The New York Times reports today that China has created an agency devoted to the Internet. "China Creates New Agency for Patrolling the Internet"
They must have read my blog! For a year now I have been making the same argument for the United States. It is not, however, for the same reason that motivates the People's Republic, or at least as reported by the Times. They cite manipulation of control to maintain social order as the principal reason. While I have no doubt that is true, it may also be that perspective is the only one that a U.S. reporter is likely to see given the blinders that the "American" perspective has on government control and the Internet. Let me break some concepts down.
I have observed grown men sweat and shake when I suggest that the United States should have a federal agency devoted to the Internet. Why? Because they were often in on the inception of it, fell in love with its distributed freedom and cannot imagine it going forward any other way than how it started. Not all engineers have a developmental view, not to mention expertise in government, so the reaction is understandable. By the same token, so should the education that nothing stands still under the sun, and certainly not an innovation as dynamic as the Internet. As it has grown, so has the need for governance.
Why have I advocated the idea? At the risk of repeating an earlier post, I will simply say because "the Internet" as a total phenomenon, not just a technology, requires comprehensive attention in order for it to serve the national goals of economic development, national security and preservation of political process and values. If we don't appreciate this point, we risk slippage in all of these areas.
At this juncture, I would like to confront the main objection that is frequently raised to my idea, and it is not innovation. (A point with which I have also dealt in previous comments to posts.) It is that an federal agency devoted to the Internet would have the affect the Times alleges is the central purpose for the establishment of the Chinese version: a chilling effect, or actual quashing, of free speech. Under our constitution, that result, intended or unintended, cannot be possible. First Amendment rights in the United States are as robust as anywhere in the world and as anytime in our history, especially if you are a corporation or have a big bundle of money. So I wouldn't worry about that aspect whatsoever, the law -- constitutional, legislative and judicial -- provides an enormous bulwark against that fear.
That fear may keep those of us in the United States from not seeing what we are missing, however. Coordination of all of the areas that the Internet touches: economic, social, legal, ethical, technological is required to set strategic direction for the country. That is what China appears to get and we don't. My guess, notwithstanding the respect I have for the Times, is that they are missing a point here. To be sure, this new agency in China will control speech, because the control of speech is a long part of the history of that society in service of its principal value on social order. But that agency is poised to do so much more for the country, not least of which is to be sure its citizens have access and education about the use of the Internet and to direct economic advancement, social networking for business purposes and the flowering of its indigenous culture.
We are crippled to compete in these areas for the failure to rethink our architecture of Internet governance. I am joking about the PRC reading my blog, but serious about this concern.