2016 was a year dominated by seismic political events around the globe, shaking the democratic underpinnings of our societies to their core. 2017 is unlikely to be very different. The internet was often the theatre for these changes- from the proliferation of fake news to the WikiLeaks DNC hack and @realDonaldTrump.
As domestic and geopolitical tensions continue to rise, governments will find it increasingly hard to function amidst a constant barrage of uncontrollable information and the threat of cyberattacks, making them grow more wary of the internet’s influence.
That is why 2017 will be the year we see countries around the world pull the plug on the open, global internet and create their own independent networks - spelling the end of the World Wide Web as we know it.
The weaponization of the internet
As we’ve become dependent on the internet for almost everything we do, threats to the network’s integrity could have devastating effects. Last October, unknown hackers brought down most of the US East Coast’s internet in one of the largest DDoS(1) attacks to date, using an army of badly-secured IoT devices such as smart fridges and kettles. While depriving Americans of Amazon and Facebook for several hours was surely an inconvenience, the potential of the weaponized internet to do harm is infinitely much greater.
As more parts of countries’ critical infrastructure move online, the number of possible targets grows too. Hackers shut down a significant part of Ukraine’s electricity grid in 2015, and crippled several important Estonian industries, including its banks, in 2007. Many cybersecurity experts warn about the lacklustre security of everything from air traffic control towers and voting machines to nuclear plants. One well-placed attack could do more damage than the most aggressive of traditional military campaigns, at a fraction of the cost. Because of the high degree of uncertainty surrounding cyber capabilities - “know your enemy” is a hard adagium to follow if (future) culprits and their capabilities are so hard to track - it has become nigh impossible for governments to completely shield their countries from cyber attacks.
Perhaps equally damaging is the deluge of fake news and propaganda flooding social media. The use of information to confuse and breed distrust among people has proven worryingly effective during recent elections. With this type of foreign interference becoming ever bolder, leaders around the world fear losing control over the narrative completely.
The internet is fragile
While cyber attacks and false information campaigns use the internet to attack the structures and infrastructures by which our societies function, the internet’s very own infrastructure is also at risk. Despite the internet’s ephemeral, lawless appeal, its underlying network of cables, tubes and wires is very much rooted in the physical world. Over 99 per cent of all global internet communications are facilitated by an impressive web of undersea cables, connecting all corners of the world. A submarine deliberately destroying one of these undersea cables at a hard to reach place could bring down parts of the internet for weeks, and so all the systems that rely upon it.
This shared infrastructure is not only not infallible, it also makes it impossible to completely keep foreign actors out of domestic affairs. Though governments that heavily restrict internet access might find it easier to prevent information from flowing in and out of the country, they are still reliant on the same co-owned systems.
This became very clear after the 2013 Snowden revelations, which showed that the United States routinely tapped into foreign internet traffic routed through the country. The massive scale of this monitoring even led then-president of Brazil Dilma Rousseff to call for the construction of an undersea cable from Brazil directly to Europe, bypassing the prying eyes of the NSA altogether. The US intelligence agencies are certainly not the only ones doing this type of thing, as we know all too well. In these times of political tensions, who will governments still trust?
Though the dream of the original internet pioneers was a completely open, non-hierarchical internet, over the years barriers have been springing up that restrict this freedom. Bit by bit, the internet is becoming more cordoned off. 2017 could see it break up altogether.
The idea of splitting up the internet into different, balkanized internets - with a completely separate infrastructure - is not new. Like Brazil, the Germans (who don’t look too kindly upon government spying) took action after Snowden and started looking into the construction of an “Internetz”, a German-only (with the possibility of expanding to the rest of the European Union) network. The current state of this project is unclear.
Another example is the Great Firewall of China. Though China hasn’t built an entirely separate infrastructure, its internet looks entirely different from what we are used to - with content heavily censored and many platforms and websites completely banned. In recent weeks, news has emerged that Moscow has been working with Beijing to implement something similar in Russia.
Last November, Russia also banned LinkedIn from operating in the country, because the social network did not adhere to a new law that mandated all data generated by Russian users should be stored within Russia itself. The European Union has also been flexing its muscles when it comes to internet policy. The EU is in the process of implementing some of the strictest data protection regulation in the world. In this case the aim is not to curb citizens’ rights but instead to bolster them, as concerns grow about the immense power wielded by the handful of tech giants controlling our data. The EU is also a strong proponent of the construction of decentralised internets through citizen initiatives.
With several candidates out there, who will pull the trigger first is difficult to say. Will it be one of the usual suspects like China? Europe? Or even Trump’s America itself? Now that we are so used to a ubiquitous and global internet, it’s hard to imagine what a world of fragmented, national internets might look like. What we do know is that the time of the internet of fun and games, of unfettered access, is quickly coming to an end. When it does, it will be another big nail in the coffin of globalisation.
A DDoS attack (Distributed Denial of Service attack) is a type of cyber attack where a server is deliberately overwhelmed by a deluge of fake requests, causing it to shut down. Hackers often use a botnet, a large network of internet enabled devices, to send these requests.