Telecommunications January 2002

Keeping the Net Secure

September 11 demonstrated the great strength of the Internet. Now it's time to address the Internet's weaknesses

Not many creators of Internet technology or leaders of Internet companies have been seriously interested in world affairs. Indeed, only yesterday many people imagined, naively, that the rise of the medium meant the end of government, the triumph of libertarian visions, and the dawning of a new age of spontaneous self-organization. In the long run the Net's emphasis on liberty can be fused with the needs of a civil, equitable, ordered state. But in the short run we need practical steps to help keep the Internet secure. The world's citizens, businesses, and governments should come together to take two actions.

First, Internet access should be made truly global. In less developed countries this means expanding communications systems so that more people have exposure to and access to information from the outside world. Obviously, communications technology does not by itself end conflict or convert nations to democracy. But it helps, and those goals are easier to reach with a modern communications system than without one. However our current war against terrorism ends, along the way the United States and its allies will undoubtedly make a variety of economic promises to the Central Asian states whose support we need. It would be better to direct aid toward thought-out goals than to grant it slapdash. A $10 billion investment fund for communications improvements throughout the developing world, managed by an independent board and funded half by private institutions and half by governments, would be a wise use of our resources.

In developed countries universal access means ensuring that businesses and citizens can all get high-speed connections to the Internet, much as they now have universal dial-tone access to the traditional telephone system. The United States has a long history of subsidizing the growth of a democratically available communications system. In keeping with the established universal-service policy, business and suburban customers of telephone services are "overcharged" some $30 billion each year in order to subsidize basic telephone rates for rural customers. Diverting $10 billion of this universal-service funding could eventually make broadband service available on a near universal basis. Consumers could draw on a federal fund for whichever competing service they chose. The fund would pay a high proportion of the total cost for poor and rural users, a low one or none at all for rich users. Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel, recently called for a similar investment plan.

Second, the Internet's defenses need to be strengthened. The networks that compose its backbone should be encouraged with strong incentives to develop redundant interconnection points and diverse paths. The Internet's conceptual design makes it inherently resilient, but its physical structure and hardware need to be more secure than they are now. The one or two dozen essential crossroads of the Internet are basically collections of computers in buildings. These are vital nodes of our national security, and they ought to be as carefully protected as our military installations. The Internet has a rising number of co-location facilities where many fiber cables are aggregated. If any of them goes down, traffic can be interrupted for long periods. This became clear last summer in Baltimore, when a train derailment damaged a substantial fiber link—and affected the flow of Internet traffic around the globe.

Every essential node should have a backup. Internet messages are now carried mainly on fiber-optic systems. These systems should be backed up by microwave and satellite-transmission systems. General Motors is seeking federal approval for sale of its Hughes DirecTV satellite system. A condition of the approval could be that GM provide backup satellite capacity.

The terrorists did not directly target our communications networks, but those networks are an integral part of the democratic capitalism that they did attack. And we can use those networks to help fight back.

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