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Net Gain

Politicians aren’t always especially thoughtful about, or even familiar with, information technology. George W. Bush used the term “Internets” during not one but two presidential debates. The late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens famously referred to the World Wide Web as a “series of tubes.” And John McCain drew ridicule in 2008 when he conceded that he was still “learning to get online myself.”

Much worse than these gaffes, however, are some of the policies that have been promoted by lawmakers and candidates who seem to fundamentally misunderstand the importance of a free and open Internet. In recent years, we have seen politicians accede to the interests of giant telecom companies rather than support net neutrality; propose anti-piracy bills that threaten Internet freedom; and, as Siddhartha Mahanta recently documented at TNR Online, block poor communities from receiving broadband access.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see the Obama administration recently take some thoughtful and forward-looking positions on Internet policy. First, there was the administration’s response to SOPA and PIPA, the twin anti-piracy bills that arose in Congress late last year. The bills addressed a legitimate concern—the rampant online theft of music, movies, and TV shows—but they were overzealous and threatened to fundamentally alter the open nature of the Internet. Although the proposals initially had broad bipartisan support, they inspired strong opposition from Web users and giants like Wikipedia and Google. Then, in January, the White House announced—in a blog post, fittingly—that it had major reservations about the two bills. This not only helped seal the fate of the overreaching measures; it also validated the grassroots response to them from Web users, showing that the White House understood their concerns and was listening to them. More recently, the administration demonstrated backbone in opposing a cybersecurity bill that posed major threats to personal privacy. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which passed the House last month, was designed to enhance security by facilitating information-sharing among private companies and the government. But critics said the bill would allow major transfers of information—say, from Google to the government—without meaningful protections for Internet users. The administration has responded by brandishing a veto threat.

Of course, a sensible approach to the Internet requires more than techno-utopianism. Technology has no inherent moral value; it is a tool that can be used for good or evil. President Obama implicitly acknowledged this when, several weeks ago, during a speech at the Holocaust Museum, he announced a new executive order imposing sanctions on foreigners who use information technology to carry out human rights abuses—including strong steps against the Syrian intelligence agency and a Syrian phone company, as well as the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. (To be sure, these wise measures are hardly substitutes for the humanitarian intervention that we wish the administration would lead in Syria.)

Finally, the administration deserves credit for recognizing that the potential for anti-competitive behavior exists even in trendy, well-regarded young Internet companies. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission named a high-profile outside litigator to investigate Google for allegedly directing its users, unfairly, to its own suite of products.

There are, of course, ways in which the administration has disappointed. Even when the White House has done the right thing on Internet issues, it has not always acted as speedily or as forcefully as it might have. Moreover, it has not always done the right thing. Particularly striking was the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision, in late 2010, to exempt mobile carriers from new rules protecting net neutrality. The FCC’s step blocks Internet service providers from slowing down or preventing access to the content of their competitors—but it only applies to wired, not wireless, providers. That means the rule is irrelevant when it comes to a large and growing portion of Americans’ Internet use. If the principle of net neutrality is important, is there any good reason why it should apply only to computers, and not to wireless devices like smartphones and tablets?

On the whole, however, the administration has acquitted itself well on Internet issues. And, when you consider how poorly the world of politics has often handled technology, that’s no small accomplishment.

This article appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.