View Full Version : End of the open, free universal net. Up go the walls. Coming soon: to each nation, its own internet

Magda Hassan
03-12-2011, 01:44 PM
Coming soon _ to each nation, its own internet

Published: 12/03/2011 (http://www.bangkokpost.com/search/news-and-article?xDate=12-03-2011&xAdvanceSearch=true) at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News (http://www.bangkokpost.com/search/news-and-article?xNewsSection=News&xAdvanceSearch=true)

When reveille sounds, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.
http://www.bangkokpost.com/media/content/20110312/243813.jpg A woman in Schwerin, Germany peruses the internet site of WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange (pictured in background) has seriously upset Washington with the WikiLeaks disclosure of secret US documents. The US military is now thinking of ways to block and segregate the internet into smaller ‘‘cyber nations’’ which would be easier to monitor and control.

During this era of incessant online babble, blogs, tweets and cacophonous concatenations, the internet has become a virtual Tower of Babel, an ambitious, overloaded unitary structure breaking at the seams. It's only a matter of time before it crumbles.
That, in a nutshell, is the view put forward by a group of US military thinkers in the latest issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly, who see the breaking up and "Balkanisation of the Internet" as natural as it is inevitable, and not without public benefit, assuming that the 'Net reorganises along traditional, nationalistic lines.
Theirs is a clarion call to end the utopian, universal stage of internet development and instead to hunker down and build national bunkers.
The internet has been imbued with a feel-good idealism since its inception, despite it having been a quasi-military invention. It was developed by a generation familiar with John Lennon's utopian lullaby Imagine, dreamily invoking the idea of a world with no countries. And some cyber utopians took a cue from that, driven by the concept that "information wants to be free", a formulation first given voice by Stewart Brand and dramatically acted out more recently by Julian Assange.
But even if information wants to be free, there are the vagaries of human nature that have to be taken into account.
Just as a handful of hijackers can burden millions of jet flyers, in the communication commons the bad behaviour of a few can change the rules of the game; trolls lurk in comment sections, spammers clog up your inbox, data-miners violate your privacy, hackers close your system down.
These problems are being addressed on an ad hoc basis, mostly by the private sector, to make the cooperative, interdependent venture known as the internet safe for commerce and communication.
And then there is the US military, which has bigger fish to fry.
Entrusted with the keys to the world's biggest nuclear arsenal, bound by social contract to guard the nation with vigilance, it should come as no surprise that military thinkers are more worried about information control than information freedom.
The US Cyber Command, which works closely with the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, is tapping technology organisations such as Google, Intel and Microsoft for help with cyber-defence, integrating traditional concepts of military preparedness and defence of the state with new borderless technologies.
If military thinkers tend to be more orthodox in their regard for the sanctity of national borders, it is in part a reflection of the role they assign themselves to play as defenders of the nation.
Where a tech geek might revel in faster computation speeds and an advertiser might obsess over ways to get more clicks, and academics might demand unfettered freedom of expression, it is natural that military thinkers should want to consider the same technology with an eye to violations of sovereignty and security, especially with regard to command and control systems and energy infrastructure.
Inspired by the folk wisdom that good fences make good neighbours, there is a school of thought in the US military that posits a not-so-distant future in which the worldwide web will be divided up along national lines.
The Rise of a Cybered Westphalian Age, authored by Chris C Demchak and Peter Dombrowski for the spring 2011 issue of the Strategic Studies Quarterly argues that the internet at present is too open and too unguarded. Cyberspace, when compared to the contours of natural space, can be understood as an under-regulated domain replete with badlands and bandits, a frontier to be tamed and subdivided.
While the closing of the free-wheeling electronic frontier will be an unmitigated loss for utopian information gurus, journalists, anarchists and many activists, for the hard-nosed military at least, but probably also some big corporate players as well, a fractured and fenced-in internet may be welcomed as a positive development.
A cyberspace cleaved into sub-divisions that hew close to traditional national boundaries would, according to military scholars Mr Demchak and Mr Dombrowski, offer the promise of enhanced social stability, international security and better economic returns.
Citing the "lead" taken by China _ the Great Firewall of China is uncharacteristically described matter-of-factly for its effectiveness rather than being demonised as the enemy of freedom _ the authors argue that controlling the internet within national borders is within technological reach for the United States as well.
They even go so far as to reference the Chinese view that characterises "Westernised social media as subversive tools" and sees the hand of "diplomatic subversion in any US-sponsored discussions of open internet".
In sum, to each nation its own internet.
If this comes to pass, it will represent a paradigm shift comparable to the establishment of the Westphalian nation state system in 1648, which was introduced to regulate an amorphous world with crisply demarcated boundaries, a concept that has captured the imagination of political and military thinkers ever since.
Even those who shudder at a Westphalian notion for the 'Net would agree that the wobbly status quo cannot continue as is.
The old information order, of which print journalism was once a significant pillar, and the internet now a centrepiece, is starting to collapse even as the new information order struggles to take shape and find its way.
At the US Cyber Command, the most unlikely of apocalyptic scenarios are taken seriously. The spectre of invasive malware and the possibility of malicious attacks on national infrastructure, waged with a high degree of secrecy and thus impunity, from a distance, keeps military internet experts up at night, even as it helps guarantee funding for their day jobs.
The malicious release of the border-crossing malware has jumped from annoying, costly hacks and denials-of-service to concerted attacks on infrastructure.
The mysterious Stuxnet virus, credited with infecting and damaging Iran's nuclear research facilities, is singled out by the authors as an extremely dangerous precedent; they see it as nothing less than the crossing of the Rubicon into the realm of real cyber warfare.
What we think of as "internet freedom" today may turn out in retrospect to have been but a brief, under-regulated free-for-all, a rough and ready "Wild, Wild West" in which information was free to travel anywhere and virtually free of cost to access.
Internet control gates at present may swing as freely as the half-hinged doors to a Deadwood saloon, but already one can hear the pitch of travelling salesmen offering to replace flimsy gates with deadbolts and locks, as a defence against a world too threatening for unrestricted free access.
A showdown corral is looming. It will take time for digital fences to be constructed and guarded, border posts to be installed, but once they're up, there will be less room to rove for the digital frontiersmen of today.
The bugle of military vigilance has sounded. If heeded, the utopian dream of a unitary internet, open to all and global in scope, will recede into the unreachable future faster than romantic notions of a world without boundaries and a brotherhood of man.