Saturday, 05 October 2019 11:59

THE WAR-TORN WEB

Author:  [Source: This article was published in foreignpolicy.com By Sean Mcdonald and An Xiao Mina]

A once-unified online world has broken into new warring states.

The global internet continues to fragment. Governments, in particular, are using their influence to shape the ways that digital companies, markets, and rights connect us online. This new form of realpolitik, which we call “digitalpolitik,” is an emerging tactical playbook for how governments use their political, regulatory, military, and commercial powers to project influence in global, digital markets.

Last month, at the Internet Governance Forum, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, a multi-stakeholder effort to define internet principles around human rights law, with calls for protections against cybercrimes, intellectual property theft, hate speech, and hacking from nonstate actors. The signatory list includes predictable supporters, including France’s European Union allies, large private companies such as Alphabet and Microsoft, and internet rights advocacy groups such as Access Now. There were also notable abstentions, predominantly from countries that bristle at delegating their sovereignty, like the United States, Russia, and China.  Despite refusing to sign as sovereigns, the prominence of American companies in pushing for international internet agreements amid its governmental absence highlights one of Macron’s key points: “The internet is a space currently managed by a technical community of private players,” noted one source from the Macron government, “But it’s not governed. So now that half of humanity is online, we need to find new ways to organize the internet.”

Not all digitalpolitik, however, is international treaties and calls for governance. Google, for example, recently announced Dragonfly, a search engine tailor-made to enable China’s government to continue censoring content and news and connecting people’s queries with their phone numbers—and therefore their identities. Dragonfly marked a dramatic shift from Google’s first attempt at working in China and very public, principled stance to pull out nearly nine years ago. Pushback from Google’s own employees, deeply uncomfortable about enhancing the digital power of the Chinese state, caused the cancellation of the project. But the Chinese government maintains its stance: If you want to do business in China, even huge tech platforms will do it Beijing’s way. And, with one of the world’s largest digital markets, China built and encouraged a rich ecosystem of local, homegrown tools and apps such as Baidu (search), WeChat (chat and social media), and Taobao (online shopping).

DIGITAL SUPERPOWER

A country looking to reshape the internet in its own image, leveraging every form of power it can from laws to markets.

Google’s announcement of Dragonfly was a public acquiescence to that policy and an implicit acknowledgement that China is more valuable as a market than a political stance on speech. Some called it a reflection of Google’s new leadership and priorities; it was also a reflection of China’s growing power and influence, with a robust middle class and a phone ecosystem that runs on Android alternatives. Dragonfly was the modern, market-based peace treaty between two of the internet’s largest warring states until a concerted push by Amnesty International and internal revolt led to a rollback of the plan. Its short, doomed life was one indicator of the beginning of the next era of the internet, one where states actively seek to influence global internet governance and norms through a variety of tactics. In the uncertain institutional environment of the global internet, states, civil society groups, and private citizens are also being forced into creative approaches for digital advantage.

What’s becoming clear is the way governments are using their policies, market influence, and security apparatuses to create a competitive advantage in our increasingly digital world.

In many ways, the Paris Call is an extension of the EU’s increasing efforts to influence technology norms. This past May, the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a rigorous regulatory regime aimed at policing all behavior that “targets” European citizens. Almost immediately, Europeans noticed a number of companies actively blocking them, preventing them from accessing a range of services and sites including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. But Europe’s influence extends beyond its borders—the regulations in place have created a sea change of new services designed around data privacy and that affect all users of major platforms, including those who neither live there nor are EU citizens.

And while much attention is paid to a tripartite technology world of the United States, China, and the EU, smaller initiatives abound: At the same time as states are navigating sovereign relationships, nearly every country is also wrestling with domestically defining and balancing state and political power. In the United States, California passed a data protection law this year with no federal support, just one of many state-led efforts to influence a national stance on data and the internet, with a special focus on net neutrality. Some states are focusing on how to manage the balance between the state and its citizens, as with India’s Aadhaar biometric identity system or Uganda’s social media tax, while others focus on corporate influence, such as Papua New Guinea’s temporary restrictions on Facebook or Ireland’s beneficial corporate taxes. Nationalized versions of internet utilities, as in theU.K. and Cuba, are either on the table or coming into effect. Regardless of whether you agree with each individual initiative, what’s becoming clear is the way governments are using their policies, market influence, and security apparatuses to create a competitive advantage in our increasingly digital world.


Like many megatrends, digitalpolitik is already a familiar theme in many headlines, but without the framing or taxonomy to give it context. People in China and Iran are already used to jumping firewalls to access foreign sites and content. The European Union is already trying to punish Ireland for using favorable taxation policies to lure global tech giants. U.S. platform companies have already seen one aspect of its trans-Atlantic digital alliance, the International Safe Harbor Privacy Principles, fall apart, only to be replaced by Privacy Shield, which also seems precariously close to collapse.

