Tech Liberty NZ Defending civil liberties in the digital age

Internet disconnection is not an option

Posted on January 11, 2010

Even so! Look! We live in a computerized world. I can't do a thing anywhere - I can't get information - I can't be fed - I can't amuse myself - I can't pay for anything, or check on anything, or just plain do anything - without using a computer.

- A Perfect Fit, Isaac Asimov, 1981

Why are we so interested in civil liberties? Surely they’re a luxury that we can’t afford in these economically depressed times, with war and terrorism on the international horizon?

Civil liberties aren’t luxuries; they’re the foundations that our society is built upon.  We live in a society that depends on our mutual cooperation. Democracy gives this legitimacy, but democracy relies on freedom of speech and association to work, with the rule of law to ensure fairness.

But direct democracy, a group of people meeting to make decisions, doesn’t scale up to a small town let alone a country of four million people. Our society has developed ways to help us cope – we have an electoral system to choose people to represent us, a parliamentary system to make laws on our behalf, and courts to enforce the laws. Around this we have built up groups of people who discuss what laws should be made and other people who report and comment on the events of the day. All of these combine to make our current civil society.

Being able to access and participate in these and other institutions is an important part of being a member in good standing of our society. Without access to these tools, you become a non-citizen, part of the underclass.

The Internet is important

The Internet has come a long way from the days when a few university researchers used it to send messages to each other. It now infiltrates many different parts of our lives. We rely on it for community, to keep in touch with our family and friends, to access government services, to buy and sell, to educate and amuse ourselves, to create and publish art.

While it’s still possible for people to not use it or not use it that much, those people are steadily missing out on more and more. They don’t get the cheap airline deals, they still have to go to the bank to pay their bills, they miss out on discussions of topics ranging from politics to gardening. But even then, some of them might not realise they’re using it when they phone their relatives.

We’re still finding out how we’re going to use the Internet but it seems clear that it is fundamentally changing the way that we interact with each other and the institutions of our society. The Internet is only going to get more important to our lives as time passes.

The Internet is everywhere

We don’t only use the Internet to access Facebook or Trademe or banking or gaming, there’s also an increasing dependence on it as a provider of communications infrastructure.

  • Your car navigation system downloads traffic data from the Internet.
  • A number of ISPs (Internet Service Providers) offer phone calls over Internet, and telecommunications companies are beginning to replace old-style voice lines with combined internet/phone data connections.
  • Your power meter will report its readings over the Internet.
  • Your grandmother’s medical monitor will keep an eye on her health over the Internet.

Our reliance on indirect usage of the Internet is increasing just as our reliance on direct usage is.

Civil liberties now require the Internet

Some of the most important of the core civil liberties are becoming increasingly meaningless without access to the Internet.

  • Freedom of speech. As public discourse moves online to the world of blogs and online media, the Internet is where we exercise our freedom to speak and to listen.
  • Freedom of association. The Internet is an important tool for groups of all sorts to be able to form, organise and communicate.

The Internet is becoming vital for our participation in civil society. Without participation, there is no democracy, with no democracy there is no freedom. We want to live in a free and democratic society.

Internet as a right

We say that everyone has the right to be able to use the Internet. This doesn’t mean that we think it should be government funded (in the same way that freedom of speech doesn’t require the government to provide you with a printing press), but it does mean that we think that the government shouldn’t be able to forbid someone from using it.

We’ve already described how the Internet is important for civil liberties, but an increasing number of people also rely on the Internet for their livelihoods. They buy and sell over the Internet, run their accounting systems, communicate with their clients. For those people, taking away the Internet means they will lose their jobs.

As more and more people rely on the Internet, disconnecting someone is tantamount to taking away their ability to function in modern society.

Crime and punishment

But what about when someone uses the Internet to commit crime? Shouldn’t it be possible to punish them by taking their Internet away, even if it’s just to stop them doing it again? We don’t think so.

  • If someone drowns their child in the bath, do we disconnect their water supply? No, we prosecute them for murder.
  • If someone uses electricity to grow marijuana in their house, do we disconnect their electricity? No, we prosecute them for cultivating illegal drugs.
  • If someone uses natural gas to try and kill themselves, do we disconnect their gas? No, we try to get them the help they need.

But what about drunk drivers? When someone is caught drunk driving, aren’t they banned from driving and isn’t this comparable to disconnecting someone from the Internet? While it’s true that we ban people from driving if they risk other people’s lives by drunk driving, we still don’t forbid them from using the roads. They’re still able to ride as a passenger and use public transport.

Indeed, the very ridiculousness of forbidding someone from using public roads shows how silly the idea of banning people from using shared infrastructure is.

Of course, we do remove people from society when we convict them of a serious crime and send them to jail. People in jail aren’t expected to hold down a job and there is no expectation that they will be able to participate in society in the same way as people who are not in jail.

We already have enough ways to punish people when they break the law. We don’t need to add Internet disconnection.

Conclusion

At the beginning of this article we quoted Asimov’s story A Perfect Fit where a man is punished by being mentally conditioned to be unable to use computers. His inability to do so means that he cannot work, cannot entertain himself, can’t even order food in a restaurant. By being disconnected, he has become a non-person, unable to function in society, an instant member of the underclass.

This is what will happen if we forbid people from using the Internet. Access to the Internet is becoming too important a part of being a functioning member of society.

If people commit crimes using the Internet, they should be appropriately punished for those crimes but forbidding them to use the Internet should not be part of that punishment.

The government should not have the power to disconnect people from society while still expecting them to function in that society. We say that Internet disconnection is not an option.

About Thomas Beagle

Co-founder and spokesperson for Tech Liberty
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