Online Freedom: The Next Political Target

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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