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Internet Border Patrol?

August 17, 2001

Tags Big GovernmentFree MarketsGlobal EconomyMedia and CultureThe Police StateU.S. EconomyInterventionism

In response to the Code Red computer worm, CNET News Executive Editor David Coursey, in his column entitled Cure for Code Red: An Internet border patrol? advocates some measures that, while they may be intended to prevent future outbreaks, would instead ensure a further diminution of our freedoms.

Stating that "if our homes were as much under siege as our computers are, we'd have troops in the streets and martial law," Mr. Coursey  advocates a type of cyber martial law to police the flow of Internet information.   However, he claims that his recommendations would prevent just that, repeatedly drawing analogies with statist interventions in the real world.

Like all statists before him, Coursey claims that we can head off future government intervention if we only do what is needed today. "We can head that drastic an action off—but only if we're ready to make some changes."

In his column, Mr. Coursey recommends the following: the removal of anonymity from Internet behavior; a  system of national routers and firewalls; national borders on the Internet, perhaps with a "most-trusted-nation" status and a "rogue state" designation; Internet-based economic sanctions—an e-commerce embargo—to bring nations into line; an Internet "border patrol" or "coast guard"; and an Internet Customs Bureau to tax and track evasion. 

Sensing reactions, such as this article, to his recommendations, Mr. Coursey chides that

if all this sounds like I am creating a cyber police state, well, that's what I thought you would think. But what I am actually describing are well-known features of the physical world—defense, taxation, law enforcement—applied to the Internet. And as the Internet becomes more and more the fabric of our business and personal lives, I feel quite certain many of these things will come to pass. For the Internet to become civilized, it will need to become a real civil society in which rules matter and violators are punished.

We all know these rules are rarely—and only then by coincidence—the product of "civil society." The laws of the state are noncivil by their nature; that is, products of back-room deals and horse-trading on the floor of the Congress and other legislatures that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Using the real-world examples Mr. Coursey cites, we can see that economic embargoes exist to shut down foreign competition, and that most-favored trade status (his model for "most-trusted-nation") exists to regulate trade between domestic and foreign cartels.  

We can also see that the use of encryption and other methods to secure privacy and anonymity is indispensable for the work of organizations like Amnesty International, which rely on a secret network of informants to expose the increasing number of governments that resort to torture and indeterminate imprisonment, or governments that act on behalf of another government. And is increasingly needed by citizens in general in the face of the dictatorial streak of all Western governments.

As in the real world—where governments claim the absolute right to close borders, censor mail and other communication, wage economic trade wars on uncooperative states, and unleash police forces on unsuspecting populations to trample their rights on the offhand chance that they might catch a criminal—Mr. Coursey now suggests that we all apply this model to our online activities—against our will, of course.

The agencies and powers that Mr. Coursey advocates are truly frightening. For example, a network of firewalls and routers established by the state in Mr. Coursey's analogies to the real world would at a moment's notice allow the federal government—not known for its judicious use of force—to shut down Internet communication with the rest of the world indeterminately (or, if necessary in their view, permanently). 

Under this scheme, the government would set the filtering parameters for the firewalls; the Internet IRS would block online purchases that don't include Big Brother's cut; and the Internet "border patrol" would have to scan e-mails to verify users' signatures in order to approve each e-mail transmission.  Why should any government have this power?

Coursey's recommendations would unleash a vast centralized government without jurisdiction and limits —a government even more dictatorial and managerial over our every action.  We would become a people no longer represented, but rather managed like barnyard livestock.  Furthermore, by approving encryption standards (with the state no doubt holding a master key) and policing what people see and do online, these bureaucrats would determine what sites we are allowed to visit and what we can read. 

Mr. Coursey fails to realize the futility of the drastic actions he advocates. No bureaucracy can match the ingenuity and innovation of those who would take enormous personal satisfaction in embarrassing the government by devising ways to evade its controls.  One only needs to observe the drug war to see that. The bureaucratic sloth and entitlement that we all know would, in fact, pose a greater danger to those who trust in the government's ability to protect them.

For years now people have been able to cope with the anarchy of the Internet and the threats of rogue users and viruses.  Users may ignore unsolicited e-mails and learn to open attachments from unknown and untrusted sources only at their own risk.  Users may also seek to verify information by checking other sources, or they may simply practice the common-sense actions people take every day in the real world.

Mr. Coursey's solutions are no solutions at all. Like Bastiat's tale of the shopkeeper's broken window and the crowd of onlookers, Mr. Coursey fails to see the lost opportunity costs in his effort to make a bad situation better. If adopted, his recommendations would make us all much worse off. The social costs to liberty, property, and privacy from his proposals far outweigh the material costs lost in cases such as the I Love You virus and Code Red. 

While Mr. Coursey commendably attempts to increase the safety of all of us, it has been the private sector and the free market that have worked to counter every virus threat with a fix, and that otherwise keeps an eye out for criminal elements that threaten the flow of commerce on the Web. No government bureaucracy can match that efficiency. A shortsighted effort to put government in charge would have the effect of turning the Internet's marketplace of information into a vast state-controlled information gulag. 


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