US cyber plans ruffle feathers at home and abroad

When it comes to securing cyberspace, the Obama administration is working hard on the soft sell.

The administration has put forward two proposals in recent weeks — one an international plan for securing the Internet and the other a strategy for protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Any U.S. government plan inevitably involves crossing boundaries — boundaries between the United States and other countries and between government and private industry. And unfortunately, when crossing boundaries, it's all too easy to step on toes.

But the administration is doing its best to tread lightly. The International Strategy for Cyberspace is an attempt to define how countries worldwide could collaborate on security without compromising their individual sovereignty.

That represents a decided shift in U.S. policy, observers say.

The plan “follows the U.S. decision last summer to change its position on cybersecurity, agreeing to work with other nations to reduce threats to computer networks,” writes Ellen Nakashima in the Washington Post. “Previously, the United States resisted proposals limiting possible military use of cyberspace.”

However, there’s no getting around the fact that the United States is operating from a position of power, which puts some countries on edge. But it's a position the Obama administration is not about to give up.

In particular, China greeted the plan with “a relatively high degree of skepticism,” writes Adam Segal at the Council on Foreign Relations' "Asia Unbound" blog.

The Chinese press zeroed in on the Obama administration’s statement that the United States “reserved the right ‘to use all necessary means — diplomatic, informational, military, and economic — as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law,’ to defend itself and its allies,” Segal writes.

The notion of freedom of expression — which is central to the plan — also might be a sticking point. "The strategy says use of the Internet should be unfettered, but in practice when push comes to shove, governments do what's in their own best interest,” writes Tim Greene at Network World.

The Obama administration is already running into resistance at home with its legislative proposal for protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure, much of which resides in the private sector. The proposal seeks to clarify the government’s role in infrastructure security and favors public/private cooperation over regulation.

As reasonable as that sounds, battle lines are being drawn.

“On one side are the Obama administration and some security experts who argue that the government, and specifically the Homeland Security Department, needs to be deeply involved to ensure consistent security in privately owned critical infrastructure,” writes William Jackson in Federal Computer Week's sister publication GCN. “On the other side are some congressional Republicans and business groups who want government to mostly stay out of controlling private industry.”

Somewhere, Willy Loman is shaking his head in sympathy.

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