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Contributing writer

Vaguery of ‘freedom’ in GOP tech platform worrying

Aug 31, 20125 mins
PrivacyTechnology Industry

Expecting the private sector to guard privacy doesn't add up because it makes money from personal information, one expert cites as example

“The devil is in the details,” the saying goes. True enough. But it is also true that “the devil is in the definitions.” And both details and definitions are crucial to the meaning of “Internet freedom,” one of the planks of the Republican Party platform approved this past Tuesday at the party’s convention in Tampa.

As Grant Gross reports, the GOP version of Internet freedom, “embraces private-sector autonomy on the Internet and opposes efforts to move Internet governance from the current model to the United Nations or other international organizations.”

According to the party platform statement, “The Internet has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more rapidly and extensively than any other technological advance in human history. Its independence is its power. The Internet offers a communications system uniquely free from government intervention.”

It also calls for the protection of personal data, and giving individuals the right to control the use of their data by third parties. But the GOP platform opposes laws or regulations to accomplish that, noting, “…the only way to safeguard or improve these systems is through the private sector.”

Which, as a number of observers have pointed out, means that the GOP, consistent with its long tradition, is defining freedom in this case as freedom from government “intervention.”

[Bill Brenner in Salted Hash: Legislating cybersecurity — Sometimes, the best thing that can happen is nothing]

The party also takes a major swipe at the Obama administration’s support of the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality rule, which tries to “micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network,” the platform says.

But one group’s “government intervention” could be what another group views as necessary regulation, to protect the weak from the powerful.

Andrew Couts, writing at Digital Trends, argues, “If you consider ‘Internet freedom’ to mean that companies should be able to do exactly as they please, then the GOP’s position against the FCC is a good one. If, however, you see great value in the FCC’s efforts — especially its net neutrality rules, which prohibit companies from favoring one type of web content (i.e. content they have a financial stake in) over another — then be wary of any push against the FCC.”

Roger Thornton, CTO of AlienVault, said that . “It is bad strategy, and unfair to the fox, to ask the fox to guard the henhouse,” he said. But then acknowledged, “in many ways the government or political parties can profit from that same private information so not sure they are incented to protect it either.”

Andrew Couts and others are also skeptical about the party’s call for less regulation, because they say the record shows the GOP is selective about which regulations it opposes.

David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, applauded the party’s language because he said it would have meant opposition to both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which would have blocked payment processors, search engines and other online businesses from doing business with websites suspected of copyright infringement; and to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which would have allowed private companies to share information about their customers with U.S. agencies, with the goal of fighting cyberthreats.

But Couts notes that Republican lawmakers were behind both SOPA and CISPA, and that CISPA passed the House, “thanks to overwhelming support from GOP congressmen and congresswomen. And another Republican-backed cybersecurity bill, the SECURE IT Act, had just as many problems for web users’ privacy and civil liberties as CISPA does.”

Some prominent fans of the GOP plank indicate that the party does not consider all regulation to be bad. Former Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, now CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, was full of praise for the GOP platform, saying it would protect intellectual property rights holders, like the MPAA and the Recording Industry Association of America.

Both of those groups backed SOPA, which went down in a storm of criticism from advocacy groups who said it would threaten free speech on the web and block people’s access to certain websites.

One of those groups, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it had not had time to do “a robust analysis” of the Republican platform, but spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said again that the group had vociferously opposed SOPA and CISPA.

Thornton said he is sympathetic to the intent of SOPA and CISPA, which he said were attempts to address problems of intellectual property protection, privacy and computer security. “But I’m not confident all the details are going to work well in the long run,” he said. “I believe in the phrase, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.'”

Finally, the GOP plank is explicit about its desire for government involvement in some areas. Freedom does not mean freedom or privacy for purveyors of porn or obscenity, according to the document. “The Internet must be made safe for children,” it reads. “We urge active prosecution against child pornography, which is closely linked to the horrors of human trafficking. Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.”

There are few overt defenders of child porn, but civil liberties advocates fear that language could be applied to art, music or even online forum comments.

As Jaikumar Vijayan notes in his report for Computerworld, the party faults President Obama for failing to implement “a more aggressive U.S. cyber deterrence policy for dealing with security threats against government and civilian targets.”

It invokes what has now become a mantra of both parties — the risk of a digital Pearl Harbor. “The U.S. cannot afford to risk the cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor,” because of a lack of “active deterrence protocol.”

All of this means that much of both the definition and the details of “freedom” remain to be seen — if the party gets control of the White House and Congress.