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Are We at the Dawn of a New Cold War?

Over the past say six months there are trends and events on and around the Internet that made me come up with this bizarre sounding question. Still it may actually make sense if we look at some facts. I’ll be honest up front. This is a contribution that is not totally thought over and more a compilation of ideas and impressions gathered over the past weeks and months. Still, it could well serve as the beginning of a discussion on giving the recent events a place. There’s nothing better than a provocative question in that case! Let’s start here.

Total Internet and mobile shut down

A part of the world is amazed by the action of the Egyptian government that is able and willing to shut of all Internet and mobile phone traffic. This is not totally new, but a first as a government manipulated total black out. Is this to be seen an accidental happening or every governments dream?

Of course I do not have the answer to this question as I cannot look into agreements dictatorial regimes make with ISP organisations in their respective countries nor what deals they make with international telecommunication companies that want to roll out a (mobile) network. Nor into agreements in democratic countries either for that matter. If I were a dictator and mostly interested in my personal position, then in my paranoia I would definitely want to have a master switch for when all else fails. I would have this put into any contract (and I’m afraid that industry will provide such a switch in order to do business. Why wouldn’t they?).

Some recent events summed up

There are a few facts and happenings recently that give an inkling of the direction in which the (Internet) world seems to be heading. This list is arbitrary.

  • Modern telecommunication services can be switched of at will by a government that wants to have that power and is not interested in the consequences of this action beyond self-preservation.
  • The Chinese government that threatens to stop Google’s accessibility in China and Google consenting to the Chinese government’s censory wishes.
  • All the national programs on cyber security springing up show that governments prepare themselves for the worst.
  • The call for public—private cooperation on Internet safety and security.
  • Calls for great national firewalls.
  • The US governments proposal to the ICANN that any Internet top level domain can be vetoed by a national government for any reason.
  • Stories on tracker apps.
  • Iran switching of Twitter during a resurge.
  • The response to Wikileaks.
  • Wikileaks supporters attacking (governmental) organisations.

A private Internet vs. governmental regulation

The Internet developed since the 1990s beyond the reach and grasp of governments in a privatized environment. There was no or hardly any governmental regulation in this development. In the naughties the world more or less “surrendered it’s independence” to the Internet. Everything tied in to everything else, well you know the story. Governments, consumers and industry alike found out about the downside of this surrender too, as criminals, technicians and opportunists discovered the opportunities offered and became organised cyber criminals. You’ve heard that one before also. In dealing with this downside a lot of measures were sought and sometimes found. Still the challenges facing the traditional national governments seem insurmountable. They have to do with giving up national jurisdiction, precisely the topic that nation states have a strong reflex against. So measures sought by governments have to be put in this context to be understood.

A new cold war?

So, is what we are seeing at present the “old world” struggling to get a grip on the “new world”? A new world in which they entered as an afterthought, when most was already said and done by private entities and individual persons? It may well be that the movements we are seeing at present is the dawn of a new kind of cold war, where governments “fight” the Internet industry and individuals on the Internet defending their freedom. All in the hope that the world becomes controllable again, at the national level, like it was only 10 years ago.

If this is the case, it may well be that less democratic states have an easier time than democratic ones. As I have already written before, in my opinion that is their loss and our gain. What would be our loss, is if democratic governments allow subjective reasoning and influences stop free speech in the democratic world.

Fear vs. loss of trust

Governments foresee the worst. At present they mostly deal in fear. What if all the bridges in the Netherlands would open simultaneously through a terrorist action? All railway switches manipulated? The electric grid switched off? What if ...? Living in fear is not a life I want to lead and breeds more fear. Governments can not and should not protect a citizen from everything.

I read a quote from D66 European parliamentarian S. in ‘t Veld. The digest was that she is interested to learn the ratio between the people saved by all the draconian safety measures to prevent terrorist attacks and the people that were not saved because of less medical research. (Or I add, to create jobs in poverty stricken problem neighbourhoods.) Interesting question, is it not? Are governments fighting the wrong war? There is no way for me telling, but it is always important to to keep a look out from which side advice on cyber security is coming.

It is my conviction that focussing solely on the big Internet shut down though a terrorist attack will not leave room for curing the problems that the end users have with the reapings of cyber crime. At this moment it is a free for all and not a cure in sight. An IP address in the “right” jurisdiction is almost enough to get away with anything. What will hurt the Internet and the economy most? End users losing their trust in the Internet economy.

Public—private cooperation

Yes, it is a good thing that law enforcement agencies and IP resource organisation look at ways at making the Internet safer. An initiative like the Cyber Crime Working Party makes a dialogue on information exchange, trainings, accurate registration of members, coordination and revocation of IP resources possible. But in the end industry can only go so far. Crooks need to get caught. It would be a lot more effective to approach the Internet safety and security from this angle, then by starting a new sort of cold war, that we may be on the dawn of just about now. Add this angle to a discussion on how to handle transnational investigations efficiently and who knows, an answer to these Internet related problems may be in reach.

By Wout de Natris, Consultant internet governance

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Title is not related to conclusion Dmitry Burkov  –  Jan 31, 2011 6:41 PM

How your statements are related to IP addresses? It seems like some kind of misunderstanding

It is - but I would urge you to re-read what Wout wrote, to correct this misunderstanding Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Feb 1, 2011 2:57 PM

He's looking at this from the perspective of having to investigate and arrest a cybercrime gang that spreads itself across multiple borders. So yes its all related to IP, and its abuse.

Thank you, Suresh, for responding before I Wout de Natris  –  Feb 1, 2011 5:54 PM

Thank you, Suresh, for responding before I had time to do so. Suresh is correct that I think all is connected. What I’ve tried to stress is that if all players on the Internet strive for making it a safer environment in common effort, we will together manage to push back crime and other threats. The result will be more trust between governments and industry and a safer environment for all end users. This will keep draconian measures at bay and the Internet remains the driver of development, education and freedom of speech.

I just pointed out that is not Dmitry Burkov  –  Feb 1, 2011 7:14 PM

I just pointed out that is not related to such terms as “cold war” at all - as last we closely worked on these problems

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