On Nov. 29, all of the Internet Protocol addresses in Syria simultaneously became unreachable. The entire country lost the Internet until it was restored just as mysteriously two days later. Syrian state-run TV reported a “malfunction” in a power grid that shut down all 84 of Syria’s IP addresses, but opposition groups claim the shutdown was a move by the government to silence potential observers of the mass murders the Syrian government orchestrated Dec. 1. Whatever the reason for the shutdown, it’s unacceptable. In this day and age, the Internet is a basic human right.
Before the widespread use of the Internet, information was always somewhat hard to come by. Whether by runners, messengers on horseback, or even birds, long-distance communication was a slow process. But with the Internet, there is an almost infinite amount of pure, unadulterated information right at our fingertips, and that’s why it is so powerful. As Internet users, we can search this incredible database of knowledge and discover a multitude of views and opinions to help us formulate our own. And that is precisely why any form of regulation or censorship will leave the internet bereft of what makes it so amazing. If even one small bit of information is removed, if just a few ideas are censored, our free will becomes inhibited and we are forced to make assumptions based on incomplete information. Instead of making a choice and deciding on something ourselves, our thoughts will have become altered and guided by those doing the regulating.
Policymakers who advocate and attempt to justify restrictions of the Internet are closer to home than some might think.
Just last year, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Austin) introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill that sought to regulate the Internet and fight copyright infringement. The purpose of the bill was “to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property.” In that pursuit, the bill attempted to stop online copyright infringement by forcing service providers to censor websites that allegedly violated copyright law. In the face of a great deal of protest, Congress didn’t pass this legislation, but it could enact something similar at any time. For instance, earlier in 2011 a bipartisan bill called the Protect IP Act was proposed in the Senate and is currently awaiting further debate.
And other threats exist. Early in 2013, the five major Internet service providers are planning on implementing a new policy for monitoring internet copyright infringement. Under the new program, known as “Six Strikes,” users will lose their Internet connection after six notifications of alleged illegal activity.
These measures and Congress’ proposals may seem harmless to the many Internet users who obey the law, but they represent a step in the wrong direction toward Internet regulation and censorship. If they go unchallenged, more and more restrictive policies will reduce the Internet to a hollow shell of its original promise.
The tragedy unfolding in Syria should serve as a wake-up call. If governments have the power to take such an inalienable right from us, we should be willing to fight back when they try.
Simmons is a aerospace engineering junior from Austin.