No one who has thought about this subject for even a few minutes can doubt that this is an enormously difficult, perhaps impossible, problem. The very technological features that make the Internet so successful in distributing information around the world are the same features that make it threatening as a political, economic and social phenomenon. There is no obvious, easy way of separating the two.
We now have yet another commission describing the dilemma and demonstrating the difficulty of making it go away. The Cyberspace Solarium Commission, ordered by Congress last year, was chaired by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.). The goal of their recently released report was to achieve a consensus of sorts that would enable Republicans and Democrats to support a common agenda. Their effort was at best a partial success. It falls well below what is needed.
The report does not mince words in acknowledging the challenge. Here is one excerpt: “The digital connectivity that has brought economic growth, technological dominance, and an improved quality of life to nearly every American has also created a strategic dilemma. The more digital connections people make and data they exchange, the more opportunities adversaries have to destroy private lives, disrupt critical infrastructure, and damage our economic and democratic institutions.”
The greatest threat to ordinary Americans comes from the Internet’s role in providing so-called critical infrastructure — cyber-networks for finance, power, transportation, health care, communications and shopping, to name a few. Imagine the chaos if the power grid were successfully attacked. Disorder would probably follow. Privacy concerns are next on the worries list. To combat these vulnerabilities, the United States must be more aggressive in responding to cyberattacks, the commission says, including a military response.
There must be a price to pay for misusing the Internet. New “norms” of behavior must be nourished. Bad behavior must be punished. Up to a point, that’s fine. But the commission never really explains how this is to work. One practical problem is the difficulty in identifying the source of a cyberattack.
I am not a cyber-expert, but we need a more muscular response. Here’s a brief outline of what I think desirable:
1. Build a cyber-firewall — as Russia and China are attempting to do — to keep out mass foreign attacks. They close their cyber-borders; we leave ours open. It’s a self-inflicted wound. (China’s and Russia’s policies also reflect a desire to purge the Internet of subversive political views.)
2. Switch cyber-traffic used for operational control (financial transfers, power distribution, transport networks) to private networks and reserve the Internet for nonessential informational exchanges. This would reduce, though not eliminate, the threat of losing critical infrastructure.
3. Build redundancy into the system, with separate defenses and passwords, so that breaches in one system can be instantly remedied in an attack.
4. Mandate that the most sophisticated computer chips be made in the United States. In case of a crisis, we wouldn’t immediately face shortages of chips needed by the military.
I concede that embracing all these safeguards would make the Internet less efficient and more costly. Also, some of these proposals are so obvious (examples: using private networks and building redundancy into critical systems) that it would stun me — and depress me — if we weren’t doing it already.
Finally, I recognize that this approach represents a basic switch in U.S. policy, which has favored an “open” Internet not burdened with nationalistic policies. But let’s face it: That game is long lost. Like it or not, the Internet is being twisted to serve national goals.
To be sure, an agenda such as mine would face many obstacles. Internet firms would probably resist it as an unwanted interference in their business. Technical problems would be considerable. The cost would be large, especially considering the swollen national debt. Other interest groups would regard the spending as a threat. (The remedy: Taxes should be raised to cover the costs.)
The Internet is an instrument of war and personal intrusion. The question facing us is whether we will accept these realities and alter our policies accordingly — or whether we continue in a state of semi-denial. There is an interesting parallel with the present pandemic. We similarly ignored the possibility that it would create havoc. Look where that got us. If we want to protect the Good Internet, we must somehow defang the Bad.
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