• Law, Policy—and IT?

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


Memo to the Candidates, Part II

A five-point internet plan.

May 16, 2016

In my last post about the absence of presidential candidate discourse on matters related to the Internet, I stated the historical case.  In this post I offer a five-point plan for any candidate who wants it.

1.  A Commitment to Full Broadband Connectivity.

Res ipsa loquitur, this point speaks for itself. True, we have a geographically expansive country. But also true is there is no reasonable excuse for allowing whole sectors of that expanse or populations of people to be marginalized in what everyone knows is the gateway to education, the workplace, politics and culture of U.S. and global society writ large. 

Narrowing the “digital divide,” or “the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not,” should be a principal goal of any campaign’s Internet platform. 

  2.  Rethinking K-12 from the Perspective of Digital and Information Literacy

No, I do not think that the Internet changes everything. I do think that the Internet has changed enough, however, that we can expect its dynamics to profoundly affect education. Not to rethink its impact from a foundational perspective puts us behind the global competition. 

More important, digital and information literacy supports citizenship.  To be sure, acute attention must be brought to topics such as “creating identities in cyberspace,” life-long behavior practices in support information security, and how to manage one’s privacy on the Internet.  In learning those lessons, we learn a lot about ourselves as people and members of communities.  Purposeful self-consciousness becomes learning in itself. 

3.  Retooling the U.S. Workforce for a 21st Century Information Economy

If the United States wants to move its economy and society forward, it will find a way to educate and train workers for the information economy, including, “industrial” or “blue collar” workers. This category is often neglected in descriptions of the digital divide. 

Such education is the progressive response to industrial jobs displacement.  Knee-jerk criticism of trade agreements or “outsourcing,” miss the point. We must look forward, not back.  Let’s trickle down the wealth of Google and Facebook to “blue collar” workers.  If that shift requires additional education and training, we should borrow the life-long learning concepts so popular in culture today and bring them front and center into social policy for the population that most needs it.

4. Federal Agency Coordination for the Internet

Federal oversight and regulation of the Internet is divided amongst a myriad of agencies. For example, control of the domain name root servers belongs foundationally to the Department of Commerce, which has largely delegated it out to the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The Department of Defense still has a lot irons in the Internet fire.  National Institute of Standards and Technology offers important framework for information security policy and practices.  Communications aspects, such as broadband deployment, belong to the Federal Communications Commission.  Matters of commerce, such as trademark, to the Federal Trade Commission. Copyright falls under the Library of Congress. Electronic government surveillance is distributed in complex and uncontrolled ways among the Department of Justice, National Security Administration, and Homeland Security – to name the most obvious, but is then further dispersed with other sub-entities such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court.  Another example: cybersecurity is distributed throughout, from DOD, NSA and Homeland Security primarily. 

The People’s Republic of China has one agency for the Internet.  My point here is that if the Internet is such a vital lifeblood of commerce and culture, the divided nature of government oversight belies the United States’ ability to comprehensively manage it.  But because it is not practical to disrupt this entire structure and recreate a single “Internet” agency, it should at least be possible to create a coordinating body, perhaps within the White House, to bring these agencies together under one informed umbrella.  Extra-legal measures, such as Snowden’s revelations suggested, would be better addressed through such coordination as well as overall effectiveness and efficiency of Internet regulatory governance expected of a democratic republic.

5.  Use higher education to facilitate an international discourse on global Internet governance. 

The Internet’s greatest strength is also its weakness: open technical protocols upon which we have thrown humanity up on the Internet’s canvas.  Those protocols cannot inherently distinguish between good or bad. One might quibble about the definition of “security,” but a common understanding of it goes mainly to technology, for example, encryption in the Apple iPhone case.  But like the foundational TCP/IP protocols, technical security tools such as encryption or even procedures such as “defense in depth,” in and of themselves are neither good or bad; it is how they are used, by whom, and for what purpose that imbues them with such meaning.  The associations we now have to “security,” such as cyber warfare, hacking and its effects are complex behaviors that involve relations among nation-states, complicated international organized crime syndicates and, in a word, politics. 

I don’t have a magic bullet answer to this grand challenge, but accepting this challenge in all of its obvious complexity is a must for the United States to remain a leader in the international affairs and in the on-going development of the “Internet.”  I also believe that there is no better institution with the global gravitas to do the work of facilitating that discourse than higher education.  While not apolitical by any stretch, higher education is nonethless uniquely situated to among all other NGOs and other not-for-profit entities to aim “for truth’s sake.” Moreover, there is already good work afoot.  The Global Network Initiative is a premier example.  Many scholars stand at the ready.  Laura DeNardis, whose book The Global War for Internet Governance, broke the ground of this topic best. 

Our next president must pick up the baton of this quest and would do well to use higher education and its scholars for it.  Ends and the means unite on this point. To address global Internet governance would provide prospective on how to answer other pressing questions such as diversity and tolerance, pluralism and immigration, terrorism and social order.  When stuck on a topic, I coach my students, as I often prompt myself, to stop ruminating, get outside of the issue, and then look back from a different vantage point.  Not only would the United States rise to its promise of leadership to take initiative on this point, but once it does so decisively it will help the country be in a better place to talk about those topics that ail us.  Indeed, it would be a breath of fresh air simply to hear the front-runners utter the word “Internet.” 

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Tracy Mitrano

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