With the arrival of the July 4th weekend, now is a good time to consider the types of individual rights that the U.S. constitution continues to make possible, even against the backdrop of a rapidly-changing information-based society. We have the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly – but do we also have the freedom to connect in a mobile, networked world? Does the Internet already encompass many of the fundamental rights outlined by our Founding Fathers, or is the Freedom to Connect a new type of inalienable right?
As TIME magazine points out in its cover story on the U.S. Constitution (One Document, Under Seige), the Founding Fathers could never have even imagined a whole host of modern innovations – including, but not limited to, the modern-day Internet: “George Washington didn’t even dream that man could fly, much less use a global-positioning satellite to aim a missile, so it’s hard to say what he would think.” So, the question is not how the Founding Fathers would have felt about the Internet, but rather, whether the documents they created were flexible enough to accommodate for the phenomenal growth of the Internet and its impact on every facet of our lives, both here in America and globally.
In the wake of the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and across the Middle East, it is clear that the Internet represents more than just economic empowerment – it is a fundamental underpinning of a democratic society. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined in her “Freedom to Connect” policy speech on Internet freedom, “an open Internet fosters long-term peace, progress and prosperity.” And a closed Internet? The consequences are almost too dire to consider: “An Internet that is closed and fractured, where different governments can block activity or change the rules on a whim—where speech is censored or punished, and privacy does not exist—that is an Internet that can cut off opportunities for peace and progress and discourage innovation and entrepreneurship.”
While we consider the Internet to be fundamental to the flowering of democracy abroad, what about here in America? The Founding Fathers could never have imagined an Internet “Kill Switch” bill passing through the Congress, or the government-mandated seizure of domain names, or the decision of the government to selectively shut down certain parts of the Internet. They also could never have imagined Wiki-Leaks or Anonymous or LulzSec, and the limits to what type of information governments should have to divulge.
At a time when the Internet makes possible so many economic and social benefits that derive from a networked society, we sometimes forget just how important “the Internet” – including access to our mobile devices – is to the way we communicate, share and demonstrate our democratic values. People sometimes talk about the Internet as a commodity, as if it were something like electricity or water or air. In an era of Internet Kill Switches, the ability to “shut down” the Internet would be like turning off our water supply.
The “freedom to connect” in America needs to be held to a higher standard than we hold it elsewhere in the world. Given the role that the Internet plays in our everyday lives and the way it helps to distribute information and data, we need to be vigilant when elected U.S. government officials start talking about taking away our fundamental right to the Internet, or when leaders in Silicon Valley begin to acquiesce in the face of government requests to censor or limit information. At some point, We The People becomes We the Internet.