Digital Protectionism: Preparing for the coming Internet Embargo
Issue 12, Winter 2010
For years developed countries in the West have spoken of the threat of the ‘end of oil’ or another embargo that would debilitate and destabilize their economies and lifestyles, which are hungry for fossil fuels. Many of these developed nations are taking concrete steps to become energy independent, to reduce the risk and magnitude of a future interruption to supplies of oil.
In a reversal of roles, the Middle East is now as dependent on Western Internet services as the West is on Middle East oil. While the United States government takes tentative steps to become oil independent and free itself of the influence of other nations, the Middle East must begin its own Internet independence campaign, before the first embargo hits. Middle Eastern countries that do not prepare suitable alternatives to the most popular Internet services, such as email, blog platforms, search engines and cloud computing software, run the risk of economic and social disruption. Furthermore, and of equal importance, the data collected by websites and companies through the Internet services they provide can give them unique, in depth, and real-time insight into countries around the globe. The possession of this knowledge by foreign entities, whether private or government-owned, is a challenge to the sovereignty of other nation states.
The Internet is a distributed architecture by design, with many nodes connected in an infinite mesh. If portions of the network go out of service, the network is durable and capable of working around the problem areas. However, the Internet services that users around the globe depend on (Google, Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia, Blogspot, Amazon etc) are in a very concentrated, centralized, and non-durable service network that does not adhere to the distributed and decentralized architecture of the Internet itself.
The most used Internet services have become essential virtual infrastructure upon which many other services and infrastructures operate. Email and chat are the equivalent of dynamically created phone lines, blogs are instantly accessible newspapers and search engines are our indices of knowledge. We take these services for granted and do not realize the potential interruption if only one of them were to be inaccessible for any serious length of time.
So far, the Internet has been a largely uncontrolled domain where the traditional rules and priorities of the nation state have been largely ignored. Faced with its unprecedented growth and innovation, many countries have been unwilling to control the activities of their citizens in the belief that it would undermine potential gains. However, a small number of countries control the vast majority of popular services1 and this has given them a great deal of power over all other nations.
Unlike an oil embargo, an Internet embargo would disrupt communications between individuals, business and government, as well as creating traditional economic problems. Many Middle Eastern countries rely on Google and Yahoo as search engines, Microsoft for chat, Wordpress for blogs, and many other American or European companies for the hosting of websites. In the event of political fallout between an Arab country and the United States, the Internet weapon could be used as a sanction. This would not mean a complete cessation of Internet activity in that Arab country, but users would be unable to access services and websites from ‘American’ companies. Imagine a Middle Eastern netizen unable to access a piece or the whole of foreign virtual infrastructure. Major Arab corporations’ websites could fall as well, as they are commonly hosted by American or European website hosting services. They would go offline and disappear from the Web. The speed and ease  with which this partial or total embargo could be accomplished would astonish those who have not prepared for the possible use of Internet services for leverage or as a weapon.
A number of recent events have brought the potential of an Internet embargo to the forefront. On January 21, 2010, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech2 on the U.S. government’s Internet doctrine and said the Internet was a tool for democracy and that ‘American’ companies should not bow to the desires of nations with unethical practices or laws. Secretary Clinton made it readily apparent; American Internet companies should toe the national line in full, and are no longer exempt from American ideals and laws; they must act ethically, even at the risk of alienating others. This is in direct contrast to the activities of American Internet services in the past when dealing with countries such as China .
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