Cutting Off Your Nose

The impending sequester won't just do short-term damage to the U.S. government. In fact, it's already hurt it more than you think.

Fiscal showdowns have become the new normal in Washington -- covered in the media like horse-race politics, with a breathless focus on who is winning, who is losing, and which side might go over the cliff in a game of budget chicken. But that coverage has largely ignored the bigger story: the degree to which budget brinkmanship has damaged governance itself across the widest range of policy areas.

The showdowns, of course, are a reflection of America's deeply dysfunctional politics, but it's more than just the political system that is broken. The repeated bluster, hostage-taking, and eleventh- (or twelfth-) hour short-term deals -- often followed by more confrontation and threats -- have made it almost impossible for government managers to plan for the future, innovate, recruit, or do that most essential and fundamental responsibility required of appointed leaders -- execute policy.

The sequester, a set of across-the-board spending cuts due to go into effect on March 1, is the most immediate problem for managers; in many cases it will mean furloughs and serious disruption in services. Take, for example, the plight of the federal executives charged with managing the Department of Agriculture's meat and poultry inspection service. Last year, the department's roughly 10,000 inspectors took more than 9 million pounds of tainted meat and poultry off supermarket shelves and out of restaurants. Since personnel make up well over 90 percent of the service's budget, however, an 8 to 10 percent budget cut imposed by this year's sequester will mean furloughs for as many as 900 inspectors.

Fewer inspectors, even for a few weeks, will mean postponed inspections and, ultimately, less meat on the market. At the same time, it will likely result in more tainted meat and poultry on shelves and in menus -- meaning more outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, and listeria (with fewer experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help contain and manage them). It will also mean more pressure on the remaining inspectors to do more with less.

Perhaps more immediately alarming is that the sequester will have the same impact on Border Patrol agents, transportation security, embassy security, and myriad programs designed to ameliorate diseases in Africa and elsewhere.

But the sequester is just one of two short-term management migraines. The second is the real possibility that managers will have to navigate through a government shutdown for days, weeks, or even months beginning in late March -- or if the past is any guide, multiple shutdowns. Some agencies and bureaus will be shuttered, others scaled back to skeletal staffs, with little idea of how long the shutdown will last.

Beyond these immediate concerns, there are a number of more serious, long-term management ailments. For years now, nearly every government agency has been operating without an appropriation -- that is, without a clear budget. As a result, managers don't know how big their operating budget will be from day to day or month to month, making it virtually impossible to innovate, add expertise, or recruit new talent. Now multiply that burden across a range of key agencies, departments, and bureaus -- from cybersecurity and aviation security to health research and drug approval. The problems with prioritization of embassy security have been well publicized since last September's attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya; they are deeply amplified by the lack of any budget certainty. Most efforts to fortify security and modernize embassies and consulates require extended contracts with contractors and others, something much harder to do without budget stability.

The problem goes beyond budgets and planning. The assault on federal workers is also making it more and more difficult to recruit people with the necessary expertise. Adding insult to injury, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill to block a 0.5 percent pay increase for federal employees, further diminishing the government's ability to attract talent. At best, the final version will be static pay (minus the days lost via furloughs from the sequester).

These measures are especially harmful in dynamic fields like cybersecurity, where America's edge depends on its ability to put its best and brightest to work. China, Russia, Iran, and even al Qaeda have ramped up their cyber-espionage activities, targeting America's defense establishment and power grids, as well as its businesses and financial institutions. They are employing an array of increasingly pernicious and sophisticated techniques -- cooked up by the best engineers and computer hackers that money can buy. But as this cyberwar ramps up, the U.S. government's budget impasse makes it more difficult to invest in expensive, cutting-edge computers and technical resources needed to combat these sophisticated probes and attacks on American businesses and U.S. government facilities and programs.

Meanwhile, as recruiting season nears at Stanford University, MIT, and other breeding grounds for technological talent, the government agencies charged with combating cyberthreats have to compete with Apple, Google, Intel, and others who offer fat pay and benefit packages -- while government recruiters can offer only budget cutbacks, forced furloughs, and near-permanent pay freezes. And the crisis is by no means confined to entry-level employees. The top federal managers, part of the elite Senior Executive Service -- the top career managers in all departments and agencies who are given enhanced recognition and responsibility to make government work -- are about to face a recruitment impasse of their own. Most are baby boomers at or near retirement age; replacing them with top-flight people under these conditions will be an equally steep challenge.

Whatever one thinks about the optimal size of government, making sure the government we have is functional should be a commonly shared goal. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go with the government you have, not the one you want. In the midst of dysfunctional tribal politics, and blinded by extreme ideology that is reinforced by talk radio, blogs, and emails, the use of brinkmanship has become the new norm -- one that is blinding us to the lasting damage it inflicts on the basic practice of governance.

