Balkanization of Internet is changing cyberspace

The ongoing balkanization of the Internet can change the cyberspace as we know it.

From September 2015, a new cyber law has been passed that increases the Kremlin’s control over the Russian Internet. Similarly to China, Russia is trying to get the free, unregulated and unrestricted cyberspace under its control. The official goal is to increase the power to counter cyber threats, terrorism and espionage by state and non-state actors. However, the main motivation is the incompatibility of the values of these regimes with fundamental characteristics of cyberspace, such as decentralisation, free access, unreliability and the dominant role of non-state actors. While China and Russia are trying to secure the restrictive and leading role of the state in this new domain, the U.S. and Western societies respect the basic values the Internet was built on and they consider them essential. Since the countries cannot agree on international rules to regulate the cyberspace, the balkanization – i.e. fragmentation of the global Internet – and disruption of the current decentralised Internet without the decisive role of the states becomes a new reality.

Since September 1, the companies operating in Russia have to follow the so-called data localisation law that requires companies such as Google or Facebook to store their users' data using databases located exclusively in Russia. Due to the new law, the Kremlin has more tools to monitor all Internet traffic and more ways to control society, information and dissent. The main justification is to protect the Russian cyberspace from foreign attacks, non-state actors and interventions of the United States. Other tools include the blocking of the opposition's websites and the strict regulation of bloggers. Vladimir Putin has said in the past that the Internet is a special project of the CIA. The Russian Duma also proposed to create a separate Russian Internet and to ban the use of all foreign software.

The Chinese approach to the Internet is even more restrictive. A complex system of censure and control called "the Great Firewall of China" filters all Internet traffic. It blocks thousands of unwanted web sites of dissidents, opposition, activists and foreign media like New York Times and Washington Post, as well as Facebook or Google. Part of it is the Golden Shield system developed by American companies like Cisco and its $700 million worth structure is for the most part based on Western technology.

A fundamental principle in the development of communication technologies the Internet is built on - transmitting packets – was decentralisation of the communication network in order to make it more resistant to nuclear attacks in the '60s. In the '90s – age of worldwide triumph of the market economy over centrally planned economy – Clinton's administrative decided not to regulate the Internet. They did it in order not to limit its unbelievable economic potential and to let the development and commercialization take a free course since it was technologically impossible to regulate the effectively anarchic and decentralised cyberspace. Values that gave the Internet its character – unrestricted access, decentralisation, freedom, unlimited innovation – also brought security risks and weakened the cyberspace. Cyberspace has a Hobbesian character which allowed it to be misused not only by the criminals but due to it cyberspace became the fifth war domain for states.

For states like China and Russia, the current status quo of the Internet means a security risk for multiple reasons. It enables free access to uncensored information, it is a medium hard to control, it limits the influence of state actors and it is an area of absolute technologic and software domination of the U.S. private companies. In the context of the absence of international consensus to make the rules and regulations in the form of intergovernmental arrangements that enforce the dominant role of the state in cyberspace, China and Russia take matters into their own hands in order to protect their regimes. That leads to deepening balkanization of the Internet where every country introduces its own rules and regulations that disrupt the natural character of the cyberspace under the guise of security threats. Similarly to the origin of state sovereignty in Middle Age Europe, the states are currently trying to achieve state sovereignty in cyberspace by building imaginary borders through fear and coercion. The insurmountable obstacle is the uncontrollable structure of the Internet allowing encoding, usage of proxy servers or peer-to-peer programs and the endless development of new anonymization tools all help the users to not only stay completely out of reach of state control but also to surf the Internet without limits. Another problem is the aforementioned technological inferiority. Controlled, restrictive and non-market environment limits the capability of innovation and development and leaves the balkanized states either technologically limited and isolated or dependent on foreign products.

Despite the criticism of the NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden, newly passed Freedom Act prevented the intelligence services from unlimited access to personal information and user data without judicial permission. Unequivocal, long-term strategy of the U.S. government is the refusal to dictate security standards to the private sector. The goal is to maintain the current status quo where the cyberspace is a domain of private actors, independent agencies not controlled by the state, that create an innovative, creative and freely developing environment. Model of Russia and China based on state regulation and control of the Internet displays the opposite values and undermines the essence of this domain. The creation of the international regulatory frame is unlikely while total balkanization of the Internet is both technically and technologically unfeasible. Cyberspace thus remains a perfect tool of information control for authoritarian regimes, but its inherent features will continue to weaken the dominant role of the state.

About author: Petr Boháček

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