The open, universal internet is over. But did it ever really exist? | Scott L Malcomson

The utopian vision of a truly free internet is slowly being eroded by nation states

The internet is being nationalised. A French regulator’s recent insistence that a French citizen has a right to have information removed from the totality of cyberspace – according to the right to be forgotten judgment – is just another instance of a general trend toward what China’s president, Xi Jinping, calls “internet sovereignty”. For which read: assertion of control by the nation-state over the once borderless realm.

In some cases, internet sovereignty can mean a state protecting its citizens’ privacy against international corporate surveillance or infiltration by another state. In other cases, it can mean the state ensuring that it can invade the privacy of its citizens whenever and however it likes. The choices made depend on the state, but that of course is the point: it’s the state that decides. Was this inevitable? Perhaps. Computing, and much later the internet, originated in state-run projects and were shaped by the state’s needs. What’s more, the commercial internet, to the considerable degree that it was dependent on advertising income and other forms of retailing, also always had a “localising” logic behind its vast scale. In truth, the globalised web utopia seems to have depended, however much one might prefer otherwise, on an American dominance that could not last forever. As other states assert their own diverse prerogatives, what will remain of the open, extraterrestrial realm that fired so many imaginations?

First: some history. The development of cyberspace didn’t have to be an American story. The crucial missing element in the small set of electronic circuits needed for digital computing was a British discovery: the Eccles-Jordan, or flip-flop, circuit, which would make digital memory possible. Frank Jordan and William Eccles invented it during their war work. “The present war has taught the world,” Thomas Edison told the New York Times in 1915, “that killing men in war is a scientific proposition.”

Later, the interwar development of computing had many strands but the most important followed Edison’s insight. Imagining how to prevail in a naval battle was an early form of virtual reality, dependent on a lot of high-speed maths – too fast for humans, but not too fast for the analog computers developed in the 1930s. The technology and its metaphors – having machines calculate multiple inputs to produce virtual outcomes, and then real ones – constituted a distinctive American contribution between the wars and formed the basis for much of American computing innovation in the second world war. While some American scientists became pacifist after Nagasaki, others believed that the US having had to play scientific catch-up to its enemies in two global conflicts, now had to stay ahead,. Whatever misgivings the US might have had about a permanent war economy based on government spending and military-industrial-academic coordination were overcome after the Sputnik launch. Sputnik inspired the research that led to the internet, conceived as a network of computers that would be able to preserve command and control of weaponry even under devastating attack. The Pentagon’s efforts today to develop a new “offset” – military jargon for decisive technological supremacy – descends directly from these earlier lessons. The main actor remains the state. But today there are states other than America with the same idea.

Not so long ago, the anti-authoritarian culture of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in northern California, provided a vivid counterpoint to this logic. Its inventors and entrepreneurs repurposed military technology as liberation technology. The counterculture did not, at first, embrace the internet; the excitement was in developing the computer as a personal tool for personal purposes. But because the internet of the 1980s and 1990s was developed by an informal, decentralised subculture of scientific researchers as an “end-to-end” system, with “dumb” pipes connecting smart computers, personal computers eventually became the gateway to individual participation in an agreeably extraterrestrial, infinitely scalable community. As John Perry Barlow famously informed the “governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel” in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, dashed off at the World Economic Forum in 1996: “You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather … I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose.” So it was, if under the unacknowledged protection of a political, technological and commercial American supremacy that had no rivals.

The undoing of this extraordinary idyll was, initially, commercial, not political. The commercialisation of the internet, and then the web, depended on gathering information about Wweb users to sell to them. The fantastic scale of this enterprise obscured the reality that netizens were of increasing economic value to business precisely in that they could be ever more individually defined and targeted, not as citizens of the world but as consumers of specific things in specific places. The advent of geolocation, a byproduct mainly of American military GPS and intelligence research programmes, accelerated cyberspace’s descent to Earth. As Barlow observed in 2015, the web was incomparably suited to surveillance: “I knew that. I wasn’t stupid. I just wanted to pretend that was not the future.”

The central importance of the web to national economic prosperity brought the terrestrial state back to cyberspace with a vengeance. China and Russia had been wondering since the mid-1990s why this wondrous invention should be controlled by the US government and US corporations. At the time, less than 1% of the world’s population was on the internet. That has grown to about 40% and will continue growing. According to one tally, the internet accounts for more than 5% of the GDP of the world’s 20 largest economies.

For now, the commercial imperatives of major web platforms continue to threaten digital sovereignty. As Charles Songhurst (ex-Microsoft, ex-Google) explained to Alec Ross in Ross’s new book The Industries of the Future, “Before Uber there was in Milan, Italy, in Lyon, France, two or three minicab companies that used to compete. You had that in every city in Europe. They’ve all ceased to exist. So a huge chunk of the Italian GDP just moved to Silicon Valley. With these platforms, the valley has become like ancient Rome. It exerts tribute from all its provinces … So the global regional inequality is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Pentagon overreach, as revealed by Edward Snowden, only exacerbates the political dangers inherent in Songhurst’s vision. One imagines this can only increase digital nationalism, in an era when nationalism of many kinds is waxing in the face of a once triumphant globalisation. The advantages, as ever, lie more with the (technological) great powers than with each individual state: more Congress of Vienna than Peace of Westphalia. As Lu Wei, director of China’s Cyberspace Administration, said in Nanning last year: “Confronting common challenges from cyberspace, China and Asean have increasingly become a community of common destiny.” In the shaping of that destiny, some will be more equal than others.

Scott L Malcomson is author of Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce are Fragmenting the World Wide Web. He is a fellow at the Carnegie Corporation

Scott L Malcomson

The GuardianTramp

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