Advocacy groups and politicians from across the political spectrum have taken up “Internet freedom” as their rallying cry in recent months.
Although many people eagerly declare their support for a free Internet and promise to protect privacy, the broad consensus breaks down when people begin discussing specific policies, such as net neutrality or cybersecurity.
Later in the week, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and his son, freshman Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), declared their support for an Internet freedom manifesto from the Campaign for Liberty.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) got into the act last month when they called for a “digital bill of rights” to protect Internet users from intrusive legislation.
The issue even burst on to the international stage when the United Nations Human Rights Council backed a resolution affirming that people have the same rights in the digital world as they do offline, including freedom of expression.
The use of Twitter, Facebook and other online tools during the Arab Spring protests demonstrated to the world how the Internet can spread information and bolster political freedom.
And the massive Web protests that killed tough anti-piracy legislation earlier this year displayed the political muscle of people opposed to restrictions of Internet freedom.
Some groups may be hoping to use their Internet freedom declarations to attract to their causes some of the millions of people who participated in the protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
But converting the enthusiasm for Internet freedom into specific policy goals may prove difficult because of how differently people understand what “freedom” means.
Conservatives, for example, decry net-neutrality as a government takeover of the Internet, but liberals say the regulations are necessary to protect the openness of the Internet from manipulation by Internet service providers.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted net-neutrality rules in 2010 that prohibit Internet service providers from slowing down or blocking access to legitimate websites.
The manifesto backed by Ron and Rand Paul accuses liberals of distorting the concept of liberty.
“Internet collectivists are clever,” the document reads. “They are masters at hijacking the language of freedom and liberty to disingenuously push for more centralized control. 'Openness' means government control of privately owned infrastructure. 'Net neutrality' means government acting as arbiter and enforcer of what it deems to be 'neutral'.”
Many Internet activists have also fought the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), a House cybersecurity bill that would allow companies to share more information about cyber threats with each other and the government. The activists argue CISPA will undermine privacy by encouraging companies to hand over their users' personal information to the government.
But Issa, a vocal advocate of Internet freedom and one of the leading opponents of SOPA, voted for CISPA, saying it would help companies better protect their computer systems.
Perhaps the clearest sign that people may have different ideas of Internet freedom is that the UN Human Rights Council resolution was backed by China and Russia— countries with notorious reputations for restricting online expression.