‘I’m the creeper; catch me if you can!’

In 1971, this sentence started popping up on computer screens all across ARPANET, the network we recognize today as the ancestor of the modern Internet. The whimsical message, it soon emerged, was the work of “Creeper,” the first-ever self-replicating computer program. Created by a Massachusetts researcher, Creeper traveled from computer to computer, displaying its simple message before hopping to the next one. It didn’t delete any files, it didn’t snatch any personal information — it just said hello. Someone even developed a companion program, “Reaper,” that followed Creeper around, removing it from infected systems.

Today, this seems quaint. In the 40 years since Creeper and Reaper, a lot has changed. Just as ARPANET gave rise to the Internet and its constant innovation, Creeper was the first of a breed that includes every virus, every worm that ever caused us grief, stole our credit card numbers or invaded our email accounts. 

One thing that hasn’t changed since '71, though, is U.S. leadership online. America pioneered the Internet, and America continues to lead the charge toward a more prosperous, safer cyberspace — one in which we are safer from the descendants of Creeper and Reaper, safer from cybercriminals, more able to express ourselves and connect with others. Nowhere was this more visible than this Monday at the White House, as the Obama administration released the first-ever United States International Strategy for Cyberspace.

Picture this: a crowded auditorium, the aisles bristling with news cameras. In the audience is a who’s-who of the international community: ambassadors from Japan, Spain and India, a four-star general, U.S. government officials including the chairman of the FCC and the chief technology officer of the United States.

And on stage? National Security Advisory Brennan, Attorney General Holder, Secretaries Clinton, Locke and Napolitano, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn and U.S. Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt.

I’ve been to a lot of government events, but I can’t think of many with that much political horsepower on the scene — or that much excitement in the air. But the Internet touches every part of our lives, and the federal government is no exception. As Secretary Locke said on Monday, the Internet is a key engine of the economy, responsible for an estimated $10 trillion in transactions every year. So it’s not surprising that 18 departments and agencies collaborated to make this strategy a reality, coordinated by a team including Cybersecurity Coordinator Schmidt, State Department Cyber Coordinator Chris Painter and NSS Director — and, as Schmidt called him on Monday, his “Chief Cyber Diplomat” — David Edelman.

So what is the U.S. International Strategy for Cyberspace, and why does it matter?

Just the existence of the document — the first of its kind from the U.S. government — sends a message that the United States is serious about tackling Internet issues alongside the international community. That’s never been said before with this much force, and the principles that govern our engagement around these issues have never been articulated publicly — until now.

Beyond that, a couple key messages stand out. One is the strength of the U.S. commitment to Internet freedom. Particularly in the wake of online crackdowns by leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, and in light of ongoing Chinese censorship, this is an important message. The strategy reads: “States must respect fundamental freedoms of expression and association, online as well as off,” and “[s]tates should not arbitrarily deprive or disrupt individuals’ access to the Internet.” The strategy isn’t just talking about nations interfering with “their own citizens’ access” to the Internet. It says “individuals’ access” — individuals anywhere. That’s an unequivocal stance in defense of free speech online.

Another key area where the strategy succeeds is in acknowledging the importance of openness online. The strategy reads: “At the core of digital innovation is the ability to add new functionality to networked machines. The openness of digital systems explains their explosive growth, rapid development, and enduring importance.” This commitment to openness shows that the U.S. doesn’t just know that the Internet is important — it understands why the Internet works the way it does. That’s leaps and bounds ahead of many.  That the strategy goes out of its way to “applaud the vibrancy of the open-source software movement” further demonstrates that understanding. When it comes to innovation online, it’s clear that the United States “gets it.”

These two areas — Internet freedom and openness — are only two pieces of this strategy. It touches on cybercrime prevention, Internet governance, deterrence and dissuasion, and more. It will guide U.S. policy and international affairs in ways that we can’t yet anticipate.

Many of the great innovations in computing have had two sides: great promise, and great danger. That goes all the way back to the harmless, humble Creeper worm. Today, the stakes online are higher than ever — but with a framework to guide our engagement online, the U.S. is on the right track.

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