The Internet is growing up fast.
More and more of everyday life is moving online, from 140-character reactions to last night’s Mets game to baby pictures posted on Facebook. U.S. retailers expect about a quarter-trillion dollars of Internet sales this year. Governments, meanwhile, are training cohorts of cyberwarriors to carry out attacks on foreign computers while protecting those at home.
In only two decades, the Internet has become the world’s chosen medium for almost all daily interaction. But policy-makers and the media have been slow to categorize possible harm done online as anything but virtual.
The revelation that the National Security Agency conducted mass surveillance on millions of Internet and mobile phone users shocked the public in its very real and very personal nature. It underscored the transformation of the Internet into a medium with its own marketplaces, town halls and battlefields. And like any city or country, its streets must be policed and its businesses regulated.
American and Chinese leaders will discuss their nations’ rocky online relationship at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue this week in Washington. Both nations have criticized each other for competing cyberattacks, including those by Chinese hackers targeting private U.S. businesses.
The dialogue can’t come soon enough, as it will set the tone for future cybersecurity cooperation between the two powers, said Mark Jaycox of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. Officials will likely establish a “red telephone” for the issue between top security officials in Washington and Beijing, he added, easing further discussions.
But diplomacy won’t improve security alone. The Pentagon and other agencies must shift resources to better protect U.S. citizens and firms from growing online threats.
Congress, for its part, must modernize Internet law to balance security and liberty, just as it does with the rest of the legal system. The federal anti-hacking law, for example, was written in 1986 with broad language that criminalizes actions as minor as lying about your age on Facebook, thereby violating the website's terms of service agreement.
Attaching the prefix “cyber” to words such as “terror” or “spying” has been both catchy and useful to decribe activity taking place online. But for the purposes of understanding Internet bullying or fighting online crime, for example, the term is “vague and ambiguous,” Jaycox said.
More nuance will be sorely needed as the Internet continues growing into an extension of the real world. Online activity -- be it for good or ill -- doesn’t occur in a vacuum.