Why the government shouldn’t run the Net

The Internet went dark in Myanmar (or Burma, if you’d prefer). The Burmese government, in the midst of a violent crackdown against its citizens, was rapidly losing credibility as people distributed photos, videos and e-mail recording the violence to the outside world across the ‘Net. So the government simply forced the ISPs to kill their BGP announcements and took the national name server offline.

If you are (like me) one of those people who had to look Burma up on a map, you may be wondering why you should care, other than for the obvious humanitarian reasons. Here’s why: There’s no better illustration of what happens when control of the Internet gets into the wrong hands. A government that controls the communications infrastructure can also choose to shut it down, and people can die as a result.

If you’re thinking that can’t happen in the United States, don’t kid yourself. There’s a movement afoot to renationalize the ‘Net — that is, put control of the ‘Net back into the hands of the government, which funded its development and actually ran it through the early 1990s.

Now, our government doesn’t usually make a habit of beating its citizens into a bloody pulp (though it’s certainly happened on occasion). But this would be the selfsame government that recently asked the carriers to perform warrantless (and therefore illegal) wiretaps on its citizens, and which retains the right to issue “secret letters” requesting information from providers, who are jailed if they even mention these requests publicly.

The only reason the feds even bother asking the carriers for this information is the fact that they can’t just get it directly. Nationalization would eliminate that middle step of asking carriers, and give the feds absolute power (and you know what they say about absolute power’s ability to corrupt.) So if you’re gathering that I’m not in love with the notion of handing the ‘Net back to the feds, you’re correct.

That said, the carriers are hardly shining examples of probity. For one thing, when the feds asked them to perform those warrantless wiretaps, their response was pretty much, “Sure thing!” (Thanks, guys).

More recently, as has been widely reported, AT&T’s terms-of-use contract notifies customers that they can be cut off if they decide to use their ‘Net connections to criticize AT&T, a position on which the company has been forced to backtrack after a huge hue and cry.

So what’s the answer? Hey, I’m a pundit, not a politician. But here are a few starting thoughts: The feds should keep their paws off, except when requesting legally permissible taps and data downloads. And they shouldn’t be able to issue “secret letters”; if a provider’s being asked to violate customer privacy, the request should be a matter of public record, even if the details need to remain secret for security reasons.

And the FCC should hold providers to the condition that users are free to say what they like on the ‘Net, even if that means criticizing their providers. If the carriers don’t like that condition, they should consider relocating to Burma. I hear the rules are different over there.

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