Before the dust could settle from the battle against the Stop Online Piracy Act earlier this year, the people that helped defeat it realized they needed to do more than play whack-a-mole with bad bills from Congress. Since the January 18th SOPA blackout, a group of net advocates, entrepreneurs, and academics have worked behind the scenes to find common ground and leverage an outraged public to promote a free and open internet. Today, they issue a “Declaration of Internet Freedom:” a set of five broadly worded principles intended to protect the internet from interference.
There’s no guarantee that the Declaration’s principles will catch on with the public, but the story of its creation demonstrates the power and passion of a rapidly growing constituency that is now demanding to be heard: the users of the internet.
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Welcome to the jungle
The internet is a series of tubes... and people, and power lines, and...
It’s tragically easy to imagine the internet as a weightless, formless, eternal entity, but its existence completely depends on the "real world" it lives in. The internet sits atop a jungle of servers, cables, power lines, markets, governments, and people all over the world — as a human invention, the internet’s magic is firmly anchored in the material world. And at each level, there are standards or conditions that can govern how things behave: web standards like HTML tell browsers how to display content, internet protocols help machines talk to one another, markets help determine how content is created and distributed, and laws regulate everything from the electric transmission lines that power the internet to things like the prohibition of child pornography. All of these things — social norms, architectures, and laws — govern the internet, because they govern human society. And as the internet becomes inexorably interwoven with every facet of modern life, the question is not whether the internet will be regulated, but how — and more importantly, by whom.
So where will that regulation come from? Who controls the internet? Who owns it? Answers will vary, but it’s somewhere between nobody and everybody. There are billions of internet users, thousands of organizations with their own networks, internet service providers, internet protocol groups, public lawmakers, and a small handful of large corporations like Verizon and AT&T that manage the internet’s physical backbone. While none of these groups own the internet outright, they wield enormous influence over it, and interfere with it when interests collide.
In recent years these collisions have visibly taken place in governments around the world — and while countries like Iran, China, Syria, and even India have notoriously interfered with the internet in controversial ways, the most prominent threat to the internet in the past year came from a United States Congressman representing the 21st district of Texas.
On October 26, 2011, Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed a bill in Congress called the "Stop Online Piracy Act," or SOPA. The bill, backed by organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America, attempted to deal with online piracy with extreme measures that would have altered the architecture of the internet itself. As our own Nilay Patel put it, "SOPA and PIPA are the effective equivalent of blowing up every road, bridge, and tunnel in New York to keep people from getting to one bootleg stand in Union Square — but leaving the stand itself alone."
As SOPA made its way through sub-committee, many watched as members of Congress fumbled basic concepts that internet users take for granted. They watched as Rep. Mel Watt (D-North Carolina) pejoratively compared the internet to Las Vegas, where apparently "anything goes." They watched as lawmakers squandered committee time to squabble over offensive comments their colleagues made on Twitter, who then argued about use of the word "offensive." And less humorously, they watched as elected officials tried to push a harmful bill through committee that they knew little about, while at the same time denouncing the need to consult experts.
Instead of hearing from experts, lawmakers squabbled over offensive comments their colleagues made on Twitter
We are debating the Stop Online Piracy Act and Shiela Jackson has so bored me that I'm killing time by surfing the Internet.— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) December 15, 2011
Like anything else the government touches, the internet won’t necessarily be regulated by those who understand how it works or who know the needs of its users — and those who fought SOPA decided they wouldn’t wait for Congress to educate itself. From blackouts by Google, Reddit, Wikipedia, and others, to public boycotts of SOPA supporters like GoDaddy, a coalition of internet users and organizations both big and small fought back against Congress’ bill and its entertainment industry benefactors. And they won.
But some of the warriors who fought against SOPA quickly realized that endless battles against individual bills would be unsustainable — they had to use their visibility and momentum to create lasting change, or ultimately lose the war altogether. Led by Free Press internet campaign director Josh Levy, Reddit co-founder (and now board member) Alexis Ohanian, and a handful of other thought leaders including Elizabeth Stark and Yochai Benkler, a coalition of internet advocates began work on what would eventually become the Declaration of Internet Freedom.
"Something's in the air here."
Immediately after the SOPA blackout on January 18th, Levy and others realized that they had an opportunity to take action: Levy says that "this was a time we could do something proactive, and really push the ball forward and show our strength in not just knocking something down but protecting the freedom of the internet." Levy, a leading coordinator of the Declaration project, wanted to gather a community of internet constituents, find the best way to marshal their resources, and build a powerful consensus for what was initially called an "agenda for internet freedom."
As Levy and other SOPA veterans discussed internet policy at SXSW 2012, an early confederacy emerged: Levy met up with Reddit co-founder Ohanian, who was already pondering an "internet bill of rights." Ohanian, one of the most outspoken opponents of SOPA and a leader of national protests against the bill, was also interested in continuing the fight. His support is no surprise, considering that by his own admission, he "takes cues in many instances from Reddit, and broadly speaking, from the internet."
Ohanian says that "it started like a lot of good things, with a conversation that involved a couple of drinks," and evolved into a more serious conversation about what they’d been fighting for. As they shared their views on the relevance of American ideals to internet freedom, Levy says that he and Ohanian walked away with the feeling that "something’s in the air here." Ohanian says that "so much of what we are fighting for for an open internet just seems so fundamentally American, that when we explained it to people, everyone said it sounded like a good thing." As Levy recalls, both walked away excited to "reclaim patriotism for internet users."
