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Digital Protectionism: Preparing for the coming Internet Embargo

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Days after the Clinton speech, the massively popular website sourceforge.net, a repository for open source projects and collaboration, blocked access [6] to any visitors from Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Cuba and others nations3. Only after an uproar from the open source community, on the grounds that the blocking violated the very nature (and laws) of the open source movement [8], was the policy adjusted. Individual open-source projects on sourceforge.net may now decide if they want to block access from this predefined list of countries to their project group or not.


 

SourceForge released a statement explaining why it had restricted access.

‘…restrictions on the free flow of information rub us the wrong way. However, in addition to participating in the open source community, we also live in the real world, and are governed by the laws of the country in which we are located. Our need to follow those laws supersedes any wishes we might have to make our community as inclusive as possible.’ [9]

The message was clear to nations dependent on this virtual infrastructure: ‘We control access to knowledge and critical services on the Internet’. This was a small example, perhaps even a warning. If SourceForge were a Swedish organization hosted in the UAE, would they have blocked access to its site from these nations as well?


 

Iran has taken the first step in the Middle East towards digital protectionism. Taking a hint from the Clinton speech and the sourceforge.net debacle, Iran struck the first blow by blocking all access to Gmail4 [10] from their national IP address range5 to the Google service. This is not an act against the interests of Google; rather it is against the United States. Iran views the virtual infrastructure (in this case email) as a proxy for American interests, and since Iran cannot control or monitor the Gmail service, it simply decided to block it. Iran plans to launch a state-run email service [2] for its citizens, so that they may not only communicate effectively but also reduce the likelihood that a disruption in services, prompted by a foreign entity, will affect their national economy and stability. The Iranian government did not choose to block Yahoo or Hotmail email services, which leads many to believe that this is a symbolic move to let the United States know that it is prepared to act. Logically, Iran has taken the first necessary step to reduce its dependence on Western Internet services for its own stability and future.


 

Iran has chosen to use a state-run email service, but it could have used a privately run system through an Iranian corporation. The important point is that the organization, private or public, in charge of these critical services, is loyal to that specific nation or the region (the Middle East) and willing to cooperate when needed [2]. In essence, Iran wants to be in a position similar to that of the United States, with uninhibited access to data and control over virtual infrastructure [2].


 

Digital protectionism in the Middle East does not need to be on a country-by-country basis. For example, the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) may decide that it desires to have a regional system, or Syria, Lebanon and Palestine could opt to work together as well. Countries may go it alone for certain services such as email, and will combine their efforts for larger problems such as search engines. This infrastructure cannot possibly be built over weeks or even months; it would take years to reach a level of sophistication found in offerings by world-class providers. However, this is an investment in their future, for reasons of sovereignty and economics.


 

Creating homemade virtual infrastructure and Internet services has many positive effects, apart from being a wise precaution against hostile Internet behavior. Setting up such services in the Middle East will help create knowledge centers and the services should be better suited to the regional culture and population. These services would not be exclusively for the Middle East either; an Arab-made blogging tool and platform may be massively popular in the Arab world and translated into other languages, so users worldwide may leverage the service. While the initial point is to protect against hostile activity from outside, the Middle East would benefit from competing with the same Internet services that they are protecting themselves from. The best way to protect against a virtual infrastructure blockade is to create an alternative.


 

Businesses would also benefit as they could use virtual infrastructure in the Middle East to host their websites and offer those same services to foreign clients as well. The skills required to build these services would create a new class of professionals in the region who could market their skills at home and abroad. It is a win-win-win situation for the state, business and individual in the region.

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1 Alexa rankings as of March 2010 - http://www.alexa.com/topsites/global
 

4 Google’s email service, http://www.gmail.com
 

5 Any traffic that appears to originate from inside Iran
 

6 http://bit.ly/9vxr0U