Will this be the year that America's "soft power" finally crumbles allowing foreign rivals more influence over the world's digital infrastructure?by Andrew Whitby / January 21, 2014 / Leave a comment
If 2013 was the year of Edwards Snowden’s NSA leaks, 2014 will be the year the world reacts: with the dust settled, the blowback will begin in earnest. In the eyes of the public, the NSA leaks revealed a United States comprehensively squandering its moral leadership of the internet, the common, if largely unspoken, acceptance that the “land of the free” is a natural and fitting custodian of the open internet. And from next year it will lose its technical leadership as well. For America, this will mean a diminution of its “soft power”; but it will also result in the strengthening and democratisation of the internet.
The internet was born of the US defence establishment; its forebear, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), was a “packet switching” network funded by the Department of Defense. Until the late 1990s, key technical bodies were still effectively under US government control. Since then, governance has formally been transferred to non-governmental organisations, giving the appearance of internationalism, but Snowden’s revelations remind us how thin this veneer really is. The essential components of today’s internet—the cables, hardware, software, services and standards—remain predominantly “Made in America”, and this effectively means “Controlled by America”.
But this dominance is being challenged. In network hardware, China’s Huawei is gaining ground on the market leader, America’s Cisco. Western governments have repeatedly excluded Huawei from tenders, citing ties to China’s military and cyber-security concerns—but following the NSA leaks, American manufacturers will face the same accusations. This is not just one company’s problem: Silicon Valley seems unassailable today, but it was built on the back of hardware giants like HP and Xerox. If tomorrow’s HP is located in Shenzhen, so too might tomorrow’s Snapchat emerge from São Paulo, which is experiencing a rise in tech companies.
Internet software is already quite far along this road. Key products—operating systems such as Linux and FreeBSD, web servers such as Apache, databases such as MySQL—are open source, with code available for anyone to inspect. Such products have a huge perceived advantage over (largely American) closed-source competitors, whose software is now widely assumed to contain NSA-requested backdoors. And while the free software movement remains centred on the US, other countries such as Brazil are growing in importance.
Even internet technical standards are coming under suspicion. Up to now, cryptographic techniques adopted by the US government have quickly become de facto global standards. Connections to websites, for example, are secured using algorithms approved, or even designed, by the NSA. Experts believe them to be secure, but the NSA has intentionally weakened such protocols in the past, and in light of this year’s leaks, its role in standardisation looks anything but benign. Existing alternatives are likely to gain ground as confidence in US-endorsed systems dissolves. Already, developers of the operating system FreeBSD have announced that they will no longer rely on certain US-designed random number generators, a small but vital component of any cryptographic system. In future this kind of distrust will be more common.
Internet services may prove the most durable bastion of US dominance. Powerful “network externalities” give Google’s, Facebook’s and Apple’s platforms the characteristics of a monopoly, resistant to competition. And while these corporations manage their tax affairs like multinationals, their quiet obeisance to US security services gives lie to that claim. Significant regional challengers exist—for example China’s Baidu and Sina Weibo, and Russia’s VK—but these host regimes make America seem a paragon of internet freedom. As yet, compelling open alternatives have not emerged, but don’t be surprised if 2014 sees a renewed push.
The implications go beyond the merely technical. The internet has become synonymous with communication, its generality subsuming all predecessors—radio, television, telephone. Any power over the internet is power over communication itself. By abusing this power, and getting caught, the US government has acted against its own interests. The days in which non-Americans blithely allowed the NSA to record their every word and action are over.
Pessimists worry that this will trigger a Balkanization of the internet, with newly re-assertive states seeking to contain the formerly “neutral” internet within national boundaries. Deutsche Telekom’s reported plan to keep traffic from traversing the US, building a “Schengen Area internet”, exemplifies this fear (Brazil, too, has similar plans).
A more hopeful, and I believe more likely, outcome is that power will instead be diffused, pushed down to individual internet users. It is often claimed that the internet’s progenitor, ARPANET, was designed to withstand a nuclear strike. This is a myth, but robustness and survivability were important criteria: this meant that no node could be deemed central or essential. Nearly half a century later, this philosophy remains deeply embedded in the both the technology of the internet, and the community of hackers, makers and evangelists who built it. The internet’s value lies not in any node, but in the network. This trait, though never tested by Soviet missiles, now makes it remarkably resistant to co-option by any individual nation state–as America will increasingly discover.