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2013: The Year in Internet Freedom

(Photo: Save the Internet)To say that 2013 was just another year in the struggle to protect our online rights is quite the understatement. When the history of the Internet is written, 2013 will be considered one epic year.

Edward Snowden blew a giant hole in the corporate-government surveillance complex; nearly every week brings new information damning both government agencies and the companies they collude with. Meanwhile, a key court decision will soon determine whether we can still innovate and speak freely online — or whether companies get to act as gatekeepers.

And so we present Free Press’ top 10 moments in Internet freedom from 2013.

1. Edward Snowden blows the whistle on the NSA. On June 5, the Guardian reported that the NSA is working with telecommunications providers like AT&T and Verizon to access the phone records of millions of people. The next day, the Guardian exposed the “PRISM” program, which gave us our first glimpse at the ways in which the NSA is gathering our private communications from companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo.

2. StopWatching.Us launches. Within a month of the Snowden leaks, more than 500,000 people and hundreds of organizations and companies signed a letter at StopWatching.Us urging Congress to hold the NSA accountable and to reform the laws that allowed this mass spying to take place. And in late October, more than 3,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., at the Rally Against Mass Surveillance, the largest domestic rally of its kind.

3. Verizon and the FCC go to court. In early September, a federal court heard arguments in Verizon v. FCC, a case that could decide the future of the open Internet. Verizon sued the FCC after the agency passed its 2010 Open Internet Order, which gave Net Neutrality protections to Internet users (well, sort of). In its arguments, Verizon was clear that it thinks it should be able to slow down and censor online content at will.

If Verizon wins, the FCC’s rules will be thrown out and Net Neutrality will cease to exist — meaning that AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and the rest will be permitted to block applications, invade our privacy and censor our content at will. A decision in this case is expected any day now; go here to learn more about Net Neutrality and what’s at stake.

4. Welcome to the payola Internet. Internet service providers are gearing up for a post-Net Neutrality era. Their first move? The use of “paid prioritization,” which would allow ISPs to charge big websites and services extra to “cut to the front of the line” at congested nodes along the network. Under this plan, an ISP could charge Netflix (or any startup) extra for the privilege of reaching its users faster — which would inevitably trickle down to its users in the form of higher costs ... and less innovation and competition.

5. Free Press delivers 1,000 bars of soap to Verizon. At a certain point you just say “enough is enough.” Between Verizon’s lawsuit, its repeated attempts to kill the open Internet and its participation in NSA surveillance programs, we decided it was time to send the telecom this message: Clean up your act. We delivered a bunch of soap (and the signatures of more than 20,000 people) to the company’s NYC headquarters on a chilly, windy — but inspiring — afternoon. Watch the video here.

6. AT&T blocks FaceTime. Late last year, AT&T announced that it would cripple the FaceTime video calling app on its customers’ iPhones unless they subscribed to a more expensive text-and-voice plan.

Thanks to enormous public pressure — including Free Press’ threat to file a complaint at the FCC — AT&T relented. In early 2013, it announced it would allow more customers to use FaceTime over its network, and by the end of the year all AT&T customers were able to make FaceTime calls over mobile networks.

7. Google Fiber changes its terms of service. A few months ago, Wired reported that Google Fiber — the super-fast Internet service that’s available in a handful of U.S. cities — had banned the use of personal servers on its network. No matter that all other ISPs take a similar approach. Google is supposed to be different, right? So we urged Google to stop following in the footsteps of the bad (er, worse) guys and to let people attach their own servers for personal use. In the end, Google changed course, clarifying that Fiber customers can run servers for “personal, noncommercial use,” including “multi-player gaming, video-conferencing and home security.”

8. Free Press teams up with Tim Berners-Lee to launch the Web We Want. The fight to protect the open Internet knows no borders. Last December’s International Telecommunication Union meeting found some countries proposing a restructuring of the Internet that would allow individual nations to close their borders to foreign Web traffic. This development — plus the Snowden revelations — have made it clear that the world’s digital rights activists need to work together to save the Internet.

So Free Press partnered with Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation to launch the Web We Want. The campaign’s first step: working with organizations and individuals around the world to draft an Internet Users’ Bill of Rights for every country. Interested? Go to the Web We Want site and get involved.

9. Aaron Swartz. Activist coder Aaron Swartz took his life on Jan. 11. As we wrote at the time, “The loss to his friends, colleagues, fellow activists and the Internet at large is enormous.” Aaron died facing a potential 35-year prison sentence for the unauthorized downloading of millions of documents from the JSTOR academic database. He was being prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which media historian Tim Wu has called the “most outrageous criminal law you’ve never heard of.”

The push to reform the CFAA is ongoing. Demand Progress, which Swartz co-founded, is leading the way.

10. The Internet turns 30. On Jan. 1, 1983, engineers launched the basic protocol for sharing bits between computers, setting in motion the networked world we live in today. In 2014, the World Wide Web will turn 25. The ways in which both inventions changed the world are innumerable; it’s up to us to ensure these platforms remain the critical engines of free speech and thought that they’ve been from the start.

As corporate gatekeepers strive to restrict what we do and say online, and as governments abuse our right to privacy, it’s more important than ever that we reclaim the Internet for ourselves.

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