By Arthur Herman
Can a technology designed to enhance the free exchange of ideas and information be turned into an instrument for limiting that freedom, and for strengthening political tyranny at the expense of individual liberty? Sadly, the histories of the printing press, radio, and television suggest the answer is yes—and over the past decade, the Internet may have been following the same sinister path. Taken as a whole, the Net represents a more complex technology than its analog predecessors. It also enjoys a far larger mass audience, with many more direct portals for instant individual input—and its scale is global. It is this unprecedented immensity and accessibility that repressive governments exploit in seeking to use the Internet for their own ends.
Two in particular, the People’s Republic of China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are busy creating a very different Internet from the one we’ve come to know. Theirs is a “closed” Internet that sharply limits the access of their nations’ citizenries to the larger “open” Internet, which the United States created and has overseen through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The closed Internet uses the same technologies that drive the open Internet but deploys them as tools for total government surveillance and control. Additionally, China and Russia manipulate the openness of the other, freer cyberspace to steal information and intellectual property from the United States and other industrial democracies.
They have had help. Some of our own leading high-tech companies have become increasingly complicit in building what the Economist has dubbed China’s “iron cyber cage,” as well as Russia’s version. Such developments have brought us to a turning point in the evolution of the World Wide Web. Will it ultimately be an instrument of freedom or an instrument of tyranny? This depends in large part on how our leaders respond to the changing digital terrain. The story so far is not encouraging.
Without question the worst abuser of the Internet, both as a tool for state and industrial espionage and as a tool for state surveillance and control, is China.
China’s role in systematic cybertheft goes back to the 1990s. But it was not until 2007, following a series of severe attacks on the Pentagon, the State Department, and other leading government agencies from China, that the seriousness of the Chinese cyberchallenge became a matter of official concern. In the years since, the threat has only grown in scale and cost. According to a 2014 Intellectual Property Commission report, China is behind 75 to 80 percent of international cyberthefts, which extract an annual total of roughly $400 billion from the world economy. And the bulk of that total is stolen from the United States.
Picture: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons