When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776, it was rife with divisions: north vs. south, slave vs. free, big states vs. small states. But the delegates managed to compromise on a document that remains fresh, relevant, and revolutionary. Today, things are different. So on the 236th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (in those slower times, it was passed on the 2nd and published on the 4th), we have competing declarations of internet freedom.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, and others got the ball rolling with a Declaration of Internet Freedom. Although these groups lean leftward in their political orientation, the sin of the declaration is not its partisanship but its insipidness. It’s so brief that I’ll include it in full:
We stand for a free and open Internet.
We support transparent and participatory processes for making Internet policy and the establishment of five basic principles:
- 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.
This reminds me a little of the “Oppose Terrorism” license plates that Virginia issued after 9-11. Anyone taking a firm stand where no rational person would want to take the other side isn’t saying much. Unless you do a lot of reading between the lines based on the positions taken by the groups sponsoring the declaration on issues such as network neutrality and copyright, there’s nothing there to disagree with. Or rally around.
This declaration prompted Tech Freedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and other libertarian-leaning groups to come up with their own Declaration of Internet Freedom. It’s longer, more controversial, and a good bit more substantive. Though it clearly reflects its sponsors’ preferences for minimal government (“Government is the greatest obstacle to the emergence of fast and affordable broadband networks.”) it’s not overly partisan and offers much, particularly a forthright defense of free speech, that would put EFF, Free Press, and Tech Freedom on the same side of the issue.
It probably wouldn’t have taken too much effort for these groups to have reached out to each other and come up with a unified statement of rights that actually might have some impact. They actually agree on more than they disagree about, and the agreement covers most of the central issues. But today, alas, it is far too easy to get up on your electronic soapbox and shout than to do the hard work of coalition-building.