“Let me follow up, Mr. Trump,” Wolf Blitzer said on Tuesday night at the Republican Presidential debate, in Las Vegas. “Are you open to closing parts of the Internet?” The question was wonderfully twisted. The word “open” referred to closure, and the Internet, the ultimate system of sprawl, had been divided into discrete parts. Trump’s response one-upped Blitzer, even sneaking in a possessive pronoun that defined the Internet as American. “I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” he 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.”
What, exactly, did Trump mean? If you look at his different statements on the subject, it seems that he wants to knock out the infrastructure that provides Internet access in areas of Syria and Iraq that are controlled by ISIS. That’s one way to disrupt their recruitment, and the plan is technically feasible, at least in part. In theory, the United States could sever fibre-optic cables, destroy satellite dishes, and knock out cellular towers. It could also put pressure on telecommunications companies in the region. The headquarters of ISIS’s media operations, according to a defector who was quoted in the Washington Post, uses a Turkish wireless provider. Turkey is a NATO ally, and its government hasn’t recently shown any particular affection for free speech online. President Trump could call up its leaders and make a deal.
So shutting down the Internet, or slowing it, is possible. But it’s also a terrible strategy. One of the ideas that has been central to American foreign policy for the past seventy years is that totalitarianism and oppression are best foiled by giving people more information, not less. (ISIS, in fact, has already decommissioned the Internet in many of the areas that it controls, partly because it doesn’t want groups such as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently posting online.) The cables that we severed might well be useful to the Kurds or any number of innocent Syrians and potential allies—the same people who will need to run the country whenever ISIS is wiped away. The free flow of information isn’t the democratic panacea that many people thought it might be in the early days of the Arab Spring. But this hardly means the United States should join Iran, China, Eritrea, and ISIS on the side of censorship and shutdowns.
Still, two interesting—and vexing—issues for the technology industry, and for the politicians who regulate it, emerged in the debate. The first came up in John Kasich’s response to Trump’s proposal. “Wolf, there is a big problem—it’s called encryption,” he said. “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.”
The central question is whether American technology companies should offer the U.S. government, whether the N.S.A. or the F.B.I., backdoor access to their devices or servers. The most important companies here are Apple and Google, which, in the fall of 2014, began offering strong encryption on the newer versions of Android and iOS phones. If you keep your passcode secret, the government will be unable to, for instance, scroll through your contacts list, even if it has a warrant. This has, naturally, made the government angry. The most thorough report on the subject is a position paper put out last month by Cyrus Vance, Jr., Manhattan’s district attorney. In the previous year, Vance wrote, his office had been “unable to execute approximately 111 search warrants for smartphones because those devices were running iOS 8. The cases to which those devices related include homicide, attempted murder, sexual abuse of a child, sex trafficking, assault, and robbery.”
The solution isn’t easy. Apple and Google implemented their new encryption standards after Edward Snowden revealed how the government had compromised their systems. They want to protect their customers—a government back door could become a hacker’s back door, too—and they also want to protect their business models. If the N.S.A. can comb through iPhones, how many do you think Apple will be able to sell in China? In the debate, Carly Fiorina bragged about how, when she ran Hewlett-Packard, she stopped a truckload of equipment and had it “escorted into N.S.A. headquarters.” Does that make you more or less eager to buy an OfficeJet Pro?
The second hard issue that came up indirectly in the debate—and, more specifically, in recent comments by Hillary Clinton—is how aggressive American companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google (with YouTube) should be in combatting the use of their platforms by ISIS. Again, there’s no simple answer. You can’t ban, say, everyone who tweets the hashtag #ISIS, because then you’d have to ban this guy. The algorithms are difficult to write, and the issues are difficult to balance. Companies have to consider their business interests, their legal obligations to and cultural affinities for free speech, and their moral obligations to oppose an organization that seeks to destroy the country in which they were built—and also kill their C.E.O.s.
This, in turn, leads to the most sensible thing that Trump said in his rant against the Internet: “What I wanted to do is I wanted to get our brilliant people from Silicon Valley and other places and figure out a way that ISIS cannot do what they’re doing.” He wants, in other words, a better counter-propaganda campaign online. And what’s the best way to do that? Well, one good step would be to start working closely with people from the area who know the language and the arguments that ISIS uses. They could both resist the digital jihadists and lead American authorities to them. The ideal candidates for this kind of work? Maybe some smart people who have recently left Syria, who know computer programming, and who are now seeking refuge in America.