Around the Institute

Keep the Worldwide Net Open

May 10, 2010  • IDEA Project Editor

IDEA Project Chairman Reed Hundt and Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program Executive Director Charlie Firestone wrote an op-ed published at Talking Points Memo which introduces the IDEA Project.

Check it out at TPMCafe or read it below.

Keep the Worldwide Net Open

By Reed Hundt and Charles Firestone

Human history is replete with stories of nations in conflict but it is rare for a huge national government to do battle with an influential global business firm. The tale of China versus Google is something new, and it threatens to upset many existing arrangements necessary to maintaining peaceful relationships among people.

As a conflict between a government with a 14% share of the world’s population and a company with 40% share of the world’s Internet searchers, China vs Google resembles a battle across spheres, like a lion versus an eagle. Yet China has used an array of modern and traditional weapons in order to bring Google to heel. It has allegedly mobilized distributed computing to launch cyberattacks against Google. It has imposed on the company legal restrictions inimical to the culture of many countries, including the United States. And it has engaged in a war of words against the company. Google now has at best a precarious hold on the biggest Internet market in the world.

This conflict, the harbinger of 21st century geo-commercial disputes, tells us two new things about the world today. First, even Internet-based firms are not necessarily going to be able to do business across national boundaries. Second, the world lacks enough arrangements among nations, firms, and people to assure shared economic growth in a global information economy.

Meanwhile, the problems are proliferating. State Department official Alec Ross recently cited 2009 as the worst year in history for freedom on the Internet, naming Turkey and countries in North Africa, Latin America and Asia that have placed restrictions on the Internet. And as the problems increase, so do the numbers affected. The Internet community in China grew about 50% in the last year, to the phenomenal number of 400 million, and will likely triple in the decade ahead.

Perhaps some governments believe they must control their networks in order to control the society and economy. Better we should all conclude that as the Internet enables a radically new form of human action and interaction, so it will require, sooner or later, new forms of governance.

For this reason, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program is launching a year-long forum drawn from public, private and government sectors to suggest new ways to preserve the values and potential of the global Internet. This project will address ways to guarantee the freedom to connect, the need for open, end-to-end networks, and the free flow of data and communications across borders on a unified Internet.

The starting point for this forum is not a search for control. Our view is that no government can or should dictate the destiny of the Internet. On any given day, over the Internet, dissidents in Iran publicize their protest marches, the poorest people on the planet visit the Louvre, and the most remote villagers sell handicrafts in the electronic metropolises of the richest countries. These are acts of freedom, not calls for control or suppression.

Yet, like all large-scale communications networks, the Internet does not work without governance. A series of laws, rules and standards have, by and large, supported a system of end-to-end communication: the message can travel from sender to recipient without interference.

This principle is consistent with one of the strong recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy: the need for open networks. Similarly, the recent National Broadband Plan issued by the Federal Communications Commission, setting forth a path for universal broadband in the U.S., was premised on the concept of open networks.

The battle of China versus Google tells us not that existing institutions have failed, but rather that new issues require new consideration of appropriate ways to assure the freedoms of the Internet.

The results may take the form of an accord, a kind of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for the Internet. But we also need to address whether the World Trade Organization Treaty is still sufficient when it was premised on pre-Internet assumptions. We need institutions that can work as well as the Internet Corporation on Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) for other broadband topics. And we need industry norms, standards, and means for consumer recourse that can cut across nation state boundaries comparably to the way the Internet does.

The growth of the Internet is not slowing down. Whether that growth includes all the peoples of the world on a free and equal basis is what is at stake. We have no time to waste in rethinking the terms of engagement.

Reed Hundt is CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital and former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Charles Firestone is the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, which oversaw the operations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.