The Battle to Preserve a Global InternetKonstantinos Komaitis / Apr 22, 2022
Konstantinos Komaitis is a veteran of developing and analyzing Internet policy to ensure an open and global Internet. He spent almost ten years in active policy development and strategy as a Senior Director at the Internet society.
Dr. Joseph Carl Robnett (J.C.R.) Licklider, who helped first conceptualize global networking in a series of memos discussing an “Intergalactic Computer Network” in the 1960s.
The annual letter Larry Fink issued to his shareholders last month struck a different tone. Instead of talking about growth prospects, the CEO of BlackRock, an investment and advisory firm with $10 trillion in assets under management, talked about the future of globalization and supply chains. Fink declared that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Western efforts to isolate Russia have “put an end to the globalization we have experienced over the last three decades.” Pointing to the impact of the pandemic over the past few years he noted that “we had already seen connectivity between nations, companies and even people strained by two years of the pandemic”. For Fink, these geopolitical shifts mean that state actors will start to “reevaluate their dependencies and reanalyze their manufacturing and assembly footprints.”
Discussions about the end of globalization have become increasingly intense over the past few years. The COVID pandemic generated a wave of globalization obituaries, placing under the microscope issues of international trade and supply chains. The war in Ukraine further exposed the polarized global order and its inability to apply its long-standing tools of international law. Add to that the U.S. versus China battle over hardware and technology more generally, and it seems globalization’s fate is sealed. As a consequence, ecosystems that have been formed on the basis of a globalized world are projected to suffer.
One such ecosystem is the global internet.
The global reach of the internet has always been a feature of its nature; never a bug. Networking was originally conceived as an idea to identify ways to connect nodes or “endpoints”; inter-networking was then established to merge networks into one big, global network connecting all of the regional nodes. This global reach ensured the integrity of the network, further reinforced by the value proposition that networks must be agnostic and neutral, in the sense that there should not be an expectation for them to monitor or amend the packets they carry beyond ensuring that they are routed as advertised. As technologist Leslie Daigle has asserted: “Any endpoint of the internet can address any other endpoint, and the information received at one endpoint is as intended by the sender, wherever the receiver connects to the internet. Implicit in this is the requirement of global, managed addressing and naming services”.
By negating the tyranny of distance, the internet has brought people together – both for good and evil, as the tsunami of extremism content and misinformation has shown. The prevalence of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure has brought us face to face with the idea that the internet can be used as a weapon, able to paralyze health and other sectors of society. The weaponization of the internet is most obvious on social media, where an ideological war is inevitably connected to a cultural war. Recent news about billionaire Elon Musk wanting to acquire Twitter and apply "anything goes" approach to "free speech” is an example of this connection. Which values will end up prevailing on the internet?
This question is part of a conversation that is well advanced in certain halls of power, with Europe being at the forefront as it establishes its values through an impressive amount of regulation. (The discussion of how much of this regulation is good or even needed, is for another time). This question, however, becomes irrelevant if the internet’s future is a fragmented one. Accordingly, the more appropriate question is: how truly global is the internet?
The reality is that there may have never been a time when the internet was truly global. The infrastructure, protocols and technology supporting global communications exists, but from early on, states have sought to impose conditions on the transmission of those communications. Beyond China, which operates its own kind of national networking, a number of authoritarian and democratic countries have been actively deploying filtering mechanisms to block certain content. In particular, as democracies are struggling to find a balance on what content should be allowed on the internet, the amount of information that is either suppressed or blocked is staggering. Even the Domain Name System (DNS), “the last part of the ‘glue’ that holds the Internet together and is the defining medium of what is ‘the Internet’”, seems somehow vulnerable these days either to Russia’s historical obsession regarding its management or to Europe’s intention to create a European DNS resolver (“DNS4EU”). (Geoff Huston offers an excellent analysis here).
It is not, therefore, that the internet is global, at least in the sense of everyone being able to access and consume any information from any part of the world. But, even in this increasingly fragmented environment, the internet itself has never asked anyone to take sides. The conditions states are imposing are driven by their historical and cultural backgrounds; they are part of its value proposition: one internet, one global system.
This could change, however. What if the driver leading to internet fragmentation is not cultural but economic? What if there is a way to create a ‘global’ internet that is more aligned with the way the financial system seems to be shaping?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent West’s response could provide a useful pointer. As soon as the US and European countries imposed economic sanctions on Russia, mainly kicking its major banks off the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT – the US-led international payment system – Russia sought to bounce back by approaching the Chinese-run Cross Border Interbank Payment System, or CIPS. Launched in 2015, CIPS’ aim is to provide an alternative payment and clearing system connecting both onshore and offshore clearing markets and participating banks. The system is centralized under the supervision of the People’s Bank of China with ties to the ruling Party and, in the few years of its operation, it has managed to boost yuan’s currency internationally mainly because it has been embedded into China’s Belt and Road initiative.
The same way Russia is looking for a new financial partner, it could be looking for an internet one. Russia has made no qualms about its intention to withdraw from the global internet. Despite big proclamations, it had little success for different reasons, including existing interdependencies, lack of investment and little innovation. China could offer Russia a possible way out by inviting them into its own system; or, better yet, agree on a system that allows communications to flow between countries under certain conditions; just like CIPS does.
Such an ecosystem would be academically interesting if it were just limited to Russia and China. But, the geopolitical landscape is changing. Brazil, India and South Africa have been relatively quiet on Ukraine, as have many other countries from the global south. With the exception of Japan, Australia and New Zealand, the Asia-Pacific region has also stayed out of it. In the United Nations General Assembly vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, 93 countries voted in favor and 24 against. The remaining 58 abstentions showed that views about Russia’s role in the war are not universally shared. In the same way, views about how the internet should be managed or evolve are not universally shared.
The global internet will face quite a few battles in the next few years; one of them will be about its character. Can the global internet survive the reshaping of the global order? This is going to be the existential question facing discussions around the UN’s Cybercrime Treaty, the forthcoming elections for a new Secretary General for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (between an American and a Russian candidate), and the review of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) due to take place in 2025. All the while, regional alliances are also evaluating their core goals and they may proceed to scope the internet within their own jurisdictional purview.
Just as globalization is being challenged and reshaped, so is the internet. But, unlike globalization, where ordinary people participate little in shaping its future, the internet is all about people. It is all about users connecting from anywhere to everyone. Take this away and you kill the internet. Just as many worked to establish information flows that pierced the Iron Curtain, the years ahead may see renewed efforts to evade state controls on the flow of information globally. Will people find a way to push back?