In part one and part two of our three-part series, we discussed attempts to regulate the Internet both nationally and globally. Though the future of internet governance is unknown, as regulatory agencies and governments clamp down, cooperation between Internet advocacy groups and regulatory agencies could help avoid increased Internet censorship or possible balkanization.

If the Internet were a movie, it would fall into the genre of films following the general plot of King Kong. What begins as a gentle giant, peaceful and safe in its natural habitat, eventually gets scared, terrorizes the public with a destructive rampage, and ends up shot with a tranquilizer dart and made to perform in the circus, or similar. Sometimes the movie ends at this point, the protagonist misunderstood and with no real chance of redemption, and the ending is sad (The Elephant Man). In other stories, the monster is rescued or even redeemed in the eyes of the once-angry public (The Iron Giant).

The Internet is just one cyber-9/11 away from being shackled, upsetting the Web’s so-far rosy childhood that the public has enjoyed so much. Even barring an emergency, with federal lawmakers and restrictive foreign nations pushing for increased regulation, it’s possible that the Internet could become less free, less open and less useful than it is today, making for quite the sad ending.

A Right and Wrong Way to Regulate

Almost everyone who is active in the Internet space, people like Marvin Sirbu, a Carnegie Mellon University professor specializing in engineering and public policy, believe the Web needs some regulation, but that there is a right and wrong way to regulate.

“For example, the network neutrality rules that the FCC has put in place are necessary,” Sirbu said. "But the question is whether they are necessary to be done at an international level and by an international treaty organization versus making different decisions in different national settings.”

Network neutrality laws, he said, may be necessary in places where there is limited access to multiple service providers. But in European nations where there is heavy competition, for instance, laws aren’t needed to force Internet providers to give uniform access because if a company doesn't offer the service their customers want, their competitors will.

There’s also an issue of persuading developing nations to adopt a bill-and-keep mode rather than a sender-pays model, Sirbu said.

A bill-and-keep model, which has become a common billing model for Internet service, is unconcerned with where data originates. The end user simply pays his Internet service provider, usually for a flat fee.

In a sender-pays model, a network service like YouTube or Wikipedia must pay to have its content reach users. The sender-pays approach is favored by some developing nations that see the model as a way to raise capital from incoming Internet traffic while they build their infrastructure, Sirbu said -- but it’s ultimately an inefficient economic system and could negatively impact service. Just as the practice of phone companies overcharging for long-distance service went away in the U.S., Internet service providers have discovered that a bill-and-keep model keeps pricing in line with what things are actually worth, which is ultimately better for the economy, and the Internet, coincidentally.

There are many issues around Internet governance, but whatever the issues around the Web happen to be, the important thing is that the right people are involved in the discussion, said Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Activist Adi Kamdar.

Involving the Right People

“We’ve seen the government, especially Congress, bypass the tech community and the people who know the Internet the best in order to pass legislation that would appeal to certain interests,” Kamdar said, adding that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), for instance, is frequently abused to censor content online. “Rights holders take down works of fair use all the time, and we’ve seen how a law with a potentially good intention, at least to the people who wrote it, can be used to undermine the expressive value of the internet."

The EFF dedicates most of its resources to fighting technology bills it doesn't like. The two sides are constantly fighting over bills, Kamdar said, but Congress is learning. Reforms to old wiretapping laws and the patent system are finally being looked at, and cybersecurity legislation is starting to include privacy and freedom of speech after the many failed attempts to produce something that makes everyone happy.

“I think in the future, if we were to have any sort of laws passed, they need to keep in mind that the Internet is a tool of expression and these laws shouldn’t have censorship tools or censorship language -- even language that doesn’t come across as censorship right away, but can be acted on as censorship.” Kamdar said. “We’re more than willing to explain [to Congress] the issues with bills. It often comes down to specific language, and if we can interpret something as being too vague, there’s a chance that it can be interpreted as being too vague.”

Just as the EFF acts as a watchdog to ensure companies like Facebook and Google improve their privacy policies and respect freedom of expression, Kamdar suggested that the government also pay attention to what the EFF and the tech community wants.

“Legislative remedies of the Internet, what we’ve seen historically, tend to do more harm than good,” he said. “I would be fine with legislation if civil society groups and tech groups and the people who are actually on the ground in the Internet world have a strong say in the practice of crafting this legislation.”

Enhanced Cooperation in Internet Regulation

Traditionally, the discussion of privacy and freedom is framed as a tradeoff, but it doesn’t have to be, Kamdar said – Internet users can have their cake and eat it too.

“There are ways of crafting legislation or approaching the Internet that promote innovation and expression and openness without taking away from things like privacy and the ability to speak freely, or the ability to access things that you need," he said. "A lot of times this dialogue is pitched as a sort of tradeoff, and we reject that.”

While cooperation with the government isn’t really what the EFF does now, because they’re too busy fighting bills, Kamdar said that cooperation is something he'd like to see more of.

“I’d like to see -- on behalf of the Internet, from all the people who are fighting these fights, including us -- a more positive agenda, an idea of how to address these sort of issues that’s privacy friendly,” he said.

Increased cooperation between government and Internet activists could lead to a favorable ending for the Web’s story arc, but the meeting might also just illuminate an irreconcilable culture clash.

Former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente recently commented on CNN that the government already secretly records every telephone call made. And following the Boston bombings, NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that “the privacy issue has really been taken off the table.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.