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Democracy Net Giants The Internet

The Internet Civil War

Image by Olivier Le Queinec, courtesy Shutterstock

A thoughtful Singaporean technologist startled me the other day when she asserted “It’s an internet civil war.” After a moment of shock, I realized that is a powerful, though frightening, lens through which to see where the world may be going.

The internet is in jeopardy as an engine of growth, prosperity, and efficiency. It faces two massive global crises at once. On the one hand, a small band of global technology companies have achieved a scale and influence that dwarfs most countries, even as they have shown insufficient concern for public welfare. Governments can’t respond to this crisis, because for the most part they remain technologically inept.

Yet at the same time, an existential split over the internet has emerged between nations. Is it a vehicle for freedom and the empowerment of individuals, as the Americans who mostly invented it have historically believed? Or is it a means for state control, surveillance, and the muzzling of political speech? China, notably, has taken full control of the internet within its borders. And leaders in Russia, Iran, Turkey, Hungary, and numerous other countries are increasingly seeking to tame online freedom.

Both of these vectors of discord threaten the very fabric of the net. If we cannot figure out how to regulate and manage corporate power online, the people of the world could irrevocably become pawns in a game of data exploitation and online manipulation. (For my detailed concerns about Facebook in particular, see this recent essay in Techonomy magazine .) At the same time, we must find a way for the nations and peoples of the world to agree on certain foundational principles for the management of the internet. Otherwise, more and more countries will go their own way. The net might truly fragment into separate and even disconnected internets, controlled by states with fundamentally different views of how the online sphere ought to function. Just this week, Russia has taken steps to create what could eventually become a separate Russian network.

The internet has, as of now, mostly knit the world’s peoples into one unitary sphere, which is a very good thing. That’s why these conflicts constitute a civil war. We operate commercially, economically and politically on one platform, or battlefield. The future shape of this newly-integrated “nation” is in doubt, as is our ability to keep it as a sphere that unites and empowers the world rather than dividing and fracturing it.

Internet fragmentation is a huge threat to global order and peace. Much of the economic, political and social value that has been created over the last three decades is at risk. A large proportion of growth and progress in recent years is a consequence of this spectacular globe-spanning interconnected framework. It’s helped pull many millions out of ignorance, and poverty, though it must go far further. If the global internet remains intact, it’s easy to see vast potential for future gains across a swath of human activities. This is the only way the world can hope to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for the planet by 2030, agreed to by all 193 member states of the United Nations in 2015. We must build upon that astonishing, heartening, and historic consensus.

The US government is a disappointment in all this, and not only under the Trump administration. Our country has been failing on two fronts simultaneously— in confronting the corporations that wield outsize influence over people, and in confronting China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other nations that want to turn the internet into a tool of control. Our failure flows largely from the fact that neither the executive branch nor Congress has taken these challenges with sufficient gravity, or even fully grasped they exist.

That same Singaporean friend sent me a powerful essay the other day, entitled “The U.S. Has Abandoned Leadership of the Internet,” by Mark Weatherford, deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. (Unfortunately, the article is hidden behind a paywall.) Weatherford argues that though the U.S. essentially created the internet, it has “abdicated our role as overseer and arbiter” in what he calls “an astonishing lack of leadership and diplomacy.”

While it’s a legitimate question whether or not the U.S. ought to “oversee” the net, Weatherford’s basic point is inarguable – we risk squandering one of our nation’s greatest achievements of the 20th century. Weatherford goes on to note that the U.S. did not even sign the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, at the UNESCO Internet Governance Forum in Paris in November. More than 60 other nations, however, did commit to this common-sense framework to apply the rule of law online and combat cyber attacks, among other goals.

Another important article appeared over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal, entitled The Internet, Divided Between the U.S. and China, Has Become a Battleground. It put into context one of the central proof points of an incipient internet civil war: the western pushback against China telecom colossus Huawei. While I do give credit to the Trump administration for raising awareness about the risks surrounding Huawei, the article noted a key reason the U.S. is so behind on the next-generation wireless technology known as 5G. Unlike China, we have no crash national program to pay for and install it. Huawei leads the world in this critical next infrastructure for the internet in part because it has gotten so much support and business from the Chinese government. China is also pushing its own flavor of this technology into countries around the world.

It is not enough to push back against the risk that Huawei and other Chinese technologies could be used to spy on or interfere with societies where they are installed. We have to ensure alternative technologies have the economic heft and economies of scale to compete. That takes national, governmental, and even global will.

