2014 is already shaping up as a defining year for digital rights. A federal court just killed Net Neutrality. The U.S. government is spying on millions of individuals as well as organizations, companies, and governments, provoking an outcry from both newer organizers and communities that have long labored under government and corporate surveillance. Congress is poised to rubber-stamp a trade agreement that could threaten Internet freedom worldwide. And we’re still mourning the loss of the inspirational Aaron Swartz, who fought for free and universal access to information.
The idea that the Internet is a space where all voices have the same right to be heard is common sense to millions. The principle that we should be free to access information online—and in private—without the interference of companies or governments resonates across the political spectrum.
But in the last two years, telecom companies, content providers, and politicians have worked together to say that their voices matter most. They’ve pushed regressive policy after regressive policy to try to turn the Internet from a vibrant global square into a pay-to-play walled garden.
But the belief that everyone deserves safe, affordable, and private access to the Internet—that this is, in fact, a human right—is resonating with more and more people.
In the last two years, we’ve moved from one-off displays of grassroots power to more sustained bottom-up activism.
The 2012 fight to stop the SOPA/PIPA Web-censorship bills was just the beginning. Since then, we’ve seen collaborations connecting Internet freedom advocates of all political stripes (see the Declaration of Internet Freedom), an international campaign to cast light on destructive global trade pacts (see the push to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the building of the Stop Watching Us coalition and the broader movement to end government surveillance.
It may seem that each issue features a different opponent: Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon, federal agencies like the NSA, multinational corporations and their government friends. But when it comes to Internet freedom, big companies are in cahoots with government actors like never before.
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Take Verizon: Before it was the company that got rid of the Net Neutrality rules, it was the company that voluntarily gave the NSA data about the who, where and when of our phone calls. This is the same company that, thanks to weak rules that didn’t hold up in a federal court, is now free to turn the Internet into a private fiefdom where it can charge us extra for every site, app, and device we use. And it’s the same company that remained silent as we reacted to news about its involvement in the biggest privacy scandal in decades.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to do the bidding of giant corporations—valuing entertainment conglomerates’ protection of copyrights over collateral damage to their own constituents and shielding the NSA as companies collecting our private data create the greatest mechanism for surveillance ever known.
But now, millions of Internet users are coordinating to build political, legal, and tech solutions to take the Internet back. While Congress considers bills to ratify NSA surveillance, fast-track a draconian trade agreement, or kill Net Neutrality for good, it should remember what happened when it tried to railroad the SOPA/PIPA legislation through.
Two years ago this winter, those twin bills fell apart in 24 hours thanks to the organic uprising of millions of Internet users across the country.
This will—and must—happen again. Only next time there will be much more at stake, and many millions more at the ready.
Josh Levy and Hannah Sassaman wrote this article for Education Uprising: The New Rebels Taking Back Our Public Schools, the Spring 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. J