Digital Realms: The War for Sovereignty in Cyberspace
Sep. 29, 2023. 4 min. read.
SB Fisher explores the critical war for sovereignty over the internet, where access and privacy are at stake, and the fight for a truly decentralized future.
The internet is the infrastructure that supports our economy and society. Whoever controls it controls the world. Whoever can censor it, deny access, and control its output controls society. The internet is a permissionless network with countless participants, but nevertheless access to it has agglomerated towards centralised entities, whose influence grows by the day. Privacy is now a relic and your access to the internet is less assured than you might think. The war for cyberspace hasn’t just begun – it’s been raging for decades, and the war over the digital realm is no less vital than those waged in the real.
Erecting Digital Walls
The Great Firewall of China, the tongue-in-cheek name given to China’s mass surveillance, restriction, and gatekeeping of the internet has for decades now inhibited its citizens’ access to data. Russia recently followed suit. Societies on the totalitarian end of the spectrum want more than anything to keep the internet under their control, and deny access to global information.
It’s easy to see why. The internet, like communication technologies before it, lets societies communicate and distribute information en masse without oversight of the elite. Remember that the printing press was heavily censored for centuries almost as soon as it was created, although in the end it didn’t stop the Lutherian reformation and the messages of the newly minted protestant movement being distributed in secret, smuggled under the cowls of renegade preachers.
Yet corporate America has its own issues with free internet access, with net neutrality under siege from ISPs who would like to discriminate and levy fees based on access it, or what they are accessing (although in fairness to the USA, their surrendering ICANN’s control of the DNS system to a multi-stakeholder model was a major move towards ‘decentralisation’ of the internet).
Meanwhile, the EU panics about the US-led cartel in cloud computing, and the fact that the majority of the world’s data is held in massive data farms controlled by US techopolies and routed through Amazon, Google, and Microsoft’s services – data used by national governments to service their own ends, or wielded by corporations who finally rip off the fig-leaf of social conscience (remember that Google stripped ‘Don’t Be Evil’ from its corporate manifesto).
How AI Data Scouring Leads to Dystopia
The advance of AI is central to the current hubbub of concern over all of this. Mass harvesting of data is useless without appropriate indexing and, as anyone who uses Windows can tell you, even searching a hard drive for a file can be a difficult task. No matter how many data crunchers you put to the task, and how powerful your indexing software is – there is simply too much data to reliably capture, store and output in any meaningful way.
Command-and-control technologies like this are still in their infancy, despite decades of research. Yet neural nets trained to harvest innocuously-generated data lead to a dystopian future, one where you can say ‘Hi DataGPT, please look up [John Maguire], give me a three-paragraph profile on who he is, and a verdict on whether he is an enemy of the state’. To think governments won’t use it is a naive fallacy. In a decade, getting caught for speeding might have the cop asking his AI about you, and what you’ve been up to, before he decides whether he should wave you on or shoot you down.
A Return to the Original Internet
The internet was originally dreamed up as a fully decentralised network, built to withstand the possible infrastructure-annihilating shocks of war or catastrophe. Over time, commercialisation crept in, and centralisation with it. Rather than accessing any given server, instead people accessing through one ‘node’, that of the ISP.
That was Web 1.0 but, in some ways, Web3 is an attempted return the prelapsarian state first envisaged by the creators of the early internet, where activities and services are run on a decentralised set of nodes and are permissionless, trustless, and free (in an access sense) – forever, with no one able to revoke access, and no great firewalls being erected and – in an ideal world – with pseudonymous or anonymous privacy maintained.
Of course, Web3 currently needs the infrastructure rails of the ‘old internet’ to function. Yet as decentralised scalability improves, there is perhaps a future in which an internet exists which no nation state can colonise, where privacy is retained, and which enshrines the rights of the individual. Excitement over crypto starts with the power of trustless decentralisation, with tokens that give you the right to wander these digital realms without fear.