Almost two years ago, Twitter and Facebook were buzzing as people took to the streets across Egypt and gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Social networks were being used to spread ideas and coordinate protests and the government feared their power. In the middle of the night, they pulled the plug. Virtually every Internet address in the country was suddenly unavailable and e-mails went unanswered.
Just a few weeks ago, the Syrian government shut down the Internet nationwide during a military push against rebel forces that appear to be making progress. While service is back, it is obvious that Bashar Assad’s government has the power to take it down again.
As the Chinese Communist Party transferred power, Google reported a sudden drop in Internet traffic. Gmail was down for most Chinese citizens. According to many reports, the transfer to new leadership went without a hitch.
For governments that rely on the control of information to maintain power, the Internet is a huge threat. Before the Internet, despots more easily controlled media. Printing presses are expensive and distributing papers is not easily done in a police state. Radio and television broadcasts are even easier to control. But now in the Internet age, everyone with a smart phone has the equivalent of a printing press and a broadcast tower.
The Internet was not designed to meet the needs of totalitarian governments. It was born here in the United States and developed jointly in other nations with laws that protect free speech. The Internet is not a threat to the existence of democratic governments. Indeed, the free flow of ideas strengthens our society and helps keep our government honest.
Entrenched political parties that run countries like China and Russia have good reason to fear the free flow of information. They lose the ability to control the political dialogue and prevent dissent. The Arab Spring has showed that the Internet is a bad thing for one party rule.
There is no easy way for these countries to roll the clock back on the Internet. While there have been rumors that the government of Iran may replace the open Internet with their own highly controlled computer network, even the repressive mullahs have not unplugged their citizens yet.
A single government body does not control the Internet, and that’s been a good thing for its rapid development. But now, there is a concerted effort by some nations to use the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications to change the governance of the Internet.
It is expected that some nations with repressive governments may seek more shared control over development of the Internet. These attempts should be firmly rejected and the United States should refuse to sign onto any treaty that would allow Russia or China more input on how the Internet is run.
This week, the House of Representatives passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 50, that instructs the State Department to promote a global Internet free of government control and to continue to promote the model that has led to its flourishing. The resolution passed the Senate with unanimous consent and in the House it passed 397-0.
The more than 20 year-old International Telecommunications Regulations may need some updating, but we should not accept changes that would make it easier for governments to control the flow of information.
This week, NPR reported on the Syrian and Egyptian Internet shutdowns. In both those cases, the government either owns the telecommunications infrastructure or makes sure it is located in a place where it is easy to pull the plug. These are extreme steps, and governments that simply shut down the Internet risk making uprisings even worse as commerce and communication grind to a halt.
We don’t want to make it easier for corrupt regimes to manage their citizens’ thoughts and words by placing new regulations on Internet management. The Internet helps shine light on their crimes and allows people to organize resistance. The United States must continue to stand for freedom of information and the right of all people to form governments that truly represent their needs.
Congressman Joe Pitts represents Pennsylvania’s 16th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.