Remember when the Internet was supposed to liberate everyone? Well, that was then. Today, it's a different story.
But wait! Here comes the U.S. government, defending our freedom. On Tuesday, the State Department announced its Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFT, get it?). That's right, the same Uncle Sam who brought us such secret operations as Carnivore, Total Information Awareness and the National Security Agency wiretaps is now giving the world the gift of free and open speech. Ri-i-i-ight.
Not so long ago, the Internet was supposed to usher in a libertarian utopia, which no government could hinder. On Feb. 8, 1996, John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to protect digital rights, issued a "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace" demanding that governments "leave us alone." Addressing the world's politicians, Barlow added, "You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."
Yet, that same year, 1996, governments asserted their power. The feds enacted the Communications Decency Act, beginning a long-term effort to regulate such evils as child pornography. Other laws and court cases followed--governing spam, file-sharing, cyber-stalking and identity theft. Most Americans probably think these restrictions are reasonable enough. But other countries imposed their own limitations on Net freedom that they see as reasonable, too; Germany, for example, banned Nazi paraphernalia and Web sites, freely available in the United States.
And many countries limit other forms of Net expression, such as political speech. In American terms, those countries violated the First Amendment. But, of course, those countries never had a First Amendment. They view free speech in the light of their own traditions, some antithetical to our own--such as the Muslim prohibition on depicting Muhammad. But, taken together, these strictures spelled the end of the idea of the Net as an anarchist preserve.
Then came 9/11. More was to be done. That event demonstrated that the Internet and globalism were two-way streets: It's great that the Net connects people, but it's not so great that the 9/11 hijackers could conspire via anonymous e-mail accounts. Since then, homeland securitizers have faced the additional burden of "firewalling" national assets against the threat of an "electronic Pearl Harbor." The problem is that the Net reinforces existing capabilities: It empowers good people to do more good things and it empowers bad people to do more bad things.
Which is to say, the Internet, like other past, transformative technologies such as railroads and radio, has gone through the predictable stages of a revolution: first, giddy growth accompanied by a hot sense of unlimited possibility among the techno-evangelical vanguard; second, the fever-cooling grip of reality as stubborn dogmas wrap their clutching fingers around the revolutionaries, and third, the cold realization that the bosses of the new technology are pretty much the same as the old bosses.
That's why "new economy" companies such as Yahoo and AOL have quickly become "old" companies, operating according to the same imperatives as the rest of the Fortune 500; they must always stay on the right side of bureaucratic sensitivities and nationalistic sensibilities. Indeed even the "coolest" new company, Google, finds itself being muscled by governments from Washington to Beijing. The Net will continue to be a marvelous tool for communication, information and commerce, but it's not going to be a worldwide freedom forum.
So here's a prediction about GIFT. The State Department task force will simply be another version of existing U.S. policy. That is, in the name of Net freedom, GIFT will pound away at the repressive practices of known American enemies, such as Iran and Cuba. And it will pressure weak countries, such as those in Africa, into opening up a little. Meanwhile, it will mostly ignore Net suppression committed by big powerful governments such as China, Russia--or the United States.