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Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

From inside the beltway: watching Waxman et al working the fields

In Policy on July 28, 2009 at 3:24 am

This summer in DC, we live in interesting times. Not only are we unusually likely to hear gunshots on the national mall, or fear imminent and deadly collisions on the Metro – oh no. The greatest fears, the looming things that fill my life as an intern with fear and trembling, come from the throats of House Agriculture Committee members, the ominous lineup at a hearing, the writings of renowned Princeton professors. Environmentalists look at the House climate bill, its massive, morning-of-vote manager’s amendment, Senate stirrings, and “aspirational” G8 emission reduction targets in awe. I have found myself open-mouthed at my computer screen and the television. “They must know what that means,” I’ll say, until the next shortfall, the next halfhearted compromise – “or don’t they?”

All around my ideological corner, we are alarmed. But for policymakers all around this fine city, global climate change seems – at most – just a wave to ride.

My area of expertise when it comes to wave-riders lies in the agriculture sector, where the waves are quite crowded. Biotech, ethanol, organic, you name it – if it’s ag, it wants a piece of the climate legislation pie*. And boy, is ag ever eating well.

Ag’s slice of Waxman-Markey (or HR 2454, or just “the House cap-and-trade bill”) comes in diverse flavors. First, unlike practically every other sector of the economy, agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions – which amount to over 7% of national emissions (see EPA GHG inventory) – are not to be reported, regulated, or capped. This, on its own, is an apparently arbitrary** boon to agribusiness that many environmentalists likely find reproachable.

Additionally***, rural electrical cooperatives would receive a considerable portion of cap-and-trade permits for free under the House bill – understandable, given that co-ops are nonprofit organizations serving vast swaths of America.

But wait! Most of ag’s pie slice consists of juicy offsets. If an agriculturalist did; happen to reduce his or her emissions under Waxman-Markey, he or she could have those reductions verified as offsets and sell them to businesses in capped sectors in place of emissions allowances. In other words, ag can make money doing what other sectors have to spend money doing.****

What constitutes an offset? On the official list, introduced in an amendment by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), are plenty of organic practices, such as cover cropping and reduced fertilizer application, along with more expensive no-till methods and waste digesters. Some claims are legitimate and some are questionable, but so far, regardless of scientific validity, ag has gotten practically everything it’s asked for.

I cordially invite you to take a look, for instance, at recent and past research on the usefulness of no-till agriculture to the end of carbon sequestration in soils. You can find an interesting discussion of that controversy over on the Climate Progress blog. The current, very erasable bottom line is that we don’t really know if no-till does any good so far as climate is concerned – but there it is on the list, emblazoned by Chairman Peterson because, yea verily, this pie is tasty.

All that said, inside the beltway, we are quite aware that health care is the issue of the day. The Senate will not finish markups on its climate and energy legislation until September. With whatever additional time is allotted – I hazard that additional time will be allotted – the legislation will hopefully come to a vote and become law (or not) in time for the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen this December. There’s still a lot of room for change to occur – probably negative change, from an enviro’s perspective, since the Senate ag bloc is even stronger than that in the House. The slice will grow larger or, if you prefer, the wave-riding will not cease.

But Science in Society is about the interface between science and policy – in essence, about trying to collapse the difference between what is usual, probable, and political and what is right. So I encourage you to do your own research on the provisions of Waxman-Markey, and on the activities of the Senate, and get in touch with your congresspeople accordingly. This is your country, your planet, and – let’s face it – your lifetime that will see the impacts of this legislation. Don’t let lobbyists or the party line gobble it up.


*Please excuse my abominable mixed metaphor. They happen to the best of us.

**Of course, nothing is arbitrary. Chairman Peterson assembled a voting bloc containing enough farm state Democrats to kill Waxman-Markey if concessions to ag were not made. Well, shucks – politics.

***There is yet another flavor of ag handout pie, and that flavor tastes of corn starch and burnt rainforests. Yes indeed, everyone’s favorite climate controversy: bioenergy. It is a topic deserving of its own post, so I will tell you about it later. Promise.

