A neutral communications medium is the basis of a fair, competitive market economy, of democracy, and of science. Debate has risen again in the past year about whether government legislation is needed to protect net neutrality. It is. Although the Internet and Web generally thrive on lack of regulation, some basic values have to be legally preserved.
Other threats to the web result from meddling with the Internet, including snooping. In 2008 one company, Phorm, devised a way for an ISP to peek inside the packets of information it was sending. The ISP could determine every URI that any customer was browsing. The ISP could then create a profile of the sites the user went to in order to produce targeted advertising.
Accessing the information within an Internet packet is equivalent to wiretapping a phone or opening postal mail. The URIs that people use reveal a good deal about them. A company that bought URI profiles of job applicants could use them to discriminate in hiring people with certain political views, for example. Life insurance companies could discriminate against people who have looked up cardiac symptoms on the Web. Predators could use the profiles to stalk individuals. We would all use the Web very differently if we knew that our clicks can be monitored and the data shared with third parties.
Free speech should be protected, too. The Web should be like a white sheet of paper: ready to be written on, with no control over what is written. Earlier this year Google accused the Chinese government of hacking into its databases to retrieve the e-mails of dissidents. The alleged break-ins occurred after Google resisted the government’s demand that the company censor certain documents on its Chinese-language search engine.
Totalitarian governments aren’t the only ones violating the network rights of their citizens. In France a law created in 2009, named Hadopi, allowed a new agency by the same name to disconnect a household from the Internet for a year if someone in the household was alleged by a media company to have ripped off music or video. After much opposition, in October the Constitutional Council of France required a judge to review a case before access was revoked, but if approved, the household could be disconnected without due process. In the U.K., the Digital Economy Act, hastily passed in April, allows the government to order an ISP to terminate the Internet connection of anyone who appears on a list of individuals suspected of copyright infringement. In September the U.S. Senate introduced the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, which would allow the government to create a blacklist of Web sites—hosted on or off U.S. soil—that are accused of infringement and to pressure or require all ISPs to block access to those sites.
In these cases, no due process of law protects people before they are disconnected or their sites are blocked. Given the many ways the Web is crucial to our lives and our work, disconnection is a form of deprivation of liberty. Looking back to the Magna Carta, we should perhaps now affirm: “No person or organization shall be deprived of the ability to connect to others without due process of law and the presumption of innocence.”
When your network rights are violated, public outcry is crucial. Citizens worldwide objected to China’s demands on Google, so much so that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. government supported Google’s defiance and that Internet freedom—and with it, Web freedom—should become a formal plank in American foreign policy. In October, Finland made broadband access, at 1 Mbps, a legal right for all its citizens.