U.S. legislators drafted a bipartisan bill to protect online freedoms from a recent flurry of legislation, striving to keep the Internet from suffocating under future restrictive laws.
The “digital bill of rights,” written by Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), advocates for “a free, uncensored Internet” that champions the “rights of equality, privacy, sharing and property.”
The bill’s language is somewhat vague and omits provisions for enforcement. But as the first bipartisan effort of its kind, the proposal’s main sentiment may gain widespread attention on Capitol Hill for three specific reasons.
1. To Stop SOPA, PIPA and CISPA
Lawmakers Wyden and Issa say their bill will prevent Congress from passing laws like the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act. Both authors opposed SOPA and PIPA, which would have given federal authorities the power to shut down websites accused of copyright infringement.
The bills foundered this January after a public outcry, during which Wikipedia and other Internet companies darkened their websites in protest.
Wyden and Issa’s proposal also strives to block bills like the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. As a national security measure, it may allow the government to spy on companies and people in addition to protecting them from cyber attacks.
Ironically, Issa voted for CISPA in April while Wyden condemns it as harmful to Internet freedom.
2. To Prevent Restrictive Legislation
In addition to blocking future versions of SOPA, PIPA and CISPA, the “digital bill of rights” aims to stop states and other regulatory bodies from passing laws that harm Internet freedoms.
Arizona, for example, recently outlawed trolling, raising eyebrows about the First Amendment consequences of the law, which was meant to stamp out bullying. Rights groups say Arizona’s possibly well-intentioned law, which carries penalties of up to twenty-five years in prison, is unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s governor signed a law prohibiting online images meant to “frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress,” a vague description that free speech activists fear is easily misused.
Issa and Wyden’s bill also requires government agencies to protect Internet freedoms, in an effort to prevent them from ignoring privacy in favor of efficiency.
“Agencies like the Federal Communications Commission need a set of instructions,” Issa explained. “More of your freedom will be taken away by regulatory agencies than Congress.”
3. To Uphold Human Rights
Issa and Wyden’s bill may be vague about implementation and enforcement, but its sentiment echoes an historical United Nations declaration. The U.N. declared unrestricted Internet access a human right after watching Egypt, Libya and several other Middle Eastern countries oppress their citizens by cutting online access.
“There should be as little restriction as possible to the flow of information via the Internet,” the U.N. report states, “except in a few, exceptional and limited circumstances prescribed by international human rights law.”
In order to abide by the U.N.’s declaration and avoid emulating Syria, Pakistan or Iran, the U.S. may need a bill like Wyden and Issa’s to remind it how important unfettered Internet access is to democracy.
If Issa and Wyden succeed in their efforts, the U.S. may not be able to pass CISPA or create more state laws banning arbitrarily “offensive” images and text, as well as prevent well-meaning lawmakers from creating unintended consequences like restricting access to the Internet as they work to solve other issues. And, even if their bill does not pass, Wyden and Issa may help preserve the Internet’s freedom by drawing lawmakers’ attention to this vital issue.