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Web Not So Free?

by Adam Segal
March 2, 2010

Just a few weeks after Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton contrasted two visions of the Internet, one free and open, the other splintered by “electronic barriers,” the contrast between the two is growing a little murkier.

It is not that anything with the Chinese web has changed.  Negotiations continue with Google, but Beijing is not going to give up its control of the web just because the search giant has threatened to pull out.  The trend over the last several months has been to tighten controls (often under the guise of banning porn); new rules were posted at the beginning of the month that will require anyone wanting to set up a new website and register a new domain name to meet with government officials in person and submit a personal photo ( For a surprisingly frank view on on how much of the filtering and censorship occurs not through high technology filters, but through self censorship, often by the owners of small websites who are afraid of being shut down, go read “Publish and Be Deleted” in the Global Times).

The interesting rumbling comes from the U.S. side.  Now, I am not saying we are moving to a level of censorship and control anything like that exerted by Beijing. But there is a growing drumbeat that Washington should control the reins more tightly and that a completely free Internet may not necessarily be in the best interest of the United States.  Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Larry Strickling made this point last week; the decision not to interfere with the working of the Internet at the early stages of its development helped the web explode and spread around the world, but “that was then and this is now.” The next stage of development, Policy 3.0, will be more rule-based and much more intrusive.

While not official policy, this op ed–“How to Win the Cyberwar We’re Losing“–in the Washington Post by former NSA head Mike McConnell, clearly shows how cybersecurity may accelerate this shift in policy.  McConnell calls for re-engineering “the Internet to make attribution, geolocation, intelligence analysis and impact assessment — who did it, from where, why and what was the result — more manageable.”  It is an open question if this is even possible–resilience may be a more realistic goal than security–but pursuing these technological capabilities would certainly result in the United States playing a more invasive role in the future of the Internet.

The idea of the Internet as free from government control has always been a myth (see, for example, “Who Controls the Internet”). But it is clear that one key part of developing a cyberstrategy is getting the balance between freedom and regulations right, and we are a good distance from doing that.

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