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Internet Freedom: The Other Guys

Lifestyle & Opinion

Last week we looked at what Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney wants to do to our Internet. As it turns out, the answer is: censor all the things! This week, we’ll see if our third party candidates can do better.

We have a plethora of Presidential candidates in Florida, 18 of them in fact. This is because it’s very easy to get on the ballot in our state. Most of the candidates do not have a stated position on Internet freedom or issues related to it. So today we’ll be looking at just two candidates, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party.

Johnson is the only candidate on the list that has experience in office. He served two terms as the Governor of New Mexico from 1994 till 2002. Johnson’s Internet freedom platform has three planks, “Don’t Regulate A Good Thing,” “Don’t Tax A Good Thing,” “Keep the Internet Free & Safe.”

The first plank is essentially his anti-net neutrality plank, though he also weighs in on the Internet “kill switch” as well. Like Romney, Johnson is proposing a radical change in the way the Internet operates. Net neutrality principles codify the way the Internet has always been run as we discussed in the last article in this series.

Opponents of net neutrality charge that nothing will change if it is thrown out. This is untrue. From the first days of the web, all links have been treated equally. A link from The New York Times, is as good as a link from The Sandbox News. ISPs have fought vigorously and often underhandedly against these regulations that require them to act as a common carrier. According to The Register, in 2008 Comcast paid more than 200 people to attend an FCC public hearing on net neutrality, taking seats away from members of the public that wanted to weigh in on the issue. It was a shameful attempt to stack the deck in their favor. Critics of net neutrality have claimed that without these rules, Internet service providers might improve their service. In fact, ISPs want to throttle Internet service to their users as Comcast did in 2007. I find it hard to reconcile slower Internet speeds with better service. The United States is already ranked 26th in the world in Internet speed, and every year we fall farther behind. Johnson says that “the FCC should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the content marketplace” but is just fine with letting near monopolies do so. Under Johnson, the Internet would closely resemble our broadcast media landscape, those with a substantial marketing budget would be heard, the rest of us would be throttled.

It isn’t all bad news. His position on laws that would give the government the power to shut down the Internet as a whole or services on it is laudable in intent, if a little fuzzy in the scholarship department. The Internet already has a kill switch, with our President’s finger on the button. That was established in the 1934 Communications Act which gives the executive the power to shut down all telecommunications in the event of a national emergency. There’s room for concern here, but this law has existed for 78 years without incident.

In plank three “Keeping the Internet Free & Safe,” he states “Political speech should in no way be censored” which is a very narrow interpretation of Internet freedom for a Libertarian. It fails to cover a range of threatened material; our First Amendment is more generous in what it protects. For instance, violence as part of an artistic work on film, literature, or in a video game is not necessarily political, and is protected by the First amendment. Also conspicuous in its absence in the platform is any mention of privacy rights. Johnson’s platform is not well thought out, it attacks non-issues and stays narrow or non-existent in the areas that are most frequently attacked. This platform is disappointing. Can the Green Party do better?

Jill Stein is the Green Party’s candidate for President. She recently made the news for being arrested outside the Presidential debates, protesting the exclusion of third party candidates. The Green Party in Europe has made gains against the Internet freedom-oriented Pirate party, and their U.S. cousins have been paying attention.

For instance, under the “Advanced technology and Defense Conversion” plank, 1e “We support broad interpretation and ultimate expression of the Fair Use of copyrighted works. We support the open source and copyleft models in order to promote the public interest and the spirit of copyright” recognizes that a lot of the problems we’ve seen on the Internet over the past 18 years have their heart in intellectual property law. The plank does not deny the utility of copyright in commercial works, but recognizes that there are exceptions to copyright, and other systems that might serve an artist better under some circumstances. There is a real question as to whether our courts will uphold a license like Creative Commons, which makes many artists hesitant to use it or similar copyright alternatives. Formal recognition of the alternatives will let artists feel more comfortable taking advantage of them. It also reverses the trend in the Obama administration of treating copyright as a corporate rather than public good. Their third point, Open-Source Software, goes on to affirm their commitment to copyright, while remaining reform minded. The Green Party starts strong and then stalls. Their plank on expanding Internet access is contradictory.

It recognizes the problem of a shrinking number of Internet service providers controlling the market. Under “b” they support expanding the market for Internet service providers, but then, to the contrary, position them as taxpayer-funded utilities. You can’t have it both ways, and shrinking each area to one provider on the Utility model might be more dangerous to Internet freedom than the system in use today. This platform deals with more substantive issues than Johnson’s, but remains woefully incomplete. It lacks any discussion of privacy, and freedom of speech online. The real question is: do these platforms matter?

Not much. There is almost zero chance that either of these candidates will reach the Oval Office. There is no question that the way debates are handled is unfair, but that is not the reason they don’t win elections. These candidates won’t win because they lack the broad-based support of Americans in the political center. If they did win in this election, they would likely be ineffective at getting their program through Congress.

Remember Congress? They are, as a body, far more important to the issues that you care about, and to Internet freedom, than the President. In my next article, we’re going to Congress and we’ll be meeting some of the heroes of the free and open Internet. We’ll also be talking about our representatives in Congress.

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