Leaders of the free world expressed shock, as the authoritarian Egyptian government turned off cell phone networks and Internet communications, as a means to quell unrest and to keep an autocrat in power. That act should make clear the risks to free citizens when governments act to control the media, even for supposedly well intentioned purposes.
But, it was extremely shocking to hear Andrew McLaughlin’s – former Head of global public policy for Google and former deputy chief technology officer for the Obama Administration – claim that Net Neutrality, the government regulation of privately owned Internet service providers and traffic, would have somehow prevented this communications takeover.
For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.
The irony is that McLaughlin seems more concerned about enforcing controls on Internet companies and their private networks than he is with having the government be the regulator over these networks and their traffic. Do I need to remind him that government intervention was the means by which the Egyptian government took control of the Internet?
Recall reports that McLaughlin lobbied for his former Google employer while at the White House and used his Gmail account while there? Well, it is pure irony that his former employees, both Google and the White House, look at times just like big brother. Maybe that explains this stance.
Of course, some might say that this won’t happen in the US. Oh really? Congress has already sponsored regulation that would allow the president to shut down the Internet in an emergency for up to 3 months. Net Neutrality represents just another step in the wrong direction of controlling private communication in the US, and Americans should be concerned.
In summary, the question is how would policies that give governments more control over private media and communications benefit consumers and prevent government control over the Internet? The reality is that giving the government more control over the media and private communications networks is not the solution; in the U.S as in Egypt, it’s actually the problem.