June 16, 2015

Protecting the modern public square

tech activism

I recently became a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellow. During the first week of the program, I met the 5 other fellows. We talked about quite a bit was these questions: What is the open web? And what does it mean to defend the openness of the web? This is my reflection on those questions.

The Internet is the modern day public square–it’s where we connect with each other, it’s where we encounter new ideas, where we buy and sell things and where we communicate. The Internet is the public place where we gather to live our public lives. It’s a beautiful thing, rich with creativity, culture and community. And like a public square, it’s wild and chaotic. The web makes us engage with new ideas that challenge us to think differently. The free and open web is why you know the names Mike Brown, Eric Garner and #BlackLivesMatter. And it’s also the reason why you can bounce your head along when you hear “Gangnam Style”. The web is the wild marketplace that we all walk through every day. The web is where we find our favorite new songs, where we engage with challenging new ideas and where we add teeth to our political thoughts by organizing social movements. But the Internet is under attack by people who just do not understand it.

The freedoms that we enjoy because of the web are now being threatened by policy makers and powerful institutions who don’t see the Internet as the beautiful public resource that it is. We need protections that keep the web free and open for everyone, just like the protections that we have for our public parks and public streets. We need proactive protections for the freedom to express ourselves online as well as freedom from intrusion into our private lives online.

Technology has been moving at such an incredibly fast rate that policy regarding the Internet has not been able to keep up with it. The chasm between Internet policy and commonplace Internet use is vast and dangerous. College kids have been on the receiving-end of scary lawsuits because they shared a funny video with their friends, big companies routinely use copyright law to intimidate small artists into removing their work from the web and activists in the United States and elsewhere who used technology to expose misconduct and cruelty have been criminally prosecuted. The problem is that we’re using 20th century policy to address 21st century issues.

The open web isn’t about protocols like TCP/IP and it’s not about this software license versus that software license. Those are important topics and the free and open web allow us to have those conversations. The fight to keep the web free and open is about protecting the rights for all people to be creative, political, social beings in a modern context.