The Internet is the sea where all our lives are digitally bobbing. Still, everyone can float, but sailing is different. In 1994, when the US government has open Internet to the world, new harbours, cruises and maps were supposed. People, firms and institutions had the freedom to settle their presence in new, before unthinkable, places. That was happily achieved (not without some concern).
Internet seals the gaps, build bridges, open perspectives, show varieties too often forgotten in the small world of everyday life. When a vast flood of people from all over the world was brought into social networks, the Internet was free, open and welcoming by nature.
Older media tried to frighten people with every sort of horror story on its dark side: drugs, weapons, child pornography, computer viruses, stolen data, fake documents, gore images, piracy and all sorts of nightmarish creatures. Nothing slowed down the spread. And when finally the smartphones and tablets were available, nobody at all wanted to stay away from the Net, not at ten nor at one hundred years old.
Nowadays, newspapers, tv shows, politicians and opinion leaders are crying and complaining all sort of havoc coming from their routers. However, people seem to prefer hate speech, aggressive profiling, obtrusive advertising, conspiracy theories, radical opinions and whatever else just to retain their freedom to communicate with each other.
That freedom didn’t come by chance and doesn’t necessarily stay here to endure. Black clouds are piling up on that sea.
The Internet cannot survive without the help of its freer sailors.
The Postel pirate test
In 1994, the Internet domain name resolution was torn off the hand of a single man, Jon Postel, who managed the whole Internet root servers. These servers were then entrusted to the loving, albeit more expensive, cares of private firm Network Solutions Inc (NSI). It was the birth of the Commercial Internet.
Jon Postel may well not have been happy (indeed he was not), but the world deserved the new revolutionary tool.
Postel was the author of some basic protocols of the Internet. He edited the essential TCP/IP. He shepherded the standards (Request for Comment) document series and administered the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). Postel was also the very first member of the newborn Internet Society (ISOC).
On January 28, 1998, Postel as the most respected engineer around, still had a strong influence on the networks’ staff. It was a child’s play to convince all of the operators of the root servers but the military and the NASA ones, to give him the control back. The NSI management was cut off. Internet was split into two pieces. One part was run by the legitimate authority, the other lived under the Jolly Rogers banner of the Wise-Old-Men from the first days of the Net.
It was an act of piracy for all intents and purposes. As Postel was a white hat hacker, he marketed the action as “test” to convince the politicians than jeopardize the network cannot be so simple. Afterwards, the DNS was further centralized under the authority of the US government. However, since that moment, all the essential choices are taken over a multistakeholder equilibrium of firms, institutions and nonprofits under the leadership of ISOC.
Here is the Net now: a larger-than-life temperamental mess. Yet free.
That is not what national governments want. They want «digital sovereignty». But there could be «digital sovereignty» on the Internet only if the Internet is a splintered network where each government decides what can and cannot be done. This is simply not the Internet.
Only one has to rule on the whole root servers system as they are the root of every freedom on the Net, too.
If you control on a single root server, you can wipe out a site, and nobody can’t see it anymore. With a root in hand, you are the lord and master of your part of the world. With the ISOC supervision, not even the United States government can easily play this role (even if they’re in the best position).
Nonetheless, digital sovereignty is the dream of the censors.
No wonder at all, that China Communist Party is the undisputed leader of this wish.
The leaders of the censored world
No question that, joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, China Communist Party was freed from the social and political bankruptcy. This revolutionary step into the market gave better life condition to the near 1.4 billion people living there, fortified the leadership of the CCP and helped to bring new strong players into the field of multinational business like Huawei and ZTE.
Also paved the path to the spread of the Internet in mainland China. With more than 800 million users, the Red Giant stands as the most populated digital nation all over the world. It’s also the most guarded and censored. China has “the sorry distinction of leading the world in the repression of the Internet”, as Reporters Without Borders said. In 2019, China ranked 177 out of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index. Well, they do better than North Korea after all.
China commitment in that vile domain is threefold. An old devotion to the censorship and violation of human rights in the domestic areas (especially in Xinjiang and Tibet). The use of its immense resources, or protectionistic measures, to support Chinese firm who sells exploiting technologies outside the national borders. And lastly, but not less relevant, aggressive lobbying on international bodies to undermine world freedom. Internet freedom is not excluded.
The People’s Republic of China delegates can do very little to rule the formal bodies that run the Internet, like IAB, IANA, IESG, IETF and the others. ISOC multistakeholder approach is the reference here.
However, China strength lay in the basement of the United Nations, where the censorship giant teams up with other authoritarian regimes like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In the UN, nation-states and their autocratic lobbies, bequest little space to civil society in choices and settlements. Here China may reclaim its leadership role trying to push the «digital sovereignty» issue. Luckily, the UN has ever had negligible power over the Internet, but this is changing.
ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and ITU (International Telecommunication Union), direct UN affairs in the information field, but they relentlessly fumbled the Internet revolution. Driven by old and blotchy telephone monopolists resisted far beyond reason to accept the TCP/IP revolution. When digital convergence took over, at the end of ’90s, their role faded, and they have been confined to the acceptance of decisions taken elsewhere.
Now they come at hand for the censors of all over the world, inflating their monopolistic heritage.
In the UN, China is trying to settle something like a «digital sovereign» policy supported by the other authoritarian countries.
Meanwhile, in the ITU, where China delegates have sneaked in proper commission, Huawei presented a «New IP» proposal.
Internet Protocol (IP) in fact needs an upgrade. This earliest, essential Jon Postel protocol, is the basis of all Internet communications, these days celebrate its 39 years of distinguished service. IP show vast signs of ageing. Huawei proposal tries to overcome the problems with an eye to own master, the Chinese Communist Party.
In fact, New IP proposal has satisfying tools for censors too. For instance, the so-called «kill-switch» allows authorities to completely shut up a single network address, wiping (or deviate) all the incoming or outgoing traffic. A handy tool against dissidents!
The problem here is not what China does in its borders, albeit human rights of Chinese people (and Tibetan and Uygurs, too) cannot be forgotten.
The problem is that the authoritarian coalition is working hard to export the opposite of freedom, naming it «digital sovereignty».
If they manage to get this for themselves, then all the countries of the world will naturally be inclined to adopt this approach.
Chinese digital authoritarianism will be at the reach of every bureaucrat near you.