Katherine Maher’s Foreign Policy piece got a lot of (deserved) attention last week. If the topic interests you, go read the whole thing. I’ll highlight the parts that are most relevant to our recent conversations on internet politics.
On the web as geography:
Like all new frontiers, cyberspace’s early settlers declared themselves independent — most famously in 1996, in cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Barlow asserted a realm beyond borders or government, rejecting the systems we use to run the physical universe. “Governments of the Industrial World,” he reproached, “You have no sovereignty where we gather.… Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.” …
Barlow was right, in part. Independence was a structural fact of cyberspace, and free expression and communication were baked into the network. The standards and protocols on which the Internet runs are agnostic: They don’t care whether you were in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, or Boise. If they run into an attempt to block traffic, they merely reroute along a seemingly infinite network of decentralized nodes, inspiring technologist John Gilmore’s maxim: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
On the promise of the internet for promoting freedom:
Information has always been power, and governments have long sought to control it. So for countries where power is a tightly controlled narrative, parsed by state television and radio stations, the Internet has been catastrophic. Its global, decentralized networks of information-sharing have routed around censorship — just as Gilmore promised they would. It gives people an outlet to publish what the media cannot, organize where organizing is forbidden, and revolt where protest is unknown.
On the changing reality–increasingly state-based control:
Recently, the network research and analytics company Renesys tried to assess how hard it would be to take the world offline. They assessed disconnection risk based on the number of national service providers in every country, finding that 61 countries are at severe risk for disconnection, with another 72 at significant risk. That makes 133 countries where network control is so centralized that the Internet could be turned off with not much more than a phone call.
It seems our global Internet is not so global.
From my perspective I can only hope that we will find the equivalent of “internet mountains” that will remain hard to govern. It is possible that some nation states will even facilitate this. (I am thinking here of The Pirate Bay’s move from a US-based .com domain to a Swedish .se address.) The emperor may still be far away, but he’s getting closer.