From Internet To Internets

Over the past few days, China has blocked access to servers required to use Gmail through its Great Firewall. Earlier this month, Spain passed a law that requires Google to pay fees to publishers for every single snippet of a news article the company uses with Google News. Russia blocked the websites of several of Vladimir Putin’s critics, and also convinced Facebook to block the page of the strongest of those critics, Alexei Navalny.

Earlier this year, France passed a law, dubbed the “anti-Amazon” law, that would ban free shipping from online retailers to allow independent booksellers to compete more effectively with the online giant. After much push for reform, South Korea still requires the use of a citizen’s national ID number to login to websites, which caused billions of dollars of damage this year when almost all the numbers were leaked.

And of course here in the United States, there is continuing fallout from the Snowden revelations about the extent to which the NSA hacked major internet services.

It used to be that internet activists were mostly concerned with declining levels of freedom of speech on the internet. While statistics continue to show that censorship is increasing, that is no longer the entire story.

Across the world, it is becoming abundantly clear that the internet is no longer the independent and self-reliant sphere it once was, immune to the peculiarities of individual countries and their laws. Rather, the internet is firmly under the control of every government, simultaneously.

In short, 2014 was the year that the internet clearly became the internets.

As governments learn of their power, they are increasingly regulating, controlling, and fiddling with the internet’s levers. They block websites they don’t like, pass ecommerce provisions that make it hard for international companies to standardize their services, and violate the privacy of citizens for their own ends. That has implications not just for engineers building products for the web, but also for every person who believes that the internet can be a tool for progress throughout the world.

In some respects, that progress is continuing – was launched this year with funding from Facebook and several mobile companies to ensure that the next billion people will one day have access to the internet. But while expanding access is crucial to the long-term health of the medium, so is ensuring that those who already have it are not seeing it taken away from them.

The internet is a special medium. It’s basic governance structures are remarkably libertarian, developing standards for protocols and formats, as well as how domain names should be assigned and transferred. There are no bodies that determine what products can exist. The internet was crafted with complete freedom in mind, and that has survived mostly up to the present moment.

But as more of our everyday activities take place in cyberspace, governments are increasingly threatened by the medium they can’t control. In the United States, postal inspectors have the right to open every single piece of mail traveling in the country. Email afforded no such guarantees in its protocols, that is, until new tools were developed to intercept online message traffic. Likewise, as commerce is conducted increasingly online, the threat to sales tax revenues and general commercial regulation grows.

As the examples in the introduction demonstrate, the push to regulate is not just coming from one definable group of countries. Every country is debating laws that affect the internet’s core principles and operations.

The internet clearly needs greater protection, but unfortunately, protecting it as an open reserve is extraordinarily difficult. While the lack of regulating bodies controlling the internet has been a boon for creativity and freedom, that absence also ensures that there is no one group that can forcefully advocate on these issues.

Furthermore, in spite of the strength of social media tools, mobilizing the internet remains extraordinarily difficult. With the exception of the protests around SOPA, which were widely seen as successful in stopping a bill that would require internet service providers to block websites that were accused of copyright infringement, most other protest movements have rapidly fizzled. The internet may be shared by people across the world, but they speak different languages and live in different cultures. That diversity is a strength of the online world, but it makes developing common ground exceptionally challenging.

Finally, while the changes happening to the internet have been continuous, they have also been slow in coming, making it difficult to rally the kind of support needed to debate them. Usually, the changes don’t even come up in a designated internet regulation bill like SOPA, which attracts significant attention, but are rather added as an amendment to a law already on the books. It’s hard to protest a subsection of a paragraph.

While these challenges may be insurmountable, the internet does have one group of advocates who can help to shape the debate – companies offering internet services like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. While 2014 was not a good year when it came to tech companies engaging in politics, these companies both have the most to lose with increasing regulation and fragmentation of the web and also the most users (i.e. voters where that matters) by which to affect change.

We need to launch a much broader education effort on the open principles of the internet. The internet is still a confusing term for many, including both its operation and its philosophy. Codifying what the internet stands for and bringing that vision to as many people as possible is key if we want to see more advocates for internet freedom.

We don’t want to return to the world that existed just a little more than three decades ago. The internet helped to usher in a more globalized world that has allowed all of us to explore more cultures and engage with our fellow humans in ways we could never have dreamed of before. We need to protect a singular internet to continue to see those dreams realized.