Government and the Net Serve Us, Not Vice Versa

May 16, 2012 |
It is not inevitable that the internet will evolve in a manner compatible with democracy.
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A global struggle for control of the internet is under way. At stake is nothing less than civil liberties, privacy and democracy itself. Electronic censorship and surveillance are on the rise -- not only in dictatorships but also in democracies. Facebook and Google are battling over who will be our gateway to the rest of the internet through "like" buttons and universal logins -- giving them huge power over our online identities and activities. Companies are clashing with governments over how far the law should extend into private networks, platforms and devices. Governments clash with each other over who should control the co-ordination of the internet's infrastructure and critical resources.

It is not inevitable that the internet will evolve in a manner compatible with democracy. That depends on the choices and actions of internet users, along with the engineers, programmers and legislators who shape what people can or cannot do in cyberspace. Thus it is no longer sufficient to assert our rights as citizens of nation states. Social justice and accountable governance will not be achieved unless we also fight for our rights as netizens: Citizens of a globally connected internet.

We have come to depend on digitally networked platforms, services and devices for almost all aspects of our lives, including our relationship with our physical governments. But these technologies are created, owned and operated mainly by a private sector whose decisions are driven primarily by business considerations, then further shaped by government regulation. It is important for netizens to have access to non-commercial, non-governmental and open-source digital tools, services and spaces that we can build, shape, use and encrypt. But this alone will not solve the problem of government or corporate abuse of power through digital networks.

Despite some activists' utopian hopes to the contrary, the reality is that governments and companies are going to remain intertwined with our digital lives -- for the same reasons that they are part of most people's physical lives. Citizens continue to demand government help in fighting cybercrime, defending children from stalkers and bullies, and protecting consumers. And it could be argued that the world's experiments with communism during the last century showed that economies without private enterprise lack innovation.

It is therefore urgent that we -- the netizens of the world -- do everything in our power to constrain the abuse of power and defend human rights on the corporate- and government-dominated internet, even as we work to build our own independent enclaves and tools when and where we can.

The history of the past century has shown how co-ordinated, strategic global movements can have real impact. Decades of global activism forced governments to adopt policies and laws on environmental protection and labour standards. Without sustained human-rights, labour and environmental movements, companies would still be hiring 12-year-olds as a matter of course and poisoning our water without a second thought.

Fortunately, netizens are waking up. Activists in the United States killed the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have imposed censorship on website operators in the name of protecting copyright. Protests against internet censorship and surveillance are mounting around the globe. The next step is to get more innovative and organised in demanding our digital rights and liberties.

On the net we have yet to fully exploit our power as customers and users -- letting firms know through co-ordinated global action that there will be consequences if they fail to heed our concerns.

As voters and constituents we must insist that our government leaders recognise their obligations to protect and respect our civil liberties and rights as robustly in cyberspace as in our physical communities. We must demand that all internet-related laws -- from cybersecurity to child safety to copyright protection -- are compatible with civil liberties and human rights.

The only legitimate purpose of government and technology is to serve people -- not the other way around. Netizens, it is time to wake up, get organised and act.