Bullies and nannies alike threaten Internet freedoms

2 February 2014 by Steve Blum
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“Everything we’re talking about are threats to authoritarian regimes, and they have the votes”, said Robert McDowell, formerly an FCC commissioner and currently a thinker (or would that be a tanker?) at the Hudson Institute think tank. He was speaking at CES earlier in January. His concern is maintaining the vitality of an open Internet and everyone’s freedom to use it as they please. “A big threat to this is international regulation and governance”, he said, renewing his warning that some governments – via international organisations as well as their own efforts – want to bring online activists and entrepreneurs to heel.

It’s not just thuggish regimes clinging to power that threaten the continued prosperity of cyberspace. “Are we going to embrace the ethos that made the first digital revolution great?” asked Adan Thierer from George Mason University and a fellow think tanker, during the same panel session. “Or are we going to take a precautionary approach”, an approach, he said, that has haunted European technology and stifled its growth for years.

The next opportunity for interventionist governments of either sort to impose their own sort of order on the entrepreneurial chaos of the Internet comes in South Korea in October, when member nations of the International Telecommunications Union resume negotiations over Internet regulation. A lot depends on Tom Wheeler, the current chairman of the FCC. On the one hand, he made it clear during a wide ranging conversation at CES that he intends to play Internet referee within the domestic U.S. market. On the other, he doesn’t like the idea of governing the Internet via international treaties.

“We are strong believers in the open Internet”, Wheeler said. “Inter-governmental control of the Internet is a bad idea. Full stop”.