TCS Daily


You Want to Keep This Revolution? Be Ready to Fight For It.

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 22, 2005 12:00 AM

I've been writing about Internet free speech for a long time in Internet years. I've written about the new communications media's effect on old media, the challenge it poses to dictators, and its effect on U.S. elections. But the truest thing I've ever written on the subject was this:

"You want to keep this media revolution going? Be ready to fight for it."

That's been brought home by events both abroad, and in the United States.

Abroad, we've seen the World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunisia, which many observers feared would lead to a dictator-inspired U.N. takeover of the Internet that would gradually limit free speech. As Claudia Rosett observed:

"The U.N. Web site for this event goes heavy on high-tech doo-dads, and very light on the highly relevant big picture. For instance, the site includes two scroll bars. One shows select news coverage of the summit. The other shows funding contributions from various quarters, including the governments of Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia, all distinguished as perennial members of Freedom House's list of the world most repressive regimes. Except the U.N. site doesn't make mention of the censorship and brutal internal repression of these regimes--only of their participation, and their money. . . . What Mr. Annan evidently does not care to understand, and after his zillion-year career at the U.N. probably never will, is that for purposes of helping the poor, the problem is not a digital divide. It is not the bytes, gigs, blogs and digital wing-dings that define that terrible line between the haves and the have-nots. These are symptoms of the real difference, which we would do better to call the dictatorial divide."

Rosett was among many warning that the WSIS would be a power grab by the U.N. It was surely intended as the opening move in such a power grab, but it's been beaten back -- for the moment -- by postponing any action until next year. That's a victory of sorts, but only a temporary one. The real tenor can be seen in the Tunisian host government's willingness to trample free speech relating to the conference itself. People who dispatch "a phalanx of secret police" to free-speech gatherings can hardly be trusted where free speech is concerned.

In the United States, meanwhile, things aren't that bad -- secret police have never had much of a foothold here -- but so-called campaign finance "reform" law has had the potential to shut down much Internet political discussion, by treating favorable comments about a candidate as "contributions" subject to regulation.

A recent Federal Election Commission decision on Internet political speech makes that appear a bit less likely. But once again, the victory is only temporary and contingent -- not certain.

But, of course, that's true of pretty much all civil-liberties victories, isn't it? So no matter what happens, this will still be true: You want to keep this media revolution going? Be ready to fight for it.

Glenn Reynolds is author of An Army of Davids.

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