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The Future Of Internet Freedom

Big powers want to chop up the global internet and put nations in charge.  Russia.  China.  We’re looking at the push to rein in the web.

Internet map. (Steve Jurvetson, Flickr)

Internet map. (Steve Jurvetson, Flickr)

The Internet was born free.  A novel network that spanned the globe before governments entirely understood what was going on.  But they know now.  More than forty nations now filter and censor the web.  Some have just plain shut it down – think Syria last week.

At a big UN meeting this week in Dubai, there is a fresh push to give national governments more control over the global web.  Maybe through the U.N.  China, Russia, Iran appear to like the idea.  The control.  The U.S. and big American companies – Google, Facebook – do not.

This hour, On Point:  alarm bells over global Internet freedom.

-Tom Ashbrook


Brian Murphy, Dubai bureau chief for the Associated Press.

Tom Gjelten, covers a wide variety of global security and economic issues for National Public Radio.

Ronald Deibert, Director of Citizen Lab and a professor at the University of Toronto.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wcitleaks, a site maintained by George Mason University researchers, highlights the degree to which some governments would like to change the status quo. A Russian proposal, submitted on November 17, calls for ITU member states to enjoy “equal rights to manage the internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment, and reclamation of internet numbering, naming addressing and identification of resources and to support for [sic] the operation and development of basic internet infrastructure.” Reportedly, this proposal enjoys support both China and India.

The Wall Street Journal “The question of who rules the Internet and how is being debated at a 12-day conference in Dubai. The World Conference on International Telecommunications, which started Monday, aims to draft a new treaty to underpin international telecommunications regulations. The current rules were put in place in 1988. The conference is sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies.”

The Huffington Post “Letting an obscure “one vote per country” UN technical agency decide who does what next in the Internet’s development is the antithesis of what the Internet has achieved. Much of the documentation to date is secret, and it’s hard to figure out the agendas of many players. The blogosphere is buzzing about proposals by repressive governments and money-grabbing telecommunications companies.”

BBC News “Sir Tim Berners-Lee – inventor of the world wide web – is the latest voice to raise concerns about a meeting of communication tech regulators in Dubai. He spoke of concerns that some attendees would push for a UN agency to “run the internet” rather than leaving it to groups already “doing a good job”.”

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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    There is no reason why the world can’t have as many “internets” as it wants to have, including a world wide web. You could have a web for young people, old people white people, black people, Russians, non Russians, people with high IQ’s , low IQ’s, political webs, mathematical webs, medical webs, robotic webs, artificial intelligence webs, world wide stock exchange webs, encrypted webs, learning webs, … .

    These governments are not thinking correctly. They are just reacting with fear to change and the challenges it brings, to their particular mindsets and structures. The truth is that in the not too distant future EVERY SINGLE person on this Earth will be challenged directly from the coming technological changes. We the people of the world do not NEED them in any real and permanent sense, and they know it and fear this fact ! They falsely believe that they are the only ones that know how to rule and deserve to rule. This is also false ! Soon intelligent “beings” will demonstrate this truth. The difference between this new intelligence and the elitist perspective is that, these new beings will be able to demonstrate, beyond a reasonable doubt and maybe beyond all doubt, the reasons why they their methods should be followed, how they achieved their proposed plans and decisions, the warrants, inferences, and proofs used and all of the alternatives that were rejected and the reasons why they were rejected !

    To all the Luddites out there, remember this, “ you can’t kill ideas” !

    • Gary Trees

      “There is no reason why the world can’t have as many “internets” as it wants to have, including a world wide web. You could have a web for young people, old people white people, black people, Russians, non Russians, people with high IQ’s , low IQ’s, political webs, mathematical webs, medical webs, robotic webs, artificial intelligence webs, world wide stock exchange webs, encrypted webs, learning webs, … .”

      This already exists…it’s called reddit.

  • rick evans

    Why all the panic over “da guvamint” but not over ZuckBookistan’s alternate internet and its dear leader’s I own your privacy ideology.

