4 min read

An Open Internet: A Tale Of Two Approaches

The Obama administration takes a hard line, while the Aspen Institute sticks with softer platitudes, as some governments try to restrict Internet freedoms.
When it comes to assailing governments that oppress their citizens and choke their economies by controlling and manipulating the free flow of information, there's the hard approach and there's the soft approach.

The Obama administration on Monday took a hard line, authorizing sanctions against countries and U.S. companies that help the governments of Syria and Iran acquire and use IT to track down dissidents or cut off their Internet access. The executive order effectively blocks, without notice, the assets of any entity that sells technology to Syria and Iran, or helps those governments deploy technology, that disrupts, monitors, and tracks their citizens' communications.

The U.S. Treasury Department will block funds and take other measures necessary to enforce the executive order, which is being carried out in the name of bolstering U.S. national security (tenuous link) and stopping Syria and Iran from "facilitating or committing serious human rights abuses" (much more to the point).

Critics immediately warned that the executive order's imprecise language could lead to unintended consequences--for instance, well-intentioned tech companies getting sanctioned because their products fall into the wrong hands for malevolent purposes. And privacy advocates complained about hypocrisy from a U.S. government that tracks its own citizens for reasons of anti-terrorism. But at least Obama's executive order doesn't beat around the bush.

Then there's the soft approach, which the Aspen Institute takes with a new initiative called IDEA (International Digital Economy Accords). It's aimed at ensuring that citizens and consumers across borders "have a trusted, robust, and reliable Internet, where access is easy and where the rights of privacy, property, and security are respected"--all amid "the risk of political and technological disruption."

No one can argue with such an endeavor, but it's so broad and squishy and consensus-laden that it's almost pointless. The IDEA project, which "proceeded by means of four plenary sessions, multiple working groups, and a series of working papers and documents," released a 137-page report on Tuesday that's a textbook of think tank gobbledygook. It's filled with self-evident bromides ("at current growth rates everyone with Internet access will join the Internet community within a decade") and policy platitudes ("establish a fair, effective, and empowering system for governing the flow and use of data in a single global digital economy").

Global CIO
Global CIOs: A Site Just For You
Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.

The IDEA project has enlisted government bureaucrats, lawyers, academics, consultants, and executives from around the world to "develop a consensus view about the beliefs and values of the Internet" and "construct a means of implementing that view." But the report--at least this first one, as there are more to come from the IDEA participants--is short on implementation details.

The report's authors, alluding to "hard cases" (Syria and Iran are obvious examples), concede that IDEA won't succeed unless it can "resolve real cases of deviation from generally accepted principles and problematic cases of enforcement of said principles." In other words, unless the IDEA folks can get oppressive and totalitarian governments to come around to their way of thinking on Internet freedom and openness, their pronouncements are just a theoretical exercise. I didn't see any representatives of Syria or Iran (or North Korea or Cuba or China) on IDEA's committees of the good and great, and I don't think those countries are much interested in engaging in this "empowering" and "multistakeholder" dialog.

Most of us agree that an open Internet--one free of parochial regulations, pernicious government manipulation and control, commercial abuse, and criminal activity--is the ideal. But we must focus on the means of achieving those goals, not just the ends.

Hacktivist and cybercriminal threats concern IT teams most, our first Federal Government Cybersecurity Survey reveals. Here's how they're fighting back. Also in the new, all-digital Top Federal IT Threats issue of InformqtionWeek Government: Why federal efforts to cut IT costs don't go far enough, and how the State Department is enhancing security. (Free registration required.)