What Syria Can Teach About Net Neutrality

Internet killswitch

There is a focus, and rightly so, on what the U.S. reaction to the crises in Syria will be — if anything — from the perspective of how strong the United States looks on the world stage, and what that means as regards our relationships with long-standing allies. These are important considerations.

But Syria may have something else to teach us that is just as timely and relevant as the ubiquitous relevance of international relationships and war games. The country, along with the other hotbed of unrest Egypt, is the Petri dish of the Internet “killswitch.” (Read: what happens when the government controls access to the Internet and decides a population has had enough of communication and information gathering. Yeah. Scary.)

Mashable reports:

The Internet is a decentralized global network, designed to be resilient and hard to take down. But it’s still possible to black out a certain area, or even an entire country, disconnecting it from the rest of the world.

That’s what happened in Egypt in 2011 and three times in Syria in just the last year…does Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have stronghold over the country’s Internet access? Most likely yes, according to experts.

Even if Syria doesn’t have complete control, it has a stranglehold over the network’s single point of failure: the state-controlled Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), which maintains “the primary flow of Internet traffic in and out of the country,” according to David Belson, the editor of network security firm Akamai’s State of the Internet quarterly report.

That means Syria’s internal providers — PCCW, Turk Telekom, Telecom Italia and TATA — have to get access to the Internet through the STE.

This piece makes much of the fact that there is a direct relationship between the number of Internet service providers and how easy it is to take down the Internet and — probably accidentally — makes a great case for less regulation of the Internet and the promotion of free-market principles.

But anyone with a working understanding of the hilariously misnamed “Net Neutrality” effort — which many of the most innovative tech companies have, at least until recently, remarkably supported — gets that regulation under this innocuous-sounding moniker is being pushed on the Hill. It ebbs and flows, but control of our Internet usage and access is very important to lawmakers. From the Heartland Institute:

These government data power grabs are horrendous attacks on the Internet end user and his or her content.  We the People are having our phone calls, emails, Web searches, text messages, instant messages and video chats illegally vacuumed up, stored and examined.

Just as egregious are the government’s attacks on the Internet’s spine – the technological backbone that makes all of these end-use data grabs possible.  The government has, for instance, illegally imposed co-opt “sharing” of cell phone networks.

And then there’s Network Neutrality.  Net Neutrality mandates that the government regulate the entire Web. Which means the government lords over every single website on the planet.  No First Amendment problem there, right?

But, as with anything related to war, there is a fog here. Because it’s rational to accept that monitoring social media and Internet usage could actually be a pretty powerful tool in battling terrorism. One would have to be simple to not accept that some of what the National Security Agency has been doing could actually protect us in the long run.

As with any moral dilemma, a balance is required between pure Machiavellian, damn-the-collateral-damage-because-we’re-at-war thinking and purely libertarian, I-live-here-but-I-don’t-accept-the-realities-of-what-it-takes-to-keep-a-country-safe. No one wants to get into a Radio-Free Europe situation where our communication only happens underground for fear that what we say isn’t sanctioned by the ruling force. And no one likes the idea of virtually burning books, which is what an Internet killswitch could quickly become. But the Boston bombing was awful, wasn’t it?

There are no easy answers here. But Jonah Goldberg recently reiterated some of the brilliance of our founding documents in writing about someone who understood a thing or two about not overreacting to threats and dangerous situations.

King pleaded for the fulfillment of America’s classically liberal revolution. At the core of that revolution was the concept of negative liberty — being free from government-imposed oppression. That is why the Bill of Rights is framed in the negative or designed to restrict the power of government. “The Congress shall make no law” that abridges freedom of speech, assembly, etc…

This arrangement has never fully satisfied the Left. The founding philosopher of American progressivism, John Dewey, argued for positive rights: We have the right to material things — homes, jobs, education, health care, etc.

The point is, moving forward, perhaps it’s best to outline what the government CAN’T do as regards access to the Internet and information, rather than laying out, via legislation, what it can.

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