Win McNamee/Getty Images


The New Westphalian Web

The future of the Internet may lie in the past. And that's not a good thing.

Nearly 365 years ago, more than 100 warring diplomats and princes got together in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück, in what is now northwestern Germany. There they signed a set of treaties that became the basic framework for our modern world: the Peace of Westphalia. Thanks to these dignitaries, we have territorial sovereignty: nation-states, demarcated by borders.

In the intervening centuries, Westphalian sovereignty has been the basic ordering principle of our societies. Empires have risen and fallen, countries come and gone. The most successful states have established internal monopolies on information and resources and have exerted discretion on what trade, ideas, money, or people crossed their borders.

But 30 years ago, humanity gave birth to one of the most disruptive forces of our time. On Jan. 1, 1983, the implementation of TCP/IP -- a standard protocol to allow computers to exchange data over a network -- turned discrete clusters of research computers into a distributed global phenomenon. It was essentially the work of three men: two engineers to write the protocol, and one to carry out the plan. It was a birth so quiet no one even has a photo of the day; a recent post by one of TCP/IP's authors, Vint Cerf, was able to turn up only a commemorative pin.

It took awhile for the Internet to make it from mainframes in universities to desktops in the home, but as it did, it birthed its own culture, full of shorthands and memes, communities and cesspools. This Internet was wild and wooly, unknown and unregulated. It was clearly a place, but a place without any familiar cultural signposts, a space beyond the boundaries of geography or identity. It deserved its own name: cyberspace.

Like all new frontiers, cyberspace's early settlers declared themselves independent -- most famously in 1996, in cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow's "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." Barlow asserted a realm beyond borders or government, rejecting the systems we use to run the physical universe. "Governments of the Industrial World," he reproached, "You have no sovereignty where we gather.… Cyberspace does not lie within your borders."

With the flip of a switch, three engineers had undone the work of more than 100 princes and diplomats.

Barlow was right, in part. Independence was a structural fact of cyberspace, and free expression and communication were baked into the network. The standards and protocols on which the Internet runs are agnostic: They don't care whether you were in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, or Boise. If they run into an attempt to block traffic, they merely reroute along a seemingly infinite network of decentralized nodes, inspiring technologist John Gilmore's maxim: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

And unlike almost every other global resource in history, the Internet largely escaped government regulation at first -- probably because no one could figure out how to make money from it. From the outset, it was managed not by governments, but by an ad hoc coalition of volunteer standards bodies and civil society groups composed of engineers, academics, and passionate geeks -- awkwardly dubbed the multistakeholder system.

So lawmakers and politicians wrung their hands over the Internet's lawlessness, gnashed their teeth at the moral decay of porn and downloads, and despaired at their inability to legislate a place without a geography. In the popular consciousness, the Internet was simultaneously a place of possibility and danger. In 1993, Time magazine warned, "People who use … the Net may be in for a shock.… Anybody can start a discussion on any topic and say anything."

It was precisely this structural independence that transformed the Internet from a mere tool for information-sharing to the world's open forum.

The rise of self-publishing tools like Blogger transformed the "third space" of cyberspace into a modern speaker's corner, offering any motivated writer a platform for his or her political views. Initially, this online free expression was often marginalized or dismissed -- the term "blogosphere" was originally a joke. But bloggers kept plugging away. In liberal democracies their free expression was guaranteed, and in closed societies connectivity was often too limited to draw any real attention.

In the past decade, however, all this has changed. Roughly 2 billion people use the Internet, in nearly every country in the world (North Korea is perhaps the last holdout). Blogs are now mainstream, and social networks have pushed self-publishing even closer to ordinary users, enabling instantaneous political and personal expression. And the Internet -- this global resource, this wild space independent of states -- has made its mark on our neatly ordered world of nations.

Information has always been power, and governments have long sought to control it. So for countries where power is a tightly controlled narrative, parsed by state television and radio stations, the Internet has been catastrophic. Its global, decentralized networks of information-sharing have routed around censorship -- just as Gilmore promised they would. It gives people an outlet to publish what the media cannot, organize where organizing is forbidden, and revolt where protest is unknown.

And the Internet isn't only threatening dictatorships. It has created new forms of political participation and protest in democracies, where it has been used to demand the decentralization of power to the people, facilitate radical transparency and information-sharing, demand responsive government, unseat corrupt authorities, organize marginalized minorities, and challenge the hegemony of traditional political heavyweights.

Naturally, systems of power have finally taken notice.

In response, governments around the world have begun to assert control, seeking to carve up the global Internet, manage it within national borders, and impose Westphalian sovereignty on the wild World Wide Web.

