Saving Internet Freedom

In barely 20 years, the Internet and other communications breakthroughs have changed the world immeasurably. The information age has transformed economies, expanded growth, and improved the quality of life for billions. It has also greatly enhanced freedom for individuals — political freedom in the public square, economic freedom in the marketplace, and social freedom in the community.

What made all that progress possible was that Internet developers, innovators, investors, and operators were able to work largely free of government restraint. Today's Internet, with competing networks and an almost endless array of apps, was not created or funded by the government (or by Al Gore, for that matter). These are all marvels of private-sector ingenuity. And these incredible advances in Internet and digital technologies have happened because there have been few government regulations to stifle innovation and competition.

But now all of these freedoms are being threatened by our own federal government and governments around the world, which intend to control and tax the Internet. Freedom House's latest survey of global political rights and civil liberties found that freedom on the Internet has declined for the fourth straight year. Around the world, more and more governments are censoring speech and shackling enterprise on the Web.

The United States has largely escaped direct infringements of political rights and speech. But we face challenges of different kinds. In recent weeks, the looming expiration of the PATRIOT Act sparked passionate debate about how to balance the sometimes competing goals of national security and individual privacy.

When judging how much control of the Internet We the People should cede to government, we should first try to imagine what could happen if that control falls into the hands of those who would abuse their power. After all, bureaucratic power corrupts as absolutely as any other.

Of course there are some areas, such as national defense, where concentrating great power is necessary for the safety of the country. But we must not be too quick to accept policies just because they're described as patriotic or protective. National interests can be achieved without ignoring constitutional due process or the right to be secure in one's person, houses, papers, and effects.

And as important as this debate is, the threat to our Internet freedoms here in America is far broader. As documented in a recent Heritage Foundation report, we face a phalanx of other equally disturbing threats. Among these:

• New Federal Communications Commission rules that would turn the firms providing consumers access to the Web into regulated public utilities (this is promoted under the name of "net neutrality"). The regulations would severely restrict providers' ability to innovate and invest in new services and technologies. And the new rules may be only the regulators' foot in the door; already they are discussing imposing similar straightjackets on search engines and even app makers. That means fewer new services and reduced speeds for Web surfers.

• The threat of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from its long-standing oversight role in Internet governance (such as the assignment of email addresses and website names), ending its connection to the Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers. The group should be responsive to Internet users — but without proper safeguards, ICANN will instead by vulnerable to influence from nations such as Russia, China, and Iran.

• Congressional efforts to authorize states and localities to collect sales taxes on Internet commerce from businesses not located in their state, subjecting businesses nationwide to tax authorities in 50 states and perhaps 10,000 local jurisdictions nationwide. That will place almost impossible compliance burdens on small online retailers and their customers.

• Moves by local regulators to throttle new businesses spurred by the Internet — including "sharing" services from firms such as Uber and Airbnb. In every jurisdiction, bureaucrats stand ever ready to expand their turf and protect entrenched interests by imposing unnecessary and outdated rules on "upstart" innovators. If the bureaucrats succeed, consumers could lose access to these wildly-popular services.

Unfortunately, many who are usually staunch defenders of free markets and limited government have been slow to speak out against these threats to Internet freedom. There is a tendency to dismiss them as parochial, deep-blue "Silicon Valley" issues — of little interest or import to "the rest of America."

This is short-sighted. All of these threats work to the detriment of citizens and consumers. And all policymakers who believe in freedom should stop kowtowing to special-interest lobbyists, tax-hungry states, and federal bureaucrats whose knee-jerk reaction is always more regulation or snooping.

We may be a long way off from China-style censorship and surveillance, but we need be alert to "reforms" and regulations that restrict the very Internet freedoms that have served our nation and the world so well. The Internet is the New World of freedom. We should protect it.

 - Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina, is the president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jim DeMint President
President's Office

Originally appeared in Real Clear Policy