The Balkanisation of the Internet
Attempts at Internet regulation stem from a desire to retain the traditional power structures of nation-states.
The slogans of cyber security, the fight against terror and the enforcement of truth cannot conceal the real objective behind tighter regulation of the Internet – to restore the power and influence that modern states are accustomed to. Paradoxically, the global information seas are less dangerous for the states that sail, metaphorically speaking, under the Jolly Roger than for those who fly the flag of democracy.
To analyse the threats posed by Internet freedom to democratic states, we must first revisit the key features of the modern state challenged by globalisation. We must then examine the situation of free speech on the Internet and ask who could control the Internet if the Internet were free of government control and what kinds of risks would this pose for nation-states. And finally, we cannot ignore the question of whether or not nation-states are at all able to guarantee the simultaneous coexistence of freedom of speech and a free Internet.
Leaving aside the Greek poleis and the Roman res publica, the abstract concept of the ‘state’ emerged in Europe in the 14th and the 15th centuries. The apparatus of the state took shape during the era of absolutism between the 16th and the 18th centuries; nation-states evolved in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 represents a significant milestone as it marks the beginning of modern statehood.
The characteristic features of the state were incorporated into international law in Uruguay on December 26, 1933, with the adoption of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. The Convention stipulates that the state should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states. While the first three characteristics had already been defined by the German-Austrian lawyer Georg Jellinek in 1900, the fourth one is often treated as a responsibility of the government.
According to Danish political scientist Georg Sí¸rensen, history has shown us that the modern state reached its apogee in the middle of the 20th century, but the future directions of the process of state transformation are less clear because it has lasted only a few decades and is still going through the stage of development.1 Interpretations of the impact of globalisation on the modern state and the consequences of this process vary a great deal – from harbingers of the post-modern state to the opinion of a Harvard University professor Dani Rodrik who claims that one of our era’s foundational myths that globalisation has condemned the nation-state to irrelevance has – like many other myths – only a tenuous connection with reality.2
I uphold the view that the globalisation process has enabled power centres that compete with governments – international corporations and organisations – to diminish the state’s ability to govern, to decrease its right to make independent decisions and to contribute to the creation of a disconnect between the state and citizens. Still, much fewer discussions have been held on the impact of the Internet and the emergence of the global information space on the concept of the modern state, and its links with the issues covered in the framework of the globalisation debate from economics to state sovereignty.
Struggles of the state in a global information space
One of the three key characteristics of the state is the existence of a government that must be able to exercise effective control over the state’s territory and population: the armed forces oppose acts of aggression; the law defines the order inside the state; institutions take care of law enforcement activities; the dissemination of information by the state to its citizens helps to legitimise its power and decisions.
The concept of the modern state presumes the government’s ability to control its domestic information space (at least if necessary). Authoritarian regimes which cannot tolerate any dissidence aspire to exert total control over the information space. However, democratic states which respect free speech find themselves in a predicament: the authorities have the opportunity to communicate the views that they support, but they are also necessarily tempted to remove illegal or dangerous information from the public domain.
The Internet is the driving force behind the global information space, yet this has only been the case during the last fifteen years. In the second half of the previous century, (cable) TV together with the press and radio enjoyed a similar status as information providers. We know from personal experience the practices employed to prevent ‘harmful’ and ‘wrong’ information from reaching the Soviet people. Key methods used by the occupation forces to control the population were to jam the radio transmissions by the Voice of America, to set access restrictions for foreign media (and literature) and to disseminate domestic propaganda on a massive scale.
People who lived in North Estonia and could tune their home antennas to receive Finnish TV signals were obviously less receptive to Communist propaganda and were hence regarded as a dangerous contingent by the authorities. Luckily for the Kremlin, the ‘lies’ reached only a tiny proportion of the Soviet population, allowing its ‘truth monopoly’ to stand on firm ground.
It was technically easy, although of course expensive, to control the domestic information scene in the pre-Internet era. But imagine the methods the nomenklatura would have used if ‘hostile propaganda’ had reached the remotest villages in Siberia via the Internet and if Soviet people had been on foreign social networks! If the Soviet Union had not collapsed, it is highly probable that we would be living in a semi-closed Internet realm similar to that of the People’s Republic of China.
Restrictions on freedom of speech
The latest report by Freedom House testifies that Internet censorship poses a large and growing challenge to online freedom of expression around the world.3 The report includes separate surveys of four countries – Azerbaijan, Burma, China and Iran. The last three use the most up-to-date tools to control the information space.
