A recent report by military experts in the latest edition of the Strategic Studies Quarterly says the Internet will turn into a partitioned set of national networks instead of an open forum for ideas. That sure seems like a threat. Recent world events, after all, show the value of an open Internet.
But there’s more than nationalism working to “Balkanize” the Internet. There are three potential dividing forces, and any of them could be a disaster.
The most pervasive threat to the Internet is the erosion of online security. Malware and hacking have moved from being an annoyance to being the business of organized crime and even an instrument of national policy and attack. Protecting Internet users and critical infrastructure has spawned the notion of kill-switches or national gateways to keep out intruders. Improperly used and carried to extremes, security measures could make the global Internet into a bunch of isolated islands.
Then there’s the problem of the collapse of the economic framework of the Internet. What we know as “the Internet” is a vast and rather disorderly confederation of ISPs. The expansion in demand from dialup access to people wanting to stream 3DHD movies is challenging ISP profits. That means ISPs are looking to new revenue sources. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) just announced bandwidth caps and excess charges for wireline broadband customers. Level 3 Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: LVLT) and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) are involved in a persistent dispute over how movie traffic from
Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) is paid for across their connections.
Low profits are forcing smaller ISPs out, and bigger ones want to charge more or create their own content networks, letting the core of the Internet languish.
Finally, we have the issue of national censorship and access control. Nearly all countries have some regulation on content, but obviously some take censorship much further than others, preventing not only harmful speech, copyright infringement, and at least some forms of pornography and defamation, but also political dissent or even political research. Whether it’s intended to be so or not, the Internet is the best propaganda tool the world has ever known. That makes it an offensive propaganda threat and raises the defenses of nations that want to close their borders to ideas as much as, or more than, to travelers.
Laws are the reflection of governments, and they are operative while those governments last. Short of creating world revolution, we can’t hope to make the Internet a free haven for ideas everywhere. How would we enforce that requirement? Treaties? They’re violated daily. Courts? Who has jurisdiction and who would obey the verdict? War?
But what we could do here is to create a simple rule: Those who censor their Internet cannot connect to those who do not. If peering were structured and formalized, and if connecting into a censored national enclave would get ISPs sanctioned themselves, we might have a chance.
There are solutions to our other problems related to Balkanization, too. IPv6 could open the possibility of creating more orderly address and geographical mapping, making it easier to trace things like DDoS attacks and hacking. Laws could require ISPs to watch for botnet infections and cut off users who don’t clean their systems. We could establish the kind of traffic-based settlement for the Internet that’s common for other forms of public communication, to at least create a provably durable economic framework (though it’s not necessarily going to make streaming 3DHD free or cheap).
The problem is that all of these things would change the Internet, too. Should we try? Do we cut off nations for censoring, and their populations with them? Do we create security through measures that make us more accountable for online behavior? Shall we fix the economics of the Internet even if it means that we don’t get the combination of ever-growing online services and ever-declining online prices that we’d love to believe is ours by right?
That’s our policy choice, too. Shall we make it, or the other choices here, or put our heads in the sand and hope for the best? Recent events say it’s time for us to decide.
— Tom Nolle, software engineer and founder of CIMI Corp.