Editor’s Note: Don’t miss Andrew Feinberg’s video interview with David Post on BroadbandCensus TV.
WASHINGTON, February 4, 2009 – The 18th century ideas of Thomas Jefferson were thrust into a 21st century debate at the Cato Institute Wednesday during a discussion of David Post’s new book, In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace.
Studying Jefferson’s legacy of “scaling up” the Republic during his presidency — establishing procedures for settlement of new territories and adding new states to the union — can help better understand how to govern the Internet as it grows more and more important in daily life, Post said.
Laws and institutions must adapt to the ever-growing scale of the global network, he said, calling it an “engine for growth and ideas.”
The “undiscovered territory” of the growing Internet is a “powerful theme” in Post’s book, said the Financial Times’ Clive Crook. Crook compared today’s Internet to the unexplored lands of 18th century America, with “no clear notion” of where continued expansion will lead. Regulatory schemes for conventional communications technology is “not applicable,” Post added.
But comparing regulatory schemes for the Internet to older technologies like the telephone does not diminish the significance of the new ones, Crook said. The key issue, he said, will be how far we can extend our traditional ideas regarding free speech to a global network.
Crook offered an example using the different standards for libel in the United States and Great Britain. He asked: “Why should the Internet be held to a different standard than print publications?”
Such free speech issues will be the major problem facing an expanding global network, said George Washington University Law Professor Jeffery Rosen.
Rosen voiced pessimism about the Internet’s potential as a panacea for free speech as more and more content is controlled by international corporations. The people with the most control over online speech today are not governments or network operators, he said. Instead, Rosen suggested the “most powerful person on the Internet” today is Google’s general counsel.
Internet governance in the “age of Google” will most likely come in the form of traditional laws and voluntary regulation by “gatekeepers” in negotiation with different governments, Rosen said. Rosen recently authored a piece in The New York Times magazine on this theme.
Companies like Google want governments to tell them what content to remove instead of having to make those decisions themselves, he said. Such a system would offer less protections than the current way the Internet operates, but Rosen expressed optimism that over the long run, people’s experience with free speech online will lead them to demand more from their governments.
But a more frightening threat to freedom of speech online is the rise of network-level filtering, he added. Such technologies are already being proposed and implemented throughout Europe and North America to root out child pornography.
Rosen warned that many other governments, particularly those in Europe, would have its uses expanded to include other types of content, such as videos which are deemed to support terrorism. Rosen expressed alarm at the possibility of such a regime, which could render the Internet a dramatically different place within the next 10-15 years: “Free speech as we know it would be dramatically curtailed.”
A possible compromise on speech issues can be found in Jefferson’s approach to governing a republic, Post said. By treating each country differently and respecting its laws, companies can protect privacy and still honor local law and custom, he suggested. For example, companies like Google and Yahoo can treat personal search histories differently depending on local laws, and possibly destroy such data immediately to protect users.
The broadband stimulus bill currently before Congress could possibly add “political saliency” to censorship efforts, Rosen said.
Rosen warned that with government money invested in network infrastructure, strings attached to the funding could lead to a “slippery slope” on speech issues.
But as it becomes more difficult to function without access in an increasingly online world and Internet access becomes more and more of a “right,” Post emphasized that how we pay for an expanded network will nonetheless be the subject of many important policy decisions. How much time we spend online will most certainly factor into how Internet governance evolves, he said.