Donald Trump has joined a group whose members circulate among the upper ranks of American politics.
Unfortunately for the Republican presidential candidate, that group consists of politicians who have displayed a poor comprehension of the Internet. In Trump's case, it was the idea spouted earlier this month that the United States could turn off the parts of "our" Internet used by terrorists.
It's tough to understand the Internet. There is a reason many of the people who design and operate it hold advanced degrees in computer science. But as the Internet extends into every corner of our lives -- rewriting the rules of communication, education, entertainment and now driving -- it is increasingly important for leaders to understand how the Internet works. Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, DC, spends a lot of his time trying to make technology understandable to politicians and to make laws understandable to technologists. The average lawmaker doesn't have a good grasp of the topic, he said.
"As much as a kindergartner knows about the real world around them is about as much as we can expect Congress members to understand about tech," Hall said, based on his numerous meetings.
During election seasons in the United States, bold statements are abundant. Trump is hardly alone.
Here's a look at some howlers by political figures, past and present.
Former President George W. Bush displayed an imperfect grasp of metaphor and grammar on the campaign trail in 2000 when he asked, "Will the highways on the Internet become more few?" There's nothing technologically wrong with the statement, but it hardly shows a fluency with the "information superhighway" concept that then-rival Al Gore popularized.
Speaking of Gore, the former senator and presidential candidate endured much ribbing after his 1999 statement, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." He actually was a Net champion for years and understood it better than most. He also took the needling in stride, saying later that year, "The day I made that statement, about inventing the Internet, I was tired because I'd been up all night inventing the camcorder."
Ted Stevens, a former senator from Alaska, eclipsed Bush as a target for mockery when in 2006 he called the Internet a "series of tubes" when discussing the plight of Internet service providers who must transmit streaming video to consumers. Here's more of his speech:
I just the other day got, an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially...
Enormous entities...want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes.
And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled, and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material.
Leaving aside matters of business fairness, the "series of tubes" idea isn't a terrible metaphor, but it does oversimplify the Net. Stevens' statement that his staff sent him "an Internet" hardly enhanced his tech cred either.
Hillary Clinton, formerly a senator and the secretary of state and now a Democratic presidential candidate, wants to keep terrorists from using the Internet for recruitment and operations. To make that idea real, she has called for a "Manhattan-like project," in other words, a massive national investment in research and development akin to the one that produced the atomic bomb in World War II. Specifically, though, she has called for a means of weakening encryption. Her words from a December debate:
I would hope that, given the extraordinary capacities that the tech community has and the legitimate needs and questions from law enforcement, that there could be a Manhattan-like project, something that would bring the government and the tech communities together to see they're not adversaries, they've got to be partners.
It doesn't do anybody any good if terrorists can move toward encrypted communication that no law enforcement agency can break into before or after. There must be some way. I don't know enough about the technology...to be able to say what it is, but I have a lot of confidence in our tech experts.
Tech experts have been studying encryption for decades. The bottom line is that the encryption that keeps our e-commerce purchases from leaking credit card numbers and protects government communications from the prying eyes of foreign governments is the same technology that abets criminals and terrorists. Weakening encryption so the FBI can go after organized crime and so the CIA can go after ISIS terrorists also hurts encryption's tremendous benefits. As Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has been saying over and over of late, opening a back door into encryption technology for the good-guy government investigators inevitably lets in the bad guys too.
The US government's call for back doors in technology had abated this year but resumed after the Paris terrorist attacks in November. FBI Director James Comey and CIA Director John Brennan have renewed efforts to get Apple and Google to undo the addition of encryption technology used in communications and data storage. But it was Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, who said the "Achilles heel in the Internet is encryption."
Encryption does indeed protect evildoers, though in the case of the Paris attacks it seems terrorists communicated without encryption. Regardless, encryption is arguably closer to Achilles' shield than his heel, given that it enables businesses and the general public to embrace a world-spanning communication medium without the fear of prying eyes.
Ted Cruz, a Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate, tweeted in 2014 that "Net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet." Judging by his elaboration that "the Internet should not operate at the speed of government," he was trying to suggest that treating all Internet traffic equally would require heavy-handed government regulation.
Broadband and wireless companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon may not like the Federal Communications Commission's ideas about how to enforce Net neutrality, but Cruz's attempt to steer anti-Obamacare sentiment toward Net neutrality showed a lack of appreciation for the subtleties of the debate. As a practical matter of populism, it's not necessarily smart to side with incumbent telecommunications companies against popular pro-Net neutrality companies like Netflix and Google.
Circling back, Trump said this about the Internet earlier this month: "I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet."
Where to start? First, "our Internet" in the sense of a technology controlled by the United States is an outmoded idea. The US was instrumental in getting it started, but people at the Internet Engineering Task Force, World Wide Web Consortium and other standards groups are as international as they come. If you doubt that, look at the arrival of Internet domains written in Chinese, Russian and Arabic. Second, shutting down the Internet is no easy task, as Egypt learned during the Arab Spring uprising earlier this decade when people used suitcase-mounted satellite links and other means to sidestep the ban. The Internet was explicitly designed as a decentralized technology that would withstand a nuclear attack destroying many nodes. Last, cutting off sections of the Internet to disrupt communications from terrorists could also hurt people near the terrorists who don't agree with them.
Representatives for Trump, Clinton, Cruz and Feinstein did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump's ideas may spawn headlines, but quieter statements are also worth dissecting.
"The egregious ones are ones that are really easy to see quickly," Hall said. "The ones that are a little more insidious or that will have a big impact are not as plainly incorrect."
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