Internet freedom fighter Rebecca MacKinnon reveals her hand as promoter of the "progressive" agenda by attacking Chris Smith (R-NJ)'s initiative for Internet freedom, the Global Online Freedom Act.
How can an Internet freedom fighter be against Chris Smith's initiative for Internet freedom? Easy: the Internet freedom-fighting of MacKinnon and her fellow campaigners in the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, who oppose the bill, and of course Google and other Big IT companies are not really about *freedom* in any kind of universal sense so much as they are about imposing a politically-correct anti-corporate and anti-government utopian collectivist vision of how the Internet should be run (above all, by themselves).
As she and others (like EFF's Jillian York) have done many, many times before, when they contemplate the global issues of the trans-national Internet, they mount this soul-searching, chest-beating effort to "Blame America First" (in the famous phrase) before they will get around to applying universal human rights anywhere else where they are most egregiously violated. They do this perhaps in good faith, thinking that you have to "sweep around your own door first" before your neighbours' door, or "take the log out of your own eye" before you examine the speck in your brother's eye. The problem is that when it comes to comparing the United States and countries like Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, they don't just have logs, they have entire wooden fortresses in their eyes, and our wood chips in our own eyes don't disqualify us from pointing those obvious facts out. Indeed, not to do so does enormous damage to the very idea of universality in the first place.
In fact, while he hardly started out to do so, Chris Smith has unwittingly outed the essential truth about the Electronic Frontier Foundation gang and their fellow travellers -- they really aren't interested in stopping the support of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes by stopping their technological support from foreign sales. They took up that cause only as part of their anti-corporate, anti-capitalist vision, and only selectively.
When a Congress person *really* works it up into law, then they cringe and begin mumbling about how America shouldn't be "one-sided" or preach to others when it has bills on the floor that may encroach on its amply-secured freedoms through some kind of surveillance (you wonder what anti-crime or anti-terrorism surveillance they *would* accept -- if any at all). They whine about how anti-piracy efforts put a chill on "innovation" -- by which they mean the California business model of uploading first, chasing with lawsuits later. In other words, hobble yourself from doing the right thing on the most egregious cases, just because the tyrants themselves and their fellow travellers might call you out about some problem you have of an entirely difference size and scale at home. This is one of the arguments that I call "the secret policeman's ruse," a classic of the moral equivalency school of thought. And that is the argument that plays into the hands of dictators, not bills like Chris Smith's that attempt -- in the name of real universality -- to deal with the worst cases first.
It really is fascinating to see how this particular set behaves, who have been arguing that we should stop America's technology sales to tyrants -- as a stalking horse for their other agenda, which is unfettered elite control of the Internet as they conceive of it -- when suddenly, they are faced with an actual law laying out how to stop sales to tyrants specifically.
Watch for Jillian York, and Zeynep Tufekci, and Alex Howard, and Evgeny Morozov and other similar gurus all to line up now and explain how they dislike GOFA because it isn't "inclusive" of America's own government practices. Anti-corporate, but not anti-government enough: they pick and chose when and where they want to focus on government or corporations depending on which power base they think will get them their "progressive" way. Yesterday, it was gaining the FCC -- government -- support to promote their "net neutrality" concept; yesterday, it was gaining Congressional support (Durbin) to attack one big IT corporation that wasn't doing their bidding (Facebook) to provide anonymous accounts for rebels; the day after that it was attacking *some* corporations in Hollywood, when these self-styled freedom fighters wanted to fight for copy-leftism against SOPA and thwart the anti-piracy battle; and the day after that it's back to supporting *some* corporations -- Twitter, Google, their friends in Big IT -- when they decided to install the technical capacity to censor by country. Progress!
So here's my long answer to MacKinnon in Foreign Policy:
Internet freedom starts with the concept of universality, and affirmation of basic human rights already established by international treaties. From there, you look at where the greatest threats to those basic rights are, and work on those as the obvious priority -- Iran, China, Russia, etc. -- these are countries where the very basics are at risk -- the right to freedom of expression The way you reinforce universality is by reinforcing it where it is weak -- not undermining it with exaggerated focus on local political concerns that are really about a war for resources and influence, not "Freedom of Expression".