Contention on how the internet should be run isn’t new. Some have identified this as a world of parallel internets, or rifts in the vision of how the internet should operate. But the gulfs in governance and action opening up and the active efforts to influence them to indicate the world is coming into a new—and worrying—phase of the internet’s development, one we’ve dubbed the Internet’s Warring States Period.

In the fifth century B.C., East Asia entered into the Warring States Period, when dozens of kingdoms, eventually reduced to a few major contenders, vied for power and control over much of the territory that we now know as China. As is the case today, the shift then was driven by radical technological changes as the Bronze Age gave way to iron and the tools of both killing and farming became sharper. Newly booming states competed for population, for talent, and on the battlefield. This balkanized system still required interconnection, through trade and diplomatic alliances, while also opening the door for over 200 years of conflict and contention—and for theories of what the state itself should be, from the radical utilitarianism of Mohism to the cynical authoritarianism of the Legalists.

Chinese thinkers such as Confucius often imagined a glorious age of unity and peace before the Warring States Period. Over the past two years, Silicon Valley’s own utopian vision of an open and global internet through private platforms has failed, amid widespread misinformation, hate speech, and political manipulation. These join a number of long-running threats to global connectivity, including privatization, market manipulation, surveillance, data breaches, and state-sponsored cyberattacks, alongside other risks barely conceived of yet. The terrestrial borders that previously defined how states interact have become interconnected and porous, raising definitional questions about acceptable aggression and response, the necessity of interconnected trade, and how we balance individual and collective rights. In the absence of clear answers, a wide range of actors from governments to multinational corporations interpret the internet’s openness as a vacuum, and they are capitalizing on the opportunity to consolidate power.

DIGITAL INFLUENCER

One among many powers aspiring to push the internet in the direction it wants, and perhaps one day to be a superpower.

The Internet’s Warring States Period will define what it means to be a digital power in a global context. Each government’s attempt to define the rules either projects its policy globally or fragments what was once the common ground of some aspect of the internet. The earliest and most obvious examples of fragmentation came from website blocking, a common technique to control information among authoritarian states such as China, Russia, and Iran. In the early days, accessing the internet outside these countries’ borders generally required a relatively simple mix of proxies and virtual private network services.

The digital superpower approach is to force companies to grant the state exceptional advantages, without needing a clear, or overarching, policy framework.

As in the early days of the literal Great Wall, China’s Great Firewall has historically been porous and evaded, designed more as a signal than an absolute barrier. Today, sovereigns are getting more sophisticated, exerting their authority through a more diverse array of direct and indirect means, including taxation, data protection regulation, surveillance, artificial intelligence, and a range of speech and privacy interventions to control people’s online activities. These approaches are reminiscent of the shift from direct censorship to soft censorship, controlling information by manipulating the enabling context. More than a knee-jerk response to threats to sovereignty, today’s approaches look more like assertions of national borders along more crisply defined lines.

The Warring States Period not only defined what we understand today as Chinese civilization, but it also came to define the role of the state and the acceptable tactics in the inevitable bids for power that emerged. The Internet’s Warring States Period is similarly shaping the role of states in the global internet and defining what constitutes acceptable digitalpolitik, which changes by a country’s position and market influence.

China and the United States have the population, technical capacity, and market influence to be digital superpowers. The digital superpower approach is to force companies to grant the state exceptional advantages, without needing a clear, or overarching, policy framework. The United States advocates for internet freedom abroad, for example, while continuously stockpiling digital surveillance and combat techniques for its own security services. Similarly, China’s approach is to leverage its market size and beneficial regulatory environment to force companies to build products that are at least complicit with its social surveillance and censorship systems. In both contexts, the internet superpowers develop infrastructure across the entire stack of technologies, from software to phones to fiber-optic cables.

While the global dominance of Silicon Valley companies is a familiar one, Chinese companies such as Tencent, Alibaba, and Huawei are exerting greater influence in global software and hardware markets. (Indeed, multinational technology companies have grown to a size and liquidity that they are becoming an actor class themselves.) Meanwhile, China’s Belt and Road Initiative includes significant investments in BeiDou, a competitor to the U.S. GPS system, and a fiber-optic infrastructure across partner nations. At the same time, Google Dragonfly represents a departure from the software giant’s once-principled stance against the Chinese internet model. It follows in the footsteps of the tech giant’s ongoing investments in infrastructure around the world, from the headline-grabbing Project Loon to fiber-optic cables within the United States and throughout Africa.

NATIONALIST (CONSOLIDATOR)

A country using the internet to strengthen domestic control, whether through censorship or surveillance.

By contrast, the European Union has the market size, but only through multilateral international negotiation and harmonization, making it more of a digital influencer. The European Commission’s Rule 108 is arguably the most influential piece of data protection legislation in the world, having prompted adoption of its language by 129 countries. Digital influencer strategies, by contrast, are market-building by embedding theories of data rights and governance in trade agreements, like the one between the EU and Japan, that aggregate their financial and regulatory muscle behind common policy positions. We should expect more regionalist approaches in the wake of the GDPR, such as the African Union’s release of internet infrastructure security guidelines and the Pacific Alliance’s evolving agenda on digital governance and policy. Each of these approaches is beginning to define digitalpolitik, balancing mutual dependence with conflict and competition for advantage.

