Internet nationalism?

I have been an admirer of Bruce Schneier for a while but I think he misses the point on this piece about nationalism on the internet.

Yes, he is correct that companies will try to profiteer from any cyberwar. Citizens should be vigilant. Especially after the war profiteering around the US invasion of Iraq and the global war on terror.

Yes, the government must be kept in check to prevent an assault on the privacy of its citizen – in the name of security. And that is a full time effort.

But if Schneier thinks the biggest risk in the situation arises from nefarious corporations in West, he needs to take a closer look at the implications of State Owned Enterprises in China, which are neither fully private companies, nor fully the government.

SOEs’ fist-in-glove relationship with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party really blur the lines of responsibility in any matter of privacy and profiteering.

The challenge in the West is that capitalism has corroded democracy in recent years. But that trend is slowly being corrected by a rise in participation in democracy and a more vocal civil society movement. The path back to sanity in the West is restoring the boundaries between government and business which eroded during the rise of freemarket fundamentalism. The cure is more oversight and accountability.

SOEs by their design run counter to those ideas. And in fact, it’s the mix of the Chinese military, cyber-thieving on an industrialized scale, only to share the spoils with China’s businesses (no doubt through well-connected SOEs) that forms the threat for Western economies, businesses and citizens.

I’m not sure Schneier takes this into account in his piece. He writes in the same anachronistic tone that many people do, who assume US power in these areas is uncontested. US power in the cyber-industrial realm is very much contested these days, from many fronts, by the biggest single challenge, I would guess, is the new model coming out of China.

Another interesting point Schneier touches on and that we have considered for some time at Cold War Daily, is the possibility of a Balkanized internet. Schneier writes:

We’ve started to see increased concern about the country of origin of IT products and services; U.S. companies are worried about hardware from China; European companies are worried about cloud services in the U.S; no one is sure whether to trust hardware and software from Israel; Russia and China might each be building their own operating systems out of concern about using foreign ones.

It sounds like science fiction now but if the Internet truly becomes Balkanized, you can expect the technology to follow. Some authoritarian governments have a deep interest in making their systems inoperable with the wider internet. Why wouldn’t that extend to the hardware, too? It sounds far fetched but it shouldn’t. There was a time, in the not too distant past, when there were two models of many pieces of hardware. The kind seen in the West, often underpinned by the R&D and industrial policies of those countries; and another version found behind the Iron Curtain. A similar trend could come in the future.

The Not-So-World Wide Web of the future

I hear little talk about this but I think it’s possibly some technology that is more or less universal will become balkanized, or divided between two or more poles in coming years. What do I mean by this? The internet has developed and spread through the period of unchecked, relatively borderless globalization. China’s rise occured roughly over the same period of the PC, Windows, up through the iPad and iPhone. But what the Western globe wants from technology platforms and what the Chinese want is different. There could be enough incentive in China-world to push for software, networks and more that are suited to their needs. At the same time, the wholesale ripping off of Western technology to advance China’s economy may spur the development of more technology that isn’t meant to adopted in China. This is all very nebulous. But you have to look at the objectives of the technology companies and the risks. For the West, the pitfall of a universal market is an endless vista of pirates and hackers. For the Chinese Communist Party and other authoritarian regimes, the very openess of technology conceived of by Western minds, represents a threat to their power. It doesn’t take much to imagine new softwares, networks (look at Weibo) one day even new protocals and code that isn’t designed to communicate on a world wide basis, but with a section of the world. And this is crucial to the notion of a new kind of Cold War. This balkanization first of the internet and then of technology itself, will allow other divides to emerge. The fact is, there are incentives on both sides of the Pacific to cordon off networks. That’s not to say the tech border won’t be porous. Maybe even highly so. But the flow of data and information may, over time, more closely reflect the culture, law and objectives of the two competitive regions. Am I wrong? I’d be very curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this.