July 2, 2012 | By Trevor Timm

Time For Members of Congress to Pledge to Uphold Internet Freedom

Today, EFF joins a broad, international coalition of civil society groups calling on elected officials to sign the new Declaration of Internet Freedom and uphold basic rights in the digital world. The Declaration is simple; it offers five core principles that should guide any policy relating to the Internet: stand up for online free expression, openness, access, innovation and privacy. Sign it here.

For too long in the US, Congress has attempted to legislate the Internet in favor of big corporations and heavy-handed law enforcement at the expense of its users’ basic Constitutional rights. Netizens’ strong desire to keep the Internet open and free has been brushed aside as naïve and inconsequential, in favor of lobbyists and special interest groups. Well, no longer.

That all changed on January 18th when users around the country joined together in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)—the misguided copyright legislation that would have allowed for censorship of broad swaths of the Internet, while stifling innovation and threatening Internet security. SOPA, though its passage was once characterized as inevitable by the deep-pocketed content industry, was stopped in its tracks when millions of ordinary citizens told their representatives in one voice: Don’t mess with the Internet.

Why were Internet users so empowered for the first time? For one reason, Internet freedom now affects virtually all of the American public—young and old—given the web’s importance to everyone’s daily life. It’s also nonpartisan: elected officials from both sides of the aisle worked together to stop SOPA. Members of Congress in both parties now need to compete for the bragging rights as Internet defenders instead of taking every opportunity to erode ordinary users’ rights.

Put simply, Internet freedom is now an election issue and candidates for elected office must treat it as such. 

But while the power Internet users possess to shape public policy has never been greater, unfortunately, digital civil liberties have never been under more threat from Congress. SOPA was just the first of many pieces of legislation that Congress has debated this year with potential consequences for the Internet and digital civil liberties.

A month ago, the House of Representatives passed CISPA, a bill intended to address cybersecurity concerns, but which carves out a giant exception to all existing privacy laws, allowing companies to hand over your communications to the government voluntarily without a warrant. The Senate is currently debating their version and needs your input.

The FBI also wants Congress to pass an expansion of CALEA—also known as the Internet wiretapping law—that would force Internet companies to install backdoors into all their services so that the government can get real time access to Facebook private messages, email conversations and Skype calls. The FISA Amendments Act—which gutted privacy protections of Americans emailing overseas in the wake of the NSA warrantless wiretapping program—is also up for renewal this year. Congress has so far refused to reform the bill, despite evidence it has allowed dragnet surveillance of American citizens’ communications without a warrant. Rep. Lamar Smith, the author of SOPA, has proposed a data retention bill, requiring every ISP to keep data on individual Internet users not suspected of any crime and allow law enforcement access to it. Other members of Congress have called for charges against WikiLeaks that threaten online press freedom.

And don’t forget, according to the MPAA’s chief lobbyist Chris Dodd, SOPA 2.0 may be around the corner.

Meanwhile, positive Internet legislation has been all but ignored. Patent reform is desperately needed to stop crippling lawsuits that are stifling software innovation. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act—the primary law which governs email—was written before the world wide web even existed, and Congress has yet to update it to give warrant protections that has always been given to physical letters. Similarly, a bill requiring a warrant for cell phone and GPS tracking has been stuck in committee for years, despite the Supreme Court recently ruling that attaching a GPS device to a car with no court oversight is unconstitutional. The Global Online Freedom Act also has yet to see a floor vote, and positive cybersecurity or copyright legislation is nowhere to be seen.

Many international lawmakers have similarly attempted to legislate away Internet freedoms, and EFF will explain in more detail in the coming days, the pledge can also be used to positively affect the Internet globally.

But right now, we are asking for your help in getting Congress to respect digital civil liberties and work for the Internet rather than against it. Sign the Declaration of Internet Freedom so we all can build a movement for a censorship-free, open, and innovative Internet. You can also join the conversation on Reddit and propose your own changes. But most importantly, at the next 2012 election campaign stop in your hometown, hand it to candidates running for office and ask them to sign it.

Tell your member of Congress: Pledge to uphold the Declaration of Internet Freedom. In the digital age, their election may depend on it.


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