Governance of the Internet

As of writing (16:00 JST on Wednesday 18th January 2012) Wikipedia is blacked out apart from one page:

Wikipedia: SOPA

This is in protest at two bills currently being debated in the US Congress (PIPA in the House and SOPA in the Senate). These bills are being rushed through at quite a fast track in congress because they are bi-partisan (meaning: the big businesses who drafted the bills, and are corruptly paying congress-critters in campaign donations for their support, have bought peple in both parties).

In early January there was a movement by some opposed to this bill asking various large Internet organisations to black out in January in a coordinated effort to oppose these bills and raise public awareness about them. Most of the major service providers such as Google can’t really afford a day’s blackout. As Wikipedia is a non-profit and doesn’t make money per eyeball it was one of the few high profile sites to be able and willing to take this step.

There are more details from the EFF about these proposals.

David Ignatius, one of the Washington Post Writers Group, recently wrote an article (widely syndicated under different headlines) on The case for spreading press freedom around the world, in support of Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University‘s call for a global “First Amendment” (i.e. a global guarantee of freedom of speech, imposed by the US). In that article he mentions that “Bollinger’s call for a global First Amendment has been criticized as too chauvinistic. But the world’s embrace of the Internet tells me that we’re on the right side of history on this one.”

I am a strong advocate of freedom of expression myself, but I find the analysis of both Bollinger and Ignatius to be missing some important elements here. There is indeed a chauvinistic assumption here that lies at the heart of the US’ attitude to the world at large. America seeks to impose certain thing on others, largely those which large power blocs within the US see as in their own interests (consider the capture of US trade policy by a small group of “intellectual property” businesses charged by Drahos and Braithwaite in their book “Information Feudalism“). An attempt to directly impose the US first amendment on other countries is indeed chauvinistic. However, there is a moral high ground that the US could legitimately take, though it is highly unlikely to do so. First, it could expand the scope of US constitutional guarantees and in particular the first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, to all human beings within the scope of US dominion. Second it could enjoin all US-based companies from engaging in activities violating those rights anywhere in the world.

At present as a non-US citizen even when I visit the US I do not enjoy the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Indeed as shown by the case of Peter Watts, beaten up by a US immigration official and then prosecuted and convicted for non-compliance with a border official when he asked why he was being assaulted, and the case of the Guantanamo Bay detainees (and others in Bagram Air Base) other basic liberties such as Habeas Corpus also do not apply to non-US citizens under effective US dominion.

While I am a Bright and not a religious person, the New Testament comment about specks, beams and eyes comes to mind. Before the US starts trying to impose its particular constitutional settlement on others, it should first ensure that its constitutional settlement is appropriately fair and universally applicable within the legitimate scope of its own authority.

According to this article in The Grauniad, the UK government is set on ignoring the recommendations of yet another report it commissioned (this time the Digital Britain Report, last time the Gowers Report) and are set to introduce proposals for a two strikes law on suspending/removing internet access from those accused by rights’ holders of illicitly sharing copyrighted material online (official government details). (more…)