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The Bikeshed

Don’t “Think of the Internet!”

No human right is absolute.

Poul-Henning Kamp

This spring, the Supreme Court of the United States heard a couple of cases about Section 230, the provision that social network companies claim shields them from pretty much any kind of responsibility whatsoever.

Enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Section 230 states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The court’s judgments came nowhere near Section 230, but since they might have, both cases generated more than 50 amicus curiae (Latin: friends of the court) briefs from lobbyists trying to influence the court’s thinking.

One style of amicus curiae briefings the Supreme Court has seen a lot of over the years can be boiled down to “Think of the children!”, a trope that many self-styled parent or family organizations seem to produce at the drop of a hat.

The “Think of the children!” trope also makes regular appearances whenever some government or other wonders whether a totally unregulated Internet might not be the best idea from the aforementioned lobbyists, but also a derisive caricature from electronic privacy absolutists and cyber liberalists.

But now we also have a “Think of the Internet!” trope.

Here, for example, is cryptography hero Bruce Schneier:


“Congress is currently debating bills that would ban TikTok in the United States. We are here as technologists to tell you that this is a terrible idea, and the side effects would be intolerable. Details matter. There are several ways Congress might ban TikTok, each with different efficacies and side effects. In the end, all the effective ones would destroy the free Internet as we know it.” (


A lot of the amici in the two Section 230 cases before the court peddled precisely that same “Think of the Internet!” trope, claiming that even the slightest liability for social media companies would literally “destroy the Internet as we know it‚” strongly implying that this would be very bad, indeed—but they did not agree on why and offered very few specifics. Their message was pretty much just “Think of the Internet!”

The “Think of the children!” trope is often rolled out because the lobbyists cannot be honest and say that their real agenda is “No universal human rights for those people.” So we should examine whether “Think of the Internet as we know it!” is also political codespeak.

We can start by asking precisely which properties of “the Internet as we know it” are so valuable that lobbyists want them protected above all else. Is it:

• The pervasive near-panoptic surveillance by a handful of gigantic, monopolistic, transnational corporations?

• The gigantic profits those same corporations suck into their tax havens from the rest of the world?

• The clickbait, attention-grabbing-at-all-costs (with very little actual substance) so-called news sites?

• The heavily sponsored influencers who just happen to think that precisely those sponsored products are the best?

• The increasingly sophisticated scams that will defraud anybody who fails to pay perfect attention to any and all suspicious details at any and all times?

• That almost all young women have received unsolicited and unwanted pictures of male genitalia?

• The piles of hateful and threatening comments and direct messages heaped upon any woman or person of color who dares to point out how unevenly distributed human rights are?

• The porn sites full of intimate pictures stolen from women’s computers, mobile devices, and cloud storage?

Those are just some of the things that pop into my mind when I think of the Internet—and if I sound a bit jaded, it is probably because my secret identity, when I am not busy being a low-grade Internet personality, is being a parent to a boy and a girl.

Science fiction author John Scalzi has aptly compared being a straight, white male to playing games on the easiest setting, and that certainly seems true when it comes to “the Internet as we know it.”

Compare how easy it is to find nude pictures stolen from women and how blatantly those pictures are peddled for profit to how difficult it is for those women to get anybody to do anything about it.

As I write this, the United States is advancing the STOP CSAM (Strengthening Transparency and Obligation to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment) legislation and the European Union is preparing COM/2022/209, both of which focus on protecting children from sexual predators using what both proposals claim are proportional restrictions on electronic privacy.

Both proposals impose limitations on encryption on the Internet so law enforcement can investigate and prosecute such crimes.

This has self-styled electronic freedom lobbyists up in arms, urging us to “Think of the Internet!”

First, I cannot help but notice that prominent figures in several of those organizations have been credibly accused of being sexual predators; while they claim this is all sorted now, the stain remains.

Second and more significantly, I cannot help but notice few women subscribe to absolutist views of electronic privacy and anonymity.

Can it be that only people who play life on the easiest setting find unrestricted privacy and anonymity a great idea?

But my real beef with them is that proportional is the important word.

No human right is absolute, and don’t just take my word for it: This is stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 29, Part two, as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948:


“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” (


By 1948, politicians and courts had already hammered on that compromise for centuries, so it is well-settled law that:

• You do not have an absolute right to live if you attack somebody with deadly force.

• Your right to swing your arm ends well before it hits somebody’s nose.

• Your right to say what you want ends well before it causes panic in a crowded theater.

And now, if E.U. and U.S. politicians have their way, your right to electronic privacy and anonymity will end well before you use it to transmit unsolicited pictures of your genitalia, or steal, distribute, or monetize other people’s private pictures without their explicit consent.

Remove electronic from the previous paragraph and nobody would bat an eyelid, because it is just a fair summary of long-settled law.

To me, “Think of the Internet as we know it” looks a lot like a political code word for “No universal human rights for those people,” so please don’t “think of the Internet as we know it”; think, instead, about how the Internet could be for everybody.


Poul-Henning Kamp ([email protected]) spent more than a decade as one of the primary developers of the FreeBSD operating system before creating Varnish HTTP Cache software, which around a fifth of all web traffic goes through at some point. He lives in his native Denmark, where he makes a living as an independent contractor, specializing in making computers do weird stuff. One of his most recent projects was a supercomputer cluster to stop the stars twinkling in the mirrors of the ESO’s (European Southern Observatory’s) new ELT (extremely large telescope).

Copyright © 2023 held by owner/author. Publication rights licensed to ACM.


Originally published in Queue vol. 21, no. 3
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