****If it sounds like I’m needlessly ragging on hapless small farmers, please consider that the vast majority of America’s agricultural products are made by large-scale, industrial agribusiness. Very few quaint red farmhouses have been harmed by my enviro-vitriol.


Flu intervention: then and now

In Biology, Policy on April 27, 2009 at 8:18 pm
Policemen in masks, San Francisco, 1918
Policemen in masks, San Francisco, 1918

In our earlier swine-flu related post, we mentioned that early intervention may well make the difference between an isolated outbreak and a deadly repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu.  Just how important is starting countermeasures early, and what kind of interventions work?  The tragedy of the Spanish flu provides a natural laboratory for public health measures, as cities throughout the US differed both in scale and timing of their interventions.

Medical science in 1918 was still getting on its feet.  The majority of older physicians of the time were not educated under the scientific regimen of the Flexnerian revolution.  The leading bacteriologists of the day mistakenly believed that influenza was a bacterial disease, and it was not until 1943 when it was recognized that a virus was responsible. As a result, medical intervention in the pandemic was of questionable value, not least because most of the best doctors had been drafted to serve in the military for WWI.

However, nonmedical interventions were also employed.  These included quarantines, isolation of the sick in makeshift wards, closure of public gathering places such as churches and schools.  A recent study examined the effects of timing and duration of these measures, with the major findings summarized in two graphs:

C: Mortality vs. time to intervention.  D: Mortality vs. length of intervention

C: Mortality vs. time to intervention. D: Mortality vs. length of intervention

The study examined the experience of 23 cities in implementing various public health measures, and measured the impact of response time and duration of intervention.  They found that quick action (as measured by when flu cases rose to double the baseline number of cases) had a strong correlation with reduced mortality, and that maintaining the measures was important to keep the disease from spreading.

St. Louis, for example, closed schools and canceled public gatherings early, and maintained quarantines for over ten weeks, leading to a significantly lower mortality rate.  However, not all cities were as proactive; the median duration of these interventions was only four weeks, insufficient to protect the population.  Some cities were even counterproductive: Philadelphia hosted a military parade to promote war bonds, over the objections of numerous doctors and public health officials.  Soon afterwards, it became one of the hardest-hit cities in the US.  (Here is more, from the New York Times.)

In a sense, we are both better and worse off than those who experienced the Spanish flu.  On one hand, our medical science is more advanced; we can now produce vaccines against new influenza strains, albeit at a delay of several months.  (Because the flu virus mutates rapidly, older vaccines, including the one prescribed this past winter, are ineffective against emergent strains such as this one.)  We have also learned the importance of quick and sustained public health measures: witness the recent warning against traveling to Mexico as a result of the disease.

However, modern transportation makes it easier for civilians to pass the flu from country to country, making it harder to isolate the disease to a single region.  In 1918 the flow of soldiers throughout the US and between the US and Europe are credited with helping to spreada disease that originated in the Midwest to every corner of the globe.  This time it may be passenger jets, not steamships, that spread this emerging pandemic.

New swine flu outbreak

In Biology, Policy on April 26, 2009 at 7:42 pm

For years we’ve been worried about a bird influenza strain (H5N1) mutating to infect humans and permit human-to-human transmission.  Now it appears that a pig flu (H1N1) has in fact adapted to humans, infecting almost a thousand in Mexico and several in the US, and causing nearly 100 deaths.

The United States government declared a public health emergency Sunday as the number of identified cases of swine flu in the nation rose to 20.

The declaration is part of a “standard operating procedure” that will make available additional government resources to combat the virus, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at the White House.

Additional cases of swine flu are expected to be reported in the coming days, added Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Past flu pandemics have caused up to a million casualties, and the epic 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic is estimated to have killed up 10% of young adults worldwide.  However, there have been false alarms as well; a few cases in 1976 prompted massive immunizations in the US for an epidemic that never materialied, and the vaccine caused a number of adverse reactions.

