The Balkanization of the Internet and the war on Privacy

digitalpadlock-v1-620x350“All governments will feel as if they’re fighting a losing battle against an endlessly replicating and changing Internet, and balkanization will emerge as a popular mechanism to address this challenge.” – Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google

Balkanization is the process by which larger states fracture and splinter into smaller states that are often hostile or at odds with each other. In the context of the Internet, balkanization was coined in 2001 and describes a future state of the Internet whereby it is fractured into smaller “states” defined by politics, national borders, religion, economic, and other interests.

The process of balkanization seems to be accelerating and the revelations from PRISM and the NSA along with the proposed changing laws around our own GCSB and telecommunications appear to support that. Balkanization, or at it’s neatest maxim, the creation of Internet borders, is about to speed up and we need to be prepared for it.

When the Internet was conceived, it was called the “Intergalactic Computer Network”, a phrase which was met with ridicule but shows the ideological science fiction thinking behind its creation. The Internet was meant to be a ubiquitous network that no one owned, that was free for all men, that was not subject to borders nor censorship. For a long time, this was the case. It was the free world.

Today, the Internet is effectively controlled by four telecommunications companies and governments. It is increasingly seen by government as an area that must be strictly regulated and controlled. The balkanization of the Internet is well underway and the first place that we see this evidence is in censorship, otherwise called filtering, of content. Erich Schmidt describes this in his book The New Digital Age as falling into one of three models: The blatant, the sheepish, and the politically & culturally acceptable.

An example of the blatant, is China. The “great firewall of China” received a lot of attention when it was implemented and it is a massive vehicle for censorship. Routers simply filter out words and phrases that are banned, i.e. Falun Gong (which means this article will now never appear behind the Chinese firewall). For the Chinese citizen with access to the Internet, they pass through a border, which has simply eliminated anything that does not fit within it’s ethos. Chinese citizen’s will never even know that Falun Gong exists, nor anything else that is blocked.

Turkey is an example of the sheepish model. In 2011 the government gave citizens options on how they would like to be censored. Citizens were to choose between child, family, domestic, and standard. Protests ensued and the plan was dialled back to two options, which were voluntary. Reporters discovered that while the original publicised intent of the censorship was ostensibly to protect people from pornography (a common statement from governments) the Turkish authorities were allegedly censoring other material, such as anything to do with the Kurds.

Google calls the last form of censorship the “politically & culturally acceptable” describing it as “limited and and selective filtering around very specific content, based in law, with no attempt to hide the censorship or motivation behind it.” Further, they go on to describe those people who might “grumble” about it as “outliers”. Interesting wording that seems to me to be more about falling on the right side of western government that may otherwise damage the Google business. 

Personally, I think whether you call it blatant, sheepish, or otherwise, its all the same thing. It’s about creating border control points for the Internet that can be utilised to balkanise it. We also know, now, that surveillance programmes such as PRISM and its various tentacles require border control of the Internet. The information that they capture passes through specific physical nodes where it is copied or analysed as it is passed. It is fair to say that this is also the place that the national firewalls reside (or close too).

Personally, I think that the need for some kind of censorship is necessary to protect people, particularly children and young adults. However, as we see being debated in the UK at the moment, I do not agree with the state being asked to do that role. There are many different tools that parents, caregivers, and the easily offended can manage and deploy themselves. And they should take personal responsibility and do that. It is a dangerous road (that New Zealand has started to go down) when you agree that as government you are smarter than your population, more moral, and take control of the decision making function in people’s lives. It is even more worrying when you consider that in the UK, part of their plan around pornography filtering (censorship) includes people installing an application on their device to allow it (surveillance).

So, what happens from here with balkanisation of the Internet? We have the borders in place and we are censoring information between our various internet states along with monitoring it as well. New Zealand has to play catch up here a little bit, which is the other half of the spying laws that are before parliament, the ones that aren’t about the GCSB spying on New Zealanders, the ones that are about collecting data from our telecommunication companies, and those border nodes by inference.

Part of the problem governments are facing with balkanisation is that tools exist that allow you to anonymously traverse those border nodes either as a complete ghost, or in disguise. Governments are going to have to put an end to that and we’ll see it from a covert and overt perspective.

Services that allow anonymity will come under increasing attack. VPN providers (anonimiser services) are suffering increased cyber attacks and you can be absolutely certain that they are not coming from hackers or criminals (these services ensure their anonymity) so that logically means that it can only be coming from physical nation states who want those services out of action.

Secondly, expect some form of Internet “passport” to be mooted, it has been discussed before, however it is starting to trend in chatter again.

Third, expect some kind of internet “visa” to start to trend.

Effectively, we are seeing a trend to create internet borders the same as we have physical borders. It’s creeping up slowly, but when you start to look for it, you see it. The ultimate scenario works like this.

If you don’t have a verified digital passport, you won’t be able to use the Internet. Effectively you’ll need some kind of username and password, verified by government, that allows you to log on to the Internet. All your actions from that point are effectively traceable once again, as any use of an anonymising tool would mean that the borders did not know who you were, and as such, would simply block your access.

Some states may require a virtual visa for you to access services inside their Internet state. For example, if you come from an Internet country that is seen as high-risk (a place that sees many cyber attacks launched from it or a proliferation of spam) then you may be required to use your Internet Passport to gain access to that virtual country, which will include you turning over your private information along with heightened monitoring and surveillance.

Other countries may choose to establish free Internet states, where anything goes. The Cayman Islands of the Internet, others may choose to have very strict security measures in place, the Switzerland of the Internet.

Regardless, in this move to the balkanization of the Internet the rights of humans are likely to be damaged, privacy can only be a loser in this race to border control of what was once a free world. The effect of that balkanization on our ICT Industry is for another article.

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