A Call to Defense and Celebration of the Online Commonwealth

Firma l’appelloSign the call

Source: Center for democracy and technology

Common Values and Shared Duties on the Internet

Over the past two decades, the Internet has transformed economic, political and cultural landscapes across the entire globe. Out of the simple exchange of data packets, we have collectively built a vast and complex information ecosystem, linked together into many thousands of overlapping social networks, which have enriched and ennobled our lives. Though we speak different languages and have different values, together we have built a place – myriad places — where we can all meet and communicate with one another.

We do not often enough stand back and marvel at the new global online society that we are building, nor do we frequently enough reflect upon our place, as individuals, in this new social order. It is time to do so. The Internet has become so pervasive in all of our lives that we have begun to take it for granted, like the air we breathe or the water we drink. But we cannot afford to do that anymore. The Online Commonwealth – open, innovative, and free – is under attack from many quarters: Destructive and often virulent code threatens our shared infrastructure, while some cyber-security measures proposed in response may invade our privacy and accord unprecedented control to regulators; online predators and adult content raise concerns for parents seeking to protect their children, but restrictions proposed in reaction to these problems may chill lawful adult speech; rigid local regulations deter innovation, creating conflicting and confusing jurisdictional claims regarding applicable rules while failing to promote online order; increasingly sophisticated tools for filtering and monitoring online activities are implemented by public authorities and private actors; overly restrictive intellectual property laws may dampen our collective creativity; closed, gated systems increasingly place innovation behind locked barriers.

There are plenty of anecdotes about harmful online activities, usually accompanied by calls for new restrictions and new legislation. Press reports about online activities are replete with descriptions of the unlawful, the unreasonable, and the unpleasant. Fewer stories catalogue, and less attention is paid to, the manner in which the Net acts as catalyst for economic growth, education, and human rights, how it educates the young, connects the elderly to friends and family, fosters new economic ventures and global trade, knits together the world’s scientific community, and entertains and enlightens us all. It is time for those of us who care about the continued development of the Online Commonwealth to articulate the shared values that have enabled it to flourish, to celebrate its continued vitality, and to come, where necessary, to its defense, while also working to ameliorate harms arising from it.

We believe in the free and open flow of ideas and information embodied in the bits we send across the Internet. The Internet is a society of mind. Individuals – not intermediaries, whether governmental or private, acting without their authorization – have the right to decide with whom they wish to communicate. We oppose mechanisms – whether embodied in law, technology, or both – that unreasonably or without authorization interfere with the voluntary allocation of our own attention. We support mechanisms that enable individuals to decide what online groups to join and with whom they want to interact. We believe that the Online Commonwealth grows more valuable every day because it is open to all. No one should need permission to use the global language, to add ideas and information to our shared stores of knowledge, or to try out a new protocol or application, and we oppose mechanisms which place unreasonable constraints or controls on our freedom to continue to do so.

We believe in the promise of the Internet: that ideas and information can be shared by all and with all. We worry that overly aggressive assertions of intellectual property rights or other forms of content control can create an “anti-commons,” preventing us from exercising our rights to learn from and to speak freely to one another.

We believe that the software code through which we communicate online can radically extend our powers, free us from routine matters, and help us direct our attention to the most useful information and our most valuable relationships. But we recognize that code can also invade our privacy and destroy the very devices and networks through which we interact. Those who propagate destructive or invasive software code are the enemies of the Online Commonwealth, and we should use all appropriate tools at our disposal, including law, to deter and punish them. We share a duty to learn how to defend our own systems from attack, and to take available steps to avoid becoming victims or propagators of harm.

We believe that the people of the Internet are, collectively, the killer app. We confront our screens as individuals – but we can act through those screens with others, and it is by engaging our minds with those of others that we create new, diverse, interdependent roles, thereby expanding, continuously, the potential exchanges between related or complimentary roles that create wealth and wisdom. Our new Online Commonwealth is not founded on physical resources, geographic territory, financial capital, or even human labor. It emerges from attention and effort expended in increasingly diverse roles that channel our efforts into pursuit of goals defined by the many different groups with which we collaborate every day. These groups make the world wealthier and wiser every day precisely because they have many different, diverse, and decentralized goals. But all groups should share one core value – respect for and deference to other groups that refrain from imposing harm on others. The Internet enables people with very different values to coexist peacefully, online, precisely insofar as all groups respect this principle, and we oppose any claim by any group – public or private – that seeks to impose its own will on those whose welfare it doesn’t seek to serve and who have not consented to its claim to govern.

The Online Commonwealth is continuously under threat – both from those who would stifle its creativity and those who abuse its liberties. Who will defend it? We all must do so. By collaborating to cut off havens for harm. By participating in online reputation and rating systems by means of which we guide each other’s use of the Internet. By resisting regulation that uses the potential for such harm to justify equally harmful constraints. By creating new online institutions that help us take collective action to pursue our shared visions of the good. And by celebrating the many ways in which the Internet has unleased the creative powers of millions of people.

We are releasing this call on One Web Day, September 22, to reaffirm our shared commitment to the values that have enabled the Internet to prosper. We are all citizens of countries and states, members of families, employees of companies, participants in churches and clubs. But we are also, importantly, members of the shared, global Online Commonwealth, and we re-affirm our shared commitment to defend and celebrate this marvelous collective creation.

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