EDITORIAL: Obama the Internet pharaoh

Push to regulate online speech gains momentum

The power of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to fan the flames of upheaval along the Nile must keep potential dictators up late at night. The Mubarak government’s ham-fisted order to cut off Egypt’s electronic access to the outside world on Jan. 27 is a potent reminder of how deeply strongmen resent the freedom of speech the Internet embodies. Although service was restored Wednesday, Egypt’s response to troublesome tweets is not so foreign. A number of schemes are in the works to grant U.S. leaders similar powers in the name of fairness and safety.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Independent, introduced legislation last session that would have given a White House cyberczar Mubarak-like power to declare an emergency and issue directives to any private companies deemed to be critical by government. This unprecedented power would be granted in the name of protecting the Internet from hackers. Never mind that the slow-moving entities of the federal government are the least capable of responding to fast-paced, evolving technology threats. Never mind that companies have more of an incentive to preserve their billion-dollar investments than “9 to 5” bureaucrats with guaranteed lifetime employment. It’s worth noting that even the Egyptian government’s clumsy censorship attempts were bypassed with proxy servers and other simple workarounds.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration remains committed to getting its hands on the private infrastructure that serves as the backbone of online discourse. On Dec. 21, President Obama’s communications czar, Julius Genachowski, issued a decree imposing “net neutrality” rules on Internet service providers, even though Congress specifically exempted the Internet from regulation by the Federal Communications Commission. A provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act does give the agency ability to “remove barriers to infrastructure investment,” and Mr. Genachowski pounced on this to mean he could tell companies how they should run networks they built with their own money.

The Commerce Department continues to push the idea of an Internet passport that centralizes credentials for online purchases and “anonymous” Web commentary. Although the proposal is designed to replace the dozens of passwords used every day with a single “trusted” credential, administration officials insist that the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace is not the online equivalent of a national ID card. They even point to a Frequently Asked Questions section on the department’s website that says this voluntary program is nothing like a national ID card.

Semantics aside, any government involvement in identity management or security on the Internet is a bad idea. Big-government types can’t resist the urge to control things they feel are currently beyond their grasp. The Internet remains perhaps the only venue with the freewheeling flavor of the Old West. This irritates those who would become Net Nannies just as much as it does those who want to maintain power by any means necessary.

The temptation to squelch inconvenient speech is too great; no politician should ever be given a button to silence the Internet. That rule applies to Washington as much as Cairo.

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