Copyright Driving US Internet Freedom Debate

A logo supporting Internet freedom by Free Press via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A recent United Nations resolution affirming that human rights extend to the Internet is the result of more than a decade of efforts by international civil society groups and coalitions seeking international commitments on Internet rights. Yet that international process had little connection to recent advocacy in the United States, which split from copyright protests into net neutrality debates.

The resolution introduced in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), available here, received support from 85 co-sponsor nations including the United States, India, and France. The document called for “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet,” and affirmed that governments have the same obligation to protect these rights online as they do offline. It was purposefully brief to accommodate the more divisive socio-economic debates on Internet freedom.

Copyright is a wedge issue as nations debate the merits of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, as France and Germany disagree on file hosting websites, India is requesting more political content censorship and the US Congress may enact intellectual property restrictions similar to the  Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) via a proposed Intellectual Property Attache Act.

American civil society groups agree that Internet freedom is a good thing, but differ with each other about the appropriate relationships and roles of government and business. The Declaration of Internet Freedom co-published by advocacy group Free Press commemorating the Fourth of July voiced five principles of expansion, openness, access, innovation and privacy, to serve as a foundation for Internet policy making.

According to Free Press Internet Campaign Director Josh Levy, drafting of the document began in January to build on the momentum of protests by a broad range groups against the proposed copyright restrictions of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).  The declaration was coincidentally released the same week as the UNHCR resolution and was likewise intentionally brief, Levy said.

“It was written from the beginning to be a continuation of a grassroots movement,” Levy said. “I put out on the table early on, ‘we are not all going to agree on policy here, but we need to find a way to agree on some sort of high level statement of principles.’”

Even so, many other US-based and focused groups could not agree with that document’s underlying policy principles. Seeking more comprehensive policy language, free market technology think-tank TechFreedom released its own Declaration of Internet freedom. The TechFreedom declaration emphasizes that governments should play a minimal role regulating networks and companies. TechFreedom’s President Berin Szoka said his group declined an invitation to sign the Free Press document two weeks ahead of the July 3 release, inspiring his group to write their own version for the same publication day.

“We can work together sometimes but that doesn’t mean we look at Internet policy the same way,” Szoka said. “I’m not even sure a declaration of Internet freedom is a great idea. The term has become so abstract.”

TechFreedom and Free Press collaborated on opposition to SOPA, but have different opinions issues related to government regulation, including net neutrality and government regulation of corporate data retention and privacy practices. Szoka’s perspective of Internet freedom explicitly opposes government regulation of telecommunications companies on such issues and calls for a “layered approach” toward the tech industry using existing policy.

Other SOPA opponents Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his father Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) published a Libertarian approach for Internet freedom that week through Rep. Paul’s nonprofit Campaign for Liberty. Seeking a more defined approach than a foundation of principles, the “Technology Revolution” manifesto criticizes what they call “Internet collectivist” attempts to hijack the term Internet freedom and use it to disingenuously push for “the destruction of property rights.” The document is available here and reads:

“The collectivist-industrial complex seeks to undermine free markets and property rights, replacing them with ‘benevolent’ government control and a vision of “free” that quickly evolves from ‘free speech’ to ‘free stuff.’”

The shorter Free Press declaration started debate among bloggers about how to define Internet freedom and the usefulness of the document, but it received the most support – domestic and international – of the three US declarations. On the declaration’s signatory page, where multinational supporters include groups such as the Indian-based Centre for Internet and Society and individuals such as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA).

“The Declaration of Internet Freedom is a grassroots effort meant to sustain the grassroots momentum of more than 13 million regular Internet users who took action to stop SOPA and PIPA, and who have awoken to the threats to the future of the open Internet,” Levy said. “More than 1,500 organizations from around the world have signed it since it was launched two weeks ago, along with more than 50,000 Free Press activists.”

International groups focused on the needs of Internet users in the developing world have other priorities. Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the South Africa-based Association for Progressive Communications (APC), believes copyright and other socio-economic aspects of the issue need more attention. She credits the recent UN human rights resolution to a 2011 report on Internet free expression by Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur for free expression, and argues that a revision of APC’s 2001 Internet Rights Charter would address more debates related to economic justice issues that in the developing world are particularly tied to human rights.

“There is a need to come up with some kind of charter that focuses not just on political freedoms, but on socio-economic perspectives,” Esterhuysen said. “About free, unrestricted access to the Internet and the extent to which intellectual property laws do not start to define how people can use it.”

