Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, January 20, 2012

An Essay on Internet Freedom

I read a lot of blogs and surprisingly not all of them are about genealogy. In light of the controversy that went on last week with the bills before the U.S. Congress, I was interested to read a blog post from a group of Physicists. If you ever want to confirm and at the same time deny your preconceived notions of what Physicists talk about then read The Eternal Universe.  The blog post that caught my eye is called, "On Barbed Wire Fences and Internet Freedom" from Quantumleap42.

The writer of the post compares the present situation on the Internet with the fencing of the American West back in the 1800s. In my opinion the analogy works on a lot of different levels. But one distinction between the fencing of the West and the Internet is the issue of ownership. In settling the American frontier, the pioneers aided by the U.S. Government used the fiction that no one owned or claimed the land. It was convenient for all of the parties to believe in this fiction except the original inhabitants. In reality, the various Indian tribes had legitimate claims to the entire country. Except for the present reservation system, those claims were mostly ignored. So who are the Indians of the Internet? Well, in fact, this is why the analogy doesn't exactly work. The American frontier was only a frontier if you were a European immigrant.  Under the frontier fiction, the U.S. Government could sell or give land to anyone. This was done by dispossessing (or killing) the Indians.

But there is an important principle here. The Internet is not really a frontier and it is fundamentally not free. In every case, every person who connects to the Internet either pays for the privilege or uses the Internet paid for by another person or entity. Yes, I can go down to my local public library and use the Internet for "free"  but only because of the taxes paid by those who pay taxes to the city. It is this fundamental commercial aspect of the Internet that undermines both the analogy of a frontier and the claims that the Internet should be "free." He who pays the piper, calls the tune. How do you (or anyone) get around the issue of ownership?

So the battle over Internet Freedom is not taking place on some free frontier, not even one where the original "owners" have been dispossessed, but the battle is taking place in the backyard and front yards of the owners of the various networks that make up the Internet. If you have a server on the Internet then you are part of the battlefield. So what of the claim to freedom of the Internet? The claim flies in the face of history. The original basis for the Internet was far from free, it was the U.S. Federal Government's ARPANET or Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. 

The freedom of the Internet is ultimately based on the fundamental freedoms of speech, right of assembly and the recognition of these individual freedoms in the context of a vast communications network. If I own a server on the Internet, there is nothing compelling me to maintain my connection or to continuing to offer access to the Internet or to maintain the information I may have stored in my system. This is the weak link in the issue of Internet Freedom. In addition, the communication hardware and network that maintains the Internet links are more or less regulated by the local governments. There are whole layers of laws that affect the use of the Internet, from copyright issues to the regulation of the Internet's content. In the extreme, the Internet is the platform for illegal activities of many types. 

Do those who advocate various levels of control or a lack of control understand the serious issues of individual, national and world security faced by having an open frontier on the Internet?

The issues involving so-called "freedom" of communication are far from simplistic. They are some of the most complex issues facing mankind in this digital age. Are those who advocate Internet freedom wanting to abdicate any responsibility to those who pay for their access or those who would be harmed by the misuse of the media? Allowing special interests such as those advocating bills in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives decide these issues in their own self interest and at the expense of all the other competing interests in unwise and extremely shortsighted.


  1. Dear Mr. Tanner,

    This is, without doubt, the most important article you have ever written. It should be required reading of anyone who is in any way connected to the Internet; be they enduser, content provider, government employee, etc.

    Andy Hatchett

  2. Excellent points. Thanks so much for posting.