Monday, February 13, 2012

Government Conspiracy

Something’s up. The secret must have leaked. The vultures of power are all conspiring to take over. Let’s put the Genie back into the bottle! Or at least let us control it. It has been without any supervision for too long and now that we understand how important it is, how strategic it is, we cannot let it continue. Let the kids move aside and let the grown-ups take over!

What am I talking about? The Internet! In the last few months, the attempts of governments around the world to control the Internet have notably intensified. The governments want to control it.

There is the Patriot Act which gives the US government sweeping rights to search your data on the Internet by ignoring any individual or organizational privacy rights.

How about Internet Neutrality? Shouldn’t we make sure that important business gets the preferential treatment while the gamers and file swappers get less bandwidth? There has been many calls to enact a law for that.

Then, there is the content piracy issue with its series of failed attempts to assert controls over the digital universe - most recently culminating in SOPA. But as we have put SOPA and PIPA to rest in the US, the Europeans are stirring emotions with the ACTA agreement just as I am typing these words.

Let us also not forget the “three strikes” law that has been adopted in countries such as France and the UK. This law allows the government to cut off individuals from Internet access for repeated content piracy violations. These laws have been actually condemned by the UN Human Rights Council in a special report. Yet they exist.

Next, there is the question of censorship. A couple of weeks ago, Twitter made the headlines by allowing censorship in various countries, presumably under pressure from such countries. A few years ago, RIM went through a similar experience with having to bow to the will of countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and India when their governments demanded control over their citizen’s email. Even before that, various countries have been asking for the master key for any encryption technology used in their virtual airspace.

So what’s happening? Are the governments waking up to the significance of the Internet and the degree to which it dominates their economy? YOU BET! Governments around the world are used to full control of their countries’ infrastructure - from transportation, communication, commerce, to entertainment, education, and politics. But to date, the Internet has evolved with very little government supervision and as one industry after another is being completely transformed by the Internet, governments are worried about losing control completely. After all, if everything moves to the unregulated virtual universe, what’s there going to be left for government to regulate?

So it is not a surprise that the governments are trying to fight back. Their allies are the very same industries that have been under the threat of extinction because they failed to adapt in the age of the Internet: entertainment, telecom, retail, publishing, etc. The good old ally called national security comes in very handy too.

What governments fail to realize is the amount of business that happens on the Internet because it is free and unregulated. Sure, revenue streams have moved from one company to another and new industries have grown where others have declined. Internet companies have exploited legal loopholes such as avoiding to charge sales tax. But the Internet is essential for the economy today. Free Internet, that is. Because only thanks to the fact that the Internet is free and open to everyone, has it gained the kind of adoption that is propelling a big portion of any nation’s GDP today.

I am not advocating for any criminal activity on the Internet. Laws are laws and they should apply to the Internet the same way as they do anywhere else. But artificial protectionism and tampering with the Internet’s fundamental principle is dangerous - possibly disastrous to the economy of a given nation or even to the entire world. The governments have to be very careful tempting such powers. And we, the people, have to remain vigilant and continue reminding our governments that we want to keep the Internet free.

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