For decades, after the US military invented the Internet, the US Department of Commerce retained overall control of the master computers that directed traffic to and from every web and email address on the planet.
At that time, whenever surfing the web, sending emails or downloading music, an unseen force was at work in the background, making sure people connect to the sites, inboxes and databases they wanted to. The name of this ominous presence? The US Government.
Since 2005, however, governments and expert groups convened under the UN flag last expressed concern about the future of the net and sought an end to US domination over the cyberspace. The goal, they said, was to replace the US with a multinational forum of governments, companies and civil society organizations to run it independently.
Thus, for instance, the UN’s Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) underlined that the US control hinders many developments that might improve it. These range from efforts to give the developing world more affordable net access to coming up with globally agreed and enforceable measures to boost net privacy and fight cybercrime.
US control over the Internet was crucial. It also meant that any changes to the way the net operates, including the addition of new domain names had to be agreed by the US, whatever experts in the rest of the world think. The backside for non-democratic governments was that the US could also make changes and improvements without the agreement of the rest of the world.
The Internet’s technology was run by the US because the net had been developed on its territory in the late 1960s by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in a bid to create a communications medium that would still work if a Soviet nuclear strike took out whole hunks of the network. In such case, this medium would send data from node to node in self-addressed “packets” that could take any route they liked around the network, avoiding any of its damaged parts.
Unilateral hostile US action was unlikely. The Domain Name System (DNS) system was managed on behalf of the Department of Commerce by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a not-for-profit company which was doing the job on achieving international consensus regarding changes to the DNS.
The problems for the US domination started when countries realized that the Internet became a critical global resource. Some governments, particularly in China, Russia, India and Brazil, decided to fight for influencing the internet policy.
Still, in June 2005, the US Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Michael Gallagher reasserted America’s claim to the heart of the net: “The US is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.” This actually was precisely the first battle lost by the US.
At the end of 2005, China, Russia and Iran, were already building the most heavily censored online infrastructures anywhere in the world, monitoring closely options for further internet filtering and surveillance by governments. China’s Communist Party-run internet service providers (ISPs) routinely filtered out content they deemed politically unacceptable. They also started hiring fake commentators who were tasked to post pro-government statements on blogs and online message boards.
The irony was that ISPs in those countries were harnessing western technology to aid and abet the sophisticated political censorship. For instance, at the beginning, Iran’s ISPs depended heavily on a package called SmartFilter, made by Secure Computing of Seattle, Washington, to stamp out access to what the government deems unacceptable. Furthermore, networking and routing company Cisco Systems of San Jose, California, came under fire for supplying routers with site blocking, filtering and logging functions to China.
In Russia, the time has not yet come to “shut down” completely the Internet. Since 2012, the authorities have been working to increase their control over information flows and infrastructure. A series of laws have been passed with one watchword: “sovereignty”, that is, the ability of the Russian network to cut itself off from the rest of the world or to impose foreign services to bend to the Kremlin’s rules.
The maneuver is described as “defensive.” It is, according to the note of intent of the 2019 law “on the isolation of the Russian segment of the Internet,” to respond “to the aggressive nature of the US cybersecurity strategy.” In plain language, to guard against a possible externally initiated blockage.
Government-controlled routing points is a project aimed to create a Russian version of DNS, the Internet’s addressing system, but also to get ISPs in order to show the extent to which they are able to direct all information flows to government-controlled routing points. In 2015, a law was already passed that forced web companies to store data of Russian nationals on national territory. Several of them had installed servers in the country. Linkedln, the American professional social network, was one of the thousands of sites forced to close their access to Russian users.
A series of controls also allow government to act against platforms, for example, for the dissemination of content deemed extremist, false information “likely to have a significant social echo,” for manifestations of “disrespect” to the State, or even for the use of “swear” words. Other legislation regulates the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), proxies and anonymization or censorship bypass tools.
