No Freedom to Steal

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For the better part of a decade, I’ve worked with the Internet Freedom Coalition to stop heavy-handed efforts to impose the three greatest threats to genuine Internet Freedom: taxation, government regulation, and United Nations control.  The biggest fight we’ve had was over so-called net neutrality regulations, which are heavy-handed rules putting regulators in charge of the physical infrastructure of the Internet, limiting technological and business model innovation.

Back when we first started to fight back against these regulations, “net neutrality” sounded like the most wonderful thing in the world, a classic example of the left using brilliant marketing language to mask the real nature of its policies.  We worked hard to unmask them, using the left’s own words against them.  In particular, this quote from Robert McChesney, the self-avowed Marxist who founded the group Free Press:

“At the moment, the battle over network neutrality is not to completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies. We are not at that point yet. But the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.”

The broader public got engaged in that fight and crushed their efforts in Congress.  They retreated to the FCC to get around the democratic process, and scored a small victory there.  But even that version of net-neutrality regulation is likely to be struck down in court.

After net neutrality was exposed as something quite the opposite of what it sounded like, Free Press and its radical left-wing allies decided to downplay the term.  Instead, the longtime opponents of the authentic freedom movement simply announced that their same old collectivist ideas should now be rebranded as “Internet Freedom.”

The fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which brought together the left and libertarian communities gave them a tremendous opportunity to solidify this rebranding effort, and they jumped on it. I had a real through-the-looking-glass moment when Markham Erickson – a top Google lobbyist who spent years promoting “net neutrality” regulations – walked into a meeting of the conservatives who had fought Google’s regulatory scheme and played an anti-SOPA radio ad that went like this: 

“New onerous regulations are the last thing we need from Washington as our nation is struggling to get back on its feet. But in our nation’s capital some members of Congress are trying to pass a bill that would do just that, regulate the internet, the one part of our economy that has been growing. That makes no sense.”

I should clearly stipulate both that SOPA was a bad bill, and that we in the authentic freedom movement opposed it.  It lacked adequate due process protections and its DNS blocking scheme would have created serious technical problems.  But it was deeply disingenuous for companies like Google and groups like Free Press – proponents of wholesale government regulation of the Internet – to oppose a flawed bill attacking a real problem, foreign rogue websites, using language that ignored their past actions and masked their true intentions.

Now, a year later, left-wing groups as determined as ever to promote government ownership and control of the Internet are celebrating today as “Internet Freedom Day.”  While we should all celebrate the extent to which the Internet and its users are free, I for one feel compelled to add a clarifying point:  There is no “freedom” to steal someone else’s property.  “Internet Freedom” does not mean asserting for ourselves moral and legal permission to acquire other people’s property free of charge.  Or asking regulators to guarantee us access to a broadband network free of charge.  True freedom means being free of the initiation of force and fraud, whether committed by government regulators or by criminals.

There are still sophisticated foreign rogue websites that exist only to sell counterfeit products and distribute stolen content, with no meaningful legal remedies available to stop them.  Post-SOPA, property owners have focused on realistic, voluntary measures to solve this problem.  These efforts to protect property rights should be supported by true proponents of “Internet Freedom.”

Mr. Kerpen is president of American Commitment and chairman of the Internet Freedom Coalition.