by Judith Curry
There is a war under way for control of the Internet, and every day brings word of new clashes on a shifting and widening battlefront. Governments, corporations, criminals, anarchists—they all have their own war aims.
Vanity Fair has a superb article entitled World War 3.0, with the following intro:
When the Internet was created, decades ago, one thing was inevitable: the war today over how (or whether) to control it, and who should have that power. Battle lines have been drawn between repressive regimes and Western democracies, corporations and customers, hackers and law enforcement. Looking toward a year-end negotiation in Dubai, where 193 nations will gather to revise a U.N. treaty concerning the Internet, Michael Joseph Gross lays out the stakes in a conflict that could split the virtual world as we know it.
It is a long article with fascinating description of the history and the ‘players’. Some excerpts:
The War for the Internet was inevitable—a time bomb built into its creation. The war grows out of tensions that came to a head as the Internet grew to serve populations far beyond those for which it was designed. Originally built to supplement the analog interactions among American soldiers and scientists who knew one another off-line, the Internet was established on a bedrock of trust: trust that people were who they said they were, and trust that information would be handled according to existing social and legal norms. That foundation of trust crumbled as the Internet expanded. The system is now approaching a state of crisis on four main fronts.
The first is sovereignty: by definition, a boundary-less system flouts geography and challenges the power of nation-states. The second is piracy and intellectual property: information wants to be free, as the hoary saying goes, but rights-holders want to be paid and protected. The third is privacy: online anonymity allows for creativity and political dissent, but it also gives cover to disruptive and criminal behavior—and much of what Internet users believe they do anonymously online can be tracked and tied to people’s real-world identities. The fourth is security: free access to an open Internet makes users vulnerable to various kinds of hacking, including corporate and government espionage, personal surveillance, the hijacking of Web traffic, and remote manipulation of computer-controlled military and industrial processes.
One way to think about the War for the Internet is to cast it as a polar conflict: Order versus Disorder, Control versus Chaos. The forces of Order want to superimpose existing, pre-digital power structures and their associated notions of privacy, intellectual property, security, and sovereignty onto the Internet. The forces of Disorder want to abandon those rickety old structures and let the will of the crowd create a new global culture, maybe even new kinds of virtual “countries.” At their most extreme, the forces of Disorder want an Internet with no rules at all.
A conflict with two sides is a picture we’re used to—and although in this case it’s simplistic, it’s a way to get a handle on what the stakes are. But the story of the War for the Internet, as it’s usually told, leaves out the characters who have the best chance to resolve the conflict in a reasonable way. Think of these people as the forces of Organized Chaos. They are more farsighted than the forces of Order and Disorder. They tend to know more about the Internet as both a technical and social artifact. And they are pragmatists. They are like a Resistance group that hopes to influence the battle and to shape a fitful peace. The Resistance includes people such as Vint Cerf, who helped design the Internet in the first place; Jeff Moss, a hacker of immense powers who has been trying to get Order and Disorder to talk to each other; Joshua Corman, a cyber-security analyst who spends his off-hours keeping tabs on the activities of hackers operating under the name of Anonymous; and Dan Kaminsky, one of the world’s top experts on the Internet’s central feature, the Domain Name System.
Although they may feel a certain kinship with one another, they are not an organized group. Their main point of agreement is that the Internet has changed the world forever, in ways we are only beginning to understand. They know that Order is impossible and that Disorder is unacceptable. They understand that the world is a messy place whose social arrangements come and go. But they are united in the conviction that what must be preserved and promoted at all costs is what the forces of Order and Disorder, in their very different ways, are both intent on undermining: the integrity of the Internet itself as a reliable, independent, and open structure.
The Net has given more individuals more power in a shorter period of time than any new technology in history. And unlike many other world-changing technologies, there is no institutional barrier to access. This has made it, on balance, mostly destructive of institutional authority, especially that of nation-states. National sovereignty encompasses many powers, but one of its core elements has been a monopoly on the control of overwhelming force. Now that hackers are able to penetrate any and all computer networks, including military ones, that monopoly no longer exists. Nation-states, not surprisingly, resist the erosion of their power and seek ways to reclaim it.
And if Internet companies do not want intrusive regulation, whether from their own governments or from treaties such as the one to be negotiated in Dubai, they will need to start solving the Internet’s problems on their own. Melissa Hathaway, who led cyber-security strategy for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, points out that “the top 20 Internet service providers in the world carry 90 percent of the Internet traffic. They can see when you’re infected by a botnet. They can see when you’ve been hacked.” Hathaway has defined a set of general principles that Internet companies and governments might get behind, such as a “duty to warn if in imminent danger.” As she puts it, “It’s just like the law of the sea: the duty to assist.”
Beyond this core agenda, the forces of Organized Chaos, by and large, think that the Internet should be allowed to evolve on its own, the way human societies always have. The forces of Organized Chaos have a pretty good sense of how it will evolve, at least in the short term. The Internet will stratify, as cities did long ago. There will be the mass Internet we already know—a teeming bazaar of artists and merchants and thinkers as well as pickpockets and hucksters and whores. It is a place anyone can enter, anonymously or not, and for free. Travel at your own risk! But anyone who wishes can decide to leave this bazaar for the security of the bank or the government office—or, if you have enough money, the limousine, the Sky Club, the platinum concierge. You will always have to give something up. If you want utter and absolute privacy, you will have to pay for it—or know the right people, who will give you access to their hidden darknets. For some services, you may decide to trade your privacy and anonymity for security. Depending on circumstance and desire, people will range among these worlds.
JC comments: I found this article to be fascinating, and it triggered some insights re the climate blogosphere. Our little slice of the internet is rife with hackers, anonymous characters, and a classic battle between control and chaos. Although in this context, the Smartian version CONTROL and KAOS often seems more apt :) The internet is enabling a substantial challenge to control of the climate dialogue by the IPCC and its defenders. I will seek to position Climate Etc. as an agent of controlled chaos.