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Not Your Father's Internet – Mounting Digital Challenges in 2012

A few years ago, General Motors was trying to save one of its declining auto lines, the Oldsmobile. It was not likely to be a winning battle with the name alone pointing to an aging clientele. Still, the marketing guys waded ahead and came up with the slogan, “it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.” This implied a new breed of car for a new age. The Oldsmobile died in 2004.

The Internet, unlike our lamented auto, the Oldsmobile, is going quite the opposite way. What was once a cute toy and convenience has turned, over the last five years, into a massive international public utility. There are few spots left around the world without Internet access, and few people who cannot reach out to access it. It has been relatively free of state interference and American dominated.

However, the Net has had mounting problems. It was not built for this kind of massive use. The volume of traffic is pushing bandwidth to the limit. Security, an afterthought to the free and easy days of its free sharing founding, has become a nightmare with endless reports of break ins, losses of important personal, corporate and government data, and general mischief. The net is also an increasingly large source of business-to-consumer and business-to-business revenue – now in the tens of billions of dollars, rapidly rising and mostly untaxed.

The Net has also represented one of the greatest threats to dictators the world has ever seen, with massive information sharing at a moment’s notice. The Arab Spring was the most direct result of this universal connectivity. Russia, China, Iran, even North Korea, find it hard to hide in this exposed world. For both good and bad, individual actors or small groups can do battle with the old nation states on an equal footing. This is certainly not your father’s 20th Century.

However, Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It works that way in politics as well. The founders and purveyors of the Net are beginning to find that ugly fact out, and 2012 has marked a turning point.

As I write this, the first meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is taking place in Dubai. A number of nations – with Russia and China in the lead – are seeking to rein in the Internet for both political and monetary purposes. Under the guise of protecting their people, Russia and China want the ability to restrict content for national purposes. This will sanction their already ongoing actions. And a number of other countries (perhaps exceeding 100) want the control of Internet names, tax transactions and want to make sure Internet service control is either moved out of the United States or America is forced to cede more control to international organizations.

Back here in the United States, both the Executive Branch and the U.S. Congress are also beginning to move against the unregulated Internet. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in a pitched legal battle with Verizon over the issue of “net neutrality” and potentially increasing its power over the flow of information on the Net.

The Congress grappled among itself and with a myriad of industry lobbyists over the future of the America’s Internet, ranging from issues of security and Federal government protection, to concerns over resiliency and issues of taxation. Businesses complained bitterly about security standards and subsequent fiduciary responsibilities that might cost them billions. All bills eventually failed. On the opening day of the new Congress, a sheaf of cyber bills will be reintroduced.

In the meantime, DOD’s Cyber Command expands to defend America on the Net, though with ambiguous goals and rules of engagement that appear to include some form of internal “information gathering.” And somewhere in the bowels of Executive Branch interagency process, an Executive Order is being prepared for the President focusing on how the U.S. Government should position its vast bureaucracy to protect its people on the Internet.

In the final analysis, 2012 has marked the end of the old Internet as we knew it. The days of the freewheeling Internet with unlimited access and relatively cost-free access are over. There will be more government regulation around the world and within the United States, and America will not be able to maintain its benign hold over the Internet internationally.

I do not know what all these changes will mean ultimately for the Internet, but I can assure you the New Internet is not going to be your father’s Internet.

Ronald Marks blogs on national security, domestic intelligence and national intelligence issues. Read More