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Democrats Officially Adopt "Internet Freedom" As Part Of Their Party Platform

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, September 4 2012

As expected, Democrats this week released language for their 2012 party platform that expresses support for the concept of "Internet freedom." Yet while the party reached out to its tech constituency, it also sought to make clear to its deep-pocketed constituents in Southern California that "freedom" doesn't mean a free-for-all when it comes to respecting intellectual property rights online.

"The Obama administration has led the world to recognize and defend Internet freedom -- the freedom of expression, assembly, and association online for people everywhere -- through coalitions of countries and by empowering individuals with innovative technologies," reads the platform language. "The administration has built partnerships to support an Internet that is secure and reliable and that is respectful of U.S. intellectual property, free flow of information and privacy."

The platform also addresses the concerns expressed by policymakers earlier this year about efforts to use a United Nations agency to shift control of the Internet closer to the reach of world governments:

"To preserve the Internet as a platform for commerce, debate, learning and innovation in the 21st century, we successfully negotiated international Internet policymaking principles, support the current multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance, and oppose the extension of intergovernmental controls over the Internet."

The language in the platform comes after President Obama said himself during an appearance on Reddit:

"Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody - from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although their [sic] will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won't stray from that principle - and it will be reflected in the platform."

Interestingly, the platform doesn't make any mention of net neutrality -- an issue that the Obama campaign made a central part of its tech policy platform in 2008. Rather this year's language is broader in scope, and could also be interpreted as encompassing the State Department's agenda on free flow of information. For example, last year, the State Department provided The New America Foundation $2 million to create its "Internet in a suitcase" program to enable political dissidents in foreign countries to circumvent government restriction on access to the global network of networks.

The vagueness of the language could also be a result of the controversial nature of "Internet freedom," and that the term seems to mean different things to different people.

The Obama administration, for example, has come under fire from members of his own party in Congress for its secretive approach to negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership over the past couple of years. Much of the controversy stems over intellectual property. Regarding Internet freedom, public interest advocates are worried about the expansion of the scope of rights holders' power over the way content gets distributed online. According to a draft of the agreement that was leaked last year, rights holders apparently want the ability to license buffer copies when machines transmit content over the Internet.

"From the leak, we know that the U.S. proposes to expand the powers of the exclusive rights that content owners have in a way that is not conducive to the flow of information on the Internet, in a way that's not conducive to free expression interests of Internet users, or in a way that's conducive to the rights of cultural institutions like libraries," said Rashmi Rangnath, a staff attorney at Public Knowledge who's part of a coalition that's going to be briefing the media this Wednesday on the issue as negotiators continue with the next round of negotiations this week in Leesburg, Va.

Chris Dodd, The Motion Picture Association of America's chairman and CEO, issued a statement praising the Democratic party platform on Tuesday.

"Through their platform language, both parties have now clearly stated that protecting the free flow of information on the Internet and protecting American innovators are not mutually exclusive goals — and that in fact, they are equally critical," he said. "That kind of insightful approach to this 21st century challenge from both parties is encouraging, and I look forward to continuing to work with everyone who is invested in these issues to develop meaningful solutions to protect an Internet that works for everyone.”

The two parties' unprecedented inclusion of language that addresses "Internet freedom" in their policy platforms comes after activists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists successfully rallied public opinion against proposed legislation this January that would have changed a fundamental aspect of how the Internet works in order to block public access to sites suspected of trafficking in pirated content and counterfeit goods.

Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian and General Manager Erik Martin are hoping to keep the pressure up on the presidential candidates, and further build public support for the concept of the open Internet this October when the duo go on a bus tour through some of the cities where the presidential and vice presidential debates are taking place. The tour will begin in Denver, Colorado, where the first presidential debate will take place, and ends in Danville, Kentucky, the site of a vice-presidential debate.

The idea is to highlight how the open Internet is fostering a thriving entrepreneurial sector across the country, Martin said in an interview. (There's more about the tour in this YouTube video below -- in which techPresident Publisher Andrew Rasiej makes a cameo appearance.)