Secretary of State John Kerry declared that internet access is a "fundamental right" in a recent speech, and it quickly made headlines. He lambasted authoritarian governments for censoring the internet, specifically naming Russia and Venezuela as particularly pernicious loci of web oppression. Back in Washington DC, of course, the Obama administration, of which he's a part, is preparing to allow corporations to restrict quality internet access to companies who can afford to pay for it.
“The places where we face some of the greatest security challenges today are also the places where governments set up firewalls against some of the basic freedoms online,” Kerry said at the annual Freedom Online Coalition conference, according to The Hill, comparing said firewalls to the physical one that fell in Germany in 1989.
Well, sure. But chastising states that crack down on internet freedom, while common practice among enlightened diplomats—after the Arab Spring and its incumbent attempted crackdowns, the UN enshrined internet access as a human right, and even president Obama himself has intimated that should be the case—isn't all that productive. It paints a simplistic binary of how internet freedom works: Democracies with private internet service providers, good. Autocrats who block Twitter, or say that the CIA invented the internet, bad.
Those autocrats, we're invited to imagine, might eventually topple with the sheer force of Reaganite rhetoric, our will-to-democracy; we can make them unpopular and batter them down until ones and zeros litter the ground where the divide between the Orwellian cyberistan and the rest of the world once stood. Obviously, dictators who censor the internet are bad news. But it's highly unlikely they care what John Kerry has to say about the matter.
If only securing internet freedom really were a matter of breaking down a few Berlin Wall-esque digital blockades imposed by intolerant governments. But the truly insidious threat to internet freedom that John Kerry could help combat is unfolding in Washington DC. Last week, news broke that the FCC planned to open a "fast lane" of high-speed internet traffic, for corporations willing to pay telecoms higher fees for the pleasure.
This is a much thornier, much murkier, and much deeper threat to an open web, largely because what the FCC is planning to let Comcast and Verizon do is more likely to fly under the public radar, or get buried under a mind-numbing torrent of bureaucratic hullaballo, committee hearings, and indecipherable legalesse. There's no villainous horseback despot proclaiming that the internet is evil—just a revolving door of industry lobbyists and self-interested regulators making quiet pledges not to allow consumers come to an "unreasonable" amount of harm.
Kerry, to his credit, was a vocal supporter of net neutrality as a US senator. But now, in much of his pro-internet rhetoric, he seems not to acknowledge that he might as well be describing the domestic battle internet freedom activists are gearing up for against the FCC.
"Today, we’ve all learned that walls can be made of ones and zeros and the deprivation of access even to those ones and zeros, and that wall can be just as powerful in keeping us apart in a world that is so incredibly interconnected,” Kerry said. He's talking about the kind of deprivation of access imposed by Putin or Erdogan, but that "deprivation of access" may soon belong to the average American, who can no longer satisfactorily load a website whose hosts can't afford to pay for fast lane access. Governments aren't the only things that can destroy the internet—corporations can, too.
Unless Kerry can turn his open web advocacy towards the homefront, these disparaging words will have the effect of so much verbiose American bravado before it—we condemn the dictator or oligarch that inflicts his people with inequality, erodes free speech, and gives rise to poverty abroad, but remain blind to the fact that corporations, corruption, and capital are allowing the same ills to flourish at home.
No statesman, after all, is about to stand up and compare the slow, confusing erosion of net neutrality to the mighty fall of the Berlin Wall.