[UPDATED] The image at left shows a woman drinking from a LifeStraw, adevice for filtering unclean water so it is safe to drink. When you see this picture, you should think of the internet.
Why you should think of the internet may not be clear. This woman is drinking from a rural stream and probably lacks internet access. However, LifeStraw is an excellent metaphor for US net freedom policy.
In the case of LifeStraw, the goal is that everyone on the planet has access to clean water. The obstacle is a global shortage of clean water. LifeStraw is a technical crisis response to this global shortage. It allows people living in areas without clean water to filter water for their personal using aningeniouspiece of technology.
Yet is does not scale. It does not solve the problem. The solution to the clean water shortage is not to buy millions of $20 LifeStraws for people in developing countries. The solution is to build clean water infrastructure, to give people access to actual clean water.
US net freedom policy works in a similar way. According to the State Department’s Internet Freedom program, the goalis “a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” The obstacle is that “numerousgovernments seek to deny the rights” to connection, collaboration, expression, and personal empowerment that the internet enables.
Despite its high ideals, the US government’s response has been of the LifeStraw variety. The internet is unfree but, rather than implementing a policy to free the internet, they are increasing tools and skills to allow individuals to be safer in the unfree internet. From a recent State Departmentrequest for statements of (funding) interest:
In past years, U.S. government-funded Internet freedom programs have contributed to the development and deployment of anti-censorship and secure communications technologies in countries where Internet use is heavily filtered and monitored; grantees have conducted digital safety trainings… and NGOs and universities have greatly advanced research and understanding of the nature of threats to Internet freedom around the world.
Circumvention and encryption tools are the LifeStraws of the un-free internet. Digital safety trainings are teaching people how to suck… to use these software tools to filter the unclean and un-free internet.
Unlike LifeStraw, these solutions do scale. You can create software or an online training tool [disclosure: I am working as a consultant on the latter type of project] that can be used by thousands of people globally and at marginal cost.
However, like LifeStraw, the technology does not actually solve the problem. It does not make the internet free. It just makes the unfree internet less harmful. If the un-free internet is a muddy puddle, current net freedom programs are the LifeStraw that makes it safer for some individuals without solving the underlying problem.
Current US net freedom policy is crisis response, not solution creation. Crisis responses are critically important. Every person who has a LifeStraw and uses it properly will undoubtedly have better health outcomes. Every person who learns how to use Tor or has Guardian installed on their mobile phone will be safer from surveillance and persecution. This is important work and it should and must continue.
Yet the State Department should also be funding longterm solutions based on a workable theory of change of how the US government can act to bring about a free(er) global internet. Funding research is a start. Engaging in public and high-level diplomacy is a start. But more ambitious thinking is needed. Much of the infrastructure of the internet is still American, but this is an opportunity that won’t last forever. What can the State Department do to safeguard the internet at the level of international regulation, at the level of the ITU and ICANN? What can the State Department do to prevent American companies from selling surveillance and censorship software to repressive governments? What can the State Department do to help enact legislation that upholds legal rights to user privacy on American social media platforms?
These are but a few suggestions at securing the infrastructure of a free global internet. Because in the end, as with access to clean water, the longterm answer to a free internet is strong public infrastructure, not quick fixes for individuals.