The Plot to Block Internet Freedom

Autocrats are trying to limit free speech online. Here's why we need to make sure they fail.


The Internet has created an extraordinary new democratic forum for people around the world to express their opinions. It is revolutionizing global access to information: Today, more than 1 billion people worldwide have access to the Internet, and at current growth rates, 5 billion people — about 70 percent of the world’s population — will be connected in five years.

But this growth trajectory is not inevitable, and threats are mounting to the global spread of an open and truly "worldwide" web. The expansion of the open Internet must be allowed to continue: The mobile and social media revolutions are critical not only for democratic institutions’ ability to solve the collective problems of a shrinking world, but also to a dynamic and innovative global economy that depends on financial transparency and the free flow of information.

The threats to the open Internet were on stark display at last December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, where the United States fought attempts by a number of countries — including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia — to give a U.N. organization, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), new regulatory authority over the Internet. Ultimately, over the objection of the United States and many others, 89 countries voted to approve a treaty that could strengthen the power of governments to control online content and deter broadband deployment.

In Dubai, two deeply worrisome trends came to a head.

First, we see that the Arab Spring and similar events have awakened nondemocratic governments to the danger that the Internet poses to their regimes. In Dubai, they pushed for a treaty that would give the ITU’s imprimatur to governments’ blocking or favoring of online content under the guise of preventing spam and increasing network security. Authoritarian countries’ real goal is to legitimize content regulation, opening the door for governments to block any content they do not like, such as political speech.

Second, the basic commercial model underlying the open Internet is also under threat. In particular, some proposals, like the one made last year by major European network operators, would change the ground rules for payments for transferring Internet content. One species of these proposals is called "sender pays" or "sending party pays." Since the beginning of the Internet, content creators — individuals, news outlets, search engines, social media sites — have been able to make their content available to Internet users without paying a fee to Internet service providers. A sender-pays rule would change that, empowering governments to require Internet content creators to pay a fee to connect with an end user in that country.

Sender pays may look merely like a commercial issue, a different way to divide the pie. And proponents of sender pays and similar changes claim they would benefit Internet deployment and Internet users. But the opposite is true: If a country imposed a payment requirement, content creators would be less likely to serve that country. The loss of content would make the Internet less attractive and would lessen demand for the deployment of Internet infrastructure in that country.

Repeat the process in a few more countries, and the growth of global connectivity — as well as its attendant benefits for democracy — would slow dramatically. So too would the benefits accruing to the global economy. Without continuing improvements in transparency and information sharing, the innovation that springs from new commercial ideas and creative breakthroughs is sure to be severely inhibited.

To their credit, American Internet service providers have joined with the broader U.S. technology industry, civil society, and others in opposing these changes. Together, we were able to win the battle in Dubai over sender pays, but we have not yet won the war. Issues affecting global Internet openness, broadband deployment, and free speech will return in upcoming international forums, including an important meeting in Geneva in May, the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum.

The massive investment in wired and wireless broadband infrastructure in the United States demonstrates that preserving an open Internet is completely compatible with broadband deployment. According to a recent UBS report, annual wireless capital investment in the United States increased 40 percent from 2009 to 2012, while investment in the rest of the world has barely inched upward. And according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, more fiber-optic cable was laid in the United States in 2011 and 2012 than in any year since 2000, and 15 percent more than in Europe.

All Internet users lose something when some countries are cut off from the World Wide Web. Each person who is unable to connect to the Internet diminishes our own access to information. We become less able to understand the world and formulate policies to respond to our shrinking planet. Conversely, we gain a richer understanding of global events as more people connect around the world, and those societies nurturing nascent democracy movements become more familiar with America’s traditions of free speech and pluralism.

That’s why we believe that the Internet should remain free of gatekeepers and that no entity — public or private — should be able to pick and choose the information web users can receive. That is a principle the United States adopted in the Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 Open Internet Order. And it’s why we are deeply concerned about arguments by some in the United States that broadband providers should be able to block, edit, or favor Internet traffic that travels over their networks, or adopt economic models similar to international sender pays.

We must preserve the Internet as the most open and robust platform for the free exchange of information ever devised. Keeping the Internet open is perhaps the most important free speech issue of our time.

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