War on Access

By Jérémie Zimmermann.

“Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 proclaims : "The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Every citizen may thus speak, write and publish freely, except when such freedom is misused in cases determined by Law". In the current state of the means of communication and given the generalized development of public online communication services and the importance of the latter for the participation in democracy and the expression of ideas and opinions, this right implies freedom to access such services. ” - Conseil Constitutionnel, decision 2009-580 (§ 12)

This decision by France's highest court (ruling against the HADOPI “three strikes” law) is historic in many regards. By explicitly stating that freedom of speech implies the freedom to access the Internet, the constitutional court acknowledged the crucial importance of Internet access for our societies.

Today, people across the world use the Internet to learn, work, communicate, relax, do business, access culture, make their existence better. The Internet and digital technologies improve the way we access and share knowledge to an even greater degree than the invention of the printing press around 1440. And, as with the printing press, increased access to knowledge promises a better exercise of our fundamental freedoms, which in turn betters society.

The scared and vain entertainment industries are unwilling to adapt to this new era that profoundly undermines their current business models. They are now attempting to use the law to impose restrictions on the access and sharing of cultural works carried on without their services or permission. This war on access was waged on a national, a European, and now on a worldwide level with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) currently under negotiation.

Aside from content industries, telecoms operators are now also tempted to restrict Internet access in order to prioritize their own content and services. Such practices would turn them into rent-seekers whose business models rest upon a discriminating control of Internet traffic, instead of investing in the common infrastructures on which the Internet relies. This would irremediably harm Net neutrality, a founding principle of the Internet that gives everyone the same potentiality to participate in and contribute to this common networked public sphere.

Some actors whose business models rest on controlling the distribution channels of information see in the control of access a way of upholding their dominant positions. As the Internet breaks down barriers to knowledge, it logically breaks down undue control on information, culture, and knowledge. As the printing press challenged the dominant position that copyist monks held in society, the power of entire sectors should normally be diminished now that the Internet penetrates all layers of society.

In a healthy market where free competition could allow everyone's preferences to be expressed, such economic actors would adapt or perish. But these corporations rely on strong support from politicians who, in order to maintain their power, share their objective of controlling the media and public space. Will these combined economic and political powers be strong enough to radically alter the structure of the Internet?

From a free and open network, where – at least in democratic countries – everybody connected person has access to the same content, services and applications without filtering or alteration, the Net could be irremediably shifted into an interconnection of centralized, discriminated, and filtered networks. Such a “Cable TV 2.0” scenario similar to “ChinaNet” is not the Internet.

But the Internet was built without these economic players. It was made by its users and constituents, all equal peers within the open and neutral network. It evolved along with their new uses and innovations. We - citizens, users - can claim the founding principles of the Internet to be our common good. We are entitled to use these technologies to foster all means of expression and action in order to keep the Net as we know and love it: an engine for innovation, economic growth, democracy, and human progress.

This might be one of the most important battles that we, citizens of this world, are now facing, along with the environmental, economic and social fronts. As our ancestors fought for their freedoms in order to improve their societies, it is now our turn to fight for the freedom to access a free Internet.