We Can't Take the Internet for Granted

(Note: This blog was originally posted by Senator Wyden on Huffington Post.)

Today, the House Judiciary Committee will be hearing testimony related to legislation designed to combat online copyright infringement. The House Bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the Senate version, which I have pledged to block in its current form, pursue an at-all-costs approach to policing the net that would have grave repercussions to the Internet as we know it.

While proponents of these bills would like to paint this issue as a simple matter of being for or against intellectual property, that would be a mistake.

Just because we believe that a free and open Internet is something worth fighting to protect, does not mean that we aren't concerned about copyright infringement or that we are somehow oblivious to the fact that unscrupulous foreign suppliers are using the net to traffic counterfeit and illegal goods. They are and Congress is right to be considering remedies to stop them and to protect the hard work of our creative industries.

Rather, those of us who value the Internet's growing role in our society recognize that any government intervention in the online ecosystem that is the Internet can and will have a ripple effect on more than just its bad actors. Interfering in the Domain Name System (DNS) for example would undermine the net's structure and harm cybersecurity efforts. Authorizing a private right of action, for example, wouldn't just allow rights holders to use the courts to protect their intellectual property. Companies could also abuse such authority to protect out-dated business models by quashing new innovations in their infancy and discouraging less than complimentary speech.

In other words, the wrong approach to combating infringement could fundamentally change the Internet as we know it, moving us towards a world where transactions are less secure, ideas are less accessible and starting a website wouldn't be an option for anyone who couldn't afford a lawyer.

The Internet has become an integral part of our everyday lives precisely BECAUSE it has been an open-to-all land of opportunity where entrepreneurs, thinkers and innovators are free to try and fail. The Internet has changed the way we communicate with each other, learn about the world and conduct business, BECAUSE instead of picking winners and losers, we created a world where all ideas have an opportunity to be heard regardless of where they originate.

As Members of Congress we can now engage with our constituents via online innovations like the Huffington Post, while a small business in rural Oregon can use the Internet to find customers around the world. And the Internet isn't just becoming the global marketplace for goods and services, it is the marketplace of ideas challenging tyranny and championing democracy. It has made lies harder to sustain, information harder to repress and injustice harder to ignore.

But while the Internet has become a dependable part of our lives, it is essential that we not take it for granted or make assumptions about a medium that is still taking shape and that few in Congress can say they fully understand.

Moreover, it is important to remember that the Internet we know did not happen by accident. Rather, it grew from a set of principles that we deliberately put into law during a situation not unlike the one before the committee today. 

Over 15 years ago, when Congress first started thinking about Internet regulation the concern was protecting children from pornography. There were competing ideas and some argued that Congress should simply censor the Internet and use the government to cut off access to objectionable material.

But a few of us saw value in letting the Internet develop free from corporate or government control. Instead of having the government censor the web, we developed an approach that would empower users and technology to address content concerns on their own. And we took the opportunity to pass a law that said that neutral parties on the net are not liable for the actions of bad actors.

That fundamental principle enshrined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act both addressed the problem and freed innovators to pursue bold new ideas that have led to sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the Huffington Post. So now, as we again debate web censorship, let's ask ourselves: what next generation of innovations won't be realized if we backtrack on that principal now?

Yes, the Internet needs reasonable laws and bad actors need to be pursued, but the freedoms of billions of individual Internet users should not be sacrificed in the interest of easing that pursuit. The decisions we make to police the Internet today will also govern how this relatively new medium will continue to develop and shape our world. And yes, giving moneyed interests a louder voice and a greater ability to determine what that online world will look like, would fundamentally alter the Internet which currently treats all voices as equal.

And that's not just my opinion, venture capitalists who fund Internet start-upsthe biggest and smallest actors in the tech communitylaw professors concerned with speech, Internet technologists, security experts and mainstream and new media have all expressed concerns about the legislation that has been advancing in Congress.

So no, the central question that Congress should be asking itself today is not whether it will pursue policies that are pro-IP or against. The question Congress should be asking is "How will the remedies it pursues to combat online infringement impact the Internet as a whole?" I'm afraid that's a question that isn't being asked enough.