It's not entirely a new trend. The Great Firewall of China is almost as old as the Internet itself. But it is spreading, and taking new shapes.

Some of these efforts are explicitly about political control, imposing strict limits on what users within individual countries' borders can access. Iran's proposed halal Internet seeks to impose Islamic virtue on the browsing masses. In Russia, the state agency Roskomnadzor enforces an Internet block list that has filtered the blogs of government critics. And in Pakistan, a recently revived proposal for a national firewall targets "blasphemy" as a proxy for ideas unpopular with the government.

But some of this is about commerce and partitioning off intellectual property from a world without jurisdiction. In 2012, the United States saw proposed legislation, SOPA and PIPA, that would have made censorship a technical specification of U.S. networks and that threatened the stability of DNS -- a protocol that comprises the very backbone of the global web. And in Europe, the global trade agreement ACTA would have imposed similar restrictions -- all to reduce piracy.

Perhaps more worryingly, as countries seek to break up the Internet into neatly defined mirrors of themselves, they're trying to redefine international norms in order to justify their actions.

At the summit of the International Telecommunication Union in Dubai this past December, a bloc of countries -- RUCASS, made up of Russia, the United Arab Emirates, China, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan -- floated a proposal that tried to define a new term: the "national Internet segment," or any telecommunications networks within the territory of a state. This language, later endorsed by Bahrain and Iraq, would have allowed countries full regulation of the Internet within their borders, from filtering content to imposing fees on foreign traffic. Ultimately, it was withdrawn.

But even without new international regulations, the technical backbone of our Internet is increasingly controlled at the national level. Two years ago, as the Arab world exploded in popular protest, governments responded by simply shutting off the Internet, removing entire countries from the international grid. Egypt's mobile services were shut down and its Internet almost entirely disconnected, while in Libya, the Internet was throttled to a point of uselessness.

Recently, the network research and analytics company Renesys tried to assess how hard it would be to take the world offline. They assessed disconnection risk based on the number of national service providers in every country, finding that 61 countries are at severe risk for disconnection, with another 72 at significant risk. That makes 133 countries where network control is so centralized that the Internet could be turned off with not much more than a phone call.

It seems our global Internet is not so global.

But as worrying as these threats are, at least they have all been civilian, rather than military, attempts to exert control over the web. This won't be the case for long: Governments around the world are sounding alarms about the existential threat posed by cyberwar. From hostile foreign regimes to lawless nonstate actors, the threat of attacks on critical infrastructure to the theft of state secrets, the danger of economic warfare to corporate espionage, not a day goes by when cybersecurity is not in the news.

In response, governments around the world are devoting significant financial, military, and personnel resources to developing frameworks for cybersecurity and cyberconflict. Cyberspace is no longer the independent space of the cyberlibertarians; it is now a military domain. And when a freewheeling place like the Internet militarizes, the Internet's laissez-faire culture of privacy, anonymity, and free expression inevitably comes into conflict with military priorities of security and protocol.

In the United States, the Pentagon has been tasked with the development of rules of engagement for cyberconflict. Just last week on Feb. 12, President Barack Obama issued a long-awaited executive order on cybersecurity and used his State of the Union address to call for new bipartisan legislation on the issue, emphasizing the need to protect U.S. critical infrastructure. The very next day, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) reintroduced CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act -- a bill reviled by the privacy and civil liberties community for its lack of credible privacy protections and provisions for warrantless information-sharing.

Make no mistake, cyberhostilities are on the increase. Every day around the world, critical systems come under attack, whether from petty cybercriminals or coordinated state efforts. From Stuxnet, which set back Iran's nuclear efforts, to Shamoon, which destroyed the control systems of oil giant Saudi Aramco, to the recent compromise of the Washington Post, New York Times, Twitter, and Facebook, we're witnessing large-scale attempts to penetrate and interfere with both private and public systems.

Many cybersecurity experts, however, disagree on how to best tackle the threats at hand. Many dismiss proposals such as public-private data exchanges, arguing that such solutions erode civil liberties while failing to address critical problems. Others argue that reducing cyberconflict is best achieved through embracing the values of an open Internet: creating transparent norms, such as establishing clear red lines, common terminology, and mutual confidence-building measures. But the most influential voices remain those arguing for greater militarization: investing in the development of strategic exploits or offensive capacity that double down on the idea of the Internet as a domain subject to dominance by state actors.

Nearly 365 years ago, those hundred-plus princes and diplomats came together to end war -- and in the process, created borders. The Internet broke those borders down, advancing the cause of fundamental rights, free expression, and shared humanity in all its messy glory. Now, to stifle political dissent and in the name of defending national security, governments are putting those borders back up -- and in doing so, they're dragging the Internet into ancient history.