Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, have proposed a measure that would require websites and online services to abide by strict privacy rules for children under 12. Among other things, the bill would prohibit Web companies from tracking a child’s online browsing. But some civil-liberties activists say the bill would actually reduce privacy because Internet companies would need to collect even personal information to determine if a user is a child.
Government efforts to protect against hacking present some of the greatest challenges to Internet freedom, analysts say. Legislation proposed by the top members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee would give the federal government the authority to enforce cybersecurity and would push the private sector to establish “best practices” against hackers. When civil-rights groups complained that the measure would give the executive branch too much power in the event of a major cyberattack, the bill’s sponsors added language that explicitly bars the president from using any kind of “kill switch” to shut down the Internet.
Some policymakers, including former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, have proposed measures to beef up security by making it easier to track and identify people online. But cyberlibertarians oppose any such steps. “A ‘reengineered,’ more secure Internet is likely a very different Internet than the open and innovative network we know today,” warned George Mason University researchers Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins in a recent paper. “It might be an Internet on which information flows are much more easily controlled by government and in which anonymity is impossible, posing a threat to free speech. A capability to track and attribute malicious activities could just as easily be employed to track and control any other type of activity.”
BIG BUSINESS VERSUS BIG BROTHER
Perhaps the most heavily lobbied open-Internet battle in the United States centers on network-neutrality regulations designed to reduce anticompetitive behavior over broadband networks. The rules, which the Federal Communications Commission approved in December, prohibit Internet service providers from blocking or slowing access to certain websites. For supporters, usually on the liberal side of the political fence, net-neutrality regulations are vital to ensuring that corporations don’t restrict Internet access. Without restrictions, they say, ISPs could charge Yahoo for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than Google’s, or could block start-ups from entering the market. Conservative critics decry the rules as tantamount to a government takeover of the Internet. Even before the regulations took effect, they were challenged in court, and the House voted to overturn them.
The brawl highlights a vexing subtext of the online-freedom debate: Who is best suited to protect the free use of the Internet? The Net’s traditional champions leaned libertarian, worrying primarily about government control. But giant corporations essentially dominate the Internet today, and many of them have access to vast amounts of personal data. Facebook alone boasts more than 750 million active users (if Facebook was a country, it would be the third-most populous in the world), and Google recently became the first website to attract 1 billion visits a month. Like Washington, the cyberindustry seems to straddle both sides of the argument over Internet freedom.
“People tell me, ‘On the one hand, it’s great you played such a big role in the Arab Spring, but it’s also kind of scary because you enable all this sharing and collect information on people,’ ” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, told the e-G-8 assembly. “It’s hard to have one without the other.… You can’t isolate some things you like about the Internet and control other things that you don’t.”
Many in the business community and in civil-society organizations are hoping that self-regulation will stave off government mandates. The Global Network Initiative, a coalition of human-rights groups and industry giants such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, was established in 2008 to develop guidelines for operating within authoritarian countries. The idea, not always embraced during the heat of competition, is that Western companies shouldn’t provide the tools for political repression.
Meanwhile, though, the communications and tech sectors face mounting calls in democratic countries for government intervention to fight cyberattacks, data breaches, invasive marketing, child pornography, and hate speech.
Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit advocacy group for citizen rights in cyberspace, said that some degree of government control is inevitable. “As long as there are people sitting at the keyboards, governments will have a role to play,” he said. “People still live in the real world, and in the real world, governments are still in charge.”