From telling Iran they shouldn’t torture quite so many bloggers to complaining about China hacking Google, America is big on pushing Internet freedom around the world these days. Even before the Arab Revolutions, ensuring Internet freedom was an official foreign policy objective. But you know what would make us more plausible advocates for a free Internet? If we had one.
We’re the ones seizing domains without legal cause, negotiating secret treaties to restrict technology and provide for cutting off Internet access for undesirables—all of this in the name of copyright enforcement. And the most routine censorship of free speech on the net? Misused DMCA requests for which there is no penalty and little redress—the same DMCA we’re trying to push on countries we also criticize for restricting their citizens’ speech.
While we were pushing Twitter to delay maintenance during Iran’s Green Revolution, and funding tools for Chinese and Middle Eastern bloggers, American companies were selling those governments censorship and digital-spying hardware and software so they could catch those bloggers and attach car batteries to their nipples. Much of that technology was originally developed for domestic use—to let American rights holders police copyright on the net, and ISPs rate-limit competing technologies.
So when we scold countries about Internet freedom, we look kind of like a parent trying to lecture a teenager about drugs while hiding our pot stash behind our back.
We’re Americans. We should be pushing for universal freedoms, but not until we can lead by example and show that a free Internet isn’t something we’re scared of here. Americans should be demanding their rights online—why would we settle for less from our government?
Before our government goes telling everyone else to put down that firewall, we’ve got a few things to clean up on our side of the fence.
Note: This column was originally featured in the Holiday 2012 issue of the magazine.