Defend Internet Freedom

Over the past 20 years, the world has been changed immeasurably by the advent of the Internet and other communications technologies. For the first time in world history, information is available to individuals at the touch of a finger, letting them keep in touch with far-off friends and family, giving them access to goods and services from around the globe, and enabling them to participate in civic debates hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Today, broadband is one of the economy’s bright spots, with providers expected to invest some $30 billion per year in private capital in their networks. These advances have expanded the economy and improved the quality of life for billions of people around the globe and opened the doors of opportunity for the would-be entrepreneur, who is empowered to start a company from his garage.

This revolution in human affairs is a free-market success story. Although it was created as a Defense Department research project, the Internet long ago shed its government links and has thrived as a largely unregulated network, harnessing the energy and creativity of countless private individuals and firms. No central authority dictates what services are provided on the Web, what technologies are used, or what content will be available. The result is an innovative and competitive network of offerings—and the network is still expanding.

The long-term freedom of the Internet, however, is hardly assured. Some of the potential threats are obvious; others may appear small at first. But conservatives would be unfaithful to their commitment to limited government to allow even the smallest encroachments on Internet freedom given the probability that they will metastasize over time.

Many politicians and state tax collectors are pushing Congress to allow state governments to force retailers located in other states to collect sales taxes across lines of jurisdiction. They say they want to equalize the tax burdens between so-called brick-and-mortar retailers and their online counterparts, but rather than equalize, the proposal would create new disparities and impose new burdens as sellers struggle to deal with the tax laws of some 10,000 jurisdictions and 46 state tax authorities. Federal proposals to address this so-called problem should be resisted at every opportunity, allowing for deference to states to choose their own approaches to regulating e-commerce at the origin of sale.

So-called net neutrality regulations trade a free, competitive Internet for one where speed is monitored by five members of the Federal Communications Commission. The overall result would be bad news not just for web surfers, but also for the economy. While giving preference to some companies over others, these government officials would inevitably be drawn to censorship when picking and choosing the treatment of content.

Harm is also threatened from outside Washington as more foreign governments clamor to take control of the Internet. Many nations, such as China and Russia, have made no secret of their desire to limit online expression. Even some democratic nations have supported limiting freedoms online. The European Union, for example, recently required search engines, upon request, to remove links to categories of personal information, such as prior bankruptcies, that are considered no longer relevant or without a compelling public interest meriting disclosure—in effect, forcing search engines such as Google to censor content. With the U.S. government’s decision to end its oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the corporation that manages name and number assignments on the Internet, these countries see a chance to fill the vacuum and to use ICANN’s Internet governance role to limit expression on the web.

It is dangerous to take the Internet’s open nature for granted. All governments naturally abhor regulatory vacuums, and ours is no different. If conservatives do not begin to take a stand on protecting the Internet as we know it, it may not remain a frontier for economic innovation for long.

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