The desire to gain information monopoly is characteristic of authoritarian regimes. However, the more significant the Internet becomes, the more tempted even democratic states are to defend themselves from its various detrimental side-effects and, if possible, to achieve control over it.
All states and service providers censor the Internet to a certain extent and we as end users have reason to thank them for that. After all, would you like to collect viruses, spam mail and Trojan horses in your mailbox every day and why should you object if your web browser does not open malware infected websites?
Still, what should be the limits of censorship? An international consensus has been reached to disable access to child porn websites, but that is pretty much where the common understanding of censorship ends. The statement ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ applies to the free information space too, so the Internet is swarming with writings by extremists, self-proclaimed prophets and conspiracy theorists.
One cannot help but think that the overall quality of the global information space would be higher – and Estonia’s reputation better – if not marred by the constant mud-slinging by the Kremlin’s propaganda department and those who loyally spread its ‘gospel truth’. Several people walking in the corridors of power at Toompea have contemplated an access ban on these kinds of websites. But the other side of the coin is that the moment democratic states start exercising their freedom to filter this kind of information, they lose the right to reproach China or Iran for blocking the websites that support the Dalai Lama or the Mujahideen, respectively. They, too, justify their practice of restricting free speech on the Internet with security concerns and the need to defend the ‘truth’.
Money, freedom of expression and the Internet
It would be naive to assume that the states that promote and support online freedom and freedom of expression do so out of purely idealistic motives. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed in a speech delivered at George Washington University in February last year that an open Internet fosters long-term peace, progress and prosperity.4 This sounds much better than the statement that an open Internet is a crucial tool for the US government to achieve its foreign and economic policy objectives.
Today, around two billion have access to the Internet and at least the same number of people is linked to the digital world via mobile phones. They form an incomprehensively massive market for Internet and mobile service providers who want to earn profits on them and who are therefore willing to provide financial support for government initiatives to develop an open Internet market. The headquarters of key Internet companies are all located in the United States, which means that the whole issue is directly related to the amount of profits.
This unavoidably leaves the impression that online freedom does not mean freedom of information and freedom of speech but, above all, an open market. How else could the lobby of the entertainment industry be so successful in fighting for the continuation of earning huge profits with its traditional business model in this digital day and age?
The Estonian government is right in saying that ACTA5 will not change currently applicable requirements in our country. Therein lies ACTA’s greatest shortcoming: it would reinforce the copyright principles – in the form of an international agreement – not suitable for the Internet era, preventing the whole system from being modernised. Docent of Intellectual Property Law Aleksei Kelli writes in Postimees that people should be able to download content from the Internet for personal use and that all copyright breaches not involving commercial exploitation should not be treated as criminal offences.6
It does not suffice merely to read through the agreement – not to mention to eat seeds or wear foil hats7 – to grasp the real implications of ACTA. I dare say that by trying to mesh the archaic concept of copyright with the information society we will jeopardise both online freedom and free speech, the more so that a substantial proportion of the active Internet community in the whole Western world seems to subscribe to the same point of view. This community successfully managed to halt the rapid adoption of SOPA and PIPA,8 but these battle victories do not mean that the same or even more detrimental initiatives for tighter control of the Internet might not (re-)appear on the agenda of politicians. In the United States, watchdogs on online freedom have found a new bone to pick – CISPA or the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act – which would, if adopted, grant the state much broader powers to monitor the activities of private individuals in cyber space.
It is not surprising that the pressure coming from national security authorities to control the Internet exceeds that of the commercial lobby. While the Internet is a source of profit for money-makers, security risk assessors see it as a source of potential invisible enemies whose weapons and objectives are unknown. Freedom of speech and online freedom pose a threat that is not only uncontrollable, but even indefinable in terms of related risks. As Arnold Sinisalu wrote in his doctoral thesis on restrictions to subversive leverage, “it is quite difficult for states to control or restrict the web. It is easier for unfree and authoritarian states to impose restrictions.”9 A state that respects online freedom and free speech becomes a sitting target for those who want to impinge on political decision-making processes, to subjugate people psychologically and thereby to destabilise society.
The idea of a national Internet is nothing new. Following the example of North Korea, Iran is developing a nationwide intranet that will insulate its citizens from Western ideology and un-Islamic culture, and eventually replace the Internet.10 Iranian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Reza Taghipour says that Iran will introduce the first phase of its domestic Internet network by May 21 and that it will incorporate a national search engine and a domestic e-mail service.11 In other words, Google and Yahoo will at least partially be blocked.
