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How Involved Should the Government be in the Internet?

Published on March 11, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law

One question that seems to come up from time to time is exactly how far governments should involve themselves in the Internet. Over 1.6 billion people across the world now have web access and this figure grows daily: control of the internet is, unsurprisingly, sought after by governments and businesses alike. One of the key selling points of the World Wide Web has always been its independence – an entity that transcends nations and unites communities across the world with relatively little interference from governments.

But is this a good thing? As with any question, there are at least two clearly defined sides to the debate.

One the one hand, governments have a duty to protect their citizens, across all platforms. It would be hard to find many people who disagree that Internet use ought to be restricted for people who pose a threat to others, be they terrorists, paedophiles, hackers or other malcontents. Some level of government-related oversight in this area is a good thing: in the manner of the police, it keeps the whole as safe for the majority as it possibly can while being tough on the criminals around the edges.

Also, the world is increasingly reliant on the Internet for services. As many companies move their operations online – and as government services themselves migrate to the Internet – there is a need for proper investment in infrastructure. This is needed on such a scale that it has to be coordinated by the government: in the UK, much of the broadband upgrade might be carried out by BT and Virgin Media and of course it’s in their commercial interests to do so, but without directives from the government, this project would be much harder. The EU requires that all citizens should have broadband access by 2013 and it’s hard to see how this would happen without involvement from the government.

The threat of cyber terrorism also warrants government intervention to shore up communication systems and ensure the country’s infrastructure could withstand an attack. The UK government is currently spending £650m on cyber security and the threat is considered to be as serious as terrorism. Government spending on such security is vital to maintain the free and open nature of the web. After all, the infrastructure has to come from somewhere.

From this, we can see the different areas where the government should be involved in the Internet – in terms of provision and security especially. But what about the other side of the debate? How much involvement is too much?

One of the main issues that come up on this side of the debate is the idea of the Internet ‘kill switch’. We’ve seen this recently during the Egyptian protests when people across the country suddenly found that they couldn’t get online. Other countries have their web use restricted and censored as a matter of course: when the Internet is supposed to be open to all users, why, the argument runs, should governments decide what information people should or should not be allowed to access?

There is, though, a much wider issue at stake and it’s been around at least since the late 1990s. In 1996, Bill Clinton – then the US President – developed a plan called the ‘Federal Intrusion Detection Network’. Had the plans gone ahead, it would have required major companies to run their Internet connections through the federal government, for ‘safety’ reasons. While you could argue that this was a shrewd plan to protect key industries in the event of a cyber attack, on the other side of the coin, it can be seen as government meddling gone too far and opens up political questions as well as security ones.

The ‘Fidnet’ plan didn’t go into practice, but now in the US, there is a bill going through Congress called the Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011. The Act makes provision so that in the event of a ‘cyber emergency’, the White House can issue directives to Internet companies with which they must ‘immediately comply’. That the regulations governing the Internet can change on such a whim raises the question of how much security is too much. The vague nature of a ‘cyber emergency’ also raises questions.

The backing for this Act comes from the (alleged) ability of cyber terrorists to shut down whole cities. This might be the case, but Fidnet never happened despite the same fears and yet they’ve never come to fruition. The biggest power cuts in the US happen because of tree branches and thunderstorms. 

There’s also already a whole host of Internet security provision in the US and across the world, largely developed as a response to growing terrorist threats and the growing reach of the World Wide Web. New Acts will arguably only create more regulations, placing further obligations on internet companies and slowing the pace of progress.

Perhaps this is a key point – the internet is still under development. It’s a project that isn’t finished yet and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Of course, there is a need for governments to make provision for its progression through investment in both infrastructure and security. But until it’s got where it’s meant to be – wherever that is – it can seem a little hasty for governments and others who go to such efforts to try and control it. In some respects, the Internet is still a child, and it needs room to grow. Too much of the wrong kind of regulation risks hampering that.

By Chelsey Evans

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