You do this not by pretending that a blogger getting his arm broken by the secret police in Russia is anything like an American teenager having a slow connection when he can't download a pirated Lost episode. You do this by not pretending that the French police using Internet information to capture a terrorist even after he killed someone, or the British authorities discussing how they must stop the use of social media or cell phones in a localized fashion to destroy millions of dollars of property and harm people are anything remotely like Syria using information to assassinate journalists or China putting away bloggers in jail. Get a grip.
The issues of "net neutrality," the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign, other concerns supposedly about "the First Amendment" are really issues of power and property in the United States -- politics. I'm all for politics, but I'm for fighting them within the political process in Congress and the court and the media, not by demanding new international norms when the old ones haven't been fulfilled, and establishing new non-state agencies like GNI to decide it all for us in unaccountable faction under the guise of "multi-stakeholder" politics. It's especially suspect when it's really about the Google lobby -- the Global Network Initiative takes positions on matters of Google's business interest, not on basic freedom of expression cases.
GNI's constituents scream about "censorship" in its attack on SOPA (which above all harms Google's business model of hijacking content, selling ads, and then making intellectual property holders chase it with lawsuits). Then on the next day, they agree with Twitter that they should abide "the law" in authoritarian countries, even if it is not just law, and they should censor by tweet or account. Such hypocrisy! Another gambit that the "Internet freedom" crowd that you lead is to make a moral equivalence between the practices of China or Iran in actually engaging in prior censorship or jailing of dissidents, and the US positions on issues like "net neutrality" or pursing legitimate national security concerns in a democratic society. There aren't any, and it's completely misleading to imply there are.
It's especially wrong to imply that tyrants in China or Iran or Russia "get the idea" for what they do by the US cracking down on piracy with legislation or figuring out how to prevent terrorism.These tyrants don't need role models for what they do -- they have their own justifications and argumentations. If they tendentiously claim, as China has, that it is "like" the British prime minister in controlling social media during a riot, that doesn't mean they're right, and you should resist their guilt-tripping and emotional blackmailing as the sinister propaganda it is. China controls social media and the Internet all day and every day to prevent the emergence of an independent civil society. The UK is contemplating (and hasn't actually moved yet) on restricting social media in narrow fashion in keeping with UN norms in the interests of preventing the destruction of civil society, which is indeed business and residential life. Difference! Or do you think civil society is only protesting in the square?
As for the issue of the surveillance technology, I'm not persuaded by the idea that there is a context that "leaves no doubt". That's because I've seen how much meaning of basic concept is distorted, in the interests of the "progressive" political movement, on basic understanding of concepts like "freedom of expression" (it's not freedom to pirate movies). But Chris Smith is absolutely right to start with the worst, most egregious cases and not pretend that a spat about Internet broadband speeds in the US, or riot control in the UK are somehow the moral equivalent of the deadly murder of journalists in Syria or Russia or completely shutting down the Internet as Egypt did.
Yes, as I've written before regarding the controversy with Cisco and China, it's highly troubling to focus on the United States and whatever technology might have been sold to Syria (something we can all agree is a bad idea), and thereby once again take the myopic world of the "internationalist" who always and everywhere "blames America first" when... the problem with Syria is first of all Iran's backing, and then more problematically, Russia's $1 billion arms sales and political cover to Assad. THAT is what we need to be focusing on, campaigning about, and trying to get awareness about everywhere. Just because it's hard or less accessible doesn't mean we shouldn't take it on. American companies are not the problem in Syria; Russia is. And other countries like Qatar have supplied equipment (such as the sat phones that everyone discussed as possibly leading to journalists' deaths).
Even so, I support Chris Smith's bill because he is working in a context where he doesn't target American companies all day as his center of gravity, he has a sterling record opposing Iran, Russia, etc. *directly* in his work, particularly at CSCE, and supporting other legislation like the Magnitsky Accountability Act. So if he in fact uncovers an American company that is thoughtlessly (or ruthlessly) doing business with Syria, why not take action? It's the least we can do. Yes, it's terrible that Yahoo handed over Chinese dissidents' names to the government. Then you should equally denounce Twitter's decision to "censor by country" if that's what you care about. But you didn't. And let's not forget that the Chinese government is the problem, not Yahoo, which has arguably made it possible for more people in repressive countries to communicate with pseudonyms and store files on the Internet. I vehemently oppose GNI and oppose companies joining it for the simple reason that you are not really using this incredible clout to protest actual basic FOEX cases. Instead, you are taking up Google business issues -- like opposing Italy's demand to take down a Youtube involving the harassment of a mentally disabled boy. Google takes up these contrived First Amendment style issues in a non First Amendment environment because it is always and everywhere rapaciously feeding its greed for the free flow of ads and clicks on ads, and refuses to accept any obstacles or any friction in its way. If you care so much about corporate accountability, Rebecca, *care about that*.
