Digital Protectionism: Preparing for the coming Internet Embargo
Iran took the route of completely blocking a foreign service so that it could move its citizens to its own offering. However, this is not a viable option in the long run as it does not build trust with their local population, and trust will be necessary for the new virtual infrastructure and services to thrive. The best way to move people to government-approved services (private- or state-owned) would be through silent degradation of traffic to foreign websites.
These ‘virtual tariffs’ - inconveniences such as the random blocking of websites or fake 404 (‘Not Found’) messages - will nudge local users towards preferred services, because the local offerings will appear quicker and more responsive than their identical foreign counterparts. If Middle Eastern users believe that the local email service is superior to the outside offering, but they still have access to the outside service, then they will voluntarily make the move to the ‘better’ provider. When users voluntarily make the switch, they are likely to stay. However, this switch will not take place overnight, but will take years. Many individuals in the Arab world have invested a great deal of time in the Western Internet services they use, and an abrupt switch is simply not possible or desirable in most cases.
Issues of Sovereignty
The same companies who run the most popular global virtual infrastructure have benefited immensely from the amount of data they are constantly collecting. David Bollier notes in The Promise and Peril of Big Data that at times Google knows more about what is going on inside the United States than the government itself. This is not meant to insinuate that this knowledge is negative; on the contrary, Google has used it for good. Google provided swine flu trends to the government up to two weeks before a government report on the subject was finished, with over 95 percent accuracy when compared to the final official document .
The United States government benefits immensely from access to this kind of data in times of need. In fact, access to the data helps the government govern more effectively. However, providers also have similar data and knowledge about other nations as well; these data give these private entities an enormous amount of power. Search engines may know more about the current economic issues in Greece than the country itself or the entire European Union, in real time. Twitter may have statistics showing that the search terms ‘coup’ and ‘revolution’ have increased two hundred times in a country since a disputed election.
Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy has displayed a quick and simple example of the knowledge that is waiting to be unearthed in these massive datasets. Lynch searched Google for ‘third intifada’ in Arabic and tweeted that he found ‘123,000 hits in the last month vs 178,000 in all of 2009’6. Such a massive increase in a phrase with direct ties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be an indicator of the negative outlook the Arab world has on the current state of affairs.
What makes this data even more interesting is the collective and peer-produced nature of it. There was no concerted effort from millions of Arabic-language Internet users to use the phrase ‘third intifada’ in the past month, and this statistic is the collective truth gathered from separate actions. Therefore the data being collected in micro-increments is honest data, somewhat of a collective conscious. If Lynch found a trend in the ocean of publicly available data, what could he find out if he had access to the private and public datasets?
These private corporations will soon know more about foreign sovereign nation states than those states know about themselves. As the use of foreign virtual infrastructure increases, they are capable of more data mining for past trends and statistically accurate predictions of the future. The sovereignty of these nation states is directly challenged when a foreign entity beholden to the laws and desires of a foreign nation can effectively predict its economic, political and social future. Therefore the need for virtual infrastructure is also an investment in the future of regional stability and in the sovereignty of each individual nation state in the Arab world.
1 Alexa rankings as of March 2010 - http://www.alexa.com/topsites/global
2 Link to speech - http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/01/135519.htm
4 Google’s email service, http://www.gmail.com
5 Any traffic that appears to originate from inside Iran