Skip to Content

Free Expression

Keep Partisan Politics Out of Internet Policy

Is there anything to be gained by interjecting the strangling kudzu of partisan politics into Internet policy? I strongly doubt it and that’s why I am frankly mystified by the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s (CEI) Fred Campbell’s bombastic and highly partisan July 26 opinion piece in the Atlantic calling on conservatives to join the fight for Internet freedom. His hypothesis seems to be that progressives are “winning” in their efforts to subvert the open Internet and deliver it into the clutches of “government control.” Really?

There has always been a strong bipartisan consensus in favor of a lightweight policy approach to the Internet. The key policy decisions that made the U.S. Internet an engine of innovation and democracy have almost always been made on a bipartisan basis. It was the bipartisan duo of then-Representatives Wyden and Cox who, more than 15 years ago, drafted the seminal law (now known as Section 230) that enabled Internet innovation to flourish by establishing strong liability protections for the Internet’s intermediaries. And earlier this year, it was Representative Issa and Senator Wyden – backed by a strong bipartisan coalition – that lead the successful opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).  There is no basis to suggest that this longstanding consensus to keep the Internet above the political fray has been lost.

That is not to say that there are no disagreements. In a community where there are more opinions than there are issues, robust debate is the norm. But disagreements rarely break neatly along partisan lines. Lets face it. The issues have become far more complex since the days when the Internet ran on top of a regulated, “common carriage” phone network. In today’s environment of unregulated broadband, ubiquitous mobile connectivity, and truly global reach, anyone who thinks there are easy fixes for policy challenges, isn’t thinking very deeply.

What seems to have sent Campbell over the partisan edge are the “Open Internet rules” commonly known as net neutrality, which he sees as a precursor to a government takeover of the Internet. Here is where we cannot paper over disagreements, Those of us who believe the rules are necessary, want to ensure that large network operators do not use their position to exercise “gatekeeper” control.  Those who oppose such rules insist that centralized gatekeeping by governments, not companies, is the only real threat. It’s a fair debate, but to suggest that where one stands on the issue reflects diametrically opposed agendas—regarding the general relationship of government to the Internet—is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the debate.

What I can’t work out is why anyone who truly cares about the open Internet would pick the warm afterglow of the anti-SOPA campaign to launch a highly inflammatory attack on longstanding allies.

I get the desire to get conservatives more engaged in the policy debates.  The Campbell piece was timed to build on the so-called Paul “manifesto” that set out Libertarian principles for the Internet, which can be boiled down to “no regulation ever.” It too sought to rile up the right by shoving the rest of us into a commune somewhere for “Internet collectivists.” But is playing the partisanship card really the only way to get the political right more engaged in the issues? I hope not.

We have done pretty well in working out a policy path over the years without putting partisanship first. Defense of the open Internet needs conservatives as well as progressives, but not if the only lens is partisan politics.

One thing is sure: the grassroots groups that organized Internet users to protest against SOPA did not for a New York minute see the bill in partisan terms. They viewed SOPA as an existential threat to the future of the open Internet and responded accordingly. Our common interest in preserving the Internet for innovation and freedom is not well served by forcing the issue into the partisan muck.

Campbell doesn’t really know what to do with the SOPA campaign, so he dismisses it as an aberration – a one-night stand likely to bring remorse at first light. But the day after brought new energy, not remorse; it brought resolve to take the SOPA moment and grow it into a sustained movement for the open Internet. Rather than celebrating SOPA’s long tail, Campbell insists on seeing deep political cracks and progressive taint in the effort, calling out efforts like the Declaration of Internet Freedom and the Internet Defense League for particular scorn.

In order to pigeonhole the Declaration of Internet Freedom at as a “progressive” endeavor, he must ignore the broad, big-tent, post-ideological principles that it articulates – “don’t censor the internet,” “protect privacy” and “protect the freedom to innovate” – and misapprehend the document’s basic purpose.  As I’ve written before, the goal of the declaration isn’t to define “Internet freedom” for all times and for all people, but to jumpstart a broader conversation about what internet freedom means, a conversation that will include people and organizations from every part of the political spectrum and every part of the globe.  It is not a policy document but an organizing tool, meant to unite those who care about preserving the economically and politically liberating power of the Internet, regardless of political party or geography.

The principles articulated in the Declaration that we signed are broad enough – and intentionally so – to be acceptable to progressives and free marketers, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans.  We’re seeking to provide a rallying point for a wide range of Internet freedom supporters, even though we will sometimes disagree on more specific policy prescriptions. And in that respect, the declaration has been successful: certainly, any document that both Ron Wyden and Darryl Issa can sign has the power to bridge partisan divides and bring together a wide variety of voices and perspectives.

I am not sure why Atlantic would publish such an inflammatory piece, but it was deliciously ill-timed to appear right before the now derailed Senate cybersecurity bill was headed to the floor. As Campbell spun conspiracy theories, Sens. Franken and Paul came together to draft a critical amendment to the cyber security bill to strike language that gave companies new authority to monitor and possibly block our private communications. Groups across the political spectrum from Tech Freedom to the ACLU and yes, CEI, Campbell’s own organization, strongly supported the amendment.  At the same time, a politically diverse coalition of organizations, companies and trade associations came together to urge the Senate to take up an amendment offered by Senator Leahy to require a warrant for government access to digital content. The Leahy amendment was the product of years of work by the Digital Due Process coalition, which has been working to reform government access laws for the Internet. And yes, CEI and many other conservative groups are in DDP and on the letter along with CDT, EFF and ACLU.

And of course the most critical “big tent” effort currently under way is the upcoming battle to prevent the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) from claiming new authority over Internet governance. Here too, I can find little light between us.

The point here is not to pretend that sharp differences don’t exist. It is simply to ask what is to be gained by urging the Internet freedom community—all committed to openness, innovation and freedom—to retreat to warring ideological camps. We’ve tasted victory; we know what can be accomplished if partisanship is set aside. There is an Internet to defend. We should get on with it.