual ubiquity. With certain exceptions, such as child pornography and obscenity, the growth of the internet in the Western world has followed a model of "net neutrality," in which internet content and access have remained largely unregulated. Unfortunately, concerns about copyright infringement from entertainment companies and other media producers have recently introduced a shift in this philosophy as media conglomerates push for greater control by the government and internet service providers (ISPs). While an overwhelming negative response prevented the most recent attempt to undermine net neutrality, the threat of interference with the internet remains a serious concern.
In the last quarter century, the increasing ubiquity of the internet connected opposite ends of our planet in real time, promoting the seamless transmission of all kinds of information. To maintain the rate of advancement this has allowed, governments and ISPs should enshrine net neutrality and allow the internet to exist with only very limited regulation. Regulating the internet would dampen the potential of an entire global society and slow considerably the expansion of information and knowledge that has characterized the beginning of the internet era.
One way in which to judge a society’s status is by the basic freedoms that its citizens enjoy. As Americans, we enjoy freedoms of expression and the freedom to peaceably protest against our government, two fundamental rights guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the members of the United Nations, outlines these same freedoms, indicating that protection of certain unalienable freedoms holds importance in societies around the world. Placing limitations on the internet would restrict our ability to practice these basic rights.
Consider the use of blogs around the world today. The concept is simple: an ordinary individual can start a blog for free on blog-publishing websites and publish their own insights -- for better or worse -- for an audience unrestricted by conventional limitations of physical space, capital, or political borders. Now pretend that the blog post contains some content that the government might consider threatening, perhaps an espousing of ideologies in opposition to current policy. Under certain proposed legislation, the government could take advantage of executive powers to take down the post and even shut down the website. This course of action poses serious threats to our freedom of expression. With the ability to filter content as it reaches the internet, bureaucracies could prevent the transmission of alternative ideologies to the public, allowing the government to exercise broad powers over the information that we receive via the internet. Maintaining net neutrality would continue the current thread of minimal censorship over internet content, allowing individuals access to competing viewpoints from which to make informed decisions on a variety of topics.
Along with limiting our ability to practice free expression, limiting the internet would prevent freedom to peaceably protest. One of the fundamental tenets of our society is that citizens have the right to address issues they have with government policies in a peaceful manner. The digital age has updated this right, as websites help create and circulate electronic petitions to gain support for reforms that individuals feel are needed throughout society. Websites such as Change.org frequently appear in the news as a new way to mobilize citizens against certain government policies. A recent example is the Travyon Martin case, in which Martin’s parents started a petition on Change.org that collected over 2 million signatures to convince the Florida State Attorney to prosecute their son’s murderer. Without a free internet, it is unlikely that the Martins would have as easily attained the substantial support base that allowed their opinions to carry greater weight with the State Attorney’s office, which eventually filed charges for Trayvon’s murder. Greater limitations on the internet would prevent their voices from being heard while selective publishing of content designed to call individuals against the policies of the government would threaten our freedom to peacefully protest. Giving power to controlling bodies to police the content on the internet could endanger several of our basic human rights, allowing greater interference with free speech and thought in our society.
Perhaps one of the more useful results of a free internet is its ability to transform our society into a global culture. With the advent of advanced digital communications, individuals around the world are now connected like never before. The internet has made it possible for information to flow around the world instantaneously, sharing breakthroughs and advancements as they occur in research with academics around the world. A recent example is the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle at CERN, a physical science research facility in Switzerland. Discovered this past summer, within minutes of the press conference academics at international institutions could examine the findings, confirm the data, and comment on the significance of the discovery. The ubiquity of the internet has clearly revitalized the peer-review process, as academics can share data and collaborate in real time, gaining virtual access to facilities, resources, and materials that may not be available at their home institutions. The internet has further quickened the process by allowing information to be published and accessed almost immediately, rather than experiencing a 2-3 week delay through the traditional journal process. Isaac Newton once proclaimed that he had only been able to make his advancements by “standing on the shoulders of giants” who had researched before him--the internet gives scholars around the world the ability to stand in real time. Without the internet, new findings would be restricted to a more traditional publishing process that might require several weeks to receive popular recognition, thereby weakening Newton’s proverbial shoulders. The internet demonstrates its immense value by rapidly advancing academic research by providing findings in real time, facilitating international partnerships that can help tackle major problems facing our society.
Although many reasons exist not to police the internet, some might argue that leaving the internet in an uncontrolled fashion encourages the infringement of copyrighted materials, such as movies and music. While it is true that the internet does enable sharing of these items, extensive policing is not the solution. Legislation such as the Stop Online Piracy Act of 2012 (SOPA) is far too aggressive and arbitrary when taking action against copyright infringement, giving governments and ISPs broad powers to completely remove websites from the internet that host copyrighted material. Furthermore, safeguards already exist to prevent copyright infringement. In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), providing copyright holders with a way to request takedowns of infringed content while also limiting the liability of the hosting websites. Through this system, if an individual wants to protect their copyrighted material, they simply have to report the offending violations and a separate office will authorize the removal of only the infringed material; such systems offer the ability to defend intellectual property while also promoting the freedom of the internet. Individuals who desire stronger methods for defending copyright can look to the Megaupload shutdown earlier this year, in which federal authorities shutdown the popular file sharing site Megaupload, removing infringed materials but also a substantial amount of legitimately hosted data. The legitimate data is now lost to its owners, simply because the government shut down the site to enforce copyright violations by other users. Enabling greater power over the internet for the sake of protecting copyright interests has the potential to endanger the legitimate use of the internet--a significant sacrifice.
The internet has become such an indispensable part of our everyday life that it is incredibly difficult to imagine life before it. With the instantaneous transmission of information, the internet has revolutionized the way we do business, obtain knowledge, and communicate with others. Internet access provides millions of individuals with new mediums in which to express their personal opinions, fomenting the biggest advancement of free expression since the invention of the printing press, and enables scholars around the world to collaborate like never before, accessing each other’s data in real time. Having allowed the internet to exist in a largely free form for so long, placing restrictions on internet content or access now has the potential to dampen the capabilities of our society and reduce our rate of advancement. As we continue to enter the digital age, the neutrality of the internet becomes a resource that we must fight to protect, or we risk our further advancement. Maintaining net neutrality is not simply a matter of protecting existing standards and preventing the extension of authoritative powers, but instead is a matter of establishing a new fundamental human right in the digital age.