Secure the Future of the Internet

President Obama should make it a personal priority to ensure an open and free-market Internet in 2014, write Peter W. Singer and Ian Wallace. Instead of waiting out the international blowback from Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the president needs to lead a new strategy against those governments who want to regulate the way the global Internet is run.

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TO: President Obama
FROM: Peter W. Singer and Ian Wallace
DATE: January 23, 2014
SUBJECT: Secure the Future of the Internet

Summary and Recommendations

The next year will be a crucial one for the future of the Internet, a technology that has driven the most change and progress in our lifetimes. Between Edward Snowden’s revelations and the resulting blowback, and upcoming international talks on global “Internet governance,” this already complex domain is quickly rising as a major challenge to your administration. While many urge you and the United States to keep a low profile, our interests are better served by actively leading the global debate on the future of the Internet.

We recommend that 

Internet policy and strategy be elevated as a top priority for your administration under the clear direction of the White House. You should develop a strategic plan to identify and achieve key U.S. goals for the future of the Internet and its governance and to ensure that all parts of the U.S. government work to advance them. It also means doing a better job of involving and leveraging the U.S. private sector. This effort must include energizing international partners and even competitors—especially in key “swing” countries—to engage their own governments to prevent the balkanization of the Internet and handover of governance to bodies that would stifle the free flow of information and harm both global trade and political freedom.

To be utterly clear, the future of the Internet is about more than just responding to the NSA reform recommendations of the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology—important though that will be for other reasons. It is a broader, strategic issue that you should take personal ownership of and put in place an empowered, inter-agency team led by a designated White House official to implement the strategic plan. This may even require a new position with dual status on the National Security Staff and National Economic Council. This also means asserting more proactive control of the covert activities that could undermine that strategy and deciding whether these operations are worth the risk, underscoring the commitment to balance intelligence benefit with greater national strategic goals.

You should establish a clear message that the events of last year have not changed our fundamental position on the future of the Internet and roll it out soon in a major speech overseas—ideally somewhere in the developing world, where much of the Internet’s growth is now taking place. This speech needs to acknowledge global concerns raised by various espionage efforts to monitor certain types of information. But it should also raise broader issues to remind people of the political and economic advantages of an Internet where information still flows openly, facilitated by the appropriate mix of government, industry and civil society participation in a complex web of governance mechanisms. That message should also make a clear distinction between America’s approach to the Internet and Internet freedom and that of many of our critics in authoritarian governments.


There is a divide emerging in the international community between those countries who prefer an international legal framework that allows governments alone to regulate the international aspects of the Internet—for example, through the United Nations and specifically the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)—and those, such as the United States and our closest allies, who recognize that the extraordinary success of the Internet lies in its unique governance regime that blends private sector and civil society involvement alongside national governments, while minimizing the amount of formal control.

The way the Internet has developed to date benefits both U.S. and global citizens and consumers, but we must recognize that not every foreign government sees it that way. For many new democracies as well as authoritarian regimes it is seen as a foreign, destabilizing force. And, economically, while it has undoubtedly benefited U.S. companies, this has sometimes been at the expense of local state-backed telecoms companies. We are also seen by many to retain disproportionate formal control over many of the institutions that oversee the technical operation of the Internet (especially the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority). In reality, the U.S. government exercises virtually no control through those mechanisms, but our critics argue that we want to retain the status quo in order to retain U.S. “hegemony” over the Internet. International perceptions about the activities of the NSA fuel that theme, but the status quo was becoming increasingly less tenable anyway.

During the coming year, there will be a series of meetings that will affect the future of the Internet and its governance, culminating in the International Telecommunication Union’s plenipotentiary meeting in South Korea that starts in October. The disclosures of the past year have complicated what was already proving a hard-sell in some parts of the world. In establishing our new strategy, it is important to appreciate these views. While no one really expects us to stop spying completely, we will have to come to terms with the fact that allegations about listening to the personal telephones of individual foreign leaders, or collecting vast amounts of metadata from allied countries, feed a narrative of overbearing U.S. cyber power. The more that people around the world buy in to that narrative, the harder our task becomes.

Despite the challenges, we and our allies cannot be missing in action in the coming global Internet debate. Almost all countries benefit from the advantages of global connectivity. For more developed countries, including those of the OECD, that is certainly the case. Meanwhile, we can count on authoritarian states such as Russia and China to prioritize international government control as they (probably rightly) see that as the arrangement least likely to challenge the legitimacy of their domestic policies.

Our problem is that, in losing the confidence of key swing states like Brazil on data privacy and surveillance, we risk also losing their support for our separate, although related, approach to Internet governance. That would be a massively retrograde step for U.S. interests.

Official Brazilian proposals for protecting its citizens from NSA spying (and a similar discussion beginning in India) therefore do not bode well for the United States. President Rousseff’s push for such policies is as much for domestic consumption as any foreign policy goal, and Brazilian moves away from the so-called “U.S.-centric Internet” will come more from pre-existing private sector initiatives than anything her own government can do. However, they are important because they bleed into separate debates about the role of states in Internet issues and wider governance issues, adding momentum to a more general global movement away from U.S. leadership at a time when we have begun to silence ourselves.

The globalization of Internet architecture is not a bad thing—it is just a natural reflection of the growth of the Internet around the world, as more and more non-Western users come online. But we should seek to guide how that transition happens and ensure it does not take the Internet and its users into a worse place. If a weakening of U.S. leadership also results in too much of a move away from the (largely liberal and free market) values that have dominated the development of the Internet to this point, that would be a bad thing—for the world, not just us. It could drive the “fragmentation” of the global Internet through the building of more and more barriers to the free flow of information. And, it could lead to a further weakening of the (already heavily contested) norm that states should limit their interference with the content that flows over the net.

That is why you need to act and act soon—for both shorter-term tactical and long-term strategic reasons. The short-term challenge is to give your officials the best possible negotiating position in the forthcoming round of Internet governance discussions. We believe that that would come from a clear signal that this is a personal priority for you.

More importantly, now is the time to better determine and shape our long-term goals. The sooner that we can articulate a clear, robust case for a U.S. vision for the future of the Internet, the better. And that needs to be one that, while acknowledging the natural shift away from U.S. control, makes both the pragmatic and principled arguments for preserving the values that have made the Internet such a successful driver of positive global economic, political and social change, and for governance structures that can be depended upon to maintain that success.


This is an important period for the future of global governance, the information economy and what the Internet means for how states relate to one another. This initiative should be an administration priority. If, however, we allow embarrassment from the Snowden revelations to prevent us from taking a proper leadership role, we will not only exacerbate the already considerable damage done to U.S. standing, but we will hand a gift to those who would diminish both U.S. and global democratic interests. You should act to better organize us to lead and set the tone quickly—both within the U.S. government and internationally—to ensure our arguments prevail in the forthcoming battle of online ideas.

Read last year’s Big Bets and Black Swans memo by Peter W. Singer and Thomas Wright, “An Obama Doctrine on New Rules of War” »