Article 19 of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, which focuses on the right to freedom of expression, was a cornerstone for the APC charter in 2001. The APC’s goal was to translate the UN document to the Internet as a framework for civil society, said Esterhuysen. Another cornerstone was the People’s Communication Charter drafted in 1999 by media activist group Voices 21, a charter focused on socio-economic concerns which applied diversity rights to mass media as a whole without specifying the risks of the Internet.

“There was a debate between civil society groups who thought the Internet required new rights, and those who felt that new rights were dangerous,” Esterhuysen said. “Those in favor of Article 19 felt that if you messed with existing rights frameworks you could risk losing what you’ve got.”

Part of the desire for new rights came from concerns held by people in developing countries in Latin America that existing rights frameworks could be used as a tool of economic globalization favoring the West, Esterhuysen said. This left APC with the task of compromising both sides of the debate for its 2001 charter.

“Our charter had a very developing country sensibility from the outset,” Esterhuysen said. “We were the first people to emphasize affordable access. It’s not a right, but it is an enabler of rights.”

As the Internet grew APC made minor updates to it charter in 2006 to keep pace with the growth of the technology. Several publications about Internet freedom between 2001 and 2006 also built on foundations. For instance, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) released a declaration of principles during its first meeting in December 2003, but debates on political repression and Internet governance led to the formation of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in 2006.

Along with forming the multi-stakeholder IGF, the individuals and organizations whose advocacy helped create the organization spent several years expanding a discussion about a new document on digital freedoms as the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition (IRP). During this lengthy process Esterhuysen said the IRP coalition coordinated with APC as part of a conscious decision by her group to let others try to define Internet rights.

“We felt that other people were coming up with ways of saying things that we had said in more concise ways,” Esterhuysen said. “We kind of decided to go open source with our charter and wait to see what other people came up with.”

Starting in 2008 members of business, civil society and government contributed to an Internet Rights and Principles Charter, which launched in 2010 and became open for consultation. After receiving input about the charter IRP published 10 Internet Rights and Principles in 2011 to summarize the 20-page document, stated an email from Marianne Franklin, a member of the IRP Dynamic Coalition’s Steering Committee at the Internet Governance Forum.

“The IRP coalition, charter, and principles emerged from a sustained international and multi-stakeholder effort over several years,” Franklin stated. “It draws on the [UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights] as well as several precursor and parallel initiatives from civil society participants at the WSIS meetings that preceded the IGF.”

The principles were distilled from the charter to keep it applicable to developing technology and simpler for campaign messages, said Brett Solomon, executive director of digital freedom advocacy group Access. Having been involved with both the Free Press declaration and the distillation of the IRP charter into 10 principles, Solomon said the strength of the Free Press declaration comes from its simple principles. While the IRP Principles have been translated into more than 20 languages, the Declaration of Internet Freedom is gaining more attention because it has a public page to sign support.

“One thing that’s very good about the [Declaration of Internet Freedom] is that it has broad signing from users, companies and organizations,” Solomon said. “The [10 Internet Rights and Principles] are very human rights focused, which may make it more difficult for companies to sign onto it. Having said that I don’t think there was any request or opportunity for anyone to sign onto it.”

Grassroots opposition to SOPA and PIPA is a major opportunity to expand the existing discussion on global Internet freedom among everyday users said Dixie Hawtin, project manager for freedom of expression and digital communications at the UK-based Global Partners & Associates which helped draft the IRP charter.

“It would be good to get them out on the street the way they did with SOPA and the [Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)], rather than the field of activists already involved in this field,” Hawtin said.

The IRP charter remains a work in progress, and includes debates about whether the rights to free expression and the right to privacy could solve socio-economic issues, such as the right to health and the right to education, Hawtin said. Because Internet freedom could encompass issues including free expression, privacy and consumer rights, Hawtin said a range of initiatives are discussing if it would be possible, or desirable, to coordinate on how to implement different charters among companies and governments.

If there are too many voices on Internet freedom the issue could become confused due to “charter overload,” as Hawtin addressed in the 2011 issue of Global Information Society Watch.

“My own feeling is that we need to move towards an IGF-level statement of principles for Internet governance, as the only multi-stakeholder and global forum,” Hawtin said. “[There is] a recognition that wider civil society actually cares about these issues, and that it was possible to launch a widespread campaign, at least in the US, over something which could seem as dry as internet governance.”

While America’s homegrown Internet freedom dialogue emerged independent of IGF debates, Levy said building on anti-SOPA consensus could help pressure governments to give Internet users a role in policy making.

“This is not meant to come out of nowhere and to exist in a vacuum. The work to define what Internet freedom is and to define our rights as individuals using the Internet continues,” Levy said. “It is all part of a collaborative process, which is why we are so heavy on the public participation aspect.”

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