There are also a large number of countries—digital nationalists—focused on using digitization to consolidate domestic power and project influence extra nationally.

There are also a large number of countries—digital nationalists—focused on using digitization to consolidate domestic power and project influence extra nationally. This can take a wide variety of shapes. There are large digital nationalists, like India, which is using Aadhaar to require that any company that hopes to do business must also participate in government-controlled data architecture. There is Russia, which uses a combination of intelligence assets, private companies, and other proxies to digitally disrupt other countries while encouraging local app development that it can more readily control. And Brazil, with the fifth-largest internet population in the world, regularly leads in technology initiatives like its “internet of things” policy and its Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, even as the latter has been used to justify blocking WhatsApp. Together, we might group these large entities as BRIE—Brazil, Russia, India, and the European Union—which are not quite superpowers but have enough market and political power to influence global internet governance and norms in important ways. There are also smaller digital nationalists, such as Estonia, which offers traditionally sovereign identity verification services to any person, or Uganda, with its social media tax.

The competition for digital political power isn’t just among sovereigns. There’s a growing trend toward technonationalism, expressed in the tendency to treat privately-owned technology platforms as political agents of the country in which they were founded. In an age where Facebook is more populous than China, Cambridge Analytica affects more elections than any political party, and Palantir collects more intelligence than Interpol, the term “superpower” no longer need to apply solely to governments. We are entering a multipolar world where internet powers need not be sovereign and multilateralism may also need to be multitrack. Large companies from the United States and China resemble empire builders, projecting their influence through domestic or state-owned technology companies.

These categories are intentionally broad and overlapping, as are the digitalpolitik philosophies and tactics employed by sovereign governments to consolidate power through digitization. Without harmonizing institutions, the internet’s warring states are engaged in a brinkmanship approach to policy evolution, where each proposal is both progress and an extraterritorial incursion. As during China’s Warring States Period, there aren’t any significant institutions at present with the jurisdiction or mandate to resolve the tensions between these approaches. A context such as this one is thus optimal for those with more power and market influence.

NATIONALIST (PROJECTOR)

A country using the internet to increase its own status internationally, whether by attracting investment or reshaping its diplomatic image.

Ancient China’s Warring States Period gave rise to more than conflict. It was also marked by shifting alliances and trade networks, new forms of currency and writing, and different philosophical and political schools of thought, known popularly as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Necessity mothered an incredible amount of cultural, commercial, and scientific inventions. Confucianism and Taoism, philosophical systems now endemic to China, emerged, and major tracts like the Analects, the I Ching, and the Art of War were scribed or formalized.

We are still in the early days of the internet, and there are no clear winners yet, just many possible visions of the contest.

Around the world, we are beginning to see another hundred schools of thought emerge around data rights, privacy, free speech, net neutrality, content credibility, and even financial transfer systems and protocols. The field of contention straddles the spectrums of data privacy and rights versus widespread surveillance; of full net neutrality versus tiered networks and systems like “zero-rating”; and of “radical free speech” versus state censorship versus content moderation practices grounded in international human rights norms. Through laws, infrastructure development, corporate investments, malware attacks, and digital propaganda, states and multinationals assert their power while shaping internets based on their beliefs and values. These different schools will come to define our varying experiences of online life for years to come and, as artificial intelligence and the internet of things begin to embed themselves in daily routines, to critically affect our everyday lives as well. As the frontiers of states online thicken, the border between the offline and online is thinning.

We are still in the early days of the internet, and there are no clear winners yet, just many possible visions of the contest. Nor is eventual unification certain. Ancient China coalesced into the Han Dynasty, and then broke apart once more, entering into a new age of contention just as Rome collapsed at the other end of Eurasia. While in China the vision of unified empire survived, the death of Rome left only faded copies behind. Centuries later, the Peace of Westphalia gave rise to an alternative, the modern conception of the state, a model that is now under strain. Institutions like the United Nations and the European Union aimed to create frameworks for global and regional cooperation, but the influence and importance of both now seem up for negotiation.

China’s Warring States Period is a reminder that even as the digital world fragments, efforts to create coherence remain vital because of the connections, institutions, and dependencies we all share. Every tactical approach taken by the internet’s warring states, as in the ancient Warring States Period, is an expression of that state’s political philosophy, market position, and military power. In this map, we begin to chart the digitalpolitik shaping the internet’s new normal. These are the borders that will chart the states—and the philosophies—of tomorrow.

[Source: This article was published in foreignpolicy.com By Sean Mcdonald and An Xiao Mina- Uploaded by the Association Member: Jasper Solander] 

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