A Free Internet–Will It Last?

From seemingly out of nowhere has come the Internet—to be, suddenly, the greatest global platform for free expression the world has ever seen.

But will this last?

Last month, an international conference was held that pitted nations seeking greater governmental control over the Internet—led by Russia and China—against countries advocating a hands-off approach. These included the United States, Canada, nations of western Europe including Great Britain, as well as Israel.

The U.S. ambassador to World Conference on International Telecommunications, Terry Kramer, declared: “The Internet has thrived because it has been left in an open environment, and all the commercial opportunities that accrued, and the rights to free speech and democracy, are because it’s been left alone.” http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2012/12/03/us-ambassador-were-trying-to-stop-un-from-regulating-internet/?test=latestnews  

Kramer, in the telecommunications field for 25 years, was appointed by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. delegation to the 12-day conference held in Dubai. Some 2,000 people from 193 nations participated.

“An attempt to establish global oversight of the Internet has collapsed after many Western countries said a compromise plan gave too much power to United Nations and other officials,” reported RTE News, a website out of Ireland, about the conference. It added: “While other countries will sign the treaty, the absence of so many of the largest economies means that the document, already watered down to suit much of the West, will have little practical force.” http://www.rte.ie/news/2012/1214/internet-united-nations.html

But the struggle is far from over.

The resolution agreed upon—although not by the nations opposed—resolved that the UN secretary-general “continue to take the necessary steps for ITU to play an active and constructive role in the multi-stakeholder model of the Internet.”

ITU is the acronym for the International Telecommunications Union which hosted the conference. Although now an agency of the UN, it predates the world body by more than 75 years having been founded in 1865 to help coordinate international standards for telegraph signals. After the Titanic sank in 1912—a disaster compounded by problems involving reception of signals from the ill-fated ship, ITU’s role greatly increased.

Comparing this “landmark” Titanic-based event with what has been happening with the  ITU and the Internet, Professor Patrick S. Ryan wrote an article in the Stanford Technology Law Review last year entitled, “The ITU and the Internet’s Titanic Moment.”

Ryan, a professor in the University of Colorado at Boulder Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program as well as a “policy counsel” for Open Internet at Google, Inc.,wrote:  “While the ITU isn’t exactly a household name, it nonetheless may end up making critical—and potentially harmful—decisions that have a profound effect on Internet users around the globe.” He said last month’s conference “together with policy consultations in 2013…may significantly change how the Internet is governed.”  http://stlr.stanford.edu/2012/07/the-itu-and-the-internets-titanic-moment/

Ryan is highly critical of the ITU. “Perhaps the greatest problem with the ITU,” he states, “is its lack of transparency. Most democratic governments and processes have some fundamental right to public information and to the system for creating it. Yet the ITU is closed, opaque, and obfuscated in terms of its legislative treaty-making processes and in its standard-setting processes.”  It is a “large, closed, bureaucratic organization that uses scare tactics in an attempt to reinforce the need for its regulatory involvement.”

But the situation involves far more than the ITU.

At its center is the clash between people expressing themselves freely and those in power threatened by this—a conflict as old as the printing press.

Indeed, every semester in my classes in Investigative Reporting at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, I give a lecture on this conflict between free expression and power—a battle that’s been never-ending.

 In the Internet collision now, the ITU would be a tool used by those in power frightened by the Internet—and because it’s a global medium, their need for an international lid put on this pot of free expression.

Russia’s scheme at the conference, according to the Associated Press, was to get a resolution passed with language requiring “member states to ensure the public has unrestricted access and use of international telecommunication services ‘except in cases where international communications services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature.’….The wording of this provision could allow a country to repress political opposition while citing a UN treaty as the basis for doing so.”   https://www.timesofisrael.com/russia-others-wage-secret-battle-against-internet-freedom-ahead-of-un-telecom-meet/

In my lecture, I go back to the oldest of “old” mass media—the newspaper—and its slow growth after Johann Gutenberg invented his printing press around 1440. It took more than a century for newspapers to then come about, and I cite the literature that explains how this first occurred in places with weak or tolerant governance. I quote Edwin Emery from his book The Press and America: An Interpretative History of the Mass Media that: “It is significant that the newspaper first flourished in areas where authority was weak, as in Germany, at that time divided into a patchwork of small principalities, or where rulers were most tolerant as in the low countries.”

Teaching in the United States, I discuss the tyrannical control of the press by monarch after monarch in America’s mother country, England, and how they kept a tight lid on the press by requiring licensing, and punishing those expressing the slightest dissent.

I quote from that great plea for a free press in England, by poet John Milton, in his Aeropagitica in 1844, in which he said “we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting.” There need be free expression, said Milton, and with it would come truth and falsehood, too, but “in a free and open encounter” truth would triumph.