The battle for 5G dominance and the battle to regulate Facebook are just two prominent fronts in the internet civil war. But both battles will have to be joined if we are to protect the integrity of the net.

And it is important to see the interconnections between the pushback against online corporate power and anti-democratic government manipulation. They weave in and out of one another. For example, corrupt governments exploit poor governance in platforms like Facebook or YouTube to manipulate their people, and Facebook and Google eagerly seek to re-enter the Chinese market. Frighteningly, there are increasing instances where the companies and the autocrats work in tandem, compounding the dangers.

Until recently we thought the internet was here to stay. But if we are going to retain its extraordinary social, economic, and democratic power, we must push back against these huge threats. This debate and effort must begin now.

We’ve been tackling these matters here at Techonomy for several years. For example, sessions on Internet Giants and the World, at Techonomy 2016; Reckoning with the New Hegemonists and What is Authority in a Networked, Artificially Intelligent World? at Techonomy 2017; and Can Facebook Recover? at Techonomy 2018. And from now on this theme will be even more central at our conferences and in our journalism.

5 Responses to “The Internet Civil War”

  1. The Revolution is under way and everyone can participate. The introduction of Blockchain is a fundamental Shift in control. The owner of the private key is at the center of all blockchain solution. This is a shift away from the network services being in control. Blockchain brings the foundations and protocol for:

    Real consumer digital Identity – reducing fishing

    Integrated subscriber Payment moving away from the voyeurism models of AdTech

    Integrated Information assurance – reducing the risks of fake news

    Integrated compliance with smart contracts

    And global cross border services that users control

    These tools provide the foundations for a new subscriber based Wed with a shift of power in the direction of the USER. Governments need to embrace the technology and innovation of blockchain. It is not just Fintech it is the new model for the Network. A model built on Identity and nots on ports and passwords.

    Steven Sprague

    CEO Rivetz Corp.

  2. This is a fine piece that tackles some of the biggest challenges of our age. Having just read The Age of Surveillance. Capital, I have concluded that Google must be broken up and that unless governments are too fearful, this will ultimately happen. Facebook needs to be regulated as if it were a publisher. The fact that it’s not is preposterous. Every prime post should be fact checked and attributed to a real person who would effectivThis is a fine piece that tackles some of the biggest challenges of our age. Having just read The Age of Surveillance. Capital, I have concluded that Google must be broken up and that unless governments are too fearful this ill ultimately happen. Facebook needs to be regulated as a publisher. The fact that it’s not is preposterous. Every prime post should be fact checked and attributed to a real person who would effectively be operating as a stringer/journalist. Maybe you would need a recitation to make a prime post but you would be accountable to FB who would be accountable to government. The current lack of culpability for lies and society-destroying propaganda is simply unsustainable. Finally, while I log the piece, David and Techonomy, I feel that “Is it a vehicle for freedom and the empowerment of individuals, as the Americans who mostly invented it have historically believed?”ely be operating as a stringer/journalist. Maybe people would need some sort of accreditation to make a prime post (like Wikipedia) but regardless, they would be accountable to FB who would be accountable to government. The current lack of culpability for lies and society-destroying propaganda is simply unsustainable. Finally, while I love this piece, David and Techonomy, I feel that the claim that the Internet “Is a vehicle for freedom and the empowerment of individuals, as the Americans who mostly invented it have historically believed” somewhat overlooks Tim Berners-Lee. As technically the nearest the world has to the inventor or the technology on which the whole thing relies, it is worth remembering he’s a Brit and he’s not happy with the direction in which his baby is heading.

  3. Steve Jenks says:

    It seems to me that a satellite based internet will decimate the effectiveness of national firewalls. Then the question becomes who owns and operates the satellites.

  4. David Kirkpatrick says:

    Today’s NYT furthers the argument with news of India moving towards a Chinese model.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/14/technology/india-internet-censorship.html

  5. David Kirkpatrick David Kirkpatrick says:

    And here’s another relevant quote: “Just a few years ago, pundits heralded the victory of globalization and the onset of a borderless world. Now, the Huawei case raises the prospect of a newly bifurcated globe, split into technological spheres of influence. The United States and its closest allies — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Japan — are coalescing into one. China leads another. In the developed world, Germany and France are sitting on the fence. In the global south, Malaysia and Indonesia are up for grabs.

    And Huawei is at the center.” Article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/02/04/deeper-tech-concern-is-core-us-huawei-spat/?utm_term=.b09cd6f0347d

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