The nice part about Washington is you get to hear the same clichés describing different situations. It is a language of sorts, allowing you to immediately put a problem into a political “bucket.” One of those phrases is Balkanization – a splitting into many opposed factions closely located in one area. Read also: way hard to deal with.
In the 20th century, the real Balkans of SE Europe began one world war in the first decade and engaged in an internal slaughter in the last decade. It ain’t good to be Balkanized. But that is what is happening to the Internet, and there is nothing Washington can do about it nor is it going to be pleasant for us.
The Obama Administration’s move to let go of U.S. government control over the naming rights of Internet sites – The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – is being viewed as the latest in a long line of U.S. withdrawals from control of the Internet field. Some point to it as a version of us withdrawing from the Panama Canal in the 1970s, thus surrendering something we built and controlled without any quid pro quo. If only life were that simple.
By any stretch of the imagination, the U.S. built the Internet we know today. It came from the Defense Department. Its dominant industries have been American. The absolute freedom of expression was part of its very soul from its creators, a group of share-it-all American professors and computer geeks with an anarchist bent and a 1960s belief that sharing and communicating was good.
However, the Internet of the 2010s is also now a part of more than 2 billion people’s lives around the world and expanding quickly to 7 billion in foreseeable future. There is no place on this planet or the immediate space around it that cannot access the Internet. It is a centerpiece of personal, business and government communications. And the other 200 countries of the world are wondering why they aren’t in at least some control of it.
The desire for control of the Internet breaks down to several levels of interests. First of all, the control or monitoring of information being passed and stored over the Internet is of concern. Both corporations and governments collect, store and use the information for their benefit, sometimes with oversight, sometimes not. If you live in the libertarian anarchist-like world of Assange and Snowden, this is an abomination. If you are the leaders of China and Russia, not so much.
Second, the Internet has become a dimension of lawlessness and militarization. Everyone I know has been spammed, speared, fished and mutilated on the Net. All the vices from porn to drugs and illegal gambling are there. It is a place where terrorist factions (always in the eye of the beholder) can spread and recruit worldwide. China, Russia, the United States and other nations have substantial units of their military prepared to fight low-intensity cyber war.
And third, while we speak still of geographical entities like governments, the Internet is a new dimension that is literally a state of mind over body. Corporations and ideological groups wield great sway in this land. Assange and his people have had a nation-state-like impact on the United States’ spying role on the Internet. This would not have happened more than 10 years ago. The head of Facebook is as listened to as a President or senior Senator would be once in the recent past. Political Power no longer belongs to the politician.
So where is Washington going with this ever expanding Internet behemoth? One thing we can’t do is stop the Balkanization, for now. It is already happening and will continue to do so in China, Russia and other countries “concerned” over their internal stability. Our sense of freedom has little effect in these countries that have oppressed their populations for centuries and view their minorities as a threat to be contained.
I think the current Administration efforts to establish a Geneva Convention-like agreement among common interests is the best you may get, but it will be hard, as the power of corporate interests and individual groups on the Internet is the equal of any nation-state. There are many, many more players in this game than simply nation-states. The nasty reality is the U.S. hegemony in the Internet is gone, but U.S. dominance remains a positive factor. But how do we use this strength?
Washington has still not answered the question about who we are in the Internet world – our Internet Doctrine. Others who are less generous and less freedom oriented are already taking their positions. Until we clearly lay out a vision forward, others will dominate the fate of the Internet. And we are not going to like the results of having little to say about the future of the most important dimension of power in the 21st century.