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Editorial: Can We Talk?

Try searching online for a vacation or a weekend getaway destination to somewhere special, and you get something else special as a result: ads for the places you thought of booking that pop up incessantly in Web surfing for weeks, even months, afterward.

And then there is your Facebook picture that, somewhat disturbingly, appears in the “would you like to comment” box at the end of a site you just launched for the first time.

The online world is filled with unbounded promise, from creating electronic neighborhoods that reduce geographic distance to insignificance, to arguably the most profound upside of broadband connectivity: Being able to renew your driver’s license online (instead of “on line”). Now the downside: It also gives bad actors a world stage. Oh yes, and this much bigger issue: It turns the notion of personal privacy on its electronic ear.

We are regulatory skeptics on this page, and remain so. We’ve seen how wrong government can be on issues such as indecency and leaving old regs on the books to do new damage.

But the political impasse that keeps the country headed toward an economic cliff will not end like a Tex Avery cartoon, with elephants able to stop in mid-air and, with a resigned look, drop to a painless non-death, while the donkeys do an about-face and race feverishly on nothing but air back to the safety of the cliff’s edge. There will be real damage and serious consequences.

The people we have elected to speak for us have to find a way to talk to, not at, each other, and to compromise on approaches to problems/issues that won’t wait around for them to stop trying to bury the hatchet in each other’s backs.

The hopeful-sounding rhetoric out of both sides that immediately followed the election must be more than temporary window dressing on the same polarizing positions. That is not going to cut it, including talk on the issues of cybersecurity and online privacy that are central to a broadband-centric future.

War is already being waged daily in cyberspace in numbers too big to ignore. Private industry and government need to be able to work together to help defend themselves and us from attack. That means not trying to kill each other’s proposals with poison pills, or to defend entrenched positions behind a party line.

Republicans and Democrats must find a way to meet in the middle and provide for better information sharing and guidelines for action on cybersecurity, but without locking in a system that lacks the flexibility for companies to react to threats in real Internet time. That is a tall order and will require flexibility and genuine negotiation rather than posturing. But filling that order should be nonnegotiable.

Online privacy is another issue that needs attention ASAP, though it, like cybersecurity, will take longer than a lame duck session. Data collection allows for more targeted advertising, which allows for all that free content we now consider a birthright of having a computer and a broadband connection. How that data is collected and used, and potentially misused, affects how we live our lives, virtual and otherwise.

This is not a call for regulation, but for policy makers to take a break from the name-calling and trench-digging to figure out a plan of action that works for all of us.