The Free Internet Survived 2012, But Will It Be That Lucky Next Year?

    December 29, 2012

2012 was a dangerous year for the free Internet. Lawmakers and global stakeholders all took a shot at policing and regulating the Internet over the past year to no avail. That doesn’t mean they’ve given up, and 2013 could prove disastrous if certain parties have their way.

To that end, it would be advantageous to look back on all the bills, treaties, etc that threatened the Internet in 2012. As they say, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Internet freedom fighters will have to learn from tactics employed this year to recognize threats to a free Internet before they even emerge.

Were you concerned for the free Internet in 2012? Do you think next year will be worse or better? Let us know in the comments.

The first battle over the free Internet came in January as the much debated SOPA and PIPA came up for vote in Congress. The bills were designed to combat copyright infringement online, but the powers granted to the government to do so were sweeping and overly broad. SOPA in particular gave government the power to censor Web sites on the DNS level thereby removing them from general access to most users. Potential for abuse was high and many feared that the bill would be used to destroy innovation and protect legacy businesses that have yet to adapt to how the Internet does business.

Worryingly enough, it looked like both bills would actually see smooth sailing through both the Senate and the House. Then the Internet banded together and launched a blackout campaign that saw many popular sites like Wikipedia going dark to show people what a world with SOPA could potentially look like. The tactic worked as thousands of concerned citizens called their representatives telling them to vote no on SOPA and PIPA. The bills were finally taken off the table for good in October.

After the threat of SOPA and PIPA subsided, a new threat emerged. It had free Internet proponents even more concerned as it was as international treaty that sought to rewrite international law in favor of large corporate interests. The treaty was called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA for short, and it contained a number of worrying implications. The most concerning part of the treaty was that it would require ISPs around the world to “monitor and censor online communications.” It was not only a threat to free speech on the Internet, but a major threat to online privacy as well.

After many parts of the treaty were leaked, citizens in countries across Europe took to the streets to protest. The protests worked as many countries refused to ratify the treaty and it was finally dealt a death blow in July as the European Parliament voted against it. The treaty was officially shelved, at least in Europe, earlier in December.

All the previous treaties and bills only sought to remove copyright infringing material from the Internet. It’s bad, but it could be worse. Our friends in Washington took on that challenge when lawmakers introduced CISPA and CSA – two bills that aimed to tackle cybersecurity, but threatened to violate any privacy that U.S. citizens may have online. CISPA was definitely more worrisome as it had the support of those who opposed SOPA just a few months prior. The new bill garnered support because it made it easier for companies to share information with government bodies without having to worry about lawsuits from those whose information was shared without consent.

Like the previous bills thus far, both were killed before getting very far. CISPA was able to pass the House, but its Senate counterpart, CSA, was killed time and time again. The latest attempt for passage happened in mid-November with the bill being officially killed for the last time.

The biggest threat by far, however, happened earlier in December when delegates around the world met to discuss an update to a decades old telecommunications treaty. The ITU, or International Telecommunications Union, was met with skepticism as some felt less than scrupulous members of the global community would use the meeting as an opportunity to seize control of the Internet. They did not disappoint as China, Saudia Arabia and others introduced a last minute change to the treaty that would have given them more power over the Internet. The treaty was rejected by the U.S. and much of Europe though, and it was unceremoniously killed.

Do you think these were legitimate threats to the free Internet? Were Internet freedom proponents blowing the potential threat of these bills and treaties out of proportion? Let us know in the comments.

As the above illustrates, 2012 was one hell of a year for Internet censorship and regulations. All of it was defeated, however, and tired Internet freedom fighters can rest easy knowing that the Internet is no longer under attack, right? Wrong. 2013 is shaping up to be an even worse year for proposed Internet regulation as various treaties and bills from 2012 are sticking around into the new year while new treaties and bills will obviously be proposed in due time.

Speaking of relics from 2012, TPP is a prime example of a trade agreement that refuses to die. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is much like ACTA, but it seeks to establish better trade relations between the U.S. and Southeast Asia. It’s similarities to ACTA don’t end there, however, as the treaty is negotiated in complete secrecy without any input from the public or Congress. In fact, many members of Congress are lobbying to have the USTR make negotiations more transparent since they have the constitutional right of approving treaties.

So, where does TPP stand in 2013? It could go either way to be honest. We keep hearing tales of how the treaty is constantly on its last legs as Southeast Asian countries are starting to realize it’s not good for their economy, but the secrecy in which it’s being negotiated makes it hard to tell just how close it is to either death or ratification.

Another worrisome trade agreement to look out for in 2013 is CETA – the Canada-European Union Trade Agreement. It doesn’t directly affect the U.S., but the treaty’s passage could spell trouble for the free Internet around the world as the treaty contains much of the same language that made ACTA so horrible. If ratified, the treaty could be seen as proof that ACTA wasn’t so bad and new attempts to ratify similar treaties could take hold around the world.

The last relic left over from 2012 is Clean IT – an European Commission project that seeks to censor the Internet in the name of protecting citizens from terrorism. The concern is that the project does little to actually stop terrorism and does everything in its power to use the Internet to monitor citizens in everything that they do. What’s worse is that the project turns people into Internet vigilantes where they can submit content that they feel is terroristic or otherwise “bad” to have it removed and those who fail to report any “bad” material would be punished.

As you can see, 2013 is already looking pretty grim and these are just the leftovers from 2012. There’s bound to be more laws, treaties and projects introduced in 2013 that will make SOPA, ACTA and others look like bastions of Internet freedom in comparison.

The free Internet has been a major force of change in the world, and some clearly don’t like that whether they be a legacy business that refuses to adapt or a world power that wants to subjugate its citizens even in the digital world. Either way, the Internet has proven to be resilient to any threats against it thus far and 2013 may prove to be its biggest test yet. It will be fascinating to see how the Internet and those who use it respond.

Do you think the Internet will survive 2013? What are you most concerned about in the coming year? Let us know in the comments.