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The future of the Internet, according to Republicans

‘If you’re going to close the Internet, realize, America, what that entails.’


Patrick Howell O'Neill


The future of the Internet came into full focus Tuesday night in the final Republican presidential debate of 2015. Importantly, the event came just weeks after terrorist attacks in Paris and California forcefully grabbed the attention of the American public.

Donald Trump, the leading GOP candidate, said one week ago that he would consider “closing up the Internet” as part of a war against the Islamic State.

On Tuesday night, he doubled down on the remarks.

“I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody.”

“I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” Trump said. “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet. Yes, sir, I am.”

Trump’s plan for the future of the Net is to expand the partnership between Washington and Silicon Valley to “figure out a way that ISIS cannot do what they’re doing.”

“We should be using our brilliant people, our most brilliant minds to figure a way that ISIS cannot use the Internet,” he said. “And then on second, we should be able to penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS. And we can do that if we use our good people.”

Trump’s plan for the Internet hints at greater U.S. spying and control but lacks specifics in any respect.

Only one candidate offered any real push back on Trump’s proposals.

“If you’re going to close the Internet, realize, America, what that entails,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said. “That entails killing the First Amendment. It’s no small feat.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, on the other hand, zeroed in on exactly what he felt was one of the biggest specific troubling issue facing the future of the Internet.

“Encryption is a major problem,” he said.

Although Kasich distanced himself from Trump’s proposal on “closing up the Internet,” he immediately and repeatedly targeted encryption technology as one of the biggest problems facing America’s war on terror.

“There is a big problem. It’s called encryption. And the people in San Bernardino were communicating with people who the FBI had been watching. But because their phone was encrypted, because the intelligence officials could not see who they were talking to, it was lost.

“We have to solve the encryption problem. It is not easy. A president of the United States, again, has to bring people together, have a position. We need to be able to penetrate these people when they are involved in these plots and these plans. And we have to give the local authorities the ability to penetrate to disrupt. That’s what we need to do. Encryption is a major problem, and Congress has got to deal with this and so does the president to keep us safe.” 

Kasich’s statements line up with arguments from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) who is currently working on a bill to “pierce” encryption with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Encryption technology encodes data so that only authorized parties can read it. That means that if you and a friend trade encrypted emails, no criminals, governments, or corporations can read them without your permission. Encryption is used so commonly to protect e-commerce and Internet traffic of all types that it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ve encountered it today. Encryption is also used by criminals and spies and terrorists to protect their data and communications.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki said “we need is a backdoor” into encryption, referring to an intentional weakness in encryption technology that allows law enforcement to access the data.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) agreed: “The bottom line is, we’re at war. They’re trying to come here to kill us all and it’s up to the government to protect you within constitutional means. Any system that would allow a terrorist to communicate with somebody in our country, and we can’t find out what they’re saying, is stupid.”

FBI Director James Comey, who’s met with America’s biggest tech companies to warn them about the “public safety and national security risks” of encryption, says the Obama administration is not currently seeking legislation on encryption, though that may soon change.

They are, however, trying to convince Silicon Valley firms that encryption-by-default on iPhones and Android devices cannot continue. Instead, they say they want the removal of encryption, or backdoor access for the government, on a voluntary basis from American tech firms.

Many of America’s biggest tech companies, academics, computer scientists, and civil liberties activists have opposed any legal curtailing of encryption technology as the issue has popped up increasingly in the last year.

“If you’re going to close the Internet, realize, America, what that entails.” 

“There is overwhelming consensus in the technical community that even ostensibly ‘secure’ backdoors put the systems into which they are incorporated at increased risk of outside attack and compromise,” cryptographer Matt Blaze wrote in the Washington Post. “At best, a backdoor greatly increases the ‘attack surface’ of the system and creates rich new opportunities for unauthorized exploitation of hidden (and inevitable) software bugs, to say nothing of the human-scale processes that manage the access.”

Computer-security researchers like Nicholas Weaver, meanwhile, argue that while encryption limits investigations, technology like cellphones and personal computers actually make surveillance easier than ever before due to the massive amount of the data they produce. And several former national security officials spoke with journalists recently in order to push government toward embracing strong encryption.

Paul is the only unabashedly proencryption Republican candidate for president. He wasn’t asked about the issue during last night’s debates, however, and never spoke on it.

Photo via Muffet/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III

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