Freedom of the Cyber Seas
How lessons from the U.S. government's response to pirates in the early 1800s can help the next president of the United States improve information security
By Aaron Turner & Michael Assante
April 10, 2008 —
The late 18th century was a dangerous time on the high seas. Power vacuums in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean had created the perfect breeding ground for bands of pirates to operate without any real opposition. The success of the newly-formed United States of America relied upon its ability to build and maintain business relationships around the world, and these pirates were a direct threat to the success of the American experiment in democracy.
Thomas Jefferson understood this threat and took decisive action to serve the world notice: The United States of America would defend its right to trade freely with any nation on earth.
To understand how radical Jefferson's approach was, consider the global commercial environment at the time. By the 1770s, more than 20 percent of U.S. exports were directed towards Mediterranean ports. (For more details, see the transcript of Michael B. Oren's speech at Columbia University, "The Middle East and the Making of the United States, 1776 to 1815.") These shipments contained valuable goods of sufficient volume to attract the attention of the Bashaw of Tripoli (modern Libya) and his allies, the rulers of Morocco, Tunis and Algiers. The Bashaw, ruler of a semi-autonomous Ottoman province, was the leader of the loose confederation that became known as the Barbary States, and he ran an 18th-century version of what we today would call a protection racket. Tripoli had a sizeable navy, and he would station its fast corsairs and frigates along the most popular navigation routes in the Mediterranean--seizing cargo from those vessels not protected by the European powers, and extorting ransom for cargos and crews that had not paid the "protection fee."
Once the United States officially severed ties with Great Britain, American vessels were no longer under the protection of the formidable British Navy. For nearly twenty years after U.S. independence, American policy had been to appease the Bashaw and the Barbary pirates either by paying their extortion demands from the federal treasury or by requiring private shipping companies to do so. By 1786, Barbary extortion demands totaled $1 million--an amount that represented one-tenth of the U.S. government's entire budget at the time.
Opposing John Adams' pirate payment policy, Jefferson championed the slogan coined by U.S. Representative Robert Goodloe Harper in 1789: "Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute." Jefferson was also a proponent of the Mare Liberum or "Freedom of the seas" doctrine first documented in international law by Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in 1609. Freedom of the seas was of supreme importance to the success of the United States. If America could not deliver its goods and conduct free trade, the country could not survive economically.