“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” the declaration proclaimed. “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.”
It was a sharp rebuttal of the growing efforts by national governments to regulate the internet, and in particular of that year’s US Telecommunications Act, seen by Barlow as encroaching on online freedom.
Twenty years later, the libertarian ideals of the declaration have been increasingly challenged. Far from retreating from attempts to govern online spaces, many governments have pushed forward in their attempts to impose legislation on their internet users.
The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect last month, is the latest in a string of regulations from countries around the world, which seek to extend local standards on speech and user privacy to cyberspace.
Increasingly, experts say, the experience of using the internet varies by jurisdiction. Global cyberspace is fragmenting.
Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, an organization campaigning for digital rights says the question is whether people can cope with [the different demands placed on the internet by national governments] without destroying the internet as a whole.
This is the issue, Killock says, “or whether we end up with such heavy-handed government intervention that the internet as a global or generally accessible space just collapses.”
Barlow’s “giants of flesh and steel” are less weary than the Grateful Dead lyricist thought. Can the ideal of a global network, potentially connecting almost everyone on Earth, survive?
For Western companies, a moral dilemma
The role of mostly Western companies in complying with national legislation is central to the question of the fragmentation of the internet. The internet relies on a set of technical protocols, used by billions of computers to communicate with each other. The question of fragmentation as it stands is not with the common standards themselves, but rather with how companies who have built platforms on these standards respond to national legislation.
Most of the biggest online companies, which represent virtually the totality of many people outside China’s online experience, are American. Yet Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Twitter have a global reach, which means making decisions about how to respond to regulators in countries viewed as less free than America.
Sometimes, the firms will be asked to hand over personal data on their users, according to local laws.
Killock says they should decide whether handing over sensitive information to governments will put people in danger. Few situations will be clear-cut, he argues.
“A company isn’t going to be in a position to judge which data request is done because a country wants to arrest some political activists, and which are to arrest some drug dealers.”
Tech firms need to “decide when they trust a legal regime as a whole,” and act accordingly.
Digital ‘Berlin Walls’
Then there is the free, cross-border access to information which lies at the heart of the internet. It is the first medium to “enable individuals to engage in cross-border speech as readily as domestic speech,” writes Graham Smith, a lawyer specializing in the rules governing cyberspace. Its default setting is for “any internet site to be accessible [by anyone] in any country.”
Yet virtually since the internet’s inception, some governments have seen the free flow of data inherent to it as a challenge to their authority.
For 20 years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has instituted a series of progressively more repressive restrictions on foreign content, so that the Chinese internet is seen by some as functioning more like a domestic intranet (ChinaFile). Foreign sites like the New York Times and Google, perceived by the PRC as hostile for not complying with its laws on speech, are blocked by the so-called Great Firewall. Western companies willing to bow to Chinese legislation, like Apple, are forced (Reuters) to store data on Chinese users within China, potentially compromising user privacy.
North Korea is an even more extreme example of what Smith calls the “Berlin Wall” approach to the free flow of information: “jamming foreign broadcasts … not wanting your citizens polluted with noxious foreign content”. Only a handful of élite Pyongyang cadres are reported (Financial Times) to have access to the global internet. Most North Korean computers are connected to a limited internal intranet, sealed off from the outside world.
But today, it’s not just North Korea and China. Jim Killock says more governments are stepping up efforts to prevent their citizens from accessing critical content.
“It’s going [the way of the Berlin Wall model] in places like Turkey and Russia because the level of censorship and the demands made on companies are so severe.”
He’s critical of America for having passed (CNN) an anti-sex-trafficking bill forcing liability on website for ads they host, which he says is part of the same trend of governments limiting free speech online.
Smith is less fearful. Most countries are “not going to try to erect a whole wall,” he predicts, though individual governments have their particular “hot buttons” to which they react viscerally: mockery of Turkey’s first modern president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for instance.
He says some countries may choose to limit their citizens’ access to information about these sensitive topics, but will not go as far as completely sealing off their national internet from the world in the process.
It’s not that they don’t want to. Martijn Grooten, the editor of Virus Bulletin, a portal focusing on internet security say some governments see the Great Firewall of China as a model to be emulated. However, faced with a citizenry accustomed to a relatively open internet, those governments cannot go as far as they might like. He reckons “people would probably grumble” if a marginal news site were censored, but would revolt if prevented from continuing to use services like Facebook and Google.
Countries viewed as freer have also suggested creating separate domestic networks (Economist). In 2014, after Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about NSA internet wiretapping, France and Germany floated (Der Spiegel) a plan to ensure that data transfers within the EU’s Schengen Area would remain in Europe. Just as a letter from Barcelona to Brussels need not pass through Boston, neither should an email, the logic goes.
“[European suppliers] need not cross the Atlantic with emails and other things … we can also build communications networks within Europe,” German chancellor Angela Merkel said (The Register) at the time, referring to the plan.
Such proposals intend to increase protections available to users, rather than decrease them, says Katja Bego, a technology researcher at the thinktank Nesta. Yet the result is the same: creating territorialised networks, cut off from the global internet.
Governments of all countries already see a connection to the outside world as a security risk for many tasks, especially those related to national security. In network security lingo, physically cutting off essential systems from the internet to protect them from interference is known as “air gapping.” This is viewed as the most protection available to a device, save for turning it off.
Bego says that more and more countries could begin to create separate domestic infrastructure to shield their networks from foreign meddling.
“You can keep lots of [tasks] separate from the general internet.”
The EU’s GDPR is the most high-profile example of yet another complexity — legal extraterritoriality. It requires all European users be treated a certain way, no matter where a website’s headquarters or servers are located.
For Smith, this sets an uncomfortable precedent for internet governance.
“One ought to be judging territorial overreach not according to whether you like the law or not, but according to a set of neutral principles,” he says. “Otherwise, all you end up doing is saying is, ‘We like our law better than yours.’ The tradition of international law over the years … has always been to try to find objective criteria to determine which country’s laws should apply in what circumstances, which is divorced from substantive issues of whether you like the law or not.”
The overarching paradox, Killock says, is that “the basic economics of the internet are about operating at scale … the flow of information underneath the surface between machines is only likely to increase.”
Ultimately, the internet is unlikely to end up as a series of mutually inoperable or completely walled off national networks, says Bego. But its fragmentation is “definitely getting more extreme and irreversible.”