Formerly TBS Journal

ISSN: 1687-7721

Digital Protectionism: Preparing for the coming Internet Embargo

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Issues of Individual Control

Implicit in the term sovereignty is control. However, the issues laid out in the previous section speak to the collective action of the masses rather than the acts of the individual. Every form of Internet access is by nature adding to the collective and is individual at the same time; therefore we cannot completely separate the two.. However, the nature of the device used for that Internet action may enhance the individualistic aspect of the action, as in the case of smartphones.


When surfing the web on a laptop or regular computer, the user is mostly stationary, and in many parts of the world multiple individuals share one traditional computing device. Mobile phones on the other hand are usually used by one person, and are unique in that every action is traceable back to that specific individual.


Mobile phones, especially smartphones, make further inroads into the sovereign domain of many states. Research In Motion (RIM), the creator of the massively popular Blackberry device, is based in Canada, and the architecture of their service is, out of all the most popular smartphone services, the most centrally controlled. Other than traditional mobile phone services such as SMS and phone calls, all other data and services run through RIM’s servers in Canada. The most notable of these centrally controlled services are traditional web browsing and the Blackberry Messenger; the latter is in and of itself a global phenomenon. The issue is that governments cannot view conversations or censor web browsing over these centrally controlled services. Both of the services encrypt data, which is then sent back to Canada, where data is stored and, when needed, encrypted and sent back to the user. All of the world's Blackberry data for these centrally controlled services are kept in Canada, and the data is currently accessible by only a few governments, including the United States and Canada.


Many Middle Eastern states, especially in the Gulf region, view this as completely unacceptable. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia all threatened to impose restrictions on Blackberry services if RIM did not give them access to data and the ability to censor specific websites [16]. The Blackberry devices have always had this centrally controlled mechanism, but it is only recently that there have been claims that the devices are used for nefarious means and are security risks [18]. Of course many governments simply want to eavesdrop on their citizens’ conversations and when they cannot do so, they imagine a cornucopia of potential criminal uses for the device.


The Center for Democracy and Technology believes that this is an attack on Internet Freedom [20] – but it is not. Rather, these sovereign states want the same rights as Canada and the United States in monitoring their citizens’ actions. It is hard to argue that one government's demand for access to information is legitimate while identical demands by other governments are an attack on individual rights.


RIM is reported to have come to agreements with all Middle Eastern countries that have expressed concern thus far. They will censor websites for Kuwait, they have made adeeal with the UAE, and will give Saudi Arabia access to their users data via a control system within Saudi borders [19]. Internet forums and blogs have been abuzz with claims that “the flood gates have opened”, indeed, the Middle East, heavy users of the latest technology but with little virtual infrastructure or devices of their own are realizing the new great game – control of and access to Internet information data and flows.



It is not a matter of if but of when the Internet will be used as an economic and social weapon similar to any other weapon used throughout history when there is dependency relationship. The world has been mislead to believe that the Internet is a place that cannot be controlled and which has no boundaries. Nation states will find that their dependence on the Internet and related services may prove to be detrimental if they are unwilling to create their own services and virtual infrastructure to offset some of that need.

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1 Alexa rankings as of March 2010 -

4 Google’s email service,

5 Any traffic that appears to originate from inside Iran