Seventy-five years ago today, on May 29th, 1934, Egyptian private radio stations fell silent, as the government shut them down in favor of a state monopoly on broadcast communication. Egyptian radio “hackers” (as we would style them today) had, over the course of about fifteen years, developed a burgeoning network of unofficial radio stations. They offered listeners an unfiltered, continuous mix of news, gossip, and live entertainment from low-powered transmitters located in private houses and businesses throughout Cairo.
It couldn’t last. After two days of official radio silence, on May 31st, official state-sponsored radio stations (run by the Marconi company under special contract) began transmitting a clean slate of government-sanctioned programming, and the brief era of grass-roots Egyptian radio was over.
Was there something in the air in the early summer of 1934? Two weeks later, the United States Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934, which established the Federal Communications Commission, and gave it regulatory authority over not only the US airwaves, but interstate telephone services and telegraphy — in short, all forms of over-the-air and wireline communications among private citizens. In the United States, as in Egypt, the government’s oversight of public and private communications has survived, basically intact, for the last seventy-five years. Telephony replaced telegraphy, and television supplanted radio, and the Internet threatened to absorb all of them in a wave of convergence. But throughout all of the technological change, the US government’s role as regulator and defender of the public interest seemed to have survived in recognizable form.
That’s why it’s refreshing to see at least some evidence, in today’s release of the long-awaited Cyberspace Policy Review, that the Obama administration is taking a long, careful look at how to update the Government’s role in “protecting the Internet.” The report nods to regulatory precedent, but makes it clear that new regulations are not the first order of business. Instead, the themes of the day are those recognizable to any digital native: bottom-up coordination, transparency, sharing, establishment of trust, resiliency in the face of unknown threats. Leadership comes from above, but it takes the form of continuous measurement and accountability and consensus-building.
Sounds kind of “kumbaya,” right? Well, yes. But I suspect there’s actually some substance behind the rhetorical styling.
For one thing, the President has consistently, though subtly, identified “resiliency” as a key virtue in the various complex systems that make up the critical infrastructure behind American society. Having just merged the Homeland Security Council and National Security Council, the President is building an integrated National Security Staff that will include both a senior cybersecurity advisor (yet to be named), and a more general “resiliency policy” advisor, who will focus on survivability and flexible response. The emphasis on resilience, on building complex systems that are less brittle and more intelligently flexible and responsive in the face of attacks, are the kinds of wonky concepts that light up the eyes of computer scientists and mathematicians who study complex systems. They aren’t there to provide sound bites for the Sunday talk shows (and, indeed, concepts like “resiliency” tend to get a lot less play in the popular press than firmer fare, like “eliminating vulnerabilities” and “shutting out attackers” and even, God help us, “turning off the Internet in case of attack”).
The very fact that the report has been some time in arriving, and that it does not contain a laundry list of quick fixes, suggests that the President intends to be appropriately deliberate in building a picture of what, exactly, the government can do to improve its own cybersecurity posture. Of course, it also signals how thickly political the whole cybersecurity issue has become, as various factions battle it out for control and presidential access.
I think we can take some cheer in the fact that the President isn’t rushing to action, that the balance between safety and civil liberties appears front and center in the terms of debate, and that there’s a general awareness of how much economic and strategic value is created for the American people by the wild global Internet, even as it creates some novel (but managable) risks for continuation of government and critical infrastructure.
1934, thankfully, is a long time gone.