The best thing about the Internet is that it has grown, flourished and created new businesses, industries and jobs, all with minimal government involvement. But recent efforts by legislators are showing that may be changing soon. As the old saw goes, if it moves, government will seek to restrict, regulate or tax it.
The latest example is in Arizona, where Republican State Rep. Michelle Ugenti has introduced a bill that would make it felony to use another person’s name without permission to create a webpage with “harmful” intent. Ugenti says House Bill 2004 is modeled after a Texas law that prevents people from threatening or harassing someone through electronic communication.
At first glance, this may sound like a good idea. An effort that could prevent individuals from harming and defrauding others sounds like a common-sense solution to this type of “fraud.” The problem is that many people create legitimate pseudonyms for all sorts of reasons, whether it be to find out information on what their child is doing online, to create a parody, or to protect themselves from others, including those in power, who may not like what they are saying. None of these types of impersonations are harmful, and creating these can be considered a form of freedom of speech.
In fact, the reason the First Amendment is an established part of our Constitution and culture is to protect our freedom of speech including our right to pretend we are someone else. Existing laws on defamation, fraud and privacy already protect those who would be hurt by malicious action. We don't need a new law covering the Internet to discourage bad actors.
The United States should not follow those who have sought to restrict access to the Internet by requiring truth and identity. Government regulation of citizens’ access to technology and information is the kind of thing that goes on in North Korea and Cuba, not the United States. China also has succeeded in clamping down on the Internet with such a requirement that’s supplemented by restricting access to websites of which it disapproves, including that of the Google search engine. The ever-tightening firewall damages legitimate businesses, inhibits freedom of expression and keeps Internet users ignorant of information and government corruption. Proposals like Arizona’s House Bill 2004 may not rise to quite the same level, but they set a dangerous precedent for government oversight of what should be a free and open tool.
The United States recently led an effort at a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to protect the Internet from governments that seek to control the Internet in their countries and restrict their citizens’ ability to access Internet sites outside their countries.
The U.S. position of touting an open Internet accessible by anyone for any legal purpose is the right one. The Internet’s ability to give users cheap access to information and the global hub for e-commerce has been a major factor in allowing America to become the prosperous nation we know it as.
Let's hope that the legislation in Arizona, although well-meaning, dies the death it deserves. Our privacy and protection is important, but existing laws cover us well in that regard.
We do not need new restrictions or new laws governing the Internet. They not only threaten the Internet itself as a communications tool of social change, but they threaten our values, our free speech culture and our Constitution as well.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies. His latest book is "Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses," (William Morrow, January 2013). He is also author of the New York Times bestselling book, "The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream" Contact him on Twitter at @GaryShapiro.