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The Internet as Weapon

One of the most striking and enduring dichotomies in the conceptualization of electronic communication networks is summed up in the phrase “the Internet as weapon.” With each passing day, it seems that the strident divergence plays in the press—the latest being Tim’s lament about his “web” vision being somehow perverted. The irony is that the three challenges he identified would have been better met if he had instead pursued a career at the Little Theatre of Geneva and let SGML proceed to be implemented on OSI internets rather than refactoring it as HTML to run on DARPA internets.

So this gets back to the central premise of this article—the existence of any electronic communication capability that is “an open platform that enables anyone, everywhere, to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries” globally is fundamentally a weapon. Apart from Tim equating “web” with internets, the existence of such an infrastructure has inherent economic, operational, and political self-destructive properties that are playing out exponentially every day.

Tim’s three observations border on the absurd. “We have lost control of our personal data.” Guess what, if you convey it across a globally open electronic communications infrastructure, it is no longer your personal data and you have lost control. Count on it; and there about 167 years of treaty instruments that ensure that will be the case.

Indeed, Tim’s web vision rests on a treaty signed in 1988 that allowed internet capacity for the first time to be made publicly available globally. Internet weaponization in the form of the Morris Worm played out in the press during the treaty conference and led to all nations as a quid pro quo, assuming obligations that included “as necessary, those financial, technical, or operating conditions to be observed.” Those obligations remain in force today.

Within ten years, the scaling of the Internet as weapon began with three major components that sent everyone scrambling to do something: cyber crime, cyber terrorism, and cyber war. By 2001, the consequences began manifesting themselves big time. All of this occurred as many nations began to openly use internet platforms as instruments of political change in other nations. Even new hyper-competitive commercial entrants leveraging obligation-less regulatory devises such as NetNeutrality and OTT services furthered the weaponization touting it as a “disruptive” paradigm. Nevermind the collateral damage.

The mainstream legacy telecommunications industry, as well as cognizant government security and law enforcement agencies, scrambled to cope with these developments in the face of rapidly changing political-economic conditions. The notion that anyone can do anything globally on open communication networks and not be observed is just not going to occur. The U.K. got it right with the Investigatory Powers Act that serves as a global model.

“It’s too easy for misinformation to spread.” You don’t say! Doesn’t that come with pursuing a cyber-utopian “open platform and the resources for anyone, everywhere, to share information?” The reality of human existence is that the disaffected peoples and crazies of the world are more energized to convey their views—including all that misinformation. The pursuit of power and money provides significant incentives as well. You can’t have it both ways, and the appropriate term is getting “hoisted on your own petard.”

And, yes, it can “spread like wildfire” courtesy of the very open, unlimited capabilities being advocated. The problem is that given a simple-minded pursuit of those capabilities, the most we can do is sing kumbaya and witness the destruction of enduring societal values and political systems gamed by any narcissistic dictator who wants to spin up and leverage a populist movement. It is also a phenomenon not exactly unknown in human history.

The third and most problematic of Tim’s challenges is that “political advertising online needs transparency and understanding.” This one is both mystifying and amusing—as the challenge transcends all media. Indeed, the dynamics and interplay across mobile communication, internet, television broadcasting and print media are new and especially destabilizing phenomena. One could argue that rapacious proclivities of news media today have considerably exacerbated the challenges being faced.

Recommended reading here is Morozov’s The Net Delusion: the dark side of internet freedom. As he noted almost ten years ago, “playing with cyber-utopianism is a risky game…and ultimately defies the law of reason.” What seems dismaying if not annoying is the reluctance to admit that the internet (also being referred to here as the web) itself is a weapon; and that the only solutions are to rail against government action and provide more money to the Web Foundation which may be taking things in the wrong direction.

When you call for “empowering citizens,” you might be cautious about what you wish for with the realization that self-righteous populist xenophobes and demagogues are citizens as well. Societies can be destabilized beyond a tipping point. You might just need multilateral collaboration and with well-balanced government mechanisms to find the solutions.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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