For July 4, a Declaration of Internet Freedom

Advocacy groups offer vision for online freedom.

ByOPINION by LESLIE HARRIS, Center for Democracy & Technology
July 3, 2012, 5:28 PM

July 4, 2012 — -- On Jan. 18 of this year, the Internet went dark. In protest against overreaching copyright legislation that endangered the open architecture of the Internet, online services like Wikipedia and Reddit, along with 115,000 other websites, participated in an Internet-wide "blackout" to educate Internet users about the threat to net freedom. Thanks to the joint efforts of free speech advocates, online innovators and everyday Internet users, Congressional offices were flooded with calls and emails, and within days, the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) were shelved in response to the massive online uprising.

Now, half a year later, many of the people and organizations that helped make that Jan. 18 protest a success — including my own, the Center for Democracy & Technology — are ready to try something different. We're ready to move from defense to offense; ready to support something, rather than just oppose something; ready to transform that powerful moment, where Internet users rose up as one to oppose online censorship, into a lasting movement for Internet freedom. We're ready to try and harness the energy of January's tsunami of online activism, a shock wave whose effects continue to be seen in the privacy debate over cybersecurity legislation in the U.S. and the protests over the ACTA treaty in Europe.

That's why this July 4, instead of blacking out the Internet, we wanted to shine a light and share a positive vision of the Internet and its future, and beta-test a set of principles that can help serve as a rallying cry for Internet freedom fighters both in America and across the globe — principles that are broad and universal enough to speak to all political persuasions yet specific enough to serve as a benchmark against which future Internet legislation can be judged and around which future Internet movements can organize.

We're proud to be publishing those principles today in the form of A Declaration of Internet Freedom, joined by a diverse group of Internet innovators and advocates drawn from the loose but wide-ranging alliance that defeated SOPA and PIPA, including companies like Mozilla, individuals like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and advocacy and activist groups like Free Press, Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future.

We are publishing our declaration on Independence Day to echo the American founding fathers' publication of the Declaration of Independence, though we believe these values can and should apply globally as befits a global network. And what we declare, simply, is that:

We stand for a free and open Internet.

We support transparent and participatory processes for making Internet policy and the establishment of five basic principles:

Expression: Don't censor the Internet.

Access: Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.

Openness: Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.

Innovation: Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don't block new technologies, and don't punish innovators for their users' actions.

Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone's ability to control how their data and devices are used.

These five very simple but powerful statements of principle are far from the first word when it comes to trying to define basic values for an Internet age. They have roots that go as far back as the Bill of Rights, while also drawing inspiration from more recent efforts such as John Perry Barlow's rousing Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace from the '90s, the international Internet Rights & Principles Coalition campaign's concise but powerful ten principles on Internet rights, and the Principles for Internet Policy Making adopted last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We've also been inspired by the call from lawmakers like Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Darrell Issa for a digital Bill of Rights for Internet users.

Nor are these principles meant to be the last word on what Internet freedom is or should be, for us or for anyone else. Instead, given the participatory nature of the Internet, we're hoping that the principles will jumpstart a much broader conversation with the online public, involving feedback and refinement from the massive community of Internet users who have shown a willingness to take a stand on behalf of the open Internet. We're excited for the public to interact with these suggested principles through sites including reddit, Step2, Github, Cheezburger, and on Twitter using the hashtag #netdeclaration. We encourage people to vote for their favorites, make edits to them, question them, criticize them, and even suggest new ones. We look forward to hearing from people and organizations from every part of the political spectrum and every corner of the globe about what Internet freedom means to them. The immediate goal isn't consensus, but rather robust dialogue and debate.

We don't want to control the conversation, nor could we if we wanted to. It's on the open Internet, now, and that means anyone can join in the dialogue. But that will only remain true if we all work together to keep the Internet that way: open, innovative, and free. So join us this Independence Day by going online and saying what Internet freedom means to you. Help us light up the online world with a bright new vision of the connected future, and turn the SOPA moment into a lasting movement for Internet freedom.

The Internet blackout is over. Now it's time for the fireworks.

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