Groups Unveil Dueling Declarations of Internet Freedom

Principles meant to involve consumers, inform lawmakers

Washington seems to be in love with codes of conduct, bills of rights, and now declarations of Internet freedom. On the eve of July 4, policy influencers have come up with not one, but two Declarations of Internet Freedom to make sure lawmakers and regulators don't screw up the Internet consumers have come to know and love.

Both documents came from groups that helped organize the Internet community's boycott in January—an action that galvanized 13 million consumers to force Congress to shut down the advance of Internet piracy bills SOPA and PIPA.

Now, they hope they can do it again, mobilizing consumers to sway policymakers' positions on number of issues impacting the Internet including online piracy, privacy, and cybersecurity.

The first declaration, a mere 100 words long, is a set of five lofty principles that are hard to argue with: expression, access, openness, innovation and privacy. It was signed by Free Press, the liberal public interest group that championed the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules; and 100 other companies and organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Public Knowledge, Mozilla and Reddit.

Reacting to the first declaration, TechFreedom, a technology policy think tank, came up with its own, longer document of eight principles: humility, rule of law, free expression, innovation, broadband, openness, and privacy.

So what do these lofty documents mean for the debate over the regulation of the Internet?

Free Press's Internet campaign director Josh Levy said the declaration is not meant to prescribe, but to "inspire policy." Consumers can go to any number of Web sites and discuss the principles or suggest edits.

"We want to start a national conversation about what Internet freedom is and what it means to people and their communities," Levy said. "Until SOPA and PIPA, most people hadn't thought about it. The Internet is in danger of dying a thousand cuts. You see publishing and cable companies trying to turn it back to 20th century TV, and that's not what the Internet is and why we love it."

But Berin Szoka, TechFreedom's president, said the Free Press-led declaration is nothing but "an empty vessel."

"We're not about picking ends, we're focused on means and seeing where technology evolves," Szoka said. "Their declaration invites further government intervention in the name of freedom, while ours urges regulators to first do no harm."