Skip to main content

There was once a time, not that long ago, when pundits could claim that the Internet was a lawless frontier immune to regulation and control by governments and states. Libertarian by nature, open in its architecture, the Internet encouraged democracy, freedom, and liberty around the world. Attempts by oppressive regimes to block information were futile. Thanks to this unstoppable, open, liberal architecture, citizens would be able to communicate and deliberate with each other, forming the basis for a single, vibrant global village polity.

Whatever its original merits, this conventional wisdom should now be declared dead. Far from being an irresistible force for openness and change, the Internet has itself become the object of pressures and regulations by outside forces. A tangled web of increasingly aggressive actors and interests has turned the Internet into a multi-spectrum battlefield of twisted alliances and tragic casualties. The future of the Internet is uncertain.

One battle is the well-known fight over the illegal trade in copyrighted material such as pop music. Although the celebrated Napster trading system has largely disappeared into oblivion, dozens of smaller peer-to-peer trading networks have sprung up in its place. The corporations and their lobbyists -- those with the largest stakes in the game -- have, in turn, become increasingly radical in terms of the means they're willing to employ in support of their cause.

Story continues below advertisement

Legislation -- which if approved would be a startling legitimization of vigilantism -- is being debated in the United States House of Representatives to allow recording industry organizations to hack into home computers that trade music and video files.

Meanwhile, ominous threats of cyberwar and the purported use of the Internet by al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have led to an alarming increase of electronic surveillance by law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world. Thanks to post-9/11 legislation, governments can collect and share e-mail traffic and Web surfing patterns with little restraint.

Privacy advocates are in despair. As the media-rights group Reporters Without Borders noted recently, the Internet has become part of the "collateral damage" of the war on terror.

This surveillance has been accompanied by a largely undebated militarization of the Internet. Government armed forces from around the world have devoted increasing time, money, and energy to develop offensive cyber-warfare capabilities, including the capacity to engage in state-sponsored denial-of-service attacks, and the use of Trojan horses, viruses and worms.

Although the United States leads in this category, it's not alone. Even the Canadian armed forces have seriously debated developing such an offensive capability. In places such as Taiwan, Chechnya, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Israel and Palestine, quasi-government hackers regularly attempt to take their respective foes' systems down.

And that's just what squeaks out into the public. Since 9/11, access to government information on the Web has become increasingly invisible as authorities use the excuse of the war on terror to remove thousands of documents and reports, leading some to conclude that scientific progress itself is in jeopardy. So much for increasing transparency!

On another front, authoritarian governments ranging from Syria and Iran to China are busy attempting to block their citizens from accessing what their elites believe is dangerous information by using sophisticated firewalls at router points.

Story continues below advertisement

One of our research projects at the Citizen Lab, led by researcher Nart Villeneuve, used technical means to trace Internet content-filtering and blocking schemes on China's national backbone to find out what content the Chinese government was blocking -- a state secret.

Using a proxy server on three different national backbones in China, Mr. Villeneuve tested 8,878 URLs to sites ranging from human rights to the outlawed religious group Falun Gong. He found 647 were blocked -- close to 20 per cent of the sites searched in some categories.

Worse, during Mr. Villeneuve's scan of the router system within China, he found that the router he was interrogating displayed a signature login prompt typical of a router manufactured by Cisco Systems Inc., a Western corporation ("the worldwide leader in networking for the Internet," proclaims its Web site).

Given all these battles, what will happen to the hopeful promises of unstoppable liberty, transparency, and openness? Will citizens around the world still be able to communicate, debate and deliberate the future of the global village while virtual bombs drop around them and spies lurk in every corner? Has the time come for cyber-arms control?

The battle has only just begun. Ron Deibert is associate professor of political science and director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.