In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, ending 30 years of war across Europe and bringing about the sovereignty of states. The rights of states to control and defend their own territory became the core foundation of our global political order, and it has remained unchallenged since.
In 2010, a delegation of countries – including Syria and Russia – came to an obscure agency of the United Nations with a strange request: to inscribe those same sovereign borders onto the digital world. “They wanted to allow countries to assign internet addresses on a country by country basis, the way country codes were originally assigned for phone numbers,” says Hascall Sharp, an independent internet policy consultant who at the time was director of technology policy at technology giant Cisco.
After a year of negotiating, the request came to nothing: creating such boundaries would have allowed nations to exert tight controls over their own citizens, contravening the open spirit of the internet as a borderless space free from the dictates of any individual government.
Nearly a decade on, that borderless spirit seems like a quaint memory. The nations who left the UN empty-handed had not been disabused of the notion that you could put a wall around your corner of cyberspace. They’ve simply spent the past decade pursuing better ways to make it happen.
Indeed, Russia is already exploring a novel approach to creating a digital border wall, and last month it passed two bills that mandate technological and legal steps to isolate the Russian internet. It is one of a growing number of countries that has had enough of the Western-built, Western-controlled internet backbone. And while Russia’s efforts are hardly the first attempt to secure exactly what information can and can’t enter a country, its approach is a fundamental departure from past efforts.
“This is different,” says Robert Morgus, a senior cybersecurity analyst at the New America Foundation. “Russia’s ambitions are to go further than anyone with the possible exceptions of North Korea and Iran in fracturing the global internet.”
Russia’s approach is a glimpse into the future of internet sovereignty. Today, the countries pursuing digital “Westphalianism” are no longer just the usual authoritarian suspects, and they are doing so at deeper levels than ever before. Their project is aided as much by advances in technology as by growing global misgivings about whether the open internet was ever such a good idea to start with. The new methods raise the possibility not only of countries pulling up their own drawbridges, but of alliances between like-minded countries building on these architectures to establish a parallel internet.
What’s wrong with the open internet?
It’s well known that some countries are unhappy with the Western coalition that has traditionally held sway over internet governance. It’s not just the philosophies espoused by the West that troubles them, but the way those philosophies were baked into the very architecture of the internet, which is rather famously engineered to ensure no one can prevent anyone from sending anything to anyone.
That’s thanks to the baseline protocol the 2010 delegation were trying to work around: TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol) allows information to flow with absolutely no regard for geography or content. It doesn’t care what information is being sent, what country it’s coming from, or the laws in the country receiving it; all it cares about is the internet address at either end of the transaction. Which is why, instead of sending data across predetermined paths, which might be diverted or cut off, TCP/IP will get packets of information from point A to point B by any means necessary.
It’s easy to dismiss objections to this setup as the dying cries of authoritarian regimes in the face of a global democratising force – but the problems that arise don’t just affect authoritarian regimes. Any government might be worried about malicious information like malware reaching military installations and critical water and power grids, or fake news influencing the electorate.
“Russia and China were just earlier than others in understanding the potential impact that a massively open information ecosystem would have on humans and human decision-making, especially at the political level,” says Morgus. Their view was that a country’s citizens are just as much a part of the critical infrastructure as power plants, and they need to be “protected” from malicious information targeting them – in this case fake news rather than viruses. But this is not about protecting citizens as much as controlling them, says Lincoln Pigman, a Russia scholar at the University of Oxford and a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre think tank in London.
Source : BBC