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John Kerry on the importance of an open-ish Internet

Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in Seoul yesterday about the Internet, setting out five principles of cybersecurity.

The talk is quite enthusiastic and progressive about the Net. Sort of. For example, he says, “[t]he United States considers the promotion of an open and secure internet to be a key component of our foreign policy,” but he says this in support of his idea that it’s crucial to govern the Internet. On the third hand, the governance he has in mind is designed to keep the Net open to all people and all ideas. On the fourth hand, predictably, we don’t know how much structural freedom he’s willing to give up to stop the very Worst People on Earth: those who share content they do not own.

Overall, it’s a speech that we can be pretty proud of.

Here’s why he thinks the Net is important:

…to begin with, America believes – as I know you do – that the internet should be open and accessible to everyone. We believe it should be interoperable, so it can connect seamlessly across international borders. We believe people are entitled to the same rights of free expression online as they possess offline. We believe countries should work together to deter and respond effectively to online threats. And we believe digital policy should seek to fulfill the technology’s potential as a vehicle for global stability and sustained economic development; as an innovative way to enhance the transparency of governments and hold governments accountable; and also as a means for social empowerment that is also the most democratic form of public expression ever invented.

At its best, the internet is an equal-opportunity platform from which the voice of a student can have as much reach as that of a billionaire; a chief executive may be able to be out-debated by an entry-level employee – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Great, although why he needed to add a Seinfeldian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” is a bit concerning.

He then goes on to say that everyone’s human rights extend to online behavior, which is an important position, although it falls short of Hillary Clinton’s claim while Secretary of State that there is a universal “freedom to connect.”

He then in an odd way absolves the Internet from blame for the disruption it seems to cause:

The internet is, among many other things, an instrument of freedom. It’s a tool people resort to in response to the absence and failure or abuse of government…Anyone who blames the internet for the disorder or turmoil in today’s world is just not using their head to connect the dots correctly. And banning the internet in a misguided attempt to impose order will never succeed in quashing the universal desire for freedom.

This separates him from those who think that the Net actually gives people an idea of freedom, encourages them to speak their minds, or is anything except a passive medium. But that’s fine since in this section he’s explaining why dictators shouldn’t shut down the Net. So we can just keep the “inspires an ambition for political freedom” part quiet for now.

“The remedy for the speech that we do not like is more speech,” he says, always a good trope. But he follows it up with an emphasis on bottom-up conversation, which is refreshing: “It’s the credible voices of real people that must not only be enabled, but they need to be amplified.”

To make the point that the Net empowers all sectors of society, and thus it would be disastrous if it were disrupted globally, he suggests that we watch The Day the Earth Stood Still, which makes me think Secretary Kerry has not watched either version of that movie lately. Klaatu barada nikto, Mr. Kerry.

To enable international commerce, he opposes data localization standards, in the course of which he uses “google” as a verb. Time to up your campaign contributions, Bing.

Kerry pre-announces an international initiative to address the digital divide, “in combination with partner countries, development banks, engineers, and industry leaders.” Details to follow.

Kerry tries to position the NSA’s data collection as an enlightened policy:

Further, unlike many, we have taken steps to respect and safeguard the privacy of the citizens of other countries and to use the information that we do collect solely to address the very specific threat to the United States and to our allies. We don’t use security concerns as an excuse to suppress criticisms of our policies or to give a competitive advantage to an American company and any commercial interests at all.

You have our word on that. So, we’re good? Moving on.

Kerry acknowledges that the Telecomm Act of 1996 is obsolete, noting that “Barely anybody in 1996 was talking about data, and data transformation, and data management. It was all about telephony – the telephone.”

Finally, he gets to governance:

So this brings me to another issue that should concern us all, and that is governance – because even a technology founded on freedom needs rules to be able to flourish and work properly. We understand that. Unlike many models of government that are basically top-down, the internet allows all stakeholders – the private sector, civil society, academics, engineers, and governments – to all have seats at the table. And this multi-stakeholder approach is embodied in a myriad of institutions that each day address internet issues and help digital technology to be able to function.

“Stakeholders” get a “seat at the table”? It’s our goddamned table. And it’s more like a blanket on the ground than polished rare wood in a board room. Here’s an idea for you, World Leaders: How about if you take your stakes and get off our blanket?

Well, that felt good. Back to governing the Internet into the ground. And to be fair, Kerry seems aware of the dangers of top-down control, even if he doesn’t appreciate the benefits of bottom-up self-organization:

That’s why we have to be wary of those who claim that the system is broken or who advocate replacing it with a more centralized arrangement – where governments would have a monopoly on the decision-making. That’s dangerous. Now, I don’t know what you think, but I am confident that if we were to ask any large group of internet users anywhere in the world what their preferences are, the option “leave everything to the government” would be at the absolute bottom of the list.

Kerry now enunciates his five principles.

  1. First, no country should conduct or knowingly support online activity that intentionally damages or impedes the use of another country’s critical infrastructure.

  2. Second, no country should seek either to prevent emergency teams from responding to a cybersecurity incident, or allow its own teams to cause harm.

  3. Third, no country should conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets, or other confidential business information for commercial gain.

  4. Fourth, every country should mitigate malicious cyber activity emanating from its soil, and they should do so in a transparent, accountable and cooperative way.

  5. And fifth, every country should do what it can to help states that are victimized by a cyberattack.

Two particular points:

First, #2 establishes Internet repair teams as the medical support people in the modern battleground: you don’t fire on them.

Second, #3 gets my goat. Earlier in the talk, Sect’y Kerry said: “We understand that freedom of expression is not a license to incite imminent violence. It’s not a license to commit fraud. It’s not a license to indulge in libel, or sexually exploit children.” But the one crime that gets called out in his five principles is violating copyright or patent laws. And it’s not even aimed at other governments doing so, for it explicitly limits the prohibition to acts committed “for commercial gain.” Why the hell is protecting “IP” more important than preventing cross-border libel, doxxing or other privacy violations, organizing human trafficking, or censorship?

Oh, right. Disney. Hollywood. A completely corrupt electoral process. Got it.

Now, it’s easy to be snarky and dismissive about this speech — or any speech — by a Secretary of State about the Internet, but just consider how bad it could have been. Imagine a speech by a Secretary of State in an administration that sees the Internet primarily as a threat to security, to morals, to business as usual. There’s actually a lot to like in this talk, given its assumptions that the Net needs governments to govern it and that it’s ok to spy on everyone so long as we don’t do Bad Things with that information that we gather.

So, before you vote Republican, re-read Hillary Clinton’s two speeches [2010 2011] on Internet freedom.

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