To stay safe in real life, we give up some liberty.
Online, we’re not ready to sacrifice freedoms.
In 1996, Grateful Dead lyricist and Internet activist John Perry Barlow wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace,” he wrote. “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
In the 16 years since, the government has certainly not left cyberspace alone — because many of “us” have sought its protection from the criminals, pedophiles, bullies, industrial spies, racists, terrorists and others who have invaded the Internet.
Most of us do want the government, which shapes legal code, and the companies, which shape computer code, to defend us against attack and theft: We pay them to do so by giving up a little of our freedom and giving them our taxes, subscription dollars and mouse clicks.
However, the lawmaking norm leans more toward eliminating rather than managing threats online, be they cyber-attacks or intellectual property theft. It has somehow become acceptable to pass laws that presume Internet users are guilty until proven innocent. The Patriot Act and other legislation enable government agents to access a vast range of U.S. citizens’ private digital communications without a warrant — or even a suspicion that a specific individual may be involved in a crime, as the law requires for most physical searches.
SOPA also erred on the side of eliminating threats. To protect intellectual property, the law sought to make Web sites liable for their users’ activities. This would mean sites would have to monitor all users and block any transmissions or postings that could possibly result in a copyright violation charge.
Washington is driven by geography.
Cyberspace, as Justice Stevens pointed out in his 1997 opinion striking down the Communications Decency Act, is a “unique medium . . . located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the Internet.”
Thus a congressman from Iowa can vote “yea” on a bill that ends up affecting Internet users in Bahrain, who have no way of holding him accountable. That is in part because many globally popular online platforms are headquartered in the United States. Moreover, Web services based outside the country that want to be accessible to American users must also comply with U.S. legislation, affecting their users everywhere else.
In addition, governments around the world tend to copy regulations and laws enacted in North America and Europe, particularly when they provide an opportunity to exercise government power through the Internet. In Tunisia, where a new democracy is striving to take root after toppling a dictator one year ago, Islamists and other conservatives point to laws recently passed or proposed in Western democratic countries as evidence that they are in the global mainstream as they seek to reinstate censorship.
For these reasons, activists around the world had good reason to worry that an anti-piracy bill such as SOPA would force overseas Web sites, if they want American audiences, to set up monitoring and censorship mechanisms. Once in place, these would give governments a new set of excuses to demand user information and removal of content.
For neither the first time nor the last time, Washington is trying to wield power over the Internet in a manner that many Americans believe lacks the consent of the governed, let alone the consent of the networked. After Wednesday’s protests, the anti-piracy bills are effectively dead or indefinitely delayed. But that doesn’t mean the revolution has succeeded.
The computer coding pros — and the millions who depend on their products — have said “no” to legal code they hate. But killing a bad bill is only the first step. The next and more vital step is political innovation. Without a major upgrade, this political system will keep on producing legal code that is Internet-incompatible.
Rebecca MacKinnon is the author of the forthcoming “Consent of the Networked:The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom” and a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @rmack.
Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.