Saturday, March 12, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

When reveille sounds, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

The US military is now thinking of ways to block and segregate the internet into smaller ‘‘cyber nations’’ which would be easier to monitor and control.

During this era of incessant online babble, blogs, tweets and cacophonous concatenations, the internet has become a virtual Tower of Babel, an ambitious, overloaded unitary structure breaking at the seams. It's only a matter of time before it crumbles.

That, in a nutshell, is the view put forward by a group of US military thinkers in the latest issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly, who see the breaking up and "Balkanisation of the Internet" as natural as it is inevitable, and not without public benefit, assuming that the 'Net reorganises along traditional, nationalistic lines.

Theirs is a clarion call to end the utopian, universal stage of internet development and instead to hunker down and build national bunkers.

The internet has been imbued with a feel-good idealism since its inception, despite it having been a quasi-military invention. It was developed by a generation familiar with John Lennon's utopian lullaby Imagine, dreamily invoking the idea of a world with no countries. And some cyber utopians took a cue from that, driven by the concept that "information wants to be free", a formulation first given voice by Stewart Brand and dramatically acted out more recently by Julian Assange.

But even if information wants to be free, there are the vagaries of human nature that have to be taken into account.

Just as a handful of hijackers can burden millions of jet flyers, in the communication commons the bad behaviour of a few can change the rules of the game; trolls lurk in comment sections, spammers clog up your inbox, data-miners violate your privacy, hackers close your system down.

These problems are being addressed on an ad hoc basis, mostly by the private sector, to make the cooperative, interdependent venture known as the internet safe for commerce and communication.

And then there is the US military, which has bigger fish to fry.

Entrusted with the keys to the world's biggest nuclear arsenal, bound by social contract to guard the nation with vigilance, it should come as no surprise that military thinkers are more worried about information control than information freedom.

The US Cyber Command, which works closely with the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, is tapping technology organisations such as Google, Intel and Microsoft for help with cyber-defence, integrating traditional concepts of military preparedness and defence of the state with new borderless technologies.

If military thinkers tend to be more orthodox in their regard for the sanctity of national borders, it is in part a reflection of the role they assign themselves to play as defenders of the nation.

Where a tech geek might revel in faster computation speeds and an advertiser might obsess over ways to get more clicks, and academics might demand unfettered freedom of expression, it is natural that military thinkers should want to consider the same technology with an eye to violations of sovereignty and security, especially with regard to command and control systems and energy infrastructure.

Inspired by the folk wisdom that good fences make good neighbours, there is a school of thought in the US military that posits a not-so-distant future in which the worldwide web will be divided up along national lines.


(as published in the Bangkok Post, March 12, 2011)