09.26.14

A Reminder from Eleanor and FDR

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I was starkly reminded while listening to a panel at Brookings yesterday about the future of the Internet, that the most critical global negotiations of our time – a free and open Internet, climate change – share a common theme. In both of these cases, global cooperation creates a clear and obvious greater good for all. And yet, for many individual players, it seems wiser and more expedient not to play along.

This is hardly news. The US has long been in an awkward position when it comes to these negotiations. Yes, the whole world will benefit from a free and open Internet, but it is also true that we will benefit more than others because of our dominance in the global ICT market. Similarly, in this week of UN negotiations around climate change, we have been reminded that for big carbon producers (China, India) to reduce emissions will slow their growth. Why should they make that trade off, when we didn’t for so many years?

In the case of an open Internet, protectionism is building a lot of steam in the post-Snowdon era, as many of the panelists yesterday reminded us. One looming challenge is the instinct for many countries to retreat into data localization requirements — data needs to be housed and stored in-country on local servers. This somewhat logical response not only costs local and global providers a lot of time and money, but more importantly, it hampers the efficiency and resilience that is baked into the architecture of the Internet. In hoping to control the Internet, these countries are actually creating a fragile and inefficient network that hinders innovation and economic growth, particularly among SMEs. Why? Because the Internet has the magical quality that the more participants there are, the better and more efficient it becomes. That is just the way it is made.

As I listened to these very smart people talking about sensible responses and steps forward, I found myself thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt.

Like many others, my husband and I have been slowly making our way through the excellent new Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts. It reminds us that in the midst of the great depression, FDR, in perhaps the most sweeping social legislation of our short democracy, passed Social Security, ensuring that every American would have protection in old age and in the case of a death or injury in the family. Eleanor Roosevelt, a child of great privilege and woman of means, spent significant time among the most disadvantaged, working hard to deliver food, education and a basic standard of living to all. She and FDR lived the truth that when each of us is better off, we are all better off.

We are a strong and able country and have much to give. In addition to trade negotiations and an on-going commitment to multistakeholder governance, I believe we would be well served to focus on what we can give, freely, to build knowledge, understanding and empower those with whom we are negotiating . In this post-Snowdon era, we need to re-build trust to move forward, just as FDR needed to rebuild trust for the people of the US in the great depression.   We need to expand our focus on technical assistance, policy education and open access to data.  And we need to communicate the impact of these programs widely. If we work to empower others, we may well find that we are living a more empowered world. And we will all be better off.