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Obama's deputy technology officer McLaughlin: Free speech is net-neutrality foreign policy

When President Obama told university students in Shanghai last week that he’s a “big supporter of non-censorship,” it took 27 minutes for one major Chinese portal to delete that part of his speech. After two-and-a-half hours, almost all portals in the nation took out the comments from news coverage.

Despite what appeared to be the Chinese government’s clampdown on the controversial issue of online censorship, an explosive exchange about Obama’s support for “open Internet use” surfaced on blogs and on Twitter.

“That is the optimistic part of the story,” said Andrew McLaughlin, the nation’s deputy technology officer, recounting the event.

In a telecom law conference last Thursday by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln law school, McLaughlin and Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, talked about how an open Internet, or so-called net neutrality, underlies free speech on the Web. Without it, censorship can occur.

“If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it,” McLaughlin said.

The two technology-policy experts talked on the panel, moderated by Post Tech, about the balance of promoting U.S. beliefs in free speech and open-Internet policies while also respecting the political and cultural norms of other nations. McLaughlin ran global policy (non-U.S. policy) for Google out of the San Francisco Bay Area before joining the administration earlier this year.

The tricky thing about the Internet is that because of the architecture of the Web that gives access providers -- either a government or telecom/cable company -- control over Web content, those entities have an outsized influence over the flow of information.

“Optimistic view is that censorship is the last-ditch, last-gasp effort by
centralized regimes to control what you do,” said McLaughlin, the former head of policy for Google. “The pessimistic view of the Internet is that it is basically a tool for perfect control.”

Bringing that back to the United States, the Obama administration views free speech and net neutrality as “intrinsically linked,” he said. The U.S. has a long-held belief that free speech is a national core value, even more so than most nations, he said. And key to that is ensuring that the corporations giving users access to the Web don’t act as gatekeepers of information and speech.

The FCC is in the middle of shaping new rules for Internet access that would prevent a service provider such as Verizon, AT&T or Comcast from blocking or prioritizing any legal content on the Web. McLaughlin said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's push for new rules supports the adminsitration’s views on freedom of expression and innovation.

“In this country our commitment to Internet freedom is so strong that we not only have a First Amendment that restricts the government from restraining free speech, but we also think that companies that provide access turn into speech regulators themselves,” McLaughlin said.

“That's how I think about the issue because of the peculiar nature of access providers to ride off of scarcity in connectivity and long-term contracts with customers. Because of that control, they are in a position to potentially favor one competitor or speaker than another.”

So why should the U.S. care if other nations disagree?

Mclaughlin said the reasons are in part tactical. Countries that agree with U.S. principles of free exchange of ideas and free economics and markets are aligned with U.S. strategic objectives, he said.

That becomes trickier when allies like Germany and South Korea pursue divergent policies on free speech. To post a comment on an online forum or blog in South Korea, for instance, a resident has to identify himself or herself through an authentication process that requires a name and national identification number. In Germany, it is illegal to express allegiance to the Nazi party or to express hate language toward Jews online.

“You'd have an armed revolt in this country if you tried to do that,” McLaughlin said. “In Germany, they have a unique historical experience and set of democratic institutions that have repeatedly over decades validated that certain kinds of speech are off limits.”

Wu advocates for free speech but also cautions that the government treads a fine line between exporting its values and respecting those of other nations. In the late 1990s, protesters in Seattle demonstrated at a World Trade Organization ministerial meeting against what they thought were flaws of globalization. Now, Wu said, there runs the risk that multinationals of the Internet economy – such as Google – are spreading their cultural norms around the globe.

“In the 1990s, there were some who were afraid that the world was becoming too simple and a single culture,” Wu said. “Now you have people in countries who tend to dislike Google, for example, because they are creating a sense of uniformity by saying what counts as important on the Web because of their algorithm.”

(Photo credit: Harvard Law School)

By Cecilia Kang  |  November 23, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  International , Net Neutrality  
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Comments

Leave it to politicians to conflate the management of a computer network with a threat to First Amendment rights. The fact (though Cecilia Kang will not state it, because the advertising revenue for this blog comes from Google, which is lobbying for "network neutrality" regulation) is that ISPs are not engaged in censorship and have no intention to do so. The true purpose of the proposed regulations is not to assure free speech but to provide political payback to Google for its large contributions to the Obama campaign.

Posted by: squirma | November 27, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

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