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On Eve Of Celebration of Freedom In the U.S., Declaring New Freedoms for the Net

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, July 2 2012

Free Press is leading a coalition of users and advocacy groups to prevent incursions on Net freedom

A coalition of Internet freedom advocates on Monday launched a new push to preserve what they say are some of the fundamental characteristics of the Internet as we have known it over the past two decades.

"This is an important time for Internet access around the world. It should be like a utility, like electricity and clean water, and it should be a network to allow anyone to communicate freely," said telecommunications policy expert Susan Crawford during a conference call with reporters on Monday. "Those ideals are under pressure around the world in many ways, and we felt that it was important to be very clear about the basic principles of Internet access that should be in everyone’s minds as they’re making Internet policy, and as citizens acting to protect the Internet.”

Crawford is the visiting Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

The group, led by media advocates Free Press, issued a Declaration of Internet Freedom on Monday that includes the following:

  • Expression: Don't censor the Internet.
  • Access: Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.
  • Openness: Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.
  • Innovation: Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don’t block new technologies, and don’t punish innovators for their users' actions.
  • Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.

Access, CREDO, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, Reddit, The Cheezburger Network and TechDirt are other members of the prominent coalition that announced their support for the concept. All of them were part of the movement in January to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act. Patrick Ruffini, a conservative and president at Engage, a digital agency in DC and founder of anti-SOPA/PIPA site Don't Censor the Net, is also part of the coalition.

Personal Democracy Media, techPresident's parent company, is another signatory.

Sticking to the culture of Internet-decision-making, the coalition is issuing a general statement of principles and expecting the community at large to comment and come to a consensus on how best to protect the principles. But one of the prime goals of the initiative is to retain the bipartisan nature of the group much as it was during the fight against SOPA/PIPA.

"It's supposed to be a post-partisan process that we can all sign onto," said Josh Levy, Free Press' Internet campaign director.

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit.com, said during the conference call that he'd like to see all members of the U.S. Congress sign the declaration as a sign of basic "aptitude," to demonstrate that they understand the principles that drive the spirit behind the success of the global network.

But beyond that, the coalition is focused on garnering feedback from the Internet community on what they think of the principles and what action the community should take. To that end, Free Press has launched a subreddit for discussion on the subject, as has TechDirt. Free Press is planning on holding a series of MeetUps of supporters around the U.S. to discuss what the concept of "Internet Freedom" means in their communities, and then asking those activists to petition their members of Congress to sign the declaration.

"These define a set of principles that we want defended," said Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network. "On top of that, as a company, we want to make sure that these principles are embodied in the actions that we take. When we look at elected officials, this is going to be a benchmark for how we're going to hold them accountable."

That is not a universal "we." Free-market technology-policy think tank TechFreedom on Monday issued its own declaration, accusing the Free Press-led coalition of endorsing certain business models over others. That declaration is cosigned by Americans for Tax Reform and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, among others.

Asked about this, Free Press' Levy re-iterated that the effort he helped to launch is non-partisan, and doesn't call for any new regulations of any form.

In a phone conversation, TechFreedom's President Berin Szoka said that his group distrusts Free Press' motivations, and what its vision of online freedom really means.

He said the Free Press-led coalition's declaration is "abstract, ambiguous, and subject to multiple interpretations, so that somebody who I count as a friend and ally like Patrick [Ruffini] could in good conscience sign onto it," noting that no other free-market or Libertarian-type of groups had signed onto support that declaration.

Szoka suggested that the Free-Press-led coalition's declaration is based on the assumption that there needs to be regulation.

He pointed to the section about privacy as an example: The wording "their data" suggests a move to the assumption that individuals own their own data.

"I don't accept this whole model of privacy as a form of property [put together] by people who by the way don't respect intellectual property rights," he said.

One of the main problems with that formulation, he said, is the interactive nature of how people interact online. It's difficult to sort out who owns what.

"It's a shared experience," he said. "That's true for much of the social interaction that people are most concerned about. This is why we're so nervous about the way that things are worded and the way they structured their document."

This post has been updated to fix an error in the headline, and it now includes a response from Berin Szoka of TechFreedom. TechFreedom is a free-market organization, not conservative, he says.