Google campaigns for open Internet, global communication

Nearly a year after the day Wikipedia went dark in protest of the infamous Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) bills, students at UM are continuing to tout the message of Internet freedom.

Armed with his iPhone, Google Student Ambassador Gerald Cowen made a series of short films that were sent to Google as part of its campaign to “support a free and open Internet.”

Cowen, a junior industrial engineering major, is one of about 150 Google Student Ambassadors across the nation who act as liaisons for the company, hosting events and promoting products.

“Google has an interest in a free Internet. It is important,” he said.

Google’s campaign coincides with an upcoming conference of a United Nations agency called the International Telecommunications Union. The agency will be meeting to revise a 1988 treaty that deals with global communication. Some believe the results of the conference could have consequences for Internet freedom.

Enlisting the help of a handful of peers and classmates, Cowen filmed each of them reciting the campaign mantra: “It is ours and it is free. A free and open world depends on a free and open web, and a free and open web depends on me.”

According to Cowen, all student ambassadors worldwide received the assignment and participants were encouraged to say the words in their own language.

“It’s about an emotional impact,” Cowen said. “It’s an emotional campaign.”

Carlos Bolanos, a sophomore computer science major, participated in the films because he believes in the importance of the Internet.

“As someone who plans on having a career in the field of computers and the Internet, the issue was something that was very close to my heart,” he said. “I think the Internet is a beautiful thing that the human race has created.”

According to Amanullah De Sondy, assistant professor of religious studies at UM, the Internet – through social media, blogs and forums – was vital during the recent uprisings in Egypt.

“The floodgates opened up,” he said. “The Internet has become a vehicle to express critical and dissenting views.”

The Egyptian government recognized the power of the Internet, shutting down network and cellphone service access for five days in a move that “mesmerized the worldwide technical community,” according to The New York Times.

“The core point is that there has to be freedom of speech,” De Sondy said. “The younger generation is no longer willing to accept being muzzled.”

Students in the U.S. enjoy a high level of Internet freedom compared to other countries, but numerous challenges come along for the ride, including piracy, privacy, security and net neutrality.

“Imagine not being able to go on Facebook because someone else posted copyrighted material,” Cowen said.

The U.S. government continues to grapple with the question of how to protect rights-holders on the Internet after the failure of the SOPA bill, which sought to expand federal control over websites that enable copyright infringement, and the failure of the PIPA bill, which sought to prevent online threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property.

Regardless of whether the U.N. conference poses a true threat, Cowen believes the most important part of the Google campaign is raising awareness and making students’ voices heard to prevent the revocation of a freedom that many take for granted.

“It’s such an integral part of life,” Cowen said. “It’s hard to imagine a world without the Internet.”