Web 2.0 Summit: The open Web is a dance of despots of democracies

The future of the open Internet is a delicate dance being played out between democratic governments and despots alike.

This and other surprising nuggets were part of the talk delivered by  Danny Weitzner, deputy CTO of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, at the Web 2.0 Summit today.

As we’ve seen with the Arab Spring, and the growing movement known as Occupy Wall Street, the Internet is an unparalleled tool for organizing protests. And without question, there are skittish governments questioning how to clamp down on dissent by restricting Internet freedom. Countries such as Iran and China, who are openly hostile to a wide open Web, are easy targets. But there are less obvious government-led incursions taking place.

“In many cases they’re being discussed by the most progressive and democratic of our allies,” said Weitzner, without elaborating on whom this might be. At times, there are local laws that assign liability to Internet service providers and startups for any harm that happen to users.

And it’s not only foreign governments who threatening people’s freedom of Information. In August the Bay Area Rapid Transit Agency came under fire when they chose to shut down cell phone service at several San Francisco subway stations in order to disrupt a protest planned by the hacktivist group Anonymous.

The other side of the coin is that some governments are very active in protecting the freedom of Internet users. Weitzner said that there is a German word for the right to be pixelated out of digital images, partly in response to the Google Streetview Car recording the front of people’s homes as it traveled through cities.”As a government, if you’re not offering basic protections, you’ve failed,” said Weitzner. The issue, however, is that the legislative process can take years to bring helpful legislation to fruition.
“Six years ago there was no Facebook,” said Weitzner. “Six years before that there was no Google.”

Weitzner said that an ideal solution is when industry groups and regulatory bodies can come together to act in the best interest of consumers. An example he gave was the recent announcement by the  Federal Communications Commission and cellular phone service providers to combat “Bill Shock,” by notifying consumers when they’re about to go over their data limits on their smart phones. Rather than working its way through Congress, the parties involved were able to reach a consensus  in a fraction of the time.

Regulating the Internet for billions of users is not something that one government can or should tackle alone. But Weitzner is optimistic that Internet service providers, startups and governments are capable of working together to keep the Web an open, free and dynamic environment for communication, commerce and more.

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