It was under the powerful monarchs of England that a press system began termed “authoritarian” by three communications professors in their 1956 book Four Theories of the Press, a seminal media analysis.

Under the authoritarian press system, they write, the “chief purpose” of the press is “to support and advance the policies of the government in power; and to service the state.”  Forbidden is “criticism of political machinery and officials in power.”

This, unfortunately, is still the media system in many nations of the world today. 

Arriving subsequently was what they term the “libertarian” press system.  Under it, the function of the press, they relate, is “to inform, entertain, sell—but chiefly to help discover truth, and to check on government.”

The conflict when it comes to the Internet has been going on for some time. “Worldwide Battle for Control of the Internet” was the headline in 2009 of an article in the British magazine, New Scientist. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327224.100-worldwide-battle-rages-for-control-of-the-internet.html

“When thousands of protesters took to the streets in Iran following this year’s disputed presidential election, Twitter messages sent by activists let the world know about the brutal policing that followed,” the article started. “A few months earlier, campaigners in Moldova used Facebook to organize protests against the country’s communist government, and elsewhere too the Internet is playing an increasing role in political dissent. Now governments are trying to regain control. By reinforcing their efforts to monitor activity online, they hope to deprive dissenters of information and the ability to communicate.”

The article went on to outline the “Internet clampdown” by “governments across the globe.” It cited the work of organizations that have sprung up to keep the Internet free, including the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a representative of which was quoted in the piece as saying, “Political filtering is the common denominator.”

As the Berkman Center, located at Harvard University, states on its website: “We represent a network of faculty, students, fellows, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and virtual architects working to identify and engage with the challenges and opportunities of cyberspace. We investigate the real and possible boundaries in cyberspace between open and closed systems of code, of commerce, of governance, and of education, and the relationship of law to each. We do this through active rather than passive research, believing that the best way to understand cyberspace is to actually build out into it.” http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/about

Other organizations include, notably, OpenNet Initative (in which the Berkman Center is one of three participant institutions). On its website, the OpenNet Initaitive declares: “Our aim is to investigate, expose and analyze Internet filtering and surveillance practice in a credible and non-partisan fashion.” http://openet.net/about-oni  The website of OpenNet Initiative chronicles situation after situation of nations censoring the Internet.

China has developed a comprehensive program of rigid Internet censorship

As the New York Times reported last month: “Internet censorship in China is among the most stringent in the world. The government blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, Palun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, and other Internet sites. As revolts began to ricochet through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, and homegrown efforts to organize protests began to circulate on the Internet, the Chinese government tightened its grip on electronic communications, and appeared to be more determined than ever to police cellphone calls, electronic messages, e-mail and access to the Internet in order to smother any hint of antigovernment sentiment.”

“The government’s computers intercept incoming data and compare it against an ever-changing list of banned keywords or Web sites,” the Times article continued, “screening out even more information. The motive is often obvious: Since late 2010, the censors have prevented Google searches of the English word ‘freedom.’” http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/news/international/countriesandterritories/china/internet_censorship/index.html

Russia’s rulers, too, regard the Internet as threatening. In November, a law was passed in Russia “blacklisting websites that the government determines have illegal content,” Forbes reported. This article quoted a statement about the situation in Russia from Reporters Without Borders: “The Russian state is characterized by a lack of political pluralism and widespread corruption….The Internet, a space where independent voices still find expression, is now being targeted by the authorities, who are trying to develop online filtering and surveillance. Bloggers are the victims of lawsuits and prosecutions.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/reuvencohen/2012/11/01/russia-passes-far-reaching-internet-censorship-law-targeting-bloggers-journalists/

The pattern of Internet suppression seen in China and Russia is also being pursued by many other nations—as is presented clearly by the OpenNet Initiative and Wikipedia’s website “Internet censorship by country.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_by_country

A key problem involving the “libertarian” press system over the years has been: who can afford to own a press? Yes, the press is ostensibly free, but there’s been the question: who has the money to own a newspaper, magazine, TV or radio station or publish books? As the American press critic A.J. Liebling wrote in The New Yorker magazine in 1960: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Freedom_of_the_press#Sourced

But now, with a computer and an Internet connection, anybody can “own a press” and be an active participant in media. That is very scary to the rulers of Russia and China and the other nations that stood with them at last month’s conference which included Saudi-Arabia, Cuba, Algeria, Sudan, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates.  

They didn’t get what they wanted. But this was just one attempt in what will be an ongoing effort to undermine the Internet globally.

As for Israel, we’re told by a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Israel participated in the conference and held a position similar to the U.S. and other western countries.”


About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.