Online Freedom: The Next Political Target

A prominent senator demands that YouTube take down all videos purported to be associated with terrorist groups, provoking the ire of Netizens and First Amendment scholars alike.

A number of small Internet Service Providers strike a deal with an advertising network to give the network access to the Internet surfing habits of customers, provoking what one journalist dubbed "the mother of all privacy battles."

A congressional committee hears testimony on how laws intended to protect the huge cache of data about Americans held by the government have been far outstripped by technology.

Every day the media reports grow regarding the thicket of legal and policy challenges sparked by rapid technological changes and the pervasiveness of the Internet in everyday life. Netizens, technical experts, policy wonks and First Amendment scholars all weigh in by offering scorching opinions, legal analysis and policy prescriptions of their own.

There is an informed and passionate community of Internet users and thinkers. Those who worry about the future of the Internet, and whether it will remain an open and innovative platform that encourages free expression and commerce alike. But it is unlikely that these critical issues will find their way into the heart of the presidential election debate with issues like Iraq, the economy and health care on the table.

There is an irony in the absence of discussion about Internet and technology policy. After all, during this election cycle, the Internet has emerged as a powerful national stage and a key motivator for participatory politics.

The Internet has racked up one success after another during this campaign season, from grassroots fundraising, to social networking recruiting and coordination, to full-scale candidate debate forums.

Beyond the euphoria of these successes, there are critical issues and challenges facing the Internet that the next administration and Congress will have to deal with. The policies created to address these issues and challenges could have a dramatic impact on the Internet and play a critical role in deciding whether the Net remains open, innovative and free.

The issues facing the Internet are wide-ranging. There are at least six major areas that present challenges to the medium that the next president and next Congress will face.

First, the Internet's success stands on a landmark legal decision that grants its users the highest level of protection for free expression. Concerns about online child safety and illegal content, as well as the rapid convergence of the medium with other less open media and other technologies, have produced a raft of proposals that would artificially constrict freedom on the Internet.

At the same time, privacy in a networked world is at great risk. Laws and court decisions intended to protect our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy date back at least 20 years and have not kept pace with technology, giving the government easy access to the personal information we store in the "Internet cloud."

The post-9/11 laws that have lowered standards for conducting national security surveillance and data collection have further eroded constitutional protections.

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