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The Internet Is not (Fully) Open, nor Should It Be

open-internet

To listen to the debate about Internet governance, the world faces a Manichean choice between an open Internet—where everyone is free to share any information they wish—and a closed one, where governments block and prohibit vast troves of information. Given this stark choice, the only sensible side to take is openness. After all, as ITIF has shown, global information flows are critical not only to commerce but to the general flourishing of the knowledge economy and democracy.

But as in all other aspects of society, we don’t actually face such a binary choice. Reality is far more nuanced. The Internet is not completely open, nor should it be. As a case in point, the world should welcome the recent announcement by major Internet firms including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, which are taking steps to block images of child sexual abuse. In this particular case, leading Internet companies are using a database of digital fingerprints compiled by the Internet Watch Foundation to identify known child sex abuse images and block their distribution.

Because what is being blocked is rightly deemed to be horrific and socially corrosive, even the groups typically opposed to any form of censorship, such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation, are staying silent. Similarly, some opponents of SOPA/PIPA were more than willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of using DNS blocking for malware, even if they opposed using it to block websites dedicated to piracy. So the real questions for policymakers are: What content should be blocked, how should those decisions be made, and who should be responsible for blocking content?

Clearly, society should want as little as possible to be blocked or taken off the Internet, but that does not mean that we should oppose attempts to block online materials that are clearly illegal.

So who should identify which material should be blocked and under what process? No one really believes that the Internet Watch Foundation is going to use its power to identify images for any other purpose than restricting access to child pornography. In this case, the process is likely to work well. In other cases, as in the case of blocking access to websites devoted to pirated or otherwise illegal content, there should be legal review processes whereby government authorities decide which sites are devoted to enabling piracy (as opposed to sites that might occasionally host pirated materials without intending to), but with legitimate and effective due process built in to mitigate against type-one errors (i.e., false positives).

Regardless of what U.S. law is—or even the practices of Internet companies regarding what type of Internet content they block—some nations, especially authoritarian ones, will engage in blocking practices that organizations like ITIF, which supports a mostly open Internet, will and should oppose. But to argue that blocking child pornography (or even pirated content) gives carte blanche to dictatorships misses the point. Dictatorships will engage in those practices whether or not there are laws in democratic nations against malware, pirated content, or child pornography on the Internet. One job of democratic nations is to push back against these kinds of unreasonable restrictions on speech and information flows by authoritarian governments, as the Obama administration has done.

Finally, any proposal needs to be relatively easy for all parties to implement. One reason the ISPs and other Internet companies are adopting this new practice regarding child pornography images is that “hash list” technology makes it relatively easy to implement (unlike, for example, the onerous and burdensome “right to be forgotten” requirements that cost real time and money on the part of search engine companies).

In short, almost 25 years since the National Science Foundation turned over management of the Internet to the private sector, it’s time for a more reasonable and pragmatic discussion about the Internet, one that moves away from Manichean notions of open-versus-closed. We must recognize that while a key factor in making the Internet one of the greatest technological innovations in human history is in fact its open and permission-free system, that openness and permission-free quality is not unlimited—and recognizing and accepting this does not make someone into an Internet totalitarian.

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About the author

Robert D. Atkinson is the founder and president of ITIF. Atkinson’s books include Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage (Yale, 2012), Supply-Side Follies: Why Conservative Economics Fails, Liberal Economics Falters, and Innovation Economics is the Answer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), and The Past And Future Of America’s Economy: Long Waves Of Innovation That Power Cycles Of Growth (Edward Elgar, 2005). Atkinson holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Oregon.