Balkanization Must Not Be the Internet’s Next Act

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The news of the last several weeks has been dominated by storylines on government surveillance programs and the level of access that security agencies have into people’s daily lives.  While these reports have continued to develop, there has been little attention focused on solutions.  What limits should there be on government programs?  What are the ramifications of these programs on the global flow of electronic commerce?  Will this news accelerate government policymaking regarding “cybersecurity”?  And what forms will those policies take? 

Today, Dr. Allan Friedman of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution released an analysis that seeks to change the discussion from the reactive “Oh, my!” to the productive “How do we ensure that we end up in the right place for the global economy?”

Friedman divides the policy prescription into four areas:  enhancing security capacity; harmonizing standards; avoiding obstacles to the flow of data; and promoting trade as a means to achieving security.  “These four directions are complementary, and must be pursued simultaneously,” he argues.

Friedman rightly points out that, in pursuing these objectives, patchwork country-by-country approaches to security strategies likely will result in greater insecurity for people around the world.

 

Countries should instead emphasize international or harmonized security standards.  Shared standards enable security without erecting barriers to trade.

 

This idea stems from the foundation of the Internet.  What makes today’s global, digital economy work is its reliance on global consensus-driven standards.  Governments must embrace that model – not run from it.  These standards should continue to be developed through collaboration with governments, businesses, academia, and civil society organizations to allow for continual progress.  Such a collaborative approach is one that the tech sector has long endorsed, and believes is the best way to address many of the issues raised in this debate.  This path preserves innovation, interoperability, and international trade, while at the same time, enhancing security.

The other point that Friedman makes (one that has been set aside too often in this debate) is the genuine risk the surveillance storyline poses to the global digital economy.  Some countries are considering laws to mandate in-country Internet services.  Others are looking at the feasibility of building their own Internet infrastructure, complete with cables running across the oceans to connect continents while avoiding connection to the U.S.  Some nations are giving serious consideration to proposals that would force technology services and products to be housed, built, and tested within their borders, which could permanently fragment the Internet.  The result of these policies:  good bye, information superhighway; hello, potholed digital gravel roads.  Friedman writes:

 

Just as countries around the world have grown more dependent on information systems for their stability and quality of life, they have also grown dependent on the trade that supports IT access and innovation.  Threats to IT systems have spurred governments to think about regulatory solutions, but care must be taken not to disrupt the parallel system of trade that undergirds the IT ecosystem.

 

The Brookings’ report is a timely and important step forward in this debate.  The call for cooperative discussion across governments and across stakeholder groups is right on.  For the digital global economy to succeed, and the benefits realized on a global scale, isolation cannot be the default position for governments.  We need to find solutions in a collaborative, constructive manner.

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