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Q&A with Rob Strayer

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This month Policy World talks to Rob Strayer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy, US State Department

Q. Mr Strayer, you are very recently in post but your remit seems vast ranging from domestic policy, enabling economic growth through technology policy and the development of the digital economy, but also promoting international ties. Is it possible to ask you what your priorities are for your role, and why are they so important?

A. My role at the State Department includes cyber policy, cyber security, international digital economy, and Internet policy. My team and I are central to the Administration’s efforts to address these interrelated issues. Our operating assumption is that cybersecurity and digital economy issues are converging, and we anticipate this trend will continue. Policy decisions made to enhance cybersecurity and privacy can have major impacts on data flows and digital trade. Therefore, decisions made by governments around the world have resounding effects on the ability of American businesses to operate across borders and build on their legacies of innovation and global leadership. Similarly, digital economy, Internet policy, and telecom policies shape the cybersecurity environment, with profound path dependence implications for Internet security.

These issues are of incredible importance to the American people and America’s economy. In the United States, the Internet now accounts for almost 7 percent of GDP, larger than the construction sector. And it is estimated that 75 percent of the benefits derived from ICTs go to non-ICT businesses. In a sense, all companies are “technology companies.” At the end of the day, the Internet is vital to prosperity and higher quality of life for our people. These issues will only grow in significance over time. Indeed, because of the national security and economic policy implications, cyber policy is becoming one of the defining foreign policy challenges of the 21st century.

Q. We know how quickly digitisation is changing social and economic development in countries across the globe. This is often being called the ‘fourth industrial revolution.’ What are the challenges for the social and economic welfare of societies as a whole – and is it important for the benefits to be spread equally? Is that feasible?

A. The Internet and Internet-enabled information and communications technology have produced tremendous economic growth and yielded new ways of sharing information, offering unprecedented opportunities for people to connect with each other and participate in public debate and determine their own futures. This global economic growth has produced benefits to the standards of living of people living in countries around the world. We do know, however, that efforts to limit data flows through localization policies have reduced the potential economic benefits of the Internet.

We all need to work together to create the right policy, legal, and regulatory conditions in our country and across borders to see the digital economy reach its full potential and bridge the digital divide. Achieving an inclusive digital economy is going to take a combined, focused effort of governments, the technology industry, and the multi-stakeholder community.

Q. You have written about emergency response measures – the International Institute of Communications (IIC) is facilitating a forum of regulators from small nations, many of whom ae susceptible to breakdown of vital services in storms for example. How do you see your role in the department supporting or helping them maintain key services?

A. Because natural disasters usually strike without sufficient warning, the key for maintaining and restoring communications is national preparedness, particularly for small islands and developing nations. Without an emergency communications plan with clearly defined roles and contacts, chaos can result in an inefficient response. That’s why we actively share best practices and expertise for communications preparedness and planning and coordinate within numerous international communications organizations, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Inter American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL).

We also reach out regularly to our foreign partners in disaster prone countries to try to locate officials whom we would contact in a disaster. When a disaster strikes, we seek to understand the condition of the communications networks and whether there are potential communications needs that we can assist with by putting that government in contact with communications restoration responders, including communications response NGOs, technology firms, and the Emergency Telecommunication Cluster (ETC).

Q. The IIC is truly international – how will the Department look at the issues arising from extra-territorial services and the application of national rules that might prevent the free flow of information across borders?

A. We are very concerned that data localization policies and restrictions on data flows being considered around the world, many times in the name of increased cybersecurity or protection of privacy, could end up becoming de facto trade barriers, preventing U.S. companies from accessing foreign markets, and preventing U.S. and foreign consumers from realizing the full benefit of the internet.

The problem is that data localization laws and other restrictions on cross-border data flows do not necessarily provide more security for data or greater privacy protections. Furthermore, these policies can increase the costs of these services, having a negative impact on all sectors of the economy, in particular for small and medium companies, while hindering growth and innovation.

We need to avoid falling into the trap of false dichotomies. We can have the free flow of data across borders and still provide world class cybersecurity and personal data protection. With these concerns in mind, we want to work with our foreign partners to find ways to accomplish these goals.

Q. You were a keynote speaker at the recent IIC Telecommunications and Media Forum in DC. It was very much an international event. How important to you and your colleagues is it to work with your counterparts in other countries and what do you expect?

Working with our foreign partners is incredibly important to my work. My team and I are at the forefront of this diplomatic work, establishing real-time communication channels with foreign governments to help us respond to the challenges of cybersecurity and the digital economy.

The transborder nature of the Internet means that we’re going to have to work together even more closely in the coming years to find interoperable solutions for cyber and digital economy policy that work with different national systems of regulations.

At the end of the day, we all want to promote growth in our increasingly information-driven economies. With that in mind, I want to work with my foreign partners to support the free flow of information, strengthen security and consumer confidence in the use of ICTs, promote transparency and consumer protection, and ensure that our citizens can enjoy the full benefits of the Internet.

Policy World talks to Rob Strayer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy, US State Department

Content: innovation, regulation and markets, Investment, Competition Policy
Robert L Strayer Robert L Strayer Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, US Department of State
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