Independence of Cyberspace is in jeopardy

Taking advantage of the emergence of COVID-19, governments have made new proposals to control the Internet and its interactions.

In recent years, governments have searched for ways to control the information that circulates online. With the emergence of COVID-19, new proposals emerge to control the Internet and monitor interactions in cyberspace.

In 1996 John Perry Barlow declared the Independence of Cyberspace. In his manifesto, he railed against the governments of the “industrial world” and his mania for controlling every aspect of citizens’ lives.

Barlow presented cyberspace as a place where borders have been erased and where communications happen everywhere and nowhere at the same time; where everyone could express their ideas without fear of being coerced or silenced.

That vision of the Internet prevailed in the 90s, when the World Wide Web, the protocol developed by Tim Berners-Lee, allowed this technology to be accessible to more people and, thus, spread rapidly throughout the world.

In those years, the Internet was seen by most people and governments of the world as a tool that would allow creating a global virtual community, where all people would freely share their ideas and knowledge. Instead, not everyone anticipated that it was a disruptive technology with the potential to transform, not only the global economy but also human relationships.

As soon as governments realized how online communities could drive questioning movements of the status quo, as happened during the Arab springs, they decided to get their hands on it.

Now, the independence of cyberspace is in jeopardy.

Cyberspace: The Lost Paradise

The anarchic, free and ethereal cyberspace that Barlow described 25 years ago now seems like a letter to Santa. Governments around the world have developed a wide variety of strategies to control communications on the network. They now have firewalls that prevent access to sites with uncomfortable information, can shut down telecommunications services in times of political conflict, or use laws that become the web a postmodern panopticon where all interactions are monitored.

In the last 30 years, the Internet has gone from being an Epicurean garden where each individual freely shares their knowledge or point of view and, if they wish, anonymously, to a Hobbesian concentration camp wherein each site you must present your ID to access.

The emergence of COVID-19 has made this transformation of cyberspace even more evident, which could accelerate in the coming years. In South Korea, the government did contact tracing of the mobile devices of infected individuals to identify other infected suspects, a move that Silicon Valley’s companies plan to emulate soon. Facebook has stepped up its effort to limit the spread of what it considers to be fake news, rising again the question about in which point information control should be allowed.

And recently, China has proposed to radically transform the structure of the Internet.

A New IP World

How the Internet is organized must be rethought. Both governments and specialists agree with this. The reasons are not only political but also technical. The TCP / IP model has its disadvantages, and it has trouble describing the new technologies that are beginning to be part of the network.

The structure adopted in 1983 for the Internet presents limitations for the ambitions of tech engineers. The current infrastructure is suitable for the mass sending of text, audio, and video messages, but it becomes unreliable for tasks that could soon cease to be science fiction, such as the display of holograms or medical surgery performed with telepresence.

These limitations led a group of Chinese engineers to present in March 2020, to more than forty nations members of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a proposal for a New IP (Internet Protocol), developed mainly by Huawei.

Although the proposal has caught the attention of governments such as Iran, Saudi Arabia or Russia, it has raised the eyebrows of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Collaborators from the Financial Times interviewed some specialists from these countries who consider that the structure proposed by China goes against the core idea of ​​the Internet, thought of as a public network between private connections.

For years ago, China has promoted a different vision of the Internet. In 2014, the Chinese government tried to get attendees of the World Internet Conference – organized by this country – to sign a statement on the Internet that some media described as “ridiculous”.

The Chinese government has also repeatedly defended its concept of “cyber sovereignty“. That means the right that each government has to control the information that is transmitted over the Internet.

Controlling information has not been an easy job for China. Although for several years the so-called Great Firewall (the Great Chinese Firewall) has prevented its citizens from connecting to western pages such as Twitter or Facebook, this barrier is far from being effective. With a VPN, it looks like a small fence.

Alissa Cooper of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) commented in the Financial Times that China’s new IP proposal is exactly what the Internet avoids being. And according to a member of the British delegation to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the proposal gives telecommunications operators – which in China belong to the state – too much control.

Is there freedom in Western Internet?

While both the media and Western governments can rightly accuse China of going against the freedoms promised by the Internet, the truth is that the current model has also been far from fulfilling these promises.

Governments are becoming increasingly involved in cyberspace, while a group of North American corporations – Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon – have managed to centralize the network of networks.

Currently, cyberspace dwellers can only choose between state control or corporate control. And sometimes, both go hand in hand, as seen in Russia when Facebook was forced by the government to block one of its main critics or in the United States with the NSA’s free access to information from users of Google, Facebook, and Apple.

In criticism of China’s proposal to transform the Internet, the freedom of defense speech is mere rhetoric. The struggle is actually between those who want to control the interactions that people have on a daily basis in cyberspace, each with his own style.

And as they feel threatened, more and more people will accept these forms of control.

Give me the Data and Nobody Get Hurts!

After the terrorist attacks of September 9, 2001, George W. Bush signed the so-called Patriotic Act, which, among other things, allowed the intelligence centers of that country to use new technologies to keep constant vigilance. to the population.

The Internet as a spy tool sounded like a paranoid tale until Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed how far the NSA monitored online communications.

Edward Snowden, who revealed massive NSA espionage, continues in exile.

The governments and companies involved in these activities have been far from suffering any consequences. On the contrary, Snowden is still in exile in Russia, while, with the excuse of national security, the Internet is fragmenting into increasingly surveillance nodes.

Nowdays, encryption of information and the use of VPN software still allow circumvention of this surveillance. Hence, recent warnings from US and UK security specialists about using VPN software when working at home cause suspicions. Also rising security concerns, Google and Apple deleted VPN apps from their store.

Surveillance could take a new step under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic. Large Silicon Valley companies have partnered to develop applications to identify who the virus-infected have been in contact with, similar to South Korea’s measures.

Although these companies have stated that they will not allow this technology to be used to create a database for the government, in the past, there are enough references to be suspicious. Despite Apple’s refusal to collaborate, the FBI managed to forcibly unlock a mobile device taking advantage of a vulnerability; Facebook provided sensitive information about its users in the case of Cambridge Analytica; Cloud databases are constantly compromised.

Even when geolocation technology is used with the best intentions to help in a health crisis, this project shows that even the daily routes of people and those with whom they come into contact can be tracked thanks to data that is delivered consciously or unconsciously to big tech companies.

Cyberspace is about to lose its brief independence. Staying in their homes on lockdown, what another place will people have to interact freely?