Splinternet

HOW GEOPOLITICS AND COMMERCE ARE FRAGMENTING THE WORLD WIDE WEB


SCOTT MALCOMSON

“This is not your ordinary history of the Internet. Scott Malcomson has brilliantly extended the connections between Silicon Valley and the military back far beyond DARPA—back, in fact, to World War I. If you want to understand the conflict between cyberspace utopians and the states and corporations who seek to dominate our virtual lives, you’ve got to read this book.”
                                                                                                   —James Ledbetter, editor, Inc. Magazine

“In elegant prose powered by deep research—and with a surprisingly vivid cast of characters—Scott Malcomson shows how profound the relationship is between the state and the Internet. As major powers try to assert control over the Web, Splinternet illuminates both how we got to this point and how to move forward.” —Parag Khanna, global contributor, CNN, and author of Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization

Read “The Web in the World,” an interview with author Scott Malcomson about Splinternet.

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About the Book

There’s always been something universalizing about the Internet. The World Wide Web has seemed both inherently singular and global, a sort of ethereal United Nations. But today, as Scott Malcomson contends in this concise, brilliant investigation, the Internet is cracking apart into discrete groups no longer willing, or able, to connect. The implications of this shift are momentous.

Malcomson traces the way the Internet has been shaped by government needs since the 19th century—above all, the demands of the US military and intelligence services. From World War I cryptography and spying to weapons targeting against Hitler and then Stalin, the monolithic aspect of the digital network was largely determined by its genesis in a single, state-sponsored institution.

In the 1960s, internationalism and openness were introduced by the tech pioneers of California’s counter-culture, the seed bed for what became Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple. But in the last 15 years, security concerns of states and the privatizing impetus of e-commerce have come to the fore and momentum has shifted in a new direction, towards private, walled domains, each vying with the other in an increasingly fragmented system, in effect a “Splinternet.”

Because the Internet today surrounds us so comprehensively, it’s easy to regard the way it functions as a simple given, part of the natural order of things. Only by stepping back and scrutinizing the evolution of the system can we see the Internet for what it is—a contested, protean terrain, constantly evolving as different forces intervene to drive it forward. In that vital exercise, Malcomson’s elegant, erudite account will prove invaluable.

Publication March 17, 2016 • 202 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-30-2 • E-book 978-1-682190-31-9

About the Author

scott malcomson author photo

Scott Malcomson, a consultant on communications and political risk, is the author of four previous books and has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker and many other publications. He has been a senior official at the US State Department and the United Nations and an executive at two international NGOs. He was foreign editor of the New York Times Magazine from 2004 to 2011. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and PEN, he has lectured in Europe, China and the United States. His earlier books are Tuturani: A Political Journey in the Pacific Islands, Empire’s Edge: Travels in Southeastern Europe, Turkey and Central Asia, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race, and Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power after 9/11.

Read an Excerpt

FROM THE INTRODUCTION

The World Wide Web is slowly returning to Earth and its entanglements: states, laws, cultures. Cyberspace, for a host of commercial and political reasons, is becoming many cyberspaces, some of which fit surprisingly well onto the old political maps of nation-states. The Web has even become a battleground for states’ wars. Why is this happening, and what will remain of the old, free and anarchic Web to take into the future?

Digital computing, the Internet, and eventually the Web were invented and grew as part of a long line of government projects, mainly military ones, dating back to the First World War. But, beginning in the late 1960s, the Internet and geek culture split off from government, launching a period of spectacular innovation, excitement, and profit. The Web became a place for enacting dreams of freedom.

Cyberspace was understood as extra-terrestrial, at once politically rebellious and apolitical, where you could have no identity at all and yet every identity was respected: the last of the great 1960s projects. No one can surpass the famous description by John Perry Barlow, who dashed off a declaration of cyber-independence while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in February 1996, less than a year after the first easily accessible Web browser, Mosaic, reached the public:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. … Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion….

In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.

Barlow’s transcendent triumphalism complemented the more earthly triumphalism that flourished after the ending of the Cold War, the globalizing consensus optimism that Davos nurtured and celebrated. The Web as a solvent of sovereignty had a very strong appeal, and was soon taken up by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a fixture at Davos, in his 1999 bestseller The Lexus and the Olive Tree: “The symbol of the Cold War system was a wall, which divided everyone. The symbol of the globalization system is a World Wide Web, which unites everyone.…In the Cold War we reached for the hot line between the White House and the Kremlin—a symbol that we were all divided but at least someone, the two superpowers, were in charge. In the era of globalization we reach for the Internet—a symbol that we are all connected but nobody is totally in charge.”

Not totally: the United States remained a good deal more in charge than any other power, which is what led the French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, in pondering the singularity of America’s victory, to his rather bitter coinage “hyperpower”—like a superpower, only more so. In particular, the United States was in charge of the Internet, which had been developed, like so much else in the 20th century, including (for the most part) digital computing itself, by the U.S. military to serve U.S. military purposes.

Then why did Barlow and Friedman, and nearly every other writer on the subject, not dwell on, or draw conclusions from, the World Wide Web’s past? In part, it was because their boomer generation rarely chose to take lessons from their parents’ experience. In part, it was because something so exhilaratingly futuristic could only be dragged down by a consideration of its past, and the thrill of the post-Cold War period was in creating a future that had as little reference to the miserable past as possible. Besides, the Cold War victory had been “military” only in the very specific sense that one side’s military had out-spent and, most important, out-innovated the other side’s military; the rest of the victory, the bulk of it, was political and economic, not military. So what did it matter if the Internet had once been a military program?

The strongest reason for neglecting the past of the Internet was that this old military project had in fact been superbly re-purposed by a trans-national engineering subculture that followed its own rules, and by a San Francisco Bay Area culture of the late 1960s and 1970s that was highly individualistic and even libertarian, unsympathetic at best to the demands of the state and sovereignty, generally pacifist, and animated by a One World view of its own. That is why it seemed as though the Web might be the one ‘60s project that could succeed in breaking free of the past and burying the nation-state system. You have no sovereignty where we gather… Our identities have no bodies…

Has the past caught up with the Web? From Russian cyberattacks and the Stuxnet virus to chronic cyberthievery from China and industrial-scale invasions of privacy, the Web seems to be returning to its roots in conflict and nation-state rivalries. Giant Web companies both hasten this nationalization of the Web — as they tailor products to ever more specific markets — and rebel against it as a barrier to their trans-border ambitions. Meanwhile anxious states, fearing their economic and military dependence on the Web and the vulnerability of their digital information, devote funds and political capital to fighting cryptography, building Great Firewalls and creating “back doors.”

Twenty years on, looking back on his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, Barlow said, “I could also see there was never a better system [than the Web] that could inherently be extended for surveillance. Ever. I knew that. I wasn’t stupid. I just wanted to pretend that was not the future.” That is unfair to the future. Without doubt, the Web is and will be used for surveillance and for the projection of force, just as its forebears intended. States and like-minded regions will assert control over it and most users’ experience of it will be locally inflected. At the same time, the Web will continue to have a global infrastructure and no one state will be able to dominate it, both because the other states won’t let it and because the leading companies on the Web will not abandon their drive for global growth. The Web will be neither entirely united nor entirely divided. The Web is a global private marketplace built on a government platform, not unlike the global airport system. That is more mundane than the early ecstasies of cyberspace but it is more durable. And if the prophecies of cyberwar are someday fulfilled, at the end of the battle the airport will still be rebuilt. People will always want to fly.

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