What it means to be free: Groups clash over how to ensure open Internet

Charles Dharapak/AP

Recent declaration spawns reaction from Congress.

More than 200 years ago, a group of American leaders debated what it meant to be free. Now, a growing group of leaders around the world are debating what it means to keep the Internet free.

Timed to coincide with Independence Day celebrations, a coalition of 85 companies as well as civil-liberties, human-rights, and media-reform groups released a "Declaration of Internet Freedom" this week.

It’s short and to the point, coming in at 100 words and featuring five basic principles, including “Don't censor the Internet.”

The declaration's authors don’t say who the King George III of the Internet would be today. But the document calls on communities, industries, and countries to implement policies to protect access, openness, innovation, privacy, and freedom of expression.

“It’s not intended to be a set of policies; it is designed to inspire policies,” said Josh Levy of Free Press, which signed the declaration. The groups, which include the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation , and Mozilla, say their goal is to spark a conversation that will lead to “significant legislation” to protect Internet freedom.

Meanwhile, presidential candidate and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and his son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have decided to launch their own online manifesto. BuzzFeed reported that the Pauls' project, "The Technology Revolution," is a conservative counterpoint to the Declaration of Internet Freedom, though it shares some of the same goals.

Declarations on Internet freedom are not new. In 1994, a group of libertarian authors wrote “A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age.” And in 1996, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow penned the iconic “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in which he told governments to buzz off.

“You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather,” he wrote.

But last year’s Arab Spring renewed a focus on the power of the Internet and the attempts to control it. The latest declarations of Internet freedom show the debate is far from over.

In April, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting companies from assisting regimes in Iran and Syria with “computer or network disruption, monitoring, or tracking that could assist in or enable serious human-rights abuses.”

On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan consensus exists among members of Congress about keeping the Internet free, but there is far less agreement on exactly how it should be done.

Even in countries considered to have an unfettered Internet, companies have faced increased pressure to provide governments with information in cases involving child pornography, cybersecurity, terrorism, and copyright infringement, among other crimes. Authorities in the United Kingdom, for example, have unveiled an ambitious surveillance plan that calls for monitoring all Web visits, e-mail, phone calls, and text messages.

While few disagree with the assertion that the Internet needs to be free, there is wide debate over what "free" means. Some see a need for government protections for rights online. Others see any government involvement as overreach and a violation of Internet freedom itself.

A coalition of conservative groups, including TechFreedom and Americans for Tax Reform, introduced their own competing declaration of Internet freedom this week, accusing the civil-liberties side of being too quick to seek legislative answers.

“We need to underscore the profound philosophical differences behind our conceptions of Internet Freedom,” TechFreedom President Berin Szoka said in a statement. “Their declaration invites further government intervention in the name of freedom, while ours urges regulators: 'First, do no harm.' "

Their declaration urges governments to take a hands-off approach.

"Don’t meddle in what you don’t understand — and what you can all too easily break, without even seeing what’s been lost," the groups wrote. "Often, government’s best response is to do nothing."

But supporters of new legislation to preserve an open Internet say it’s not a partisan issue. Instead, they say, people who favor an open Internet need to come to some agreement so they can lobby lawmakers and regulators with a common goal in mind.