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The Battle Over Internet Freedom

5:13 PM, Oct 26, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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Given this broader context, it is clear that the Internet freedom initiatives under consideration by the U.S. and other democracies to date are well-intentioned but woefully inadequate and poorly matched to the actual scope and nature of the problem they are intended to address. These policies seem largely based on misconceptions and wishful thinking about the role that these media and telecommunication forms can play in shaping the political landscape in modern authoritarian states. In this perverse context, authoritarian governments have given their control agencies enormous flexibility and shown great nimbleness in pursuing a complex approach to information control, while Western governments seem perpetually several steps behind. Incentives are currently poorly aligned for the most creative elements of the emerging technocracy to focus its energy on the side of freedom. Policy approaches that rely primarily on developing and disseminating circumvention and anti-blocking tools, as well as encouraging dictatorial regimes to "open" the online space available to their subjects, are fundamentally misplaced. Policymakers need to radically rethink the current approach.

Rather than trying to pick winners and predict the trends in technology, or rely on an assumption that these communications tools will objectively support liberal democratic outcomes, U.S. efforts in this area have to be rooted in a broader recognition that liberal democracies remain engaged in a struggle against authoritarian value systems that are different from our own, and that this - not any inherent quality of the emerging means of communications - shapes the cyber battle space.  As Deiber and Rohozinski correctly point out: "The struggles over freedom of speech, access to information, privacy protections, and other human-rights issues that now plague cyberspace ultimately pose political problems that are grounded in deeply rooted differences." 

This also means that we have to address our own complicated relationship with privacy, security, and accessibility in cyberspace. While we continue to debate the extent to which the U.S. government has the right to monitor citizens' email, authoritarian regimes are moving ahead to the next level of surveillance and communications management without any liberal-democratic constraints.  One of the important contributions our society can make toward the development of a communications space that ultimately serves liberal-democratic ends, however, is to keep having that debate, and to keep having it in the open and make sure such open discussion about the rules of the road emerges as the global standard. 

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