Menlo Park: John Kerry discusses ethical, social challenges of internet age


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sat casually on the stage of the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel ballroom in Menlo Park on Monday discussing ethical and social challenges linked with technology and the internet.

The event was part of a two-day internet conference hosted by the Internet Association, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group with a platform supported by many major internet companies. The conference, called "Virtuous Circle" attracted a lineup of internet entrepreneurs and government leaders.

Mr. Kerry's appearance came several days after the U.S. on Oct. 7 formally accused Russia of hacking emails at the Democratic National Committee. "We need to take every measure possible to guarantee the integrity of our elections," he said.

As everyone becomes more dependent on the internet and internet-based services, breaches in cybersecurity become more of a potential threat.

Overall, he said, the expansion of new technologies has been a net positive on a global level. "Everyone who has a smartphone has an instrument of empowerment," he said.

However, new technologies have created new challenges. One fear of tech companies is that government and security agencies will seek access to "back door" decryption tools to obtain private information stored on personal tech devices.

Mr. Kerry said he's not looking for any back doors, but added that there should be "rules of the road" for dangerous scenarios involving national security. One scenario he presented: What if data from a tech company discovered that a nuclear bomb, planted in New York City, was set to detonate in 48 hours? What is the company's role as a "corporate citizen"?

"These are big issues," he said.

Preserving the integrity, innovation and freedom of the internet is important, as is the task of protecting Americans, he said.

"I do not come here with all the answers to this, because a lot of this is uncharted territory," he said.

Mr. Kerry also discussed some of the social challenges resulting from the tech boom. "Productivity increases are not what they were," he said. "Blue collar jobs are being lost at a higher percentage than are tech jobs filling the void. . . . There's just a massive amount of disruption we're living with today, and public policy is much harder to fashion into a consensus as a result of that."

"We have to tame the worst instincts of insensitive capitalism, and get a sustainable and people-sensitive product that everybody can feel good about, because right now we've got a lot of angry people who just don't know where their future is and where they're going," he said.

In short, he said, "We all need to be thoughtful about how we're going to manage this."

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