The internet infrastructure is continuously shaped by the interest of citizens, governments and corporations. Whether it be cloud infrastructures, Virtual Private Networks (VPN), Internet Service Providers (ISP), Content Delivery Networks (CDN), each of these infrastructural initiatives not only represent means of distribution and production, but also means of autonomy, sovereignty and power. Governments are becoming increasingly aware that future hegemonic battles will be fought over our planetary network.
- Harvard researchers mapped local internet control by looking at the network structure at the national level. Generally, they found that authoritarian countries tend to access the outside internet through fewer routing points (mostly maintained by government-controlled ISPs), enabling authorities to control inward and outward data traffic directly (e.g. Chinese Firewall, internet shutdown during Arabic spring). Surprisingly, Russia was one of the exceptions by being highly decentralized, presumably to obscure their large-scale hacking activities.
- Begin this year China’s ministry of information demanded that all VPNs that allow users to access overseas online content will have to be authorized by telecom regