Let’s Craft the Perfect Internet Policy… No, Wait, It’s Already Been Done!

by on February 15, 2012 · 4 comments

Friends of Internet freedom, I need your assistance. I think we need to develop a principled, pro-liberty blueprint for Internet policy going forward. Can you help me draw up five solid principles to guide that effort?

No, wait, don’t worry about it… it has has already been done!

As I noted in my latest weekly Forbes column, “Fifteen years ago, the Clinton Administration proposed a paradigm for how cyberspace should be governed that remains the most succinct articulation of a pro-liberty, market-oriented vision for cyberspace ever penned. It recommended that we rely on civil society, contractual negotiations, voluntary agreements, and ongoing marketplace experiments to solve information age problems. In essence, they were recommending a high-tech Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm (to the Internet).”

That was the vision articulated by President Clinton’s chief policy counsel Ira Magaziner, who was in charge of crafting the administration’s Framework for Global Electronic Commerce in July 1997.  I was blown away by the document then and continue to genuflect before it today. Let’s recall the five principles at the heart of this beautiful Framework:

1. The private sector should lead. The Internet should develop as a market driven arena not a regulated industry. Even where collective action is necessary, governments should encourage industry self-regulation and private sector leadership where possible.

2. Governments should avoid undue restrictions on electronic commerce. In general, parties should be able to enter into legitimate agreements to buy and sell products and services across the Internet with minimal government involvement or intervention. Governments should refrain from imposing new and unnecessary regulations, bureaucratic procedures or new taxes and tariffs on commercial activities that take place via the Internet.

3. Where governmental involvement is needed, its aim should be to support and enforce a predictable, minimalist, consistent and simple legal environment for commerce. Where government intervention is necessary, its role should be to ensure competition, protect intellectual property and privacy, prevent fraud, foster transparency, and facilitate dispute resolution, not to regulate.

4. Governments should recognize the unique qualities of the Internet. The genius and explosive success of the Internet can be attributed in part to its decentralized nature and to its tradition of bottom-up governance. Accordingly, the regulatory frameworks established over the past 60 years for telecommunication, radio and television may not fit the Internet. Existing laws and regulations that may hinder electronic commerce should be reviewed and revised or eliminated to reflect the needs of the new electronic age.

5. Electronic commerce on the Internet should be facilitated on a global basis. The Internet is a global marketplace. The legal framework supporting commercial transactions should be consistent and predictable regardless of the jurisdiction in which a particular buyer and seller reside.

It doesn’t get much better than that. Sure, some will nitpick about some of the Clinton Administration’s views on a few issues like encryption and copyright, but the fact remains that we would be hard-pressed today to come with a better set of general principles to guide Internet policymaking than those five. And these principles can be embraced in a non-partisan fashion. Liberal and conservatives alike should learn to abandon their pet regulatory issues and instead embrace this more principled approach to keeping government’s paws off the Net before cyberspace gets smothered by red tape both here and abroad.

Finally, I encourage you to also check out this remarkable speech that Ira Magaziner delivered two years after issuing the Framework in which he argued that “even if it were desirable to centrally control the Internet in some way, it is impossible, and life is too short to spend too much time doing things that are impossible. By the same token, we need to respect the nature of the medium in the sense that technology moves very quickly, and any policy that is tied to a given technology is going to be outmoded before it is enacted.”

He concluded that speech by noting that we should rely “first and foremost on the marketplace and on self-regulation, of limited and highly targeted government involvement based on consensus, of non-partisan debate and international cooperation. Most importantly of all,” he said, we should “retain a sense of humility and…acknowledge that none of us can, on these issues at least, claim to have all the answers.”

Yes, yes, YES!  Such humility is sorely lacking in our policymakers today.

So, who will join me in renewing the fight for the Clinton-Magaziner vision for the Internet policy?

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