If the prospect of Russia cutting itself off from global Web networks seems improbable, it is also because Russian infrastructures are still much more connected to the outside world than their Chinese counterparts, for example. The cost to businesses would also be exorbitant, according to industry experts.
On the other hand, as the State has developed its ability to control networks, its temptation to increase surveillance and censorship has steadily increased recently. Since the first laws in 2012, the trend has been clear. Along with the laws for “sovereignty,” the grounds for shutting down sites have steadily increased, as have the institutions empowered to do so. Today, there are twelve of them created and fully operational, not counting the courts.
Iran also speeds up the implementation of a national intranet. The “national information network” developed by the authorities since 2011 is becoming increasingly effective. The vision of an Internet cut off from the world, with the establishment of the “National Information Network” (NIN), haunts Iranian Internet users in the run-up to the presidential elections on June 18, 2021.
Analysts believe that in the event of demonstrations during the election campaign or when the results are announced, the authorities in Tehran are in a position to cut off access to the World Wide Web for Iranian users (at least 71% of the 83 million inhabitants), without affecting their daily lives. These fears are heightened by the fact that the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has called for more control over the Web. “We pride ourselves on leaving virtual space [unmonitored]. We are wrong. This tool should not be made available to the enemy,” he said in a March 20 speech on the occasion of the Iranian New Year.
The implementation of the NIR project, launched in 2012, has been accelerated in recent years, with the design of Iranian applications, search engines, messengers and websites, mostly copied from foreign models. Iranian websites hosted abroad have been forced to relocate to the country. All data is stored on servers in Iran, which allows the authorities to have full access, if necessary, at the risk of the security of Internet users in a country where anyone can be prosecuted and sentenced to long prison terms for their activities on the Web.
In China, the “Chinese model” of Internet sovereignty is gaining ground. Twenty-one years after it began regulating the Internet, Beijing is strengthening its legislation to better monitor Internet users. A broader definition of offences, higher fines, an increased role for “public security”, i.e. the police… Twenty-one years after starting to regulate the Internet, China is preparing to brush up existing legislation in order to increase its control over Internet users and operators.
In March 2000, faced with the Communist Party’s desire to control the World Wide Web, American President Bill Clinton ironically said: “Good luck! It’s a bit like trying to pin jelly on a wall.” With 22 million users at the time, China was a technological dwarf. Today, it has nearly a billion Internet users. Above all, its flagship companies, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, compete fiercely with those of the Silicon Valley. China’s secret weapon is its gigantic domestic market, but also the concept of cyber sovereignty put forward in 2010.
Exactly one year after blocking for the first time Google.com – and not only Google.cn -, Beijing publishes, this year, a white paper explaining that the Internet will be one of the levers of Chinese growth in the next five years, but, above all, that “within the Chinese territory, the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty.” It is a matter of “protecting state security and public interest,” the document says.
Elected in 2013, President Xi Jinping has confirmed this strategy. “We must respect the right of each country to choose its own model of e-governance, its own policy toward the Internet,” he declared in 2015 at a World Internet Conference held in China that endorsed the fact that the Web was becoming less and less globalized. “Sovereignty” has been a major concern of Chinese leaders since the 2000s, but only recently has the Chinese propaganda been effectively reaching effectively its audience. Now more and more countries are sharing concerns about the dependence on American tech giants.
These adverse moves are ringing additional bells. At the LA Blockchain Summit on October 6, 2020, Chris Larsen criticized the United States for not playing a strong enough role in shaping the “next generation of the global financial system.” The crypto firm’s executive chairman said during an interview at the virtual event, “We are in a tech cold war with China, and that goes across the spectrum, whether it’s communications, surveillance, data, AI, but also blockchain and digital assets, and the reason is that China has recognized that those technologies are keys to who is going to control the next-gen financial system.”
The US must not fall behind, while Beijing is competing with Washington in terms of legislative clarity, resource allocation, infrastructure development, and tech innovation. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the UN General Assembly that his nation has “no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country.”
