Saturday, 12 November 2011

How dare we speak across borders!

I've been inspired by this excellent but thoroughly depressing piece by Nate Anderson in Ars Technica to add the "through any media and regardless of frontiers" quote from Article 19 of the UDHR to my sidebar.  Adopted in 1948, it could not have been better expressed had it been written with the internet in mind.

Anderson highlights the proposed US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) as the first legislation that would officially distinguish between domestic and foreign internet sites, and the last nail in the coffin of the borderless internet. 

It has become de rigeur over the last 10 years not only to dismiss the early cyberlibertarians (Johnson, Post, Perry Barlow et al) as impossibly naive and idealistic, and to predict the erection of national borders in cyberspace, but also to welcome that as a Good Thing (Goldsmith and Wu). 

There is certainly a serious debate to be had over how far attempts by national authorities to prevent undesirable bits and bytes from flying across their borders can be effective; and about the negative externalities associated with going to ever greater lengths in trying to make them so.  SOPA is a case in point. 

But it's the last proposition that really sticks in the throat - the idea that we should, as a laudable goal, positively seek to re-erect national borders in cyberspace rather than take the opportunity provided by the internet to break them down. 

For domestic politicians wedded to notions of national sovereignty the idea of preserving national borders online is inevitably meat and drink.  The unfortunate and surprising thing is that these ideas seem to have traction beyond that (I had a slightly crisp exchange with an adherent at the Society for Computers and Law Policy Forum in September).  Some seem quite happy, in the name of preserving domestic sovereignty, to toss on the scrapheap the most liberating development for cross-border freedom of expression that has ever taken place.

Naive and idealistic?  Maybe, but unless we cling tenaciously to the rock of Article 19 we risk being swept away in the rush to put speakers back in their rightful and respectful place behind national barriers.  How dare we speak across borders!  (How dare we speak at all?)

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