A national Internet will form a closed information space, which can only be left with government authorisation and entered with a ‘visa’. John C. Dvorak, a columnist for PCMag.com, claims that it is happening in Iran and the U.S. is only a few steps behind.12 Dvorak urges us to watch over the next few years as the idea of a national Internet will evolve from a tool, used today by undemocratic countries to suppress opposition and to restrict free speech, to a good idea that is no longer rejected by democratic countries, while tighter control will become to be perceived as a new and innovative solution.
Governments that have relinquished most of their control over free speech and have thereby compromised security, undermined the legitimacy of the authorities and decreased their possibilities to unite people under a common cause exhibit to a certain extent nostalgic tendencies about the golden era of the modern state. Today, the limits of freedom of speech and the significance of a piece of information are not defined by Merkel and Sarkozy, but by Google and Facebook. It is not governments, but owners of search engines and social networks who can guarantee that, for example, the truth about the Armenian genocide according to the strict letter of the law be distributed via Internet pipelines in France. Similarly, it is for Google to decide to which extent to accommodate the ever increasing requests by the German government to remove material, for example, from Google.de search engine or YouTube, or to disclose user information. During the first half of 2011, 86% of requests to remove content and 66% of inquiries about users were considered to be legitimate and therefore granted by Google.
Even the US government could not stop stolen diplomatic memos from being distributed via Wikileaks! Similarly, the United States had to admit its defeat in the propaganda battle over gaining popular support for PIPA and SOPA. It was Wikipedia that shaped public opinion on this issue all over the world with its decision to protest against these bills by shutting down its websites for 24 hours and by displaying the following message instead: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.”
It is paradoxical that globalisation and global information freedom have intensified the processes targeted against them, making a shift towards the Balkanisation of the Internet a real possibility. Slogans defending freedom of speech or safeguarding security can be used to ‘sell’ the idea of a national intranet, or at least tighter government control over the Internet, to the people who live in democratic countries. And in authoritarian countries no one bothers to consult the people anyway.
1 G. Sí¸rensen, The Transformation of the State: Beyond the Myth of Retreat, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.
2 D. Rodrik, The Nation-State Reborn, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-nation-state-reborn.
3 Freedom House, Leaping over the Firewall: A Review of Censorship Circumvention Tools, http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/inline_images/Censorship.pdf.
4 “Internet Freedom Essential to Peace, Prosperity, Clinton Says,” IIP Digital, February 15, 2011, http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/article/2011/02/20110215162254enaj0.6656458.html#ixzz1rHAROefT.
5 Demonstrations were also held in Estonia against joining ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). (Ed.)
6 “Aleksei Kelli: netist allalaadimine oma tarbeks peaks jääma lubatuks [Aleksei Kelli: Downloading from the Internet for Personal Use Should Continue to Be Permitted],” Postimees, March 22, 2012, http://arvamus.postimees.ee/782982/aleksei-kelli-netist-allalaadimine-oma-tarbeks-peaks-jaama-lubatuks/.
7 Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said on February 9, 2012, that anyone who believed ACTA would mean the end of agriculture “had eaten seeds, and not the kinds of seeds that we sow on our fields. [...] Usually, in such cases, if people have such suspicions, putting foil inside their hats might help from time to time.” ACTA opponents seized on the allusion, putting foil outside their hats. http://news.err.ee/politics/5788d335-95cf-472f-9d32-21c844cf4472. (Trans.)
8 SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (PROTECT IP Act or Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act) – proposed laws to ban online piracy and to protect intellectual property in the United States. (Ed.)
9 A. Sinisalu, Mõjutustegevuse piirid rahvusvahelises õiguses [Restrictions to Subversive Leverage in International Law], Tartu Ülikooli õigusteaduskond, 2012, p. 20, http://dspace.utlib.ee/dspace/handle/10062/22744.
10 F. Fassihi, “Iran Mounts New Web Crackdown,” The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203513604577142713916386248.html.
11 “Iran to Start First Phase of Domestic Internet by May, Fars Says,” Bloomberg, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-01/iran-to-start-first-phase-of-domestic-internet-by-may-fars-says.html.
12 John C. Dvorak, “Here Comes the National Internet,” PCMag.com, January 6, 2012, http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2398527,00.asp.