• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Look Forward, Not Back!

Comparing China and the U.S. on internet policy.

July 10, 2015

A connection exists between this morning’s news of the super-breach of federal government databases and yesterday’s report on a new draft cyberlaw of the People Republic of China.

In a sentence: the PRC has a twenty-first century understanding of the Internet. The United States does not. It is still stuck in the twentieth, at best.

Forget for a moment all of the usual chestnuts that pop up when talking about the United States and China about human rights and social order. Set aside for a second the fact that technology has far outstripped governance of the Internet globally.  Or the reality that an undeclared cyberwar is being waged at this very moment and that the United States plays as significant a role in it as PRC or any other nation state. All of those issues are important. They all deserve deep dive public policy consideration, academic conferences, seriously minded books and poignant blog posts. I want to focus on one particular point: the United States handicaps itself with an illusion that twentieth-century silos of administrative government are up to the task of comprehensive Internet policy of a world historical phenomenon that has already, and will continue to shape, the twenty-first.

Implicit in the release of PRC draft legislation is the simple reality of a unified government agency to "drive Internet policy:" This office offers an interesting contrast to the United States. The United States has divided responsibility for the Internet among numerous agencies such as the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Commerce, as well as other inter-related areas such as the Library of Congress's Copyright Office or Commerce which controls Patent and Trademark. Stuffing the Internet, with its inherent disruptiveness, into these old categories is as counterproductive as attempting to drive forward while staring into the rearview mirror.

China, on the other hand, gets it. That government appreciates that the underlying economic, political and cultural dynamic of the Internet cannot be contained in old categories. Instead, this dynamic calls for a new paradigm. Allow me the metaphor of a prism. The Internet is a prism through which to view separate colors of light such as communications and commerce, science and technology, content and intellectual property. Ordering of governance matters. Whereas in the United States we appear to work backwards, picking up a color here and a color there and trying to fit it into the Federal Trade or Commerce Commissions or the many other alphabet soup silos that date back to the turn of the last century or the New Deal under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the PRC has moved the prism to the point of light and so that its government can clearly trace and manage more tightly its dispersive effects. 

It is no wonder, then, that internally the United States government cannot keep its own house straight. The federal government has and continues with ever-increasing magnitude to suffer these astonishing breaches of information privacy and technical security. I am glad that Katherine Archuleta will not quit. I don’t know anything about her, but I am pretty sure that she is not singularly at fault. The congressional representatives who call for her resignation are looking for a scapegoat. In treating this matter as if it were the shuffling of one CEO for another, so too can Congress continue to pretend that its members understand the Internet and can govern appropriately from that illusory public policy state. Ridiculous, chronic dysfunction is another distraction from hard and serious work that would have to be done by its members to countenance the magnitude of the task. And if ever there was time for Congress to begin to function for the greater good, in cooperation with the Executive branch that has responsibility for administrative agencies, now is the time to do it, looking forward, not back.




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