On Aug. 6, 1991, the World Wide Web went global. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee posted the first hyperlink to an online discussion group and began the Internet’s transformation from an elite tool to a public platform. Since then, the Web has spawned dreams of a cyber-realm where government censors are powerless, people are free, and national boundaries are meaningless.
“Governments of the Industrial World,” wrote Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow in 1996, “you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
Twenty years after the Web’s debut, governments around the world are trying to put the genie back in the bottle. The Internet has indeed revolutionized politics and government, but it has hardly transcended laws and regulations. From blocking online poker to tracking the cyberfootprints of suspected terrorists, governments are exer-cising more power over—and through—the Internet than ever before.
“In the early days of the Web, a decade or so ago, it was taken for granted that freedom of expression online would inexorably evolve and progress,” noted a recent report from the OpenNet Initiative, a coalition promoting Internet freedom. “It was assumed that governments that did not uphold the fundamental human right to speak and write freely would be powerless…. By now, though, those dreams have been dashed.”
China’s government demonstrated years ago that it could restrict access to the Web and stifle online political criticism. But Western governments are becoming more intrusive too, often motivated by popular goals: fighting child pornography; tracking criminals and terrorists; preventing cyberattacks and fighting cyberwars; and helping political opposition groups in countries such as Libya and Iran evade government repression.
“Now that the Internet is an integral part of most people’s lives, it would be contradictory to exclude governments,” President Nicolas Sarkozy of France told a global conference of technology leaders this spring. “Nobody should forget that these governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to risk democratic chaos and hence anarchy.”
“Governments are the only legitimate representatives of the people.… To forget this is to risk democratic chaos.” —President Nicolas Sarkozy of France
Earlier this year, France gave police the authority to shut down suspected child-pornography websites without a warrant, a move that civil libertarians fear could legitimize more-expansive censorship. But France is hardly alone. The governments of Tunisia and Turkey, among others, have proposed Internet filters to block pornography that could also end up restricting access to legitimate websites. The leaders of Iran, already one of the world’s harshest online censors, are transitioning to a state-controlled “national Internet” that allows no access to the World Wide Web.
Washington has been ramping up its policing as well. The proposed Protect IP Act moving through Congress would give law-enforcement agencies more tools to go after pirated content online. Critics say that the bill could limit free speech by allowing officials to block websites without giving their owners a chance to defend themselves against charges of illegal activity. Another bill would require Internet service providers to keep their customers’ browsing histories for a full year. It aims at helping police track down child pornographers, but opponents say that the government could mine the information for almost any purpose.
The dilemmas came home to America in a big way in August when San Francisco transit officials shutdown cell-phone service in some subway stations to head off planned protests in their train stations. The move drew rebukes from civil libertarians and sparked a fight with the hacker group Anonymous. Angry over the shutdown, Anonymous hacked into a transit-authority website, exposing the personal data of people unrelated to the agency and even posting nude pictures of a transit official. Both sides’ actions make it hard to say who was in the right, highlighting the tension between government protection and government intrusion.
The widening governmental grasp worries civil libertarians and longtime champions of Internet freedom. “The world’s governments are increasing their regulatory attention to the Internet to address a range of concerns,” said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group working to keep an “open, innovative, and free” Internet. “In the process, some are forgetting—or are consciously seeking to repeal or limit—the policy choices that allowed the Internet to develop into such a powerful platform for economic activity, democratic participation, and human development.”
This article appears in the September 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.