Internet freedoms and Internet radicals

Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a commendable speech about Internet freedom at the Newseum journalism museum in Washington, shifting the focus of American foreign policy from the analog certainties of the 20th century to the digital confusion of the 21st century. Clinton laid out a new focus of American foreign policy, prioritizing the open digital network, what she called “the freedom to connect,” as a central value in determining the credibility of overseas regimes.

While Clinton spoke optimistically about the power of the Internet to create an open society, she also recognized the profound economic and political problems created by the digital revolution, acknowledging that “those who use the Internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities” and that “governments and citizens must have confidence that the networks at the core of their national security and economic prosperity are safe and resilient. … Our ability to bank online, use electronic commerce, and safeguard billions of dollars in intellectual property are all at stake if we cannot rely on the security of our information networks.”

The targets of Clinton’s speech were not unclear. Indeed, she specifically identified the repressive, sometimes bloodthirsty, regimes in China, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Vietnam and Iran as “threats to the free flow of information.”

And yet, somehow, Secretary Clinton’s warnings about bloodthirsty, oppressive regimes who hijack the Internet “to crush dissent and deny human rights” were themselves hijacked by a radical “media reform” group, Free Press, that ironically seeks to dramatically increase state intervention in both the Internet and media. 

Rather than simply commending Hillary Clinton’s uncontroversial defense of Internet freedom, Free Press used — or should I say, abused — the speech to launch a ridiculous attack on American companies. Explicitly comparing American phone and cable corporations with repressive overseas regimes in Iran and China, Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver conflated the network neutrality debate in the U.S. to the struggle for human rights in the rest of the world.

“Our moral authority as a world leader stems from our vibrant democracy, which is predicated on the openness of civic communication. Network Neutrality means no corporate censorship and no government censorship,” Silver said yesterday, echoing the neo-Marxist critique of mainstream media by Free Press co-founder Robert McChesney. “How can we encourage freedom abroad when it has not been defended in our own communications infrastructure? Without badly needed U.S. government action to maintain freedom on the Internet, our great democracy is at risk.”

No, this isn’t an early April Fool’s joke. Silver really did argue that “our great democracy” is at risk because some American cable and telecom companies — as well as many writers, filmmakers, musicians and other creative artists — want the option of additional services. Yes, Silver really did conflate the bloody repression of anti-government individuals in Iran and China with the possibility that American access providers could give consumers more choices.

Has the radical pro-network-neutrality lobby group Free Press no shame, no sense of moral perspective, no grasp of reality outside their echo-chamber obsession with vilifying America’s telecoms and cable providers?

Yes, the network neutrality issue is hideously complex and, yes, there are important considerations in terms of actual anti-competitive or harmful behavior. But Free Press, a radical organization that even its putative allies will admit is fringe, stepped over the mark of rational political discussion and entered the theater of political absurdity. Free Press lost its mind by conflating the reactionary butchers of Tehran with American telecoms like Verizon and AT&T. Free Press totally flipped by equating the one-party apparatchiks in Beijing with American cable providers like Comcast or Time Warner cable.

The problem is that the radical media reform activists have so lost touch with reality that they believe their own hysterical nonsense about American democracy being “at risk” because Internet service providers want an economic return on their infrastructure investment. And unfortunately Silver wasn’t alone in his tasteless response to the Clinton speech. Free Press sister group Public Knowledge, for example, responded to the secretary of state’s remarks by arguing that American democracy was being threatened — yes, I’m serious — because of the current regulatory classification of SMS “short codes."

It’s hard to imagine that is what Secretary Clinton really had in mind. The divergence between these “media reform” groups and Secretary Clinton doesn’t stop there. While Secretary Clinton says the security of our intellectual property online is crucial, Public Knowledge believes intellectual property theft is “trivial.”

What’s the next glib political analogy from Public Knowledge or Free Press? Perhaps they’ll compare the threat to short codes with the class warfare of the Khmer Rouge? Or maybe they will argue that opponents of net neutrality are comparable to Nazi Germany’s Joseph Goebbels? Wait, no, the chairman of Free Press has already done that.

What, of course, should be next for these increasingly hysterical groups is widespread denunciation. Yes, the network neutrality issue raises important issues about the 21st century business models of Internet infrastructure companies. But no, there’s no connection — absolutely none at all — between the behavior of repressive regimes in China and Iran and the anti-network-neutrality lobby.

The mainstream pro-network-neutrality lobby, and the policymakers who must consider how to balance competing public interests, deserves better than the current radical representation they are getting from Public Knowledge and Free Press.

Keen is author of Cult of the Amateur and is an adviser to Arts+Labs, a technology policy coalition of entertainment companies, software providers, telecommunications providers, artists and creators.