Freedom in a Suitcase

     One of the pleasures of a weekend morning is sitting out in front of my second-story apartment among the big maples with a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper, often a week’s-worth as I catch up.
     Without the press of getting to work, it is also a time to allow for what passes as contemplation as opposed to just the rapid aspiration of information about recent events.
     So last weekend, I read a story about a U.S. State Department project to bypass state control of the internet through a wireless network of cell phones. Hardware that can be concealed in a suitcase works like a cell phone tower.
     It brought to mind a string of connected thoughts.

     First, the importance of the First Amendment is constantly relearned, the central importance of freedom and immediacy of communication. Historical analysis is fine but not of the same dire importance as immediate information in, say, overthrowing an oppressive government.
     The State Department project to allow locals to create a shadow internet, by literally putting it in a suitcase, has direct and immediate bearing on events in Libya and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East where popular movements are trying to change governments.
     The project is also a reminder that our own Bill of Rights was forged in a revolution, and the freedom of ideas and communication written into amendment numero uno was central to the liberty that Americans fought for with guns and soldiers and with the help of France.
     So when with perhaps mind-numbing frequency, I criticize the effort in California of a central bureaucracy to dominate the local courts, as well as the press, it is driven in good measure by a long-held belief in the principles that underpin our nation’s political structure.
     But the notion of freedom of ideas and communication is a tricky thing. It is a broad concept that cannot be limited to periods of history or to certain parts of the world.
     So the ability to bypass government control of the internet also has repercussions in China and Iran, two stable and increasingly powerful governments that control internet communication by locking onto the backbone cables of the web. I don’t think anybody knows what havoc would result from destabilizing those regimes.
     But the notion of a shadow internet, that includes not only the ability to communicate but also the ability to do so anonymously, also has impact here in America.
     So one of my morning coffee, strung-together thoughts had been to wonder why the State Department project had not been first compromised and then snuffed out.
     On the Courthouse News webpage, we have recently reported on district court rulings that enforce subpoenas on companies the businesses that hook users onto the backbone cables of the internet, subpoenas forcing them to divulge the names of those users.
     Well, what would a shadow internet do to those efforts to police the free transfer of music and movies, generally called piracy. Never mind that movie studios, publishers and manufacturers have long ago blown up the old notion that films, books and inventions should not be the property of one person for more than a limited time.
     Will those same interests now squelch this revolutionary idea of being able to communicate in a way that cannot be controlled and cannot be monitored. That is one reason I am surprised it has not been killed.
     The other is based on the related notion that businesses are clearly lusting to control that amazing new land that is the open internet, more lucrative than any antarctic mineral deposits. Just look at the money in the new phones and the social media, used primarily as tools to communicate through the internet.
     The push to control that new land, by, just to start with, giving priority to some emails, has not succeeded. But the pot of gold the internet represents will beckon businesses eternally.
     And if you were to say that in the great American battle between ideals and greed, greed would be forever held at bay, you would be betting against the tide of recent history.
     The fact that the State Department project has not been quietly consigned to a dusty back office to die an underfunded death is encouraging. Ideals are alive and kicking, and our own revolutionary principles sometimes still hold sway, helping other peoples accomplish similar overthrows of unjust and undemocratic regimes.
     But out there, in the shadows of our own government, I know that enemies lurk.

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