Internet Wins, Losses and Threats in the Year Ahead

While there are some reasons for optimism, a looming renewed threat comes from those who failed to get SOPA legislation passed three years ago.
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Three years ago the Internet faced one of its greatest threats and millions of people called their member of Congress to ask them to stop pending [SOPA] legislation that would have led to Internet censorship. While the decisive public response to SOPA averted that threat, others loom on the horizon, and I wanted to provide an update on how policymakers around the world are handling some of them.

First some good economic news, the Internet is a growing tool not just for personal communication, but for nations' economies. Many people don't realize that 75 percent of the Internet's economic benefits go to traditional industries. In Europe, the digital economy is expected to grow 7 times faster than their GDP.

The Open Internet is both threatened and defended by various government and private entities sometimes acting in confusing and contradictory ways. In the US, the FCC plans to vote this week to protect access to the Open Internet. The FCC's goal is to be able to prevent the big Internet access providers, who oppose even light regulation, from playing gatekeeper with Internet content for a price. The FCC will try to adroitly use its authority to regulate telecommunications services so as to have a more reliable legal foundation when it faces the inevitable court challenges from the would-be gatekeepers.

My tech trade association has been concerned about the many complex threats to Internet Freedom for a long time. We don't think any government or company should be able to exert sweeping control the Internet. We advocated the approach the FCC is now taking in our public comments because it's best for Internet freedom and innovation.

The FCC plan is expected to prohibit paid prioritization of Internet traffic. This should ensure no one from start-ups to religious groups will be relegated to slow lanes. Neither money nor disagreement with a speaker's views should be reasons an Internet access provider can speed up or slow down Internet connections.

As FCC Chairman Wheeler said at a speech to Silicon Flatirons recently, "Broadband providers have both the economic incentive and the technological capability to abuse their gatekeeper position."

Meanwhile, Europe is also moving towards approval of net neutrality rules, and the European Parliament passed a positive resolution renewing the Internet Governance Forum and the US is taking steps to strengthen multi-stakeholder Internet governance too.

Governments globally are constantly tempted to have maximum access to Internet communications, and government surveillance by various U.S. government agencies remains a problem. However, legislation introduced in Congress in recent weeks would more clearly extend the unreasonable search and seizure protections of the 4th Amendment to online communications.

While there are some reasons for optimism, a looming renewed threat comes from those who failed to get SOPA legislation passed three years ago. Movie and recording industry associations are now surreptitiously pushing state attorneys general to blame Internet companies for everything online and use them to regulate Internet content. Unfortunately several state officials around the country were easily convinced to take action for the music and movie industries without understanding the collateral threat to Internet freedom and Internet users.

Internationally, additional threats to the Internet are coming from other businesses seeking new revenue models at the expense of people being able to find and share information online. Some U.S. trading partners are passing or considering policies that could make illegal to quote or cite news stories in a bid to tax Internet companies and subsidize domestic newspapers.

Both Germany and Spain have recently enacted so-called "snippet levies," making search engines and social media platforms liable for publishing even short quotes or snippets of news stories in their search results. A goal was to get search engines to pay a tax for indexing, but this can impact the reliability of the information available to all users. Other U.S. trading partners are considering similar regulations -- even though these laws contradict both EU copyright law and international trade agreements. In fact, President Obama recently observed in an interview that our trading partners are imposing roadblocks to Internet companies designed to 'level the playing field' for favored domestic industries.

My organization recently complained to officials, saying If we allow intellectual property regulations to be distorted into a tool for protectionism, we're in big trouble.

If the Internet is to remain open and a bedrock of freedom, it will be necessary for its users to be vigilant. My trade associations and other groups intend to do our part, but it was essential to victory 3 years ago with SOPA that there was a massive outpouring of concern. And recently the input of nearly 4 million people and groups helped guide the FCC as it was considering how to protect the Open Internet.

Overt intentional attacks on Internet freedom must continue to be vigorously resisted. But this next year it will also be important to remember that the biggest threats to the Internet will not always be these headline grabbing issues. The greatest ongoing threat to the Internet comes from those seeking tweaks for often noble sounding intentions from improving security to fixing social ills. This death-by-1000-cuts future must be avoided.

It is crucial to look at all policies through a lens of Internet freedom and what preserves it. If lost, it is not something easily regained. We hope countries, state and local governments, companies and individuals that truly value Internet freedom will keep this in mind in the year ahead.

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