Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Michael Beckerman, President and CEO of the Internet Association, which represents the interests of many of America’s leading Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo, LinkedIn and eBay. In the run-up to tonight’s State of the Union address, the association approached us to ask if we would publish their take on the State of the Internet. You can find our own assessment of it here.

Today, President Barack Obama will deliver his fifth State of the Union address to the American people.  Since that first address in 2009, the Internet has become an even more ubiquitous part of American life.  An estimated 244 million Americans used the Internet in 2012 – 78 percent of the total population – growing more than 10 percent in those four years. So what is the State of the Internet in 2013, as the President embarks on his second term in office?

In a remarkably short time, the Internet has become one of the greatest engines for economic growth, freedom and prosperity the world has ever known. Indeed, in only 15 years, the Internet increased per capita GDP by $500, as much as the Industrial Revolution did in its first 50 years. It is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy, representing 15 percent of U.S. GDP growth in the past five years.  In short, the State of the Internet has never been stronger.

Virtually all net new job growth is attributable to firms younger than five years.  “Internet jobs” are not just in Silicon Valley anymore, they have moved to Main Street, heartland farms, and small brick and mortar businesses nationwide.  Because of the Internet, every economic sector of the economy has benefited.

Yet many challenges remain.  The United States is only a year removed from an unprecedented effort in Congress to censor web content and fundamentally alter the Internet’s DNA.  While millions of Americans registered their protest with elected representatives and defeated this misguided measure, threats to Internet freedom are still apparent.  There are international challenges, as well.  In December, the United Nations attempted to adversely alter the multi-stakeholder framework under which the Internet has thrived.

beckerman 220x128 On the day of the 2013 State of the Union address, heres the State of the Internet

Michael Beckerman, President and CEO of the Internet Association.

In Washington, D.C., state capitals, and city halls across America, politicians continue to struggle with the rapid pace of technological change.  There are scores of laws and policies on the books today governing the Internet that were enacted before its birth.  The Internet continues to challenge entrenched special interests and the established order.  While its constructive disruption leads to economic growth, social progress, and jobs, too often, our laws and regulations cannot keep up – sometimes with harmful results.  Legislating at the speed of ideas and innovation simply cannot be done.  A fundamental principle is at stake: our nation’s laws – and the governing philosophy behind them – must be flexible enough for the Internet era.

The unique nature of the Internet, free from government’s harness, has unleashed unprecedented entrepreneurialism, creativity and innovation, far beyond imagination. Innovation is unpredictable.  The Internet’s decentralized and open model has been the catalyst powering this revolution.  These principles must be embodied in our nation’s laws and in our elected leaders’ approach to technology policy.

As the Internet continues to challenge the established order, there are many issues currently under debate.  Policymakers must promote trade policies that facilitate the free flow of information across borders, consistent with the global nature of the Internet. “Patent trolls” continue to stifle innovation and economic growth.  Abuse of the patent system is a hidden tax on job creators and a drag on our economy.  Our government must recognize cybersecurity threats as some of the most serious national security challenges we face.  Ensuring that our financial, transportation, energy, and public safety networks meet minimum, cybersecurity standards is essential.  However, the government must understand that the Internet cannot be regulated in the same way a power plant or brick and mortar industries are regulated. There are fundamental differences; thus the laws must be different.

Lawmakers must address the question of broadband – both in terms of access and adoption.  The digital divide between Internet haves and have-nots is a persistent barrier.  President Obama promised to bring “true broadband [to] every community in America.”  But progress on this front has been too slow.  Inexpensive Internet-enabled smartphones and tablet computers have markedly increased on-line access; yet the price of broadband remains out of reach for too many Americans.  In many parts of rural America, high-speed Internet is still unavailable, at any price.  Policymakers must consider Internet access as important as freedom of speech and expression.  The United States must find a way to bring that freedom to the 120 million Americans who are currently left behind.

While the State of the Internet is strong, more must be done.  Laws need to keep pace with technology and written to facilitate progress, not impede it.  Lawmakers must embrace technology.  Most importantly, Internet access must be considered a basic human right, all of us must redouble our efforts to bridge the digital divide and protect the freedom and innovation of the Internet; America’s future depends on it.

Image credit: AFP / Getty Images