Those who want to believe it are free to do so. The truth is that a severe, not cold or hot, but boiling “technology war” is already underway. There is little awareness among the American public about this undeclared war, but it’s very well understood in Beijing.
The United States lost a battle that it didn’t even realize it was fighting, when China established, over the past decades, monopolies on several critical rare earth elements and a few other strategic minerals. This may prove to be a strategic defeat as these elements are the building blocks for many of this century’s emerging technologies.
The US is also slow in grasping the growing importance of high-speed connectivity. Quite unpleasantly, the United States which led the world for years in developing and deploying transformative technologies, is “falling behind in the 5G race, while China is sprinting ahead,” says the report “America’s 5G Moment of Truth,” released by The New Center think-tank.
As a result, if US companies don’t want to buy Chinese-made 5G tech, the alternative isn’t “Buy American,” but to go to higher-priced European companies instead.
Another report by the Wilson Center – “5G and Security: There is More to Worry About than Huawei”- explains the importance of coming out on top of the 5G battle: “5G is a core foundation upon which modern societies, their economies and their militaries alike will rest,” it said. “It will be essential to how industries compete and generate value, how people communicate and interact, and how militaries pursue security for their citizenry.”
The Wilson Center report spells out why the US Government and military are so concerned about the security of Huawei’s technology. For one, its products are allegedly full of cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The company claims this is just a ploy to thwart competition and crush a successful company.
But the crux of the issue is that it doesn’t actually matter who deploys and sells 5G technology — the United States, China, Japan, Finland — it won’t work without the aforementioned rare earth elements that are currently all processed in China. This is to say, that China saw the future and invested heavily in 5G technology early. Few remember nowadays that in 2009, Huawei was a little-known company that nabbed a major contract to completely replace Norway’s wireless network…
The Tech War has several battlefronts other than 5G. Among them are: aviation, space technology, biotech, quantum sciences, robotics, military technology and artificial intelligence. 5G and rare earth processing are just two battles in a longer war, and ground that was lost during battles can be seized back. The United States — if it had the will to compete — for example, could end China’s rare earth and strategic minerals monopolies.
The Biden administration remains too mild on China. It must face the reality that the Tech War is much more than a Tech War, it is a war of two competing models of development i.e. liberal capitalism versus state driven economy, and also two opposite concepts of human values and freedoms versus total governmental control over the life and death of citizens.
At the root of tensions lies a common cause: the emergence of an economic model that has the potential to rival the productive power of Western liberal capitalism – and ultimately threaten the technological supremacy that has long underpinned the US hegemony.
President Xi Jinping, and the Communist Party of China, have bold plans for the future. Since taking office in 2013, Xi has launched a number of socio-economic reforms. Foremost among these is the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road) to connect Asia with Europe and Africa.
Xi Jinping’s ambitions are not limited to planet earth. The regime has also placed a major emphasis on enhancing China’s space capabilities as part of the nation’s development strategy, referring to this as China’s ‘space dream.’ A recent white paper setting out China’s ambitions in space included plans for a lunar presence, asteroid mining and deep space exploration.
For decades many Western economists assumed that China would follow the path of other planned economies: a rapid state-led mobilization of resources would generate an initial period of strong growth, but this would not last. China so far has already proven these assumptions wrong and strategists fear that China’s ambitious suite of industrial policies could lead to the US losing technological supremacy in key strategic sectors – along with the economic, military and geopolitical power that comes with it.
America’s data giants have therefore a duty to make their technology available to the Pentagon to ensure that freedom and prosperity are preserved worldwide. While the US tech companies once viewed China as the next big market to be exploited, they should now increasingly assess it as a vital threat to be contained.
From the very beginning, the trade war initiated by President Trump has been less about trade, and more about constraining Chinese development and preventing China’s rise as a rival technological and military power. Some serious doubts persist as to whether President Biden will be willing and willing to finish the job.
The powerful freedoms of the American people must not be jeopardized by a weak leadership at this point of history.