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Why Internet Freedom Matters

Lifestyle & Opinion

In just a short while you’ll be stepping into the voting booth, if you haven’t voted already. In the past weeks we’ve talked about threats to privacy, and freedom of expression on the Internet. Now it’s time to talk about why the Internet is worth saving.

I logged onto the Internet for the first time in 1994. It was a much smaller place back then. USENET, a bulletin board-like service was the Internet and the web was just this weird little toy; nobody could figure out what it was good for. Human beings aren’t good at seeing the future, but the first signs of it were popping up three years before I logged on.

The fall of Communism was in full swing, but the party was not about to go down without a fight. A coalition of hardliners in the government made an attempt to turn back the clock using tanks and guns. They shut down the radio, TV stations, and newspapers. But they forgot about USENET. The people got the news out to their fellow protestors and the world via talk.politics.soviet and once a message was on the Internet there was no stopping it. It changed how speech was done. Before this if you owned the broadcast towers, the printing press, and the public square, you owned public discourse. The Internet puts us back on an even footing.

Meet Arijit, a college student just like you. He took out insurance from Aetna through his school, and later developed stage IV colon cancer. His insurance capped out at 300,000 dollars, which is penny ante money when it comes to cancer treatment. He ran through it in less than a year. While uninsured, he racked up more than 100,000 dollars worth of bills in six months. He started a blog to raise money to pay for his treatments and support charities for cancer victims. Arijit’s story was told across the Internet and our combined voices brought Aetna’s CEO to Twitter. They negotiated and in the end Aetna agreed to pay for Arijit’s treatments. The money he raised for his own treatment went to cancer-related charities. Twenty years ago, Aetna would have summoned a PR hack to release a statement about how it was acting in the best interests of its stock holders, if the media covered the story at all.

Speaking of the media, the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, The Red and Black, faced administration censorship in August of this year. Starting in April, the board, staffed exclusively by members of the university’s administration, began butting in. A draft memo from the board in April complained about “content that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess this is ‘journalism’.” The result of the memo and changes to the paper’s management was a student walkout. That’s been done plenty of times on student publications when the administration got too controlling. This time was different. The students walked literally down the street and set up a blog that detailed their issues with the management. Then they carried on reporting the news. Their Twitter account gained more than a thousand followers in the first two and a half hours after it was created. The story gained international attention, and the university was forced to return the publication to student control.

At Amherst, college sexual violence was being swept under the rug. According to one rape victim quoted by the New York Times, a campus counselor told her that she could not change dorms after being assaulted, and that she should not bring charges against her attacker. The counselor went on to question whether it was really rape. Again, student blogging was crucial in drawing attention to an issue that the administration had failed to act on.

These are just a few examples from this year of how the Internet democratizes information. This is just the beginning. Smart phones made a dramatic jump to more than fifty percent of the U.S. market – worldwide, there are more than a billion in use. Each Internet device is a printing press, a radio station, and a film studio all rolled into one. While it is possible to put up barriers to Internet access as China and Iran have done, in the war of censors versus speakers, these countries are destined to lose. We saw it during Iran’s Green protests, and every day more people are evading the Great Firewall. The future of the marketplace of ideas is bullish.

Speech and access to information go hand in hand. If you love learning, you’re living in the golden age. People ask me how I do the research for my articles here at The Sandbox. I use tools that are available to anyone. The Sunlight Foundation’s, and They provide everything you could possibly want to know about what happened in the legislature. They’ll tell you who your representatives are, how they voted, who they might be influenced by, and more. You can see every single piece of legislation that went through Tallahassee or Washington. Our library provides a range of databases that can provide information on every possible subject. All of this is available to anyone with access to a computer, tablet or smart phone. It has never been easier to become educated on the issues that affect your life than it is today.

It will only get easier tomorrow. With an electorate that has access to good information, and a voice to share it, the government will have to become more transparent and responsive. Not just the government, either. Businesses will have to become more responsive too. We can look forward to Internet values like freedom of expression, access to information, and accountability spreading off the Internet and into our culture.

The Internet flattens hierarchies. At your next job odds are you’ll bring your own notebook or tablet to work. Google’s 20 percent time, and Valve’s radical restructuring of their workplace make sense in a connected world. Their employees are happier, they have more autonomy, and create interesting things. More transparency and accountability mean that it will be harder and harder for businesses to discriminate. The future is a place for entrepreneurs and small business too. You can go learn Java or Objective C for free and build software people love. There are few limits to what you can create; all you need is a notebook and an idea. At a time when economic inequality is the highest its been in modernity, the Internet can be an equalizer.

That’s not to say there won’t be bumps in the road. We’ve seen plenty this year. The Internet is still a frontier. The laws and norms we set now will be the standards that your children and grandchildren have to live with. We absolutely must get it right the first time.

I won’t tell you that Internet freedom is the only issue in this year’s election. But it is a vital one. If we want the kind of Internet that allows us to speak truth to power, we have to remain vigilant. That means paying attention to what your government is doing, and letting your members of Congress know that you expect them to stand up for your rights. Now get out of here and vote.


Image Courtesy of Flickr User kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop) under Creative Commons 2.0. Thanks for sharing!

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