The internet, like the press, works best when left alone

Governments the world over are meddling with the free flow of information, requiring constant vigilance by citizens

Governments worldwide are attempting to control the Internet
William Rinehart
On 20 May 2013 22:04

A friend of mine, who happens to be a legal scholar, recently quipped: “If Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were all correct and a government rules by social contract, can I just break the contract and pay damages?” Stripping away the philosophical speak, his aphorism could alternatively be said: governments don’t offer options to their policies.  

Consider Syria.

In the last month, in addition to continuing violations of human rights, the entire Internet has gone offline on at least one occasion, and likely more. Web sites are routinely filtered, and a merry band of marauders known as the Syrian Electronic Army frequently defaces web sites critical of the Syrian government, and, apparently, the Financial Times. This is the same organization that just last month hacked the Associated Press (AP) and tweeted out that the White House had been bombed, which wiped billions off balance sheets as the stock market plummeted.

The event was a prelude of sorts for the AP. Last Monday, it was revealed that the US Justice Department had secretly obtained telephone records of reporters and editors working at the Associated Press news service. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt called it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion."

At issue is an apparent leak of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year. Journalists do not seem to be the focus of the investigation, rather, it seems as though the inquiry is meant to keep internal order at the agency. Notwithstanding the impacts it will have on journalists, ultimately it is yet another instance where government has stepped past its proper grounds.   

A coalition of newspapers organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press quickly responded, saying, “In the thirty years since the Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the Department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review.”

Even democratic governments can engage in soft coercion.  

It should come as no surprise then, as Simon Miller reported on this site, that the European Commission is considering a redraft of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, and in this go around, it is toying with some sort of Internet filtering mechanism.

As Miller deftly asks, “[W]hy should there be laws about accessibility to general interest content? Actually, what is general interest content? Who decides the content? One of the beauties of the internet and multi-platform media is the very plurality that the Green Paper claims to champion.”

The importance of access to information and news via the internet cannot be overemphasized. The internet matured in the last decade, injecting much needed competition and diversity into the news and information markets, but the maturation of the internet also enticed governments to craft new laws to steer the “proper” development of the medium.

In 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy, then President of France, exemplified the mentality when he said, “Now that the Internet is an integral part of most people’s lives, it would be contradictory to exclude governments. 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.”

And yet, this “anarchy” has achieved a blooming of information and news sources. The internet, much like the press, works best when left alone. To be clear, the events happening in Syria, the US, and the EU are of a drastically different degree. The acts in Syria are clearly malevolent, while the actions taken by the US and EU could be more aptly described as unrestrained arrogance.

But, taken together, I cannot help but be reminded of D.H. Lawrence when he wrote, "My great religion is a belief in the blood, as the flesh being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds, but what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true." My blood tells me all of these events are very troubling to the free flow of information.     

William Rinehart is a Research Fellow at TechFreedom and tweets at @WillRinehart

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