  • Shag_Wevera

    Freedom is relative, and people have an optimum amount under which they will thrive and be happy.  You can imagine how much is best for you.  I would personally be happy with less, so long as the constraints are fair and rational.

    • PithHelmut

      Be careful because governments are into power in a big way and you and the rest of us are the ones they want to overpower. Why would you give power mongers even one inch?  Do you think that’s all they’ll take?  Look what power does, wars constantly and jailed dissidents. The internet must be kept free, totally free and the users will figure out how to organize it organically. It is of grave importance that we do not allow ANY rules to govern the internet except internet “etiquette”.  If some can’t handle that, then that’s just too bad. It’s like those who can’t handle the fact that some people are gay. Get over it. The rest of the world is moving and there is no danger in that. The only danger is trumped up just to control people. The danger is in trying to constrain the internet.

  • Jasoturner

    Let’s see.  The internet is a conduit for information and commerce.  It is therefore a source of wealth and power.  Ambitious agents would be fools to *not* want to control it.

    As always, just follow the money.  Internet freedom is in the cross hairs.

  • nj_v2

    Maybe Russia and China haven’t developed their surveillance enough. No need for heavy-handed “control” when you can keep tabs on everyone.

    Land of the free. Worse under Obummer. Say “hi” to the NSA!


    ‘Everyone in US under virtual surveillance’ – NSA whistleblower

    “The FBI records the emails of nearly all US citizens, including members of congress, according to NSA whistleblower William Binney. In an interview with RT, he warned that the government can use this information against anyone.

    Binney, one of the best mathematicians and code breakers in the history of the National Security Agency, resigned in 2001. He claimed he no longer wanted to be associated with alleged violations of the Constitution, such as how the FBI engages in widespread and pervasive surveillance through powerful devices called ‘Naris.’

    This year, Binney received the Callaway award, an annual prize that recognizes those who champion constitutional rights and American values at great risk to their personal or professional lives.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Information is power. The internet is the world’s biggest conduit of information. Given media is controlled by a handful of corporations, and by governments elsewhere, once the internet is tightly “managed”, the only world anyone will see is the world they want you to see. And that is power.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

      A corollary to this the “world” presented to Russian or Chinese populations, or to us in the US, can each be unique and “tuned” for whatever outcomes said governments or corporations are looking for.

      Informational serfdom.

  • http://0003.myopenid.com/ 0003

    Who is going to pay for the  computing power to inspect all of these packets? Our infrastructure is already heaving. Why create another bottleneck?

    What exactly is the value proposition that trumps the Internet in its current state.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    People do not need to be controlled. Governments need to be controlled. The control needs to go in the opposite direction. The internet should not only be kept free and open, but we need to control the government’s access to the internet (or at least control their ability to access and monitor and record our private internet behavior). How can we get the U.N. involved in government-control legislation?

    • Jian Sun

       How does a libertarian individual control the gov?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Back in the days of radio and TV, early on, “fees” and “licenses” were imposed effectively locking out the airwaves from anyone without sufficient monetary resources (i.e., corporations and governments).

    Fee based access to present information on the internet would turn it into a TV-like, restricted media, with content provided only by corporations and governments. Effectively destroying the internet as an interactive tool and turn it into another idiot box.

    • DrewInGeorgia

      “Fee based access to present information on the internet would turn it into a TV-like, restricted media, with content provided only by corporations and governments.”

      It already has.

  • Eric Duncan

    Too bad you couldn’t get Rebecca MacKinnon for this conversation. 

  • Jian Sun

    Another manifesto of apocalyptic mentality – fear of losing dominance and control over the world order.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think there should be some nongovernmental agency where people can indicate if they find a Facebook page that seems to be offering children for paid sex.  I have seen two such sites, one from southeast Asia, and one from I think the Arabian peninsula, apparently with two paired sites.  In the case of southeast Asia, it could have been teenage prostitutes checking my page, but out of the Arabian peninsula, I think the people running the site come by.  I posted a message to the Facebook concerns page, and I don’t know if they can see who is “visiting” me.  Actually this comes up more with Iran, where I think both “sides” have restrictions in place.  I’d like to know.

  • Jian Sun

    Never surrender the moral high ground – American faith!

  • Ben Cornforth

    Of course a government with bad ideas would be afraid of new ideas competing with their own ones.

  • Davesix6

    “The conference is sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies.”

    Is it any wonder why those of us on the right who lean libertarian are sceptical of the United Nations?

    There is no other nation on the face of the Earth that has the Consitutionaly guarented freedoms that we enjoy in this country.

    Why would we wish to become “citizens of the world” and throw those freedoms away?

    • PithHelmut

      Huh? So what, we have a Constitution that guarantees freedom, yeah right.  The Constitution is too old hat. It’s not doing what it was meant to do, that is obvious today with warrantless surveillance and other violations. The founders had no idea the kind of world we live in today. We need either Amendments to it or a Constitution Version 2 that ensures total freedom of the internet. Making laws with the ostensible reason to “protect” the people is merely a smokescreen. Governments protect themselves not people. The rules they make actually harm people but that doesn’t bother them. Look at Bradley Manning for instance and there are many, many others.  A totally open and free internet allows people to be citizens of the world without the dangers. Our constitution is irrelevant because government does not adhere to it. 

      • Guest

        We need to strip it back the The Original Document and build a New Bill Of Rights. An Open Internet with Open Access to All should be included as a portion of The Freedom of Speech Amendment.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Hey, what privacy of mine did Dick Cheney ever protect? He panted to get his hands on my effing library records.

      (And skip the “I was a true principled conservative during the Bush years”. When righties are in power, your concerns don’t statistically exist within the right wing and our power elite; and therefore are ignored without peril.)

  • Wahoo_wa

    OMG how will these nations get new Rebecca Black or Psy videos???!!!!!!  Clearly this is what the Mayans were warning about with their calendar!!!!  It’s the end of the WORLD!!!!!   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    At what point are Google and Facebook just “big companies” (which are headquartered in the USA)?

    As a citizen, when it comes to internet privacy and “security” (including  from commercial entities), am I better off with an “American company” my government needs to appease, or a foreign one which my government doesn’ t have to publicly care about?

  • AC

    some one should find some good cowboy bebop quotes for this show….

  • Steve__T

    The fear by governments of their people and the rise of  the intelligence of the masses will be the true argument that is happening. Those at the top are afraid that the access to unlimited knowledge will be their downfall. Try as they might they can not stop ideas.

    Security is something that can be put in place, but trying to filter information causes more curiosity, and ways to subvert security’s that are in place, to get to that information. The door has been opened and trying to close it now will cause anger.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Media corporations would love nothing more than to be in control of content on the internet.

  • Wahoo_wa

    I don’t think Tom understands the word “nuance”….such a narrow minded person!

  • http://twitter.com/martian_bob martian_bob

    Dr. Deibert – in response to your flippant “have you heard of the NSA” comment, I’d like to ask if you’ve heard of onion routing, strong cryptography, etc. Just because someone’s listening doesn’t mean they’ve got the kind of control folks are afraid of. There’s an entire crypto community out there you need to introduce yourself to.

  • http://twitter.com/setaspellmedia setaspell media


    Regardless of various government decisions today, the
    internet will continue to be a free global communication platform.
    Technologists will always find a way around any controls. The true potential of
    the internet will only be stifled not controlled.

    • GKoenig

      Although the internet ‘backbone’ is a huge infrastructure, put in place by large corporations, the fact is, the protocol on which it works can be easily disconnected into smaller units and then reconnected in new smaller networks, growing by reconnecting by different means.  So, I agree with you, if pressed hard enough, there are literally a few million IT experts around the country who could go to work to reconnect all kinds of things and would likely do so, given enough motivation.

      • DrewInGeorgia

        “Some industry leaders have called the Internet “the other tube.” But unlike television, with its satellite broadcasts, the Internet is dependent on a vast network of cables and fiber pipes. Or is it?

  • imjust Sayin

    We need censorship to protect people’s feelings.

    I love my mac, but I need to have censorship so that I don’t need to know about Chinese working conditions.

    I like to drive a fast gas guzzler, but I need to have censorship so that I don’t need to know about how gas and oil distract our troops from national defense and freedom.  I need to be protected from knowing about how gas drilling and frakking is changing the water my children drink.

    I love low prices at big box stores like Walmart.  But it would make me feel uncomfortable to know how people are treated when they work there.

    I love Israel.  But I need to be protected from knowing about how real estate developers call themselves “settlers” while taking land from Palestinians.

    I love Palestine.  But I don’t want to know about how rockets are landing in civilian areas.

    I admire rich people.  So I need to reassurance that they are earning their money legitimately and paying their fair share of taxes.

    I trust the government.  So I need to know that nobody has ever abused that trust, ever.  Otherwise I might vote for someone else.

    We need censorship for all of these good reasons.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Can I like this more than once simply for the great deadpan?

  • Ruth Perkins

    The freedom of the internet has enabled people to acquire REAL news about REAL things that matter.  It has also given us the power to unite as people.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I hear that other countries have far faster and more widely available fast internet.  I hope our representatives in Dubai get some hints about how to make that happen here.  High speed, in the city where I live, means waiting and waiting, crash upon crash, and video, say from the White House, coming in very, very distorted.  

    • imjust Sayin

       My very very basic communications combo – slowest digital subscriber, basic cable, basic phone (with no caller ID) costs over $80.

      The fullest of full package deals in France is about $40.

      And, our carriers have alot of tax deductions and incentives that the French don’t have.  The rich owners in the USA have less taxes than the rich French owners.  So where is the money going?

  • Ellen Dibble

    I find it an interesting challenge when someone flying a black jihadi flag, or with friends who do, is eager to be in a kind of dialogue with me, even though the language that person uses is beyond the reach of current online translations.  The pictures tell a lot.  And there are a lot of them.  I cannot always tell what shade of gray is in play.  Activists seem eager to “follow”  as in to put out videos from Syria.  One can use the web to be expansive or to be cliquish, it seems to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thebobmoore Bob Moore

    Am I the only one who expects about 6 seconds worth of technical silence during this discussion?

  • Wahoo_wa

    (whispers)  somehow the world and culture developed and cruised along just fine before the interwebs was created…just sayin’

  • TaftDick

    This reminds me of the attempt in the 1980s by the then USSR and other authoritarian regimes to take over UNESCO in the UN so as to implement measures to restrict information flow and national medias. In other words, limiting press freedom in countries of the UN.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I found it interesting to hear Secretary of State Clinton talking about the footprint of Iran, seeing as how there is always a footprint in my Facebook search bar.  I check sometimes to see how many ayatollahs pop up, but there is just one, with apparently dozens of pages, for various uses.  The tale of the farting camel, thanks to kiwi fruit, shows up on a comparable Twitter photo, but I think it’s fine to be listened to.  I’m not planning to visit Mashad, but the Senate Homeland Security Committee spent months as top hit looking at me post mostly opera clip links.  For instance. 

  • imjust Sayin

    The Blackberry Playbook is a target of Google AND Apple.

    That is why, even though the playbook has the best native flash support, netflix, hulu, blockbuster, and almost all mainstream content providers are blocking access to it.


    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      The not-playing-well-with-other-technologies is a landmine which gets stepped on again and again, ever since the big to-do was Sarnoff getting the FCC to destroy Armstrong’s nascent FM network before WWII.

      Compared to that, Betamax v. VHS was a pillowfight.

      • GKoenig

        Yeah, and you can still find people who deny that Sarnoff ever did that, although the circumstantial evidence is that he did.

    • http://twitter.com/BrentonPoke Brenton Poke

       How can the playbook be a target when RIM’s market share is falling like a block of uranium on its own? Blackberry devices aren’t popular because of the closed ecosystem, not because Google or Apple actually care about them.

  • burroak

    Freedom of thoughts, and freedom to write those thoughts via text messages or books, why not web freedom. There can be regulations, and guidelines but to disallow citizens to access information 21 century technology seems going backwards.

  • GKoenig

    A world with 7 Billion people?  As I see it, no matter what governments do, we’re now in a world where a single consensus is impossible.  No matter what a single meeting or committee decides will mean little unless it receives widespread support.
    Right now, the very survival of life on the plant depends on a planet wide open discussion medium or media.  That’s because of numerous factors, the largest of which is climate change and habitat destruction by non climate factors (human invasion and destruction of natural areas).
    This factor flies in the face of efforts behind censorship, denied access, etc.
    Therefore, we are seeking a balance and that effort is clearly going to be ongoing.  Agencies ‘sniffing’ for the planning of acts of mass violence may continue to be permitted, whereas interference with communications on non-violent matters will continue to be controversial and the subject of ongoing discussion.

  • Adrian_from_RI

    Tom, thank you for valiantly trying to defend internet freedom. Just because governments violate these freedoms already on a grand scale should not entice us to give-up and permit governments to legalize these violations of freedom. Keep Washington, and especially the U.N., out of the business of regulating, reining in, and censoring, the internet.  The Internet is one of the great bastions of freedom and innovation in our civilization. Let us keep it that way.  

  • Gregg Smith

    ** Off topic ***

    The internet just told me Dave Brubeck has died. Please do a show.

    • 1Brett1

      I started out as a drummer, and I consider Joe Morello an early influence. I was always a huge fan of Brubeck.

      Piano is also an instrument I am very fond of (although I don’t play) because it is at once a percussion instrument and a melodic one. It employs an interesting mechanics of hammers, strings and pedals. I sometimes wish I would have transitioned from drums to piano instead of transitioning to guitar…

      Anyway, Brubeck influenced so many, and considering you play piano, I’d bet you are no exception in being influenced by him.

      • Gregg Smith

        Yes, he was a huge influence. Music is all math. There are quarter notes, sixteenth notes, intervals, durations, velocities, time signatures and more all of which can be transformed to numbers with MIDI. It can be structured mathematically. At the very same time music is the polar opposite of mathematics. You can loose all sense of space and time in the magic. You can express yourself in a way that makes mere words meaningless. Is it possible to express love better with words than Liszt did with Liebestraum (Love Dream)? IMHO no. You can move people or even yourself to tears in a way that is unexplainable. This dichotomy is what makes it special to me. Brubeck was the one who taught me how important it is to experience the entire spectrum. He embraced the math in a spiritual way… if that makes sense.

    • Mike_Card

      Someone can correct me, but I think Morello played a drum break–was it on Unsquare Dance?–that a drummer pointed out to me HAD to be one-handed, due to all the other things happening in those 32 or 64 bars.

      My instrument was the trumpet, but when I heard Paul Desmond’s lead on Take Five, and his description of his goal to sound like “a very dry martini,” I realized that I was a reed player at heart.

      Excuse me while I go put on the recording of the Monterey Jazz Festival; I need to hear the Air Force Hymn break one more time.

      • Gregg Smith

        I’ve never heard that story, thanks. Certainly Brubeck was the mastermind but his quartet’s whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Many don’t realize it was Paul Desmond who wrote “Take Five”.

        I’ve always considered the saxophone the most expressive instrument. Some instruments are percussive, some are melodic, some are both but adding breath, growls and lipping to those elements adds an extra dimension. Brass can do it too but not like the reeds.

        I am familiar with the break you refer to but it has been a very long time since I’ve heard it. I have been listening to Brubeck today and I will revisit it.  

        I’ve seen Brubeck in concert twice and once at a rehearsal. Ironically, I was most thrilled when the sax player got stranded in Buffalo because of snow and could not make the Boone, NC gig the next day. This caused them to play songs they would not have played one of which is my favorite, “Thank You”.

        Do you still play? Me and Brett are starting a band in NJ’s mom’s basement. I’ve heard Ellen Dibble can sing like a bird.

        • Mike_Card

          Nice story–thanks.  Regrettably, I packed it in long ago; about the first time I heard Wynton Marsalis, I’d say.

  • mjjohnson

    This is an interesting and important issue, but Tom, could you please be a little less abrasive? I understand you have to be firm as you’re interviewing, but you sometimes make me cringe with your disrespect of some of your guests (or callers).

  • DrewInGeorgia

    Guess we haven’t watered it down enough already. Potential access to the collective knowledge of humankind and look closely at what we have done, and continue to do, with it.

  • Outside_of_the_Box

    I am absolutely against government intervention and restricting the internet for the people of the world. We’re already heading in the wrong direction but there is still hope.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=821288573 Susan Smalley

    Tom, I would have enjoyed this program so much more had you been less abrasive and rude to your guest Ronald Deibert from Toronto.  So often as I listen to your program I find myself frustrated at your lack of respect for those you’ve interviewed.  

    There are times I wonder WHY I listen.  

    Please take a breath and use better manners. 


    • Patrick McCann

      What? Tom is the most fair and balanced radio host I’ve ever heard. Yes he has a detectable leftist slant, but its forgivable for his engaging shows and insgiht.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/PRH4KLMY5QBJKOORSKLCGHQEJM Chris

       This was the most animated I have heard Tom become with a guest and my guess is that the guest in question was not really putting forth the opinion that the producers expected – which became the source of Tom’s irritation. Normally, I think Tom is the most balanced of all the hosts of a debate-style show (Fresh Air excepted but that is a single guest show).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brennan-Moriarty/100000655771831 Brennan Moriarty

    We now have the big picture, yet you can go blind looking at it, or be possessed and deluded.
    We’re on the brink of worldly, Earthly enlightenment. The trick -to firmly click the best pick- is to study the long term shadows where individual “internet trolls” may corruptly act or neglectfully react. 
    Study the normative understanding; statistically: quantitatively::: ground breakers [shock-proof] as a preemptive “host-age” neutralizing crisis.
    the point of communication is to see the good and the bad. How decisive, easy and peaceful we “physically” [geo-culturally] handle/manage that philosophical map, IS [yeah...] the dif between Normalcy and hostility, order and confusion, content/mind-fullness and …want [].
    If you’re looking for something that’s “over there” and NOT “out there” , well:[?] you could get lost [as all your enemies should ;] and -copycats- may see you and judge you by your general-survival and NOT your normal-tone, yet nations desperately need normalcy physically! on their side, and regions define them/nations [America has 2!! Atlantic & Pacific] Facebook was conceived in New England yet NEEDED California to JUMP…. [Juveniles Under Mobile Policy]=Cho.
    The internet doesn’t annoy “people”; “persons” do.
     ONE_% ?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/SSH23RQPWBD2LVFIS57VUJXRXI Carson

    Tom, I listen to your program often, and I was very disappointing with how you treated Ronald Deibert from Toronto.   For reasons I can’t understand, you were extremely rude and condescending towards him. Ironically, he was probably the most informed and interesting of all the guests on this particular program. 
    You seemed very defensive and unwilling to listen to the fact that internet freedom is being restricted in the West, and in the United States. Do you really believe that our government is pure and noble, concerned only with the rights of its citizens? Please, as a journalist you should know better. If you don’t believe that our government does not respect the rule of law and our privacy rights, I would direct you (or whatever staffer is reading this) to a PBS Frontline special “Spying on the Home Front” about the NSA and illegal internet surveillance of Americans. Also, find interviews with NSA whistle-blower William Binney. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/linktojohn John Ravich

    Tom, I listen to your program a lot. You can’t make a difference with bleeding idealism. Facts are facts, it’s good to learn them. It’s not a big deal to be ignorant of the US government monitoring of internet. But it does not make you sound intelligent when you accuse of “giving up” the people who explain that to you. You acted like a kid.

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