Following SXSW, Levy, Ohanian, and other internet voices reconnected at Innovate / Activate in April. As the coalition expanded, Levy organized an in-person meeting in New York City on May 2nd to coordinate efforts. A small group of about fifteen internet stakeholders had what Levy says was a "frank conversation" about what they were working on independently, and what issues needed to be recognized. The group didn’t resolve to work on a single project by the end of the day, but it continued to work together over the coming weeks in a largely internet-based collaborative process.
At another forum in June, Levy says that many internet advocates came together, and that the group decided it needed to make the process "as participatory as possible." While the group met in person occasionally, it primarily acted through use of the internet: first with email threads, then an actual mailing list. At times, the group worked on the same materials with Google Docs for discussions around style and language. (If only Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had cloud computing.)
Techdirt founder Mike Masnick, a signatory and participant in the declaration process, says that "it’s a pretty broad coalition of folks with diverse backgrounds and representing different interests." Open architecture, networks, copyright reform, free speech, net neutrality, and other concerns were represented by participants.
Like with SOPA, the Declaration’s coalition involved a lot of different people, and the effort evolved without strong central governance; Masnick’s description of the process is simply that "different people popped up at different points with really key ideas or insights." One of those strong voices, according to Ohanian, was Ben Huh, the CEO of Cheezburger and one of the most vocal internet advocates in recent memory. Huh spoke out against SOPA, and publicly threatened to move 1,000 domains from GoDaddy in protest of its support of the bill.
But even amongst allies, consensus is not guaranteed.
This diversity of thought and contribution resulted in a number of potential roadblocks over specific policies and even the definition of terms — even net neutrality failed to gain consensus as a phrase and a concept. So rather than allowing themselves to get mired in endless policy discussions — presumably a job for, say, Congress — the group agreed to think more broadly and to find common ground. Masnick says that "we realized that for this to be a really valuable document, it had to focus on those core principles, and different groups could build out what those meant from a policy perspective later." Ohanian agrees, saying that "there are a bunch of different ways to address this from a policy standpoint," and that given a modest number of policy experts in the group, "they said let’s agree on the basic principles, and then if we can agree with that we can move to talk about policy."
That might sound like a cop-out from having to deal with the difficult work of policy, but Masnick says that the decision was also partly practical, and that "keeping things simple and straightforward just seemed like a more useful way to get these ideas across and accepted."
The simplicity shows: the final version of the Declaration includes just five principles and 104 words. Phrases like "net neutrality" and "patent reform" are absent. Instead, there are words like "expression, access, openness, innovation, and privacy" — Levy says the language is at a "higher level" than policy, though that characterization is semantically troubling considering that principles are just the starting point. The details of policy are more difficult to work out, and are arguably more important. Congress can’t realistically pass a law that says "don’t censor the internet." (Though we’re entertained by the idea of the Supreme Court referring to such a law in an opinion.) You and I may agree that free speech is an excellent idea, but it’s an incomplete one: over 200 years of First Amendment law and policy has moved us only a few strides down the path of reconciling the facts of daily life with our ethical aspirations, and the internet changes things entirely. Still, policy has to start somewhere, and consensus is a good place to begin.
As of its public debut on Monday, July 2nd, over sixty organizations and thought leaders have signed their names in support of the document. And while corporations like Google and Wikipedia — which each opposed SOPA — are curiously absent from the list of signatories, Ohanian says that’s simply by design: he says that no effort was really made to involve those organizations, partly due to the fact that their bureaucracies were not likely to accommodate the group’s timeframe. He adds that "we wanted to have a place to have corporations signing on, but the lesson from all of this is that the internet is ours: it belongs to the public, and the individual."
For your consideration
"Hey internet, we can't do this alone"
"We're all lobbyists."
Dissect, discuss, remix
To spark participation, Free Press will be opening a dedicated subreddit on Reddit.com, r/internetdeclaration, that it hopes will act as a hub for discussion of the Declaration. While Reddit Inc. has yet to sign the document, it will provide free advertising across Reddit.com for the subreddit. Free Press also wants to use tactics that predate the internet to get people talking about the internet: it plans to organize in-person "internet meetups" so that people can "talk about the meaning of these principles and how they relate to their communities, and then to mark-up the principles."
Others, like Mike Masnick, will host their own efforts: Masnick plans to set up a platform allowing people to vote certain principles up and suggest their own for adoption. And, of course, there are others unaffiliated with the Declaration effort with similar objectives, including Reddit’s politically proactive users who created the "Free Internet Act:" a crowdsourced piece of legislation designed as an alternative to SOPA.
Levy says that he’s "really excited to see what everyone else out there wants to do with this," and hopes that the text of the Declaration will be discussed, dissected, and remixed by engaged internet users.
Today, the Declaration takes the stage for the first time in the wild of the internet. It’s unclear if groups like Google or Wikipedia, which fought against SOPA, will sign onto the Declaration formally, or if the average internet user will even take notice. And, of course, there’s the rest of the world to think about: while there is some international support among the participants, US representation dominated the effort. Masnick says that "getting more international buy-in is going to be important moving forward, but that’s part of the reason for releasing the declaration now and seeking feedback."
Despite their differences, the authors of the Declaration of Internet Freedom were able to agree on a set of basic principles for a free and open net. But those we spoke to agreed on a more fundamental idea: that people have the power to effect positive change.
"I don’t want to comment on Congress’ work schedule," Ohanian tells me, "but when your senators and representatives are back in office, give them a phone call."
"Do you support the Declaration?"