Groups release dueling Internet freedom declarations

One declaration focuses on net neutrality, while a second asks government to stay away from regulations

Two groups with members who opposed controversial copyright enforcement bills in the U.S. Congress have released competing declarations of Internet freedom on Monday, two days before the U.S. celebrates its declaration of independence.

One declaration, backed by Free Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology and other groups, calls for an end to Internet censorship, universal broadband access and net neutrality principles on an Internet "where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate."

The second declaration, from free-market think tanks TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other groups, calls on governments to "do no harm" to the Internet and to avoid getting involved in the broadband marketplace. "Government is the greatest obstacle to the emergence of fast and affordable broadband networks," the declaration said. "Rather than subsidizing yesterday's networks, free the market to build tomorrow's."

TechFreedom and several members of the Free Press declaration group opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two controversial copyright enforcement bills that would have required search engines, domain name registrars, online payment processors and other Web services to stop doing business with websites accused of copyright violations. Both declarations say governments should not punish innovators for their users' actions.

The Free Press declaration endorses "certain business models over others," TechFreedom founder and president Berin Szoka wrote in a blog post.

"We've worked with many of the groups signing the other Declaration on a range of issues, from SOPA to government invasions of privacy," Szoka said.  "We'll continue to make common cause with them against government overreach.  But we need to underscore the profound philosophical differences behind our conceptions of Internet Freedom."

The Free Press declaration "invites further government intervention in the name of freedom," he added. TechFreedom has opposed net neutrality rules that seem to be supported by the Free Press declaration.

Seven organizations and two individuals had signed on to the TechFreedom declaration as of Monday afternoon.

But the goal of the Free Press group isn't to favor one group over another or to focus just on SOPA and PIPA, said Ben Huh, CEO the Cheezburger network of websites. "It's very important that we recognize that the Internet is for everyone," he said. "It certainly time for us to all get together behind these basic principles."

Meanwhile, organizers of the other declaration counted more than 100 organizations and individuals signing on in support. Supporters included the American Civil Liberties Union, Mozilla, Public Knowledge, and authors Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman.

Organizers wanted to realize a "baseline" set of Internet principles that should inform policy decisions by governments and Web businesses going forward. The groups will encourage debate and suggestions about the declaration at several websites, including Reddit, organizers said.

The group wants to continue a discussion with many of the millions of Internet users who signed petitions in January opposing SOPA and PIPA, said Josh Levy, Internet campaign director at Free Press.

Free Press will organize meetings around the country to discussion Internet freedoms, and the group will ask members of the U.S. Congress to support the declaration, Levy added.

An open Internet can help many countries with economic growth and the spread of democracy, said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor on freedom-of-speech issues at Harvard University. Internet activists can advance those goals "by making sure that Internet access is affordable, open, widely available and useful for all the citizens of the world," she said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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