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Cyber-Westphalia And Its Disrupters

Early pioneers tended to see the Internet as a force of nature that would forever remain outside the governance of states. When they talked of the Internet, they often retreated into a kind of folksy populism, sometimes a little prone to pomp and hyperbole.
Nowadays, with states imposing their wills on the Internet more than ever before, remnants of that early optimism -- such as talking about the Internet as the eighth continent -- are still present but seem to be little more than wishful thinking.

Essentially that’s one of the conclusions you’ll get from reading a fascinating new paper, “Rise of a Cybered Westphalian Age” by Chris C. Demchak and Peter Dombrowski, in the Spring 2011 “Strategic Studies Quarterly.”

The authors make the point that “no frontier lasts forever” and that “no freely occupied global commons extends endlessly where human societies are involved.” The peace of Westphalia led to a new political order and the establishment of nation states and so it goes in cyberspace.
Today we are seeing the beginnings of the border-making process across the world’s nations. From the Chinese intent to create their own controlled internal Internet, to increasingly controlled access to the Internet in less-democratic states, to the rise of Internet filters and rules in Western democracies, states are establishing the bounds of their sovereign control in the virtual world in the name of security and economic sustainability. The topology of the Internet, like the prairie of the 1800s’ American Midwest is about to be changed forever—rationally, conflictually, or collaterally—by the decisions of states.
This tendency for states to impose their sovereignty over the digital realm is seen as due largely to the raft of threats the Internet brings. And for nervy states, there has been little to rival Stuxnet, the malicious worm that seems to have been designed to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program.
As Kim Zetter’s brilliant piece in “Wired” showed, Stuxnet was a game-changer. Where once cyberwarfare experts had spoken hypothetically about the risks of cyberattacks taking down a power grid or the air-traffic control system, it was often dismissed as mere scaremongering -- just another way for contractors to scare Congress and win hefty defense contracts. But with Stuxnet, that debilitating potential of cyberwarfare suddenly became very real. Add to that the threat of “vandals and burglars” “cyber-mercenaries” and “cross-national pirates,” and states have begun to fight back:
All states, in one way or another, will reach out to control what they fear from the Internet—the lack of sovereign control over what comes through their borders. Thus the transformation from frontier to regulated substrate across cyberspace has begun. While it is not recognized as such nor publicly endorsed by most democratic leaders, a cyberspace regulating process is happening, building the initial blocks of emergent national virtual fences. A new “cybered Westphalian age” is slowly emerging as state leaders organize to protect their citizens and economies individually and unwittingly initiate the path to borders in cyberspace. Not only are the major powers of China and the United States already demonstrating key elements of emerging cybered territorial sovereignty, other nations are quickly beginning to show similar trends. From India to Sweden, nations are demanding control over what happens electronically in their territory, even if it is to or from the computers of their citizens.
There are plenty of examples of this imposition of informational sovereignty over the last few years,: Google’s standoff with China over search filtering; India, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia pushing RIM (the company that makes Blackberry) for the right to access their citizens’ encrypted data; Iran’s announcement that it’s going to launch a “Halal Internet,” a sanitized worldwide network with content adhering to Islamic principles.
As Demchak and Dombrowski point out, “A cybered national border is technologically possible, psychologically comfortable, and systemically and politically manageable.”
The authors do seem to see the enclosure of the Internet as a fait accompli and tend to view control from the perspectives of Western democracies. For instance, when talking about physical borders (and implicitly borders online), the authors write, “Historically, citizens accepted borders as a security-enhancing necessity against external uncertainties undermining internally accepted rules of interaction.”
But people didn’t necessarily accept those borders in communist-era Czechoslovakia, nor would they now in North Korea. They accept them because they have no choice. If governments did go down the extreme road of essentially imposing national intranets on their populaces, many would accept them, but many wouldn’t -- many would fight them with proxies, or anonymizers, darknets, or even DDoS attacks. They would create their own public spaces on the Internet outside the control of the government. While the global commons is being enclosed, there is still a huge potential for transnational forces to disrupt the whole process: whether they are dissidents in China, WikiLeaks, or Anonymous.
So while I would wholeheartedly agree with the authors’ assessment of the new topology online, where “In the new cyber–Westphalian process, digital regions complete with borders, boundaries, and frontiers that are accepted by all states will inevitably emerge,” I don’t think the process will be quite as smooth as they seem to imply.