We love the Internet! The average American goes online more than 30 times a day and spends at least 30 hours a week online. And why shouldn’t we? The Internet is our on-ramp to worlds of sports, history, culture, banking, entertainment, gaming, and connectivity with others. In just a generation, it has become the oxygen we need to live many aspects of our daily lives.
While it is a tremendous resource, the Internet raises new challenges on security. While our national business and government leaders have focused their energies on protecting our financial, transportation, water, and electrical infrastructures from potential terrorist attacks, cyber-risks to these systems remain as real and potentially even more devastating.
In the United States, many of us view the riches of the Internet as a fundamental right. And a number of Internet-related policy issues confirm this, driving a new generation of political activism.
Over the course of one week in 2013, millions of Americans let Congress know they didn’t like a bill that would have made it easy to shut down websites. Within hours, so many politicians reversed course on the Stop Online Piracy Act/Protect IP Act proposals that “SOPA” and “PIPA,” the bills’ abbreviations, joined the ranks of the most reviled four-letter words in the English language.
And in 2014, HBO comedian-commentator John Oliver’s 13-minute rant on “net neutrality” struck a public nerve. Moved at least in part by Oliver’s video segment, four million people filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), urging it to treat the Internet like a utility and ensure no website gets favored treatment by broadband providers. The FCC complied.
In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Former CIA Director Michael Hayden characterized the Internet as now being the base of what the late psychologist Abraham Maslow called our “hierarchy of needs.”
Yet, unlike our other needs described by Maslow — and for which we have Cabinet-level protectors to keep us safe, fed, healthy, and warm — no one government agency is charged with protecting our Internet. Indeed, the government is struggling to protect itself from cyber-attacks, while also protecting free speech and preventing the online enabling of terrorist activity. The recent exposure of more than 22 million government personnel records underscores just how difficult it is to keep our digital data safe.
While we invest our wealth and structure our national defenses for global superiority in the old battlefields of land, sea, and air, we have no comparable investment in the new sphere of the Internet. Yet the countries that are our biggest potential adversaries, the totalitarian nations of North Korea, Russia, and China, have coldly but strategically invested in offensive cyber-capabilities.
Last winter, North Korea successfully attacked U.S.-based Sony Pictures, exposing its confidential inner workings and shutting down its internal communications systems. And every day, incursions from China and Russia hit our government information-technology structures, business networks, and even personal devices. They probe, gather information, implant viruses, and install parallel Web-tracking programs and perhaps even “sleeper” programs.
While we are making progress in addressing these cyber insecurities, the progress is incremental. The Senate passed a cybersecurity bill that allows companies to share cyber-risk information with each other, but the bill contains nothing on cyber-defense infrastructure or resources. Laws still bar our companies from retaliating against cyber-attackers.
President Obama signed an agreement with China saying we should not engage with each other on certain types of cyber-espionage, but the agreement contains no measurement, teeth or penalties, and is not viewed as yet having any impact on Chinese cyber-incursions into U.S. businesses or our government.
In other ways, recent government recommendations to the way we handle the Web have enormous consequences. For example, the Obama administration is working to shift the last vestige of U.S. control of the Internet to a nongovernmental, international group. While the rest of the world wants this transfer, the U.S. created and developed the Internet, and is uniquely committed to keeping it global and not definable by standard geo-political borders.
And as other nations restrict their citizens’ Internet access, impose “right to be forgotten” rules and even imprison people for many Internet activities we consider rights (like criticizing or poking fun at public officials), even our divided nation agrees that our First Amendment freedoms trump the restrictions other governments are imposing.
History will prove that the Internet is our nation’s 21st century gift to the world. But it is also our national strength and the most essential tool for democracy. Our biggest, newest, and fastest-growing companies — think Airbnb, Amazon, eBay, Google, Pandora, TripAdvisor, Uber and Lyft, and Yelp — rely on and presume a free and robust Internet.
We occupy a unique position. We have the world’s dominant Internet companies, the freest citizenry, the moral high ground and national consensus and culture on Internet-related issues. It’s time we strengthen this base and create a national Internet strategy protecting our nation and citizenry — and ensuring the Internet remains a tool for democracy and freedom.