What Airports and Military Research Can Teach Us about the Future of the Internet

Book Review: Splinternet. How Geopolitics and Commerce are Fragmenting the World Wide Web (OR Books, editor. 2016)

Scott Malcomson’s recent book Splinternet. How Geopolitics and Commerce are Fragmenting the World Wide Web is a great piece of contemporary history. Its aim is nothing less than to tell the story of the Internet – giving credit both to technology and politics, eccentric individuals and the anarchic cyberspace counter-culture of the 1980s.

Byproduct of military R&D

It doesn’t really come as a surprise, but it’s still amazing to read to what extent the Internet is, historically speaking, really nothing more than a mere byproduct of military R&D. Up to the very last steps within the process of technological evolution, every single improvement was made not with a great vision in mind, but just with the aim to meet immediate and basic needs. In Malcomson’s version of the Internet’s history, it all begins with the invention of early forms of Artificial Intelligence: computing devices which take over the work formerly performed by human ‘computers’ – people doing the math necessary for the employment of naval gunnery in the 1920s. The speed of the attacking and the target ship, the pitch and roll of the firing ship, distance to target and the speed and arc of the shell – all this had to be taken into consideration for fire control. Before the arrival of modern computing technology, firing tables were used to handle naval guns. Scientists like Claude Shannon, Vannevar Bush, George Stibitz, Norbert Wiener and many others joined forces with the military to construct first digital fire control, then anti-aircraft-systems. When, in the last days of World War II, the Nazis started their final aerial offensive on Britain, it was ‘the computer’ which prevented the destruction of the city of London by German V-1 rockets.

The Network

The second stage in the evolution of the Internet comes with the establishment of networks. At that time, in the early 1960s, gun technology had already been more elaborate. Instead of fire control on ships, the military was dealing with situations of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). In order to upheld military power even after an attack by thermonuclear weapons, stable communication systems were needed. Networks, which allow for the transmission of signals over a great variety of different routes, were the solution for this problem. The ARPANET was born – which laid ground for our Internet.

Splintering

Connecting the historical account of the World Wide Web with the recent debate about splintering is somewhat problematic.

All this is history – most of it: military history. Malcomson could as well have given his book the title The Internet. A Military History. Instead, he chose Splinternet. How Geopolitics and Commerce are Fragmenting the World Wide Web. Splintering (or fragmentation) stands for the division of the Internet (or, more narrowly, that part of the Internet which one accesses through Firefox or Chrome, which is the World Wide Web) into different compartments or “walled gardens” which are not well connected to each other. One contemporary case for splintering is censorship by nation states. At the recent World Internet Conference in Zhejiang, the Chinese president Xi Jinping claimed that countries should have the right to choose how to develop and regulate ‘their’ Internet – meaning the right to regulate what information is made available to the citizens. As it is well known, China is being heavily criticized for blocking major sites and censoring posts.

Splintering can also be the effect of interventions made for commercial reasons. The “filter bubble” (which stands for information shaped by personalized Internet-search and like-minded social media-communities) can be interpreted as one form of splintering. Operating systems, apps and online-platforms which exert control over the content delivered to the user are other examples.

There is no historical imperative!

Here comes the critique. If Malcomson would have chosen as a title “How the World Wide Web came into Existence as an Unintended Byproduct of Military Research” or “How the World Wide Web has never been a Universally Open Playground in the First Place” everything would be fine. But connecting the historical account with the recent debate about splintering is somewhat problematic.

First of all, it does not become clear what history has, after all, to offer when dealing with splintering. What’s the lesson? If there is one thing which the study of the past can teach, it is that there is no inbuilt teleology in the historical process. Things could have evolved in a very different way than they did! The Internet is a product of the military-academic-industrial complex? Be it so! This doesn’t tell anything about the way to go for the future. Just as there is no “technological imperative” (see Netopia-post “You can’t stop new ideology, there is no such thing as a “historical imperative”. (And, indeed: Contemporary issues on net neutrality or intermediary liability, which are the arenas where splintering is being debated today, are not even mentioned in the book. The reason for this might well be that the historical account just doesn’t offer many possibilities to connect with these issues.)

Fragmentation – really bad?

If one decides to follow the author in searching the roots for the current fragmentation of the Internet in its historical origin, one soon discovers that one question is totally missing: What’s bad about splintering? Everyone seems to agree that Internet-censorship by rather authoritarian governments such as China or Russia is not a good thing. But what about censorship against hatespeech in Germany? Opinions on this are controversial (see Netopia-post on the debate on Facebook-regulation in Germany). When Clyde Wayne Crews from the Cato Institute coined the term “splinternet” in 2001, he was rather enthusiastic about the idea to build a variety of separate networks. In his view, “splintering” is the way to go in order to escape regulation by the government: “’Splinternets’ where prespecified ground rules regarding privacy and other governance issues replace regulation and central planning may be superior” he writes.

The end of the free and open Internet – does it happen, indeed?

One last remark. In 1996, at the World Economic Forum, John Perry Barlow dashed off his famous declaration of cyber-independence, starting with the words:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone… You have no sovereignty where we gather…”

Malcomson cites Barlow’s Manifesto in order to give his reader a glimpse at the short period of time, where indeed cyber-counterculture was ruling the Internet – a period, which in his view, has wrongly coined our view about was the Internet is about. (See here if you are interested in what Barlow thinks about his manifesto today). Surely: Government is back into the game. In some aspects, government authorities are responsible for “splintering” (such as in the cases of China or Germany). But, again: Should one be worried if the “governments of the industrial world” engage in setting rules for the Internet? In many cases, democratic governments are the only actors who can set limits to the way Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are shaping the Internet according to their commercial interest.

In his book, Malcomson describes the internet as a “global private marketplace built on a government platform, not unlike the global airport system”. He intends this to be a description of the historical situation. The point he misses (and which becomes almost invisible by framing the story in terms of “splintering”) is to discuss to what extent the airport-metaphor could indeed by a positive vision for the present: the Internet as a government-supported and government-ruled platform, where both liberties and constraints are defined by constitutional frames and democratic decision-making. Surely: this is not in line with the military past of the Internet. But, again: Who says that we can’t depart from the way history has prepared?”

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