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Protect the Free and Open Internet

This January, the New America Weekly's writers are proposing a series of policy resolutions. These are actions that policy makers and ordinary citizens can take to make the world a better place in 2017.


Electing a “political outsider” for president leaves us with little data from which to make predictions. However, based on what little we know about President-elect Trump’s positions on issues related to internet freedom, and those of his key hires, there is widespread concern among the policy community that he may not continue the federal government’s long history of support for a free and open internet. His statements and positions, and those of his prospective hires to work on issues like freedom of expression, cybersecurity, net neutrality, and internet governance, some fear, could foreshadow a shift away from the policies implemented by past Democratic and Republican administrations. However, it remains to be seen exactly how the Trump administration’s policies affecting the global internet will evolve in the months after inauguration.

Over the past quarter-century, both Democratic and Republican administrations have supported a free, open, and globally connected internet. Although they may have different perspectives on how to achieve these ideals, there has been a bipartisan consensus that the internet is a powerful tool for human rights, innovation, and economic prosperity around the world and, further, that its protection is consistent with U.S. commercial and geopolitical interests. However, freedom online is under siege, its future uncertain. The incoming U.S. administration will face unprecedented challenges to internet freedom, and without strong leadership by the world’s major democracies, internet users can expect that their freedom of expression and access to information will continue to decline, even as they suffer from increasingly aggressive attacks by a range of state and non-state actors. Our newly elected officials will need to act swiftly and decisively to protect a free and open internet.

Several months prior to the election, a team at New America’s Open Technology Institute began to develop a set of recommendations for the 45th presidential administration to preserve and advance the cause of internet freedom—regardless of the final outcome. Drawing upon these recommendations which we have seen to resonate across the domestic political spectrum, we have released a paper  that we hope can serve as a useful policy reference and roadmap, containing concrete policy steps that will enable the new administration to assert global leadership in advancing global internet freedom.

Four of the recommendations address issues on which the president-elect has made statements that are cause for concern.

Freedom to connect: Internet “shutdowns” are commonplace in a number of countries and have even become the norm for some governments seeking to control or crack down on access to and dissemination of information. Usually we are talking about repressive regimes like Egypt, China, and North Korea, but while campaigning, President-elect Trump proposed that the U.S. use internet shutdowns as a tool for preventing terrorist recruiting. His suggestion of "closing up" the internet "in certain areas" does nothing to deter authoritarian countries from using shutdowns to repress their own citizens. As our paper points out, the freedom to connect provides communities with access to education, diverse points of view, and information about news that state-run media may not be reporting. The internet is also a tool for commerce and trade, allowing businesses and local economies to connect with the wider world and increase economic growth. Given these, and many other benefits gained from access to the internet, the Trump administration should work to end the practice of government-led network shutdowns around the world and be a leader in promoting the right to access a free and open internet.

Freedom of expression: Both during the campaign and after his election, Donald Trump employed rhetoric that directly conflicts with the right to free expression. He has threatened to use libel laws against journalists, he has suggested criminal penalties for flag burning, and he has made opposition to the media a key tenet of his public presence. However, as the paper argues, a free and open internet is a platform for free expression. It also empowers all users, not just those who have access to a media outlet, to share their views and life experiences, a fact that the Twitter-fixated Trump should recognize. The U.S. must ensure that any government policies related to restricting online speech are consistent with human rights standards for freedom of expression, and that they are transparent, accountable, and firmly grounded in rule of law and due process. The U.S. must also work to ensure that domestic and international efforts to counter violent extremism online do not undermine internet freedom.

Strong encryption: Congress has been looking for ways to limit or undermine strong encryption for the past two years and President-elect Trump has said nothing to comfort those concerned that the debate will continue. Jeff Sessions, set to become attorney general, has been one of law enforcement’s staunchest allies in the San Bernardino case, where Apple refused to comply with an FBI order to unlock a phone belonging to one of the perpetrators. In a congressional hearing on encryption Sessions said that “coming from a law enforcement background, I believe this is a more serious issue than [Apple CEO] Tim Cook understands.” During that same conflict, Trump called for the public to boycott Apple in response to the company’s refusal to undermine the encryption in their own products. Yet as our policy paper points out, promotion and protection of encryption is a key component of internet freedom, both because of its ability to protect vulnerable populations like activists and journalists, and because of its necessity in securing the digital economy. If the U.S. subverts encryption, then it emboldens repressive regimes like China, Pakistan, and Bahrain to do the same. Instead, the U.S. should recognize that privacy and security are symbiotic–indeed, encryption enables cybersecurity more than any other single technology. The U.S. ought to work to build global consensus that companies should not be required to subvert encryption systems in ways that enable authorities to access secure information.

ICANN: The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a little-known non-profit organization that helps manage the “inner workings of the internet.” Put simply, ICANN maintains a complex system of naming and numbering that directs people to the right website. The U.S. has had a veto over ICANN decisions since its creation—a responsibility it has never exercised—but the Department of Commerce recently completed the long-awaited process of relinquishing that role. ICANN has matured and can now function as an independent organization. This transition led to strong statements by President-elect Trump, who accused the U.S. of “surrendering control of the internet to foreign powers.” In reality, as our paper points out, the change will make it easier to fight for internet freedom around the world by removing the common complaint that the U.S. is in charge. Given Trump’s critical statements, there is concern that he could take steps to derail the progress that the United States has made toward more global internet governance. We strongly recommend that the incoming administration strengthen mechanisms that ensure the independence, accountability, and transparency of ICANN’s decision-making processes, and work with the private sector and other governments to build independent and accountable financial support mechanisms for diverse global participation.

Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights project (incubated at New America), said it best during the launch event for these recommendations: Internet freedom starts at home. Domestic policy influences international policy, U.S. policy influences global policy, and threats to internet freedom in the United States embolden governments that are looking to limit the access of their citizens to a free, open, and secure internet. The Trump administration has a duty to assert its unique leadership on policy issues, including those above, and to continue the decades-long, bipartisan support that internet freedom policy has previously held. Further, it must take steps to protect, promote, and strengthen freedom online—at home and around the world—through policies that align with our long standing international commitments to uphold human rights and the rule of law while also strengthening our economy and protecting us from threats to national security.



Andi Wilson is a policy analyst at New America’s Open Technology Institute, where she researches and writes about the relationship between technology and policy.