By Jason Menard,
In just a few short years, the Internet has become an integral part of our lives – so much so that some of us wouldn’t know what to do without it. But in taking for granted the value of the Internet, have we also taken for granted that the Internet is something that we all have the right to access?
That debate is occurring at this very moment on two fronts: in England where there’s a movement to implement measures that would allow the government to effectively block certain people’s access to social media (specifically suspected rioters) during an emergency; and in the United States, where the San Francisco transit authority shut down wireless networks to try to minimize potential violence following a fatal shooting by one of its officers.
We already know what a self-professed group of Internet free speech protectors and hackers, Anonymous, think. Earlier today, I discussed the potential they have – and the damage they often do — to their cause. To them, and many others, this is an affront to free speech; it’s Chinese/Iranian-style suppression of civil liberties.
But is it so black and white?
In discussions of this nature, we often talk about freedom. However, the freedoms of the allegedly oppressed are the only ones that are examined. What about the freedom of choice of the alleged oppressors.
To my knowledge, the Internet isn’t free (at least that’s what my monthly bill tells me), and until government decides to make wireless networks 100 per cent free (or finds some free-speech-loving wealthy benefactor to foot the bill), there are going to be people who own access to the Internet. Note, I said “access to,” not the Internet itself. But if I’m the owner of a wireless network that services an area, I still have the right to turn it on and turn it off as I please.
We take free wireless Internet for granted. Realistically, if a bunch of bloggers walked into a local McDonald’s or Starbucks, and spent all day live-blogging the mistakes and making allegations against the staff, then could you really blame the franchise owners if they decided the investment wasn’t worth it and shut the free Wi-Fi down?
Would it be right? Hell no! In fact, it would be corporate suicide if a company decided to block access to the Internet as a form of censorship. But just because it’s not the right thing to do, doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to do it.
So having established that baseline, then the Bay Area Rapid Transit commission had every right to do what they did. It wasn’t right – in fact, it was downright stupid, as they could have put someone in danger with their actions (after all, you don’t just block the people trying to cause trouble – you also block the people who are in need of emergency assistance or are in immediate danger), but they had the right and the chose to exercise it.
Britain’s situation is somewhat different. Does a government have the right to demand that independent wireless providers shut down their services? A British MP, Louise Mensch, likens a wireless shutdown to police closures of roads during emergencies – just instead of shutting down traffic, you’re shutting down the flow of information.
But in the end, your freedom of speech isn’t impacted – you’ve just lost access to one tool with which you can express it. No one’s cancelling a protest because they can’t get a bar on their iPhone; freedom of expression is not limited to Tweeting from your Blackberry.
As with any tool, there are those who will use it to spread chaos. You can use a hammer to build a house and you can use it to crush someone’s skull. The same goes for the Internet – you can use it to change the world (see Iran, Egypt, etc.) and you can use it to fan the flames of hatred and cowardice (see England, Vancouver riots).
Whichever way you choose to use it, the fact is that the Internet is a tool – nothing more; nothing less.
Your freedom of speech is not tied to wireless access points. Your freedom of expression is not limited to 140-character bursts. Your freedom to gather peacefully is not restricted to Facebook event notifications. Those freedoms lie within you and are outlined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Internet is a tool in the same way as a vehicle is. We know that driving is a privilege – one that must be earned and maintained, so why do we treat the Internet as something differently?
Once we look at the Internet for what it is, we can take a step back from the precipice that this freedom-of-speech rhetoric has brought us to and realize that, as handy and pervasive as the Internet has become, it’s still just a tool.
And while tools can help us fight for our freedoms, they in no way define them.