Your friends in this movement to the far left of you like CDT and EFF oppose Smith's good-faith effort to stop direct aid to totalitarians precisely because they exhibit the "platform uber alles" view even more than you do. They have an even more utopian belief that technology by itself will liberate people and they think that some activists make use of equipment even when it is passed to tyrants' hands. Again, their position would be sustainable if they also campaigned vigorously with direct criticism of these oppressive governments when they jail dissidents or block the Internet. They don't. They are hugely selective. They only care about right-of-way for the technology. In most of their campaigns, such as against SOPA, their criticism of corporations starts always and everywhere with American companies instead of the far more problematic state companies of China or Russia or Saudi Arabia -- but they can't see their way clear to supporting *this* not only due to their political allergy to a more conservative-led initiative.
As for David Cameron, you continue to keep tendentiously portraying these situations that in fact meet the Art. 19 or even First Amendment test to prevent "incitement of imminent violence." Shutting down Blackberry messages in a riot zone where people are planning and executing looting and even violent attacks on people; shutting down BART cell phone communications in a specific area for three hours -- this is not the human rights horror you purport it to be, as in each of these cases, ample outlets existed for freedom of expression and free media. You seem strangely unconcerned about the lack of freedom expression or basic civil rights, which we all experience when Occupy Wall Street blocks a bridge or street, or when Anonymous hacks a site and takes everybody's credit card information. But you don't have the moral luxury to relegate those concerns merely to crime control, not when they take over the very free space which you claim to be fighting for -- the Internet. You don't want discretion on the State Department's whim? Well, hello, I don't want discretion on *your* whim in a select group of NGOs and companies who are not elected or even acclaimed in any kind of social media manner, to do this job and who arrogate this to themselves. And again, start with the record of your public statements and selectivity of which cases you take up. "Net neutrality" -- not killing of journalists in Syria.
Your argumentation by the examples of the movements against the garment or extractive industries just doesn't hold up. Those movements had national law and international law to guide them with real standards on very basic things like water pollution or exploitative long hours of labor. Law that came about through impact litigation. National law in the US defines what is toxic wastes, and companies that spew it can be fined. There isn't a law on toxic speech nor should there be one. Restricting a company's toxic waste isn't a violation of their freedom of association but an upholding of public safety. Impact litigation expanding FOEX addresses government, not private "censorship". The government cannot overrule a company's freedom of *association* to impose some group in society's views -- or the view of the ruling party -- on that organization. That *is* what constitutionally-protected freedom in the United States is all about, yet it constantly elludes you. Freedom of expression is less well-defined, but *companies* as non-state actors are not bound by the First Amendment in the way they are bound by national environmental or labour law. They are not required to fullfil it in order to support your utopian view of the Internet. They are entitled -- by freedom of association, which is not trumped by freedom of expression -- to set the policies they wish. What's important is that we have a pluralism of such companies, and that some take on the social burden of supplying First-Amendment level compliance as if they were a state actor. But this cannot be imposed by law.
As for the Wiretappers' Ball, it's great that everyone cares about the surveillance of a liberal democratically-elected state to preserve its own freedoms, which of course, by that same set of values, should always be subject to scrutiny. I'm more worried about the surveillance states of China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. Does anyone regret that the French police obtained the IP address of a man who had emailed a soldier found murdered? Do they regret that they tied that information to the case of a man they'd had under surveillance since his jailbreak from Afghanistan and travel around the Middle East and contact with extremist groups, including via his own family? That information enabled them at least to capture him, even though he managed to kill 7 people before that. The Internet is not a special place just because John Perry Barlow thinks it should be. Police access information from telephone land lines and from people in communities to investigate criminals -- there is nothing different about doing the same thing on the Internet.
The worst thing about your intervention here is that you are not willing for universality to prevail and for people to work on the obvious worse cases first, and remove the obvious direct support that US companies may be providing to those obvious worse cases. You are invoking universality, but taking a parochial approach with a magnifying glass to American sins in the name of your utopian idea of first harnessing the domestic Internet to your political goals and those of Google's business plans. That's just plain wrong, and reveals your instrumental and politicized attitude toward universality.