Unlike earlier epidemics, however, it appears that public health services are being more proactive, both in monitoring the disease and in responding, in Mexico, with closure of gathering places such as schools.  It’s thus very possible that we will avoid repeating the mistakes of past pandemics that led to mass casualties.  However, this is a story to keep an eye on.

Here’s a presentation that two classmates and I did for an infectious disease class.  It talks about the experience of the 1918 flu pandemic, the biology of the influenza virus, and the precautions necessary to prevent a new pandemic (bird flu in this case, but relevant to today).

Masks in Mexico City subway

Masks in Mexico City subway

Just the science?

In Biology, Policy on March 17, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Last week, the Obama administration rolled back restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on newly created embryos.  When he was in the Senate, Obama said the following:

…the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.

A recurrent theme of this blog is that science policy is more than just science.  Like all policy decisions, it is informed by facts but fundamentally comes down to a question of priorities.  What is the value of a human embryo, and is it worth trading off X of these to develop Y therapies?  What is the cost of climate change, and how much are we willing to pay economically to mitigate the effects?  The “judgment of science” can tell us the characteristics of a blastocyst and vaguely sketch out possible benefits from stem cell research.  But the decision whether to have the government fund it is a political and ideological one, and to point to one side of the argument as “science trumping ideology” is disingenuous.

The Economist article goes on to point out that Obama opposes human cloning.  In his remarks on embryonic stem cell research he called human cloning “dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society,” and promised that “we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.”  Now there are good reasons for this opposition: even on animals there is a very low success rate, and even for successful clones there are often lingering medical issues.  But notice how the reasoning has suddenly changed – he is morally opposed to human cloning based on these known risks, thus justifying at least defunding of the research and possibly (the wording is unclear) banning it altogether.  From science trumping ideology we now have ideology directing science.

Not that this makes these decisions necesarily wrong.  There are strong arguments for embryonic stem cell research, which become stronger or weaker depending on the value you place on a human blastocyst.  Likewise many (but not all) believe that the suffering attendant upon human cloning efforts is too great to justify scientific advance in that field.  But we need to be clear that these decisions are informed by science but ultimately based on personal beliefs and priorities, not solely on “the judgment of science.”

Politicians ought to appoint scientific advisors on a nonideological basis and listen to what they have to say, but it is ultimately their job to issue a judgment based on their value system.  However rhetorically convenient it may be, it is disingenuous for them to claim to follow science’s lead when approving of research, only to voice moral disapproval when they wish to hit the ideological brakes.

Obama administration nixes Yucca Mountain

In Policy, Uncategorized on March 6, 2009 at 5:41 am

From the AP:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Thursday the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada no longer is an option for storing highly radioactive nuclear waste, brushing aside criticism from several Republican lawmakers.

To date about $13.5 billion has been spent on the project and last year the Bush administration submitted an application for a construction and operating license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission….

Instead, Chu said the Obama administration believes the nearly 60,000 tons of waste in the form of used reactor fuel can remain at nuclear power plants while a new, comprehensive plan for waste disposal is developed.

But President Barack Obama’s first budget a week ago proposes scrapping all spending on Yucca Mountain except for what is needed to answer questions from the NRC on the license application “while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.”

The lack of a permanent storage site for nuclear waste has been a significant impediment to the expansion of nuclear power in the US.  Despite the vague talk of other options for waste disposal, this plan means that plants will have to continue to store their waste on-site, and above ground, making the construction of new power plants very difficult.  And given the amount of time and money required to prepare the Nevada site so far, it is unlikely that another solution will be forthcoming anytime soon.

While environmental advocates are usually the first to promote clean-energy subsidies, many have been lukewarm towards nuclear power.  Some of this aversion is due to safety – while there are 104 nuclear power plants operating in the US currently, the specter of Three Mile Island still haunts the industry.  Some of it is cultural, feeding off an aversion towards the “unnatural” in the environmental movement.

Yet of the various zero-emissions energy sources, nuclear power has been the most significant success, generating 80% of the electricity used by France.  (The only alternative energy that comes close is hydrothermal, which generates a similar proportion of Iceland’s energy.  But Iceland has both a smaller population and extraordinarily favorable geography for power generation.)  Because of this success, some within the environmental movement have been pushing for increased nuclear power as the best option to combat CO2 emissions.

But, like the majority of the environmental movement, Obama has a record of being less than wholehearted in supporting nuclear power, even as he pushes for subsidizing less quantitatively promising – but politically safer – sources of alternative energy.  The safety problem with nuclear power is a real and significant challenge, but by piling up waste at over a hundred discrete sites, this move will likely only exacerbate the problem in the short to medium run.  In the long run the risk may decrease, if only because nuclear power generation will stop altogether as old plants are shut down.

The cynic in me must note that the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, is from…you guessed it, Nevada.

Visa trouble keeps foreign scientists out

In Policy on March 4, 2009 at 5:44 pm

We should all be worried about this. Science and engineering students and postdocs from abroad are finding it more difficult to get visas, and experiencing longer delays. This is making researchers increasingly unwilling to study or schedule conferences in the US — we can no longer assume we’re the rest of the world’s first choice. As Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it: “There are other countries that want these folks. They are the best of the best. They have other options.” Since Sept. 11, stricter security procedures have been hard on scientists trying to work here, especially in national labs that now have policies discriminating against some foreigners. If you’re unlucky enough to be a scientist from somewhere like Iran, you could be handcuffed, interrogated, mistreated, and detained in prison cells after you thought you’d obtained a visa. The UK has already started revising visa rules to help visiting scientists — will we follow suit?

The main cause of delays is a requirement, since Sept. 11, that each reviewing agency give a thumbs-up to the visa candidate. (Before 9/11, a visa could be granted if no agency objected within 10 days.) One remedy would be to hire more reviewers, or to rely more on the scientific community’s judgment by speeding the visa process if a U.S. university or scientific association can vouch for the foreign researcher.

Related: a miserably hilarious chart on the U.S. immigration process.

Climate change and scientific objectivity

In Policy on March 2, 2009 at 10:38 pm

A continuation of our discussion of scientific input into policy debates:

The climate change debate is unusual in that scientists are understood as being almost monolithically on one side of the debate; in the public eye it is common to view it as The Scientists vs. The Politicians.  Part of this is because of the cognitive biases of scientists and the blurring between positive and normative positions, and these are effects we see in other debates, for instance about public health in third world countries.  But part of this phenomenon is structural: even under ideal cases, the debate about costs and benefits are split across disciplines.  One technocratic approach to evaluating climate change would be as follows:

1. Climate scientists estimate the extent of anthropogenic climate change, creating a graph of emitted greenhouse gases vs oC change in temperature, with nice error bars.

2. Economists calculate the costs of any arbitrary temperature change, along with the costs of an adjustment to any arbitrary CO2 emission level.  They find the point at which marginal cost equals marginal benefit.

3. Political scientists refine this estimate by calculating the probable public-choice inefficiencies of government policies.  They formulate the optimal policy, which will probably reduce emissions slightly less than the economists’ model proposes.

Even in this model, when everyone stays inside their disciplinary lines, scientists will be in the position of pointing out the costs of our current choices.  It is up to the social scientists to say yes, this is true, but the adjustment to lower emissions levels is not costless.

Given these roles, and given that scientists, politicians, and journalists all have their own axes to grind, it is not surprising that scientists are often presented as being monolithically on the interventionist side on the climate change debate.  The only way for their research not to be simplified into “Needs Action Now!” is if it claimed that either climate is static or that climate cannot be changed by man, both of which are almost certainly false.  But the sophisticated observer would note that their contribution is but one link on a long logical chain, a chain that needs to be viewed in its entirety to support an argument pro or con.  And honest (and modest!) scientists and journalists would do well to keep that framework in mind.

The Politics of Science

In Policy on March 2, 2009 at 4:19 am

Just a few points in response to Janice’s post.

The Tierney article is really about climate policy, at heart, so let’s talk climate. It seems to me that the situation is the following.

1.) Climate change can’t be faced without an understanding of science. Unless they want to be willfully blind, policymakers are going to have to listen to geologists, atmospheric physicists, engineers, ecologists, and so on, to make reasoned decisions.

2.) There’s significant and legitimate disagreement about our priorities, when it comes to climate change. These disagreements are more about values and politics than about science. How much do we care about the long run compared to the short run? How much do we want to sacrifice in present economic growth to protect against unlikely but catastrophic risks? How much do we care about the developing world compared to the rich world? How troubled are we by the prospect of government subsidies and mandates interfering with the market? How troubled are we by being required to consume less?

3.) The majority of climate researchers (at least, those who make their policy opinions known) favor strong emissions regulation. There are dissenters, but they are in the minority, and often affiliated with conservative think tanks.

Now, if your answers to the questions in 2.) lead you to oppose strict reductions in carbon emissions, then you’re in trouble. You have no choice but to listen to scientists — but the scientists are mostly lined up against you! If you’re Tierney, or Pielke, you rail against the “politicization of science.” But scientists — still more, scientists in Washington — are human. They can’t make themselves apolitical if they’re giving political advice.

Rather, I think we need to keep in mind that to some extent, science has its own political and philosophical slant. I’m going to hypothesize a little bit here, so bear with me. An academic scientist has dedicated years of her life to the study of nature, often forgoing a more lucrative career in the private sector, and frequently collaborating with colleagues from around the world. This suggests that scientists would be likely to
a.) be long-term thinkers
b.) have a sympathy for preserving the natural world, especially the particular subject of their research
c.) be inclined not to value financial ambition very highly
d.) not be very nationalistic; inclined to identify as closely with foreigners as with Americans

These are personal sympathies, or cognitive biases, that I think would make scientists favor different public policies than the average U.S. citizen. They’re also biases that would make scientists tend, on balance, to favor climate change legislation. (Confession: I’m an aspiring scientist, and I share all those biases to some extent.)

If we want to, as Pielke says, be honest brokers, we need to be honest about the fact that scientists have their own politics. It may be to some extent unavoidable that policy decisions advised by scientists will be scientists’ policies — technocratic and reliant on expert judgment. And there are limits even to expert knowledge; nobody in Washington is smart enough to really know which emerging clean technology promises the most success in thirty years. Maybe the challenge for policymakers is to know when to listen to scientists, and when not to.

Scientists need to keep their hats on in this political climate

In Finance and business, Policy on February 28, 2009 at 7:54 pm

A recent post by science writer John Tierney in the New York Times “Findings” column highlights Dr. Robert Pielke, Jr.’s book, The Honest Broker, which expresses a concern with scientists’ temptation to take advantage of their privileged position. Scientists in the company of non-scientists often overemphasize the credibility of their own models and speculations at the expense of politicians that don’t have the peer-reviewing ammunition that scientists do. Additionally, scientists who “enter the fray” find themselves having political debates, rather than scientific ones—Dr. Pielke wants the public, as well as the scientists, to recognize the distinction. The country is at a crucial juncture, and many will look to scientists for advice on investment options with regards to both the economy and climate change—in this light, the scrutiny is well-placed.

Although we shouldn’t jump the gun and become conspiracy theorists, it’s always prudent to revisit the important preface to critique of any science: scientists are human. It might seem like a trivial qualifier, but anyone who’s worked long enough in the sciences knows that they fight for credit, worry about their reputation, and navigate complex human networks like anyone else—most of us tend to forget this because we don’t often have the opportunity to share reflective conversations with science professors who have the honesty to look back their careers and laugh at themselves. I’m currently taking the course MOL 328 U.S. Medical Research and Researchers: Preeminence, Problems, Policies, and this post reminds me of the times that Prof. Rosenberg made polite remarks about arrogance and fiery temperaments (in reference to James Watson and Robert Gallo, respectively). Scientists’ personalities often make fascinating and amusing narratives, I assume because people so often take for granted the stereotype of scientists as disinterested, coldly intellectual fixtures that have better conversations with their computers and specimens than with other people. The strange juxtaposition of the objective reality we probe and our interpretation of it gives scientists this potentially awkward but uniquely endowed vantage point. Some make use of it, while others revel in their privacy and autonomy.

For those scientists (and academics in general) who have to defend their ideas in the public arena, debates that used to center on preliminary assumptions and gambles on plausible hypotheses are being transformed into debates that spill over from tiffs in academic journals to more personal political attacks in op-eds and press conferences. The emergence of the science blogosphere has made many scientists more accessible—by corollary, it has given contention a new place to thrive. The casual link between evolutionary theory and sociological and cultural history has encouraged people to interpret scientific results rather generously—while there are some who can thoughtfully articulate the interdisciplinary connections, it’s frightening how easily science and philosophy of science are confused.

The humanness of scientific research also introduces difficulties into collaborative projects that harbor potential for politicization. The relatively recent efforts in the last few decades to coordinate academia, government, and industry in the practice of medical research point to the impediments faced when groups with different goals and skill sets have to come to a consensus. The publication of the results of the Human Genome Project in two separate journals (Science and Nature) by two parties (at odds with one another over strategies for releasing the data), is one well-known example of the seeming irreconcilability of people’s (and scientists’) perspectives (reconciliation committees were unable to bridge the divide).

With this in mind, there are several problems with finding feasible environmental solutions that the government can pursue. For one, science advisers are inevitably going to have their own opinions on matters, and will steer funds and publicity how they see fit. I actually have very little idea how influential science advisers are, so if anyone would like to comment on this, please do. In any case, it’s problematic when scientists who’ve developed good tools and strategies are effectively ignored because the government has decided to back one public stance. Even if the government had a more multidimensional message to hash out, its inertia prevents it from reacting quickly enough to the innovations that periodically bubble up from scientists in academia and industry. Being a science major, I’m a bit lost on this one, because there are certainly times when the government primes the pump and energizes research in all sectors—what distinctions are there between the current environmental research movement and the booming medical research movement after WWII? The obvious factor is the economic fragility—post-war U.S. was the “last one standing,” but nowadays, we’re not even sure how many years it will take us to recover from the economic crisis. Even if we were to take into consideration the large wads of cash that are being handed to researchers as part of the astronomically large economic stimulus package, it’s a mystery to everyone whether stimulus money can actually be meaningfully utilized for research, which is a long-term endeavor. For more details on what the EPA plans to do with the money from the Recovery Act, look here. While it seems that the EPA is going to do a thorough clean-up job, there don’t seem to be any initiatives for creating technology for cleaner energy—something is missing the mark.

Not being an expert in policy, I am not surprised that the administration necessarily has to take a singular stance, but I am curious if there’s any way to make better use of the scientists who offer alternative (and often complementary) approaches to environmental problems. Is it a matter of freeing up regulation, federal funding, or large-scale implementation that makes the government’s role important in the furthering of these strategies, such as the air capture of carbon that Dr. Pielke feels is worth investing in? There is an incredibly palpable universal interest in environmental initiatives, but because of all the short-sighted projects and fire-lit hoops to jump through, we’re losing time while everyone lobbies for his own interests. The government lacks a systematic and diverse cooperative plan. Although the upcoming Power Shift Conference is certainly a step in the right direction, politicians’ willingness to establish effective clean energy policy has to start with a fair assessment of all the brands of environmental projects that are out there. Only then can young activists’ enthusiasm find a vehicle for realization. Tierney expresses a similar frustration when he writes, “Well, I suppose it never hurts to go on the record in opposition to a billion imaginary deaths. But I have a more immediate concern: Will Mr. Obama’s scientific counselors give him realistic plans for dealing with global warming and other threats?”

Stephen Colbert recently commented during his show (jokingly, but I suspect with some seriousness) on the parallel between the scare tactics of the Bush administration used to justify the Iraq War, and the apocalyptic grandeur of Democrats’ defense of the stimulus package. I think most people don’t care to be scared anymore–everyone knows there’s a lot at stake, even if you’re not sure what exactly the experts think it is. My feelings about expansive statements made by scientists seeking popular science sensationalism can be summed up by David Brooks’ worried remark in his recent New York Times op-ed column “The Uncertain Trumpet” on the many promises made in President Obama’s recent address: “Obama blew a mighty trumpet Tuesday night, but after you blow the trumpet, you actually have to charge.” Scientists can’t just capitalize on counting the ways that the world can end—they have a responsibility to bail us out when no one else knows how to. Along the way, the few pioneer scientist public figures are sure to blaze new trails, making the political machinery work for them, rather than working for the politics.

New Plumbing for the Internet

In Policy, Technology on February 16, 2009 at 5:49 am

For those of you who didn’t catch it, the NYT had an article yesterday titled, quite simply, “Do We Need a New Internet?“. It’s worth a few minutes of your time on the Old Internet to take a look at it.

The article’s premise is that the Internet was never created for the requirements we’re now asking of it. It was meant to be a network for the military and professors in their ivory towers. From the hardware and TCP/IP upward, the idea was to let a close knit community more easily share papers and mail.

But then a funny thing happened: the rest of the world moved in. All of a sudden, you’re not sure who your next door neighbor is. Is he the innocent server he says he is, or does he have more malicious designs? Ideally, when you can’t see the dude or dudette you’re communicating with, you’d like your network to help you out, by either limiting who can join or or limiting anonymity of the participants. Unfortunately, because academics made it, nodes on the Internet, by default, trust other nodes, and because it was commissioned by the military to be resilient in the face of Soviet attack, there’s no central control area on the Internet.

The only thing growing faster than our dependence to the Internet, it seems, is the number of ways to exploit Internet security flaws. The article does a good job of talking about the state of Int

ernet security today, describing a sort of patchwork solution to the holes we find every day. Particularly striking was the warning about the impending calamity if we continue down this increasingly futile road: “If you’re looking for a digital Pearl Harbor, we now have the Japanese ships streaming toward us on the horizon.”

This struck a chord with me because it’s not the first time I’ve head someone talk about a concerned Internet attack:

Lawrence Lessig, a respected Law Professor from Stanford University told an audience at this years Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, California, that “There’s going to be an i-9/11 event” which will act as a catalyst for a radical reworking of the law pertaining to the internet.

The article goes on to mention that…

Lessig also revealed that he had learned, during a dinner with former government Counter Terrorism Czar Richard Clarke, that there is already in existence a cyber equivalent of the Patriot Act, an “i-Patriot Act” if you will, and that the Justice Department is waiting for a cyber terrorism event in order to implement its provisions.

So far, we’ve talked about technology; now come the policy issues.

What the NYT doesn’t really bring up is what, if we were have a New Internet, it would look like. It surely wouldn’t be just about the technology: unlike during the 1970’s, governments and businesses are a lot more aware of the power of the Internet, and you can bet they’re going to want to have a say in designing this New Internet. Privacy becomes one important concern. We’ll surely be giving up some of it (a necessary cost), but who determines what’s too much? Would we give the American government be too much of our information? Are we granting the Chinese filters their wet dream?

What of companies? Do they have access to our data so they can better target their advertisements (and “enhance our Online experience”)? If ISPs get too much of a say (or if we yearn for central authority), can we say goodbye to Net Neutrality? Does doing so mean we say goodbye to YouTube?

The point is not so much to scare people (or spew anti-government, anti-corporate hate) as to remind everyone that the prospect of a New Internet designed by special interest groups is almost as scary as the prospect of living with the current Internet. The free and natural evolution of the Internet is, after all, the thing that’s allowed to the Internet to be the base for so much great innovation. But then, if we don’t do anything, we risk “cyber 9/11” and may have to live with the Government’s version of the Internet.

It’s not clear what path we’ll venture down, but either way, it looks treacherous. Welcome to the future.

The INternet

The Internet