Although Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying have fueled talk of “national Internets”—networks that are logically or physically isolated to a single nation—interest on the part of world leaders predates the scandal. Regardless of a country’s motivations for isolating its corner of the Internet (or otherwise tightly controlling outside access), the potential implications are wide ranging.
National Internets: A Long Time Coming?
One of the chief features of the Internet is its worldwide connectivity that allows almost anyone to communicate relatively freely with others in virtually any location. This connectivity also improves resiliency of the network by enabling traffic routing to avoid congested or disabled hops, among other benefits. But this open communication troubles many governments, which view it as a threat to their power; the mass protests in Egypt illustrated both the use of the Internet by participants and the threat that governments perceive.
John C. Dvorak at PCMag ominously predicted in early 2012—well before Snowden’s NSA revelations—that “most countries, including the U.S., will eventually shut down the ‘World Wide’ Web and instead use the technologies developed by the Internet community to cocoon itself. It solves endless political problems with the Web that plague almost every country.” At the time, Iran (a perennial international pariah) was considering a national Internet; this month, collaboration between China and Iran in developing the latter’s national network was widely reported. No doubt, the program gained steam following the breaking of the NSA scandal as well as discovery of the Stuxnet and Flame malware.
Coming to a Western Nation Near You
The idea of a national Internet goes beyond the usual suspects like Iran and North Korea and is taking root in Europe. In the E.U., “Germany is taking the lead in pushing for measures to shield local Internet communications from foreign intelligence services…For Germans from the formerly Communist-ruled part of the country, NSA spying sparks bitter memories of eavesdropping by the Stasi, the secret police agency of the former East Germany,” notes IEEE Spectrum.
Ironically, Dvorak’s prediction may be coming true, but the surface rationale seems to focus more on nations protecting themselves from outside threats than from internal political matters. On the other hand, the NSA may simply be a convenient excuse for implementing what some nations already wanted: a better way to control their citizens’ communications and access to information. But in light of NSA spying likely being less about national security and more about economic and political espionage, other countries may also see a national Internet as a means of protecting their economic interests and not just the privacy of citizens and leaders.
What Would It Look Like?
Whether major western nations will be able to implement the political and technical infrastructure to enable national Internets remains open to speculation. Given that most Internet users stick largely with websites in their own language, a national Internet may seem little different from the current worldwide network. Dvorak said, “You’ll still be able to buy stuff on Amazon and shop online at B&H. You’ll still read The New York Times. Some overseas operations such as London’s Times might be licensed to operate here, too. The differences will be minor. All that you’ll be missing are a few foreign blogs, perhaps, and other seemingly inconsequential sites.” In such an extreme scenario, governments might have tightly controlled access points to other national networks, offering greater control of inbound and outbound traffic. Naturally, since corporations and government have largely become indistinguishable apart from minutiae, large companies with sufficient lobbying pressure will likely transcend the limitations imposed on everyone else.
A milder form of national networking, or at least a step in that direction, could include requirements that, say, social-media sites keep user information within their respective national boundaries. In South America, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff is “pushing legislation to force Internet companies such as Google and Facebook to store local data within the country’s borders,” according to IEEE Spectrum. But Rousseff wants to go further by using physical infrastructure that avoids routing through the U.S., in addition to creating an encrypted email system for the nation.
Local routing is far from a novel idea: the IEEE Spectrum article adds that “the practice already exists in the United States. Nationally generated and terminated traffic is prohibited from being routed over nodes outside the country. Foreign carriers with operations in the country must sign a compliance agreement.” Despite the potential benefits, however, Dvorak fears a dark side: “[I]t will take very little effort to convince Congress and the public that a national Internet in the U.S. is brilliant. Then, see what happens next. Complete government control.”
A Better Idea?
Fears of surveillance by government agencies may have a much better solution than national Internets: strong, uncompromised encryption. Edward Snowden said in an interview with German television station ARD, “The solution to [government spying] is not to set everything in a walled garden . . . It’s much better to secure the data internationally, rather than playing, ‘let’s move the data.’ Moving the data isn’t fixing the problem, securing the data is the problem.” More-secure traffic would maintain the benefits of the worldwide Internet while reducing the risks of unwanted access to information.
But even in the presence of encryption, agencies like the NSA can still access data if it slips backdoors into software or otherwise gains access to encryption keys. No security system is impenetrable, so regardless of the efforts of users and companies, the battle against extremely well-funded hackers (read: the NSA and other government spying agencies) will at best remain a stalemate, if not a constant struggle to play catchup with the latest tactics. The alternative is to enact real legal limits on spy agencies; President Barack Obama’s recent speech, however, demonstrates that such hopes for change are misplaced.
Furthermore, separating the corporations that control Internet infrastructure from the governments they all too often pair with is a difficult challenge. As a result, obtaining the kind of security and privacy that many advocate following Snowden’s revelations may be impossible. If the stakes become sufficiently high, alternative forms of networking could conceivably replace the Internet for certain functions, taking advantage of the latent distributed processing and wireless networking capabilities in many homes and businesses. Such alternatives, however, are years from widespread use, assuming they ever come to fruition.
Unfortunately, Dvorak was prescient: “Watch over the next few years as the idea of a national Internet evolves from a tool used to suppress opposition to a good idea whose time has come.” The circumstances and justifications are different than he predicted, but the outcomes may be similar. Firmly bounded national Internets may fail to arise for various practical reasons, but the trend could lead to less complicated policies like local storage of citizen information as well as more local routing. The possibility of the Internet becoming a fractured, totalitarian nightmare is scary, but given the (lack of) IT competence displayed by the U.S. federal government, such fears are probably at least somewhat overblown.