Foreign Policy of the Internet

Karen Kornbluh
U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 
Daniel Weitzner, White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Internet Policy
The Washington Post
Washington, DC
July 14, 2011

Iran’s recent announcement that it plans to disconnect Iranian cyberspace from the rest of the world was another dramatic sign that the Internet is at risk of being carved up into national mini-Internets, each with its own rules and restrictions. In contrast, the United States has staked out a clear position of leadership in building a global consensus around the benefits of an open, interconnected Internet.

In May, President Obama issued the U.S. International Strategy for Cyberspace, our agenda for safeguarding the single Internet. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has developed a groundbreaking Internet freedom agenda, a principled approach to preserving the freedom to connect — the freedoms of expression, association and assembly online — and to ensuring that the Internet can be a platform for commerce, debate, learning and innovation in the 21st century. Senior government officials and stakeholders, meeting at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) this month, took a major step toward these goals by committing to Internet policymaking principles.

The Internet is a powerful tool for innovation and expression because it allows information and ideas to flow freely. According to McKinsey, the Internet has generated as much growth over the past 15 years as the Industrial Revolution generated in 50 years. This is a clear jobs issue — particularly in the United States. Over the past five years, the Internet has been responsible for 21 percent of the growth in mature economies and has created 2.6 jobs for every job it has displaced. Its power to generate innovation is rivaled only by its potential to help people realize their rights and democratic aspirations.

The Internet is so productive — and powerful — because no centralized authority governs it and no nation owns it. You do not need permission to share ideas or associate with others around the globe. Instead, a decentralized system of public and private actors collaborates to ensure its function and expansion.

But this means that nations that choose to take a heavy-handed approach to regulating the Internet can reduce its value for every other nation and user.

For this reason, collective action is needed to safeguard this global treasure. A foreign policy that accounts for the Internet has become essential. We need to work with other countries and stakeholders to build a global consensus on the importance of open communications online among all users — everywhere in the world. And we must build consensus around norms and expectations of behavior essential to that vision.

That’s why the president’s strategy calls for international partnership to support an open Internet that is secure and reliable. And it’s why the secretary of state has called for the global community to “join us in the bet we have made, a bet that an open Internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries.”

The recent meeting called by the OECD (the international economics policy standards organization) assembled leaders from 40 governments, business and the Internet technical community. It produced a set of broad principles for safeguarding the open Internet that address three key international threats to the seamless, interconnected Web.

The first threat is posed by some governments and international institutions intent on imposing pre-Internet-era telecommunications regulatory schemes to provide them control over the flow of information (and money) they enjoyed in the old days of the monopoly phone company. The OECD consensus principles provide Internet diplomats a rallying point of best-practice guidelines, including support for today’s multi-stakeholder approach as the pro-growth alternative to backward-looking controls over the Internet.

The second challenge is how to address important concerns, including protection of personal data, children and consumers; intellectual property rights; and cybersecurity without balkanizing the Internet or restricting competition and the free flow of information. The OECD principles provide guidelines for how to respond. The Obama administration is already implementing them domestically and working with other countries to find technology-savvy solutions that avoid onerous regulations that run counter to the design of an open Internet.

The third threat comes from Iran, Syria and other cyber-autocracies that use pretexts to deny their citizens their rights to express themselves, seek and receive information, and freely associate. These OECD guidelines make clear that countries can address policy challenges without violating these fundamental rights.

Our Internet foreign policy will require building support for these principles with governments, business and civil society. We will need to work with other countries to demonstrate that the principles work. Our diplomacy will also entail continuing to build support for the “freedom to connect” for everyone, and for the human rights, innovation and free-trade benefits that flow from it. The stakes are high, but the OECD principles are an important tool to help us achieve those objectives.