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.

The explosion of commercial data collection online — often tied to marketing — also threatens privacy. Internet users are routinely tracked as they surf the Web. Large advertising networks create profiles of Internet users' interests and preferences in order to target advertising to them as they traverse the medium. Trust in the medium is undermined by spam, spyware and other Internet harms.

The Internet has always been a neutral end-to-end network that allowed anyone with a connection to launch innovative applications and services without having to obtain permission from anyone along the way. But now new broadband business models and other concerns are now challenging that model, and there are significant concerns that the open Internet will give way to gatekeepers.

As the United States lags behinds other countries in broadband deployment, there are worries that we have not put the right policies in place to make sure every American can take advantage of our networked democracy and economy.

Global Internet freedom is also at risk. Totalitarian regimes limit their citizens' access to ideas and information and learn to harness the power of the medium for repression and control. The United States needs to use all the tools at its disposal, including foreign aid and trade agreements, to fight this dangerous trend.

Finally, while technology has begun to open up the government to the American people and make information and services more accessible, there is much more to be done to harness technology to increase government transparency and responsiveness.

While we may not see these issues raised in presidential debates, now is the time to begin querying candidates about where they stand and whether they have policy positions and plans to address these issues.

Here are six simple questions to ask candidates:

Do you agree that speech on the Internet should be given the strongest protection under the Constitution? What actions will you take to restore reasonable checks and balances on government surveillance? Will you support enactment of baseline federal privacy legislation that protects personal information online? What will you do to preserve the open, innovative and non-discriminatory Internet? How will you promote global Internet freedom? How will you use the Internet to create greater openness and transparency of the federal government?

CDT has created an online, interactive transition document — version 1.0 — that proposes some policy answers to these questions. Readers are invited to comment in order to help us flesh out our ideas over the next few months and turn the document into a blueprint for sound Internet policy that will be presented to the next resident and Congress. If you want to add your thoughts, go to www.cdt.org/election08. Internet users have transformed politics. We invite you to join us to transform Internet policy.

Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

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