The Right to Internet Access

I’ve always been in favor of the right to arm bears, and I agree with Martin that Internet access is key to political freedom.

Source: Telepocalypse by Martin Geddes: Shoot the messenger

The ability to access Internet content and services is the new Right to Bear Arms.

Wow. I’ve said it. So what does it mean? The founders of the United States of America in their wisdom saw the seizure of excessive power by government as a central risk. To counteract this, they ensured the general populace would always be sufficiently armed. This gives any putative dictator or tyrant pause for thought before exercising the machinery of government violence for undemocratic ends. The price is a certain undercurrent of everyday violence, but the experiment has by and large succeeded. The USA is one of the longest-standing constitutional democracies, and has withstood extraordinary change in demographics and fortune during that period.

We’re moving from a society where physical force was the prime means of coercion to one where ideas have ascendancy. Physical force doesn’t scale well as a means of subjugation. It’s one thing to take a man’s posessions; quite another to persuade him to make your dinner every night for nothing. The hardest part of the civil rights movement wasn’t undoing the yoke of the white man, but persuading the everyday black man that it was his inalienable right to have that yoke removed. Once that was achieved, the outcome was largely a foregone conclusion.

Building tyranny is harder when the populace is armed with good information. It’s not impossible; indeed, a tyranny of the majority is still a major risk. But when I can have a cheap encrypted Skype conversation with Iranians, Syrians, and Mexicans, something qualitative has changed. For example, when I visited Syria a few years ago, we went to Hama. This town was largely razed in 1982 (with the loss of tens of thousands of lives) when its own army shelled the city to put down an Islamic uprising against the Baathist government. I pass no comment on the politics of it, but merely note that this is a little-known episode of history. You certainly don’t see it mentioned on the official tourist website. Can you imagine keeping such news under wraps in the era of video cameraphones, satellite Internet and Skype?

Consider a populace that wants to rise up against its political masters. We’re already at the point where the government response isn’t to take away the populace’s arms, but to take away its means of communication. Militias don’t congregate in the woods and more, they start their own Yahoo! group and MoveOn and Meetup from there.

There’s no point in demanding universal access if you don’t have the economic means to deliver. Much of the debate is about means, not ends. But those ends deserve greater exposure and reflection. If we are serious about transformation of society through information technology it means sweeping away many of the special protections the telecom industry has managed to accrue, enforcement of competition law, and greater collective effort to deploy connectivity and open up wireless and fixed rights of way.

There’s more at stake here than cheap phone calls and unlimited TV channels. Cheap airlines have done more for European cohesion and understanding than decades of political exhortation. Cheap, ubiquitous and unfiltered communications are becoming a prerequisite of a pluralist participative democracy. Societies that fail to encourage the free flow of information will suffer because ingrained interest groups will ensure the rules are set up to perpetuate their privileges. When you can’t make a Skype call, you’re losing something more than money.

You might believe that your political system is a stable one delivering endless contended freedom and openness. But your average American feels a lot more secure in that knowledge with a rifle in the basement. I’d want the same feeling of security, just with symmetric gigabit fibre so I can host my own subversive content if necessary.

Next time someone is vigorously defending the existence of filters on the Net, dig deeper. Don’t ask them for the logic of their argument. Rather, try to find out why it excites them so much. Perhaps they aren’t aware of what animates their own passions.