Author Lawrence G. Walters, Esq.
With the new year upon us, two things become painfully apparent in concluding 2012 sans post-apocalyptic bedlam: 1) the Mayans seem to have preferred tequila breaks over finishing their calendaring duties, and 2) there are no more excuses justifying willful blindness to any of the damage done during the last twelve months. No, we’re not talking about the 10 lbs. you packed on since Thanksgiving, but more along the lines of extremist legislative proposals by lawmakers across the globe, particularly in the area of Internet regulation.
Recently, the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (“ITU”) culminated its World Conference on International Telecommunications (“WCIT”) in Dubai. The WCIT, comprised of almost 200 nations, was called for sole purpose of ratifying the ITU’s Telecommunications Regulations, which were drafted in 1988 to address interconnection between international telephone/telegraph networks. This year’s update, however, went off the rails a bit when some world leaders viewed the conference as an opportunity to gain government control over Internet operations. Countries like China, Russia and Middle Eastern nations lobbied for proposals that would allow member countries to regulate a broad range of Internet governance options that are currently under the authority of international third party NGO’s. One proposal went so far as to call for all signatory governments to have “equal rights to manage the Internet,” ranging from technical operations to actual content review. The U.S., along with Canada and the U.K., argued that greater government involvement in overseeing the Web would inevitably act as a gateway for countries already censoring the Internet within their respective borders to justify even more restrictions and invasive monitoring. Standing firm against the WCIT’s potential chilling effect on the world’s largest communication medium, the U.S. and its backers staged a walkout during the final vote on the WCIT’s revised Internet treaty.
Almost 90 countries signed the newly ratified regulation which, among other things, gives participants the unilateral and unrestrained ability to access private telecommunications services and block allegedly harmful commercial communication transmissions. Those countries that refused to sign the revised treaty are under no obligation to abide by it, and will only be bound by the language of the original 1988 agreement. As you can see, the situation still fosters a global epidemic of confusion, as about half the countries involved in the summit are now playing by an entirely new set of self-serving regulations with a colossal potential for abuse.
Whether or not we have a digital Cold War ahead of us remains to be seen. That said, before we start congratulating each other on the staunch free speech principles of our esteemed U.S. ambassadors in Dubai, we might want to make sure those ideologies still hold true in our own backyards. The U.S.’s rejection of the ITU telecom proposal was a critical step in the right direction. However, that effort doesn’t negate, or even lessen, the blow felt from similar regulations proposed by U.S. lawmakers just a few short months ago.
Under the guises of such noble causes as consumer protection, reducing unemployment and even battling terrorism, the U.S. government allowed censorship to rear its ugly head in 2012 with the likes of SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, and ACTA. SOPA, the bill thought to have had the most momentum out of the lot, would have given the U.S. government almost total control in blocking access to foreign websites – sans due process – exhibiting the slightest hint of infringing activity. Fortunately, the public fought back with a world-wide Internet blackout campaign, wherein hundreds of service providers – ranging from Google to Wikipedia – went dark or posted “CENSORED” messages on their sites. After January’s historic public backlash, SOPA (and its sister bill, PIPA) were removed from the House and Senate calendars indefinitely, but hopefully for good. This prior attempt at overzealous domestic regulation doesn’t quite resolve with the U.S.’s current position as the WCIT’s problem child. Such contradictory actions beg the question: How is the U.S. government any different from the countries it chastised at the WCIT? And even more so: How can we as Americans look at Chinese officials with disgust or Russian citizens with pity, when the U.S. Legislature ambushed its people with similar Draconian directives on domestic soil?
So often we hear the war-cry of grass roots movements, reminding us that all citizens have a voice; activism starts at home. The unfortunate reality is that although it’s true that activism starts at home, so does sanctimonious complacency. Given the series of disturbing events in the U.S. over the last few months, we’re seeing the relatively ‘kumbaya’ American disposition that often appears in the wake of national tragedies and natural disasters. As important as solidarity is in times of tribulation, it’s easy to forget that the legislative machine doesn’t stop rolling. If anything, such devastating events act as the shiny objects diverting citizens from yesterday’s cause. In today’s over-stimulated Information Age, the inadvertent label of ‘old news’ would be the kiss of death for any anti-censorship movement. If the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ adage has proven true with anything, it’s with the American people and the activity of their lawmakers. Legislative Internet censorship is a very real concept; a concept, that if dismissed by citizens, will undoubtedly find itself buried within the folds of yet another massive bill aimed at pulling on heart strings – whether in the form of protecting children, or giving hope to the unemployed via economically-friendly rhetoric.
Earlier this year anti-censorship activists rallied in an exhibition of civil unrest, the likes of which never seen by the so called “Internet Generation.” One would think that with the U.S. drawing a line in the sand on a global scale, additional censorship regulations disguised by muddying acronyms in the coming year would be highly unlikely. One would think… That said, the WCIT is just one battle in the constant war between government regulation and the free exchange of ideas. The U.S. has taken a significant global position on Internet freedom, but before our free speech piety gets the best of us, let’s make sure our government maintains that position in leading its own people first.