Editorial: Fighting Splinternet: Keep the internet forever open and free — worldwide

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The electricity didn’t go out in Kashmir, a disputed region of India, but something almost as vital was turned off over the summer: the internet.

In a preemptive move to assert political control, the Indian government shut down internet service, as well as phone service, in the Kashmir region. No email. No Google. No texting. No digital businesses in operation. No news beyond state-sanctioned outlets. It was censorship in extremis, resulting in a loss of freedom.

Eventually most mobile phone service was restored, but the World Wide Web has stayed dark for months. “The government’s control over the flow of information has made journalism nearly impossible in Kashmir, and is a humiliation of Kashmiri journalists,” the Telegraph, an Indian daily, reported.

Darkness, indeed.

TECHNOLOGY SPREADS DEMOCRACY

The internet came to life 50 years ago, in October 1969, when a Defense Department communications network known as ARPANET transmitted a one-word message from UCLA to Stanford. The message was supposed to read “login,” but only the first two letters arrived. Think of it as the first email — and the first service disruption. Presumably, tech support was called.

From that point? The rise of the internet into a global information and communication system nearly as ubiquitous as electricity or running water continually transforms human society. People can debate whether individual aspects of the digital realm cause harm (loss of privacy, Twitter shaming), but there is no diminishing the extraordinary impact of being able to instantaneously share speech, images, data and ideas planetwide. Consider all the learning that becomes possible, the commerce, the ultra-efficient interaction of every type, the rise of Silicon Valley as America’s hub of innovation — all thanks to the creation and spread of digital technology.

The internet is a marvel of democracy in the broadest sense, meaning it eliminates barriers to entry. Merchants can sell goods without the need to open a physical store, while political activists can circumvent government controls to spread their messages. And we at the Chicago Tribune can transmit our journalism to places where our delivery trucks can’t carry ink on paper.

The internet derives its power from openness and connectivity, and that is also why the internet was shut down in Kashmir: because the web represents a threat to governments seeking to control or repress the sharing of information.

“People always had this simplistic view that technology could only be used in one way — that it was this great tool for democracy,” Kuda Hove, a digital rights researcher at the Media Institute of Southern Africa, told The New York Times. But after Zimbabwe’s government turned off the internet during a political crackdown, Hove said, “it dawned on them that the government could use technology against the people.”

DIGITAL WALLS GO UP

Some anti-democratic countries, notably China, recognized early on that the internet could pose a potential threat to ironclad political control. To quash dissent, the Chinese leadership erected a high-tech censorship system known as the Great Firewall of China that blocks all content and conversation that could challenge government authority. China’s internet looks a lot like the West’s internet, without Facebook, Wikipedia and other freewheeling information sites. Texting, too, comes with strictures: Politically sensitive words and ideas are blocked.

Technology and information spread across the globe, but so do dangerous notions. In recent years, foreign governments have looked at the power of the internet to disseminate ideas and recoiled: Too open, too free, too challenging. Freedom House, a watchdog group, looked at the current state of internet freedom in 65 countries and found that law enforcement in 47 countries arrested people for posting political, social or religious speech online.

GOODBYE, WORLD WIDE WEB

To see the internet shut down and blockaded, straitjacketed and misused as a tool of government repression hurts the causes of freedom and progress. Akash Kapur, a senior fellow at the GovLab at New York University, characterized the rise of “digital nationalism” as a threat not just to democratic movements in disparate countries but ultimately to the internet’s existence as a unified global infrastructure.

The more countries take control of their digital pipelines and content, the more likely international access will be denied. “The great risk is that digital nationalism will Balkanize the internet, breaking it up into a patchwork of incompatible and irreconcilable fiefs,” Kapur wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “The prospect of a technical ‘Splinternet’ is no longer as inconceivable as it once was. In the decades ahead, we may look back wistfully to a time when data could move freely across the globe, without virtual customs or immigration checkpoints.”

One recent example that may surprise: Europe instituted a new data privacy law in 2018 known as General Data Protection Regulation that some American media companies found unreasonably strict. Their solution was to end European access to their content. So much for the “worldwide” description of the web.

INTERNET FREEDOM AS A HUMAN RIGHT

If the web continues to fracture, the loss to humankind will be profound. When governments place limits on internet access, the spread of knowledge is stifled. Important ideas are not shared. Business development is stunted. Societies suffer.

Western democracies need to recognize what’s at stake and cooperate to manage and protect internet openness. There will be no easy way to convince or coerce paranoid governments to release their grips on the web, but that’s no excuse to quit trying.

The concept of a free and open internet is both a value, like human rights, and a commodity. Trade negotiations often lead to breakthroughs in relations. The same strategy should be deployed when it comes to maintaining internet freedom. The more that American government officials, business executives and advocates push foreign governments to release control, and explain the benefits, the more likely progress will happen.

The internet may seem ubiquitous, but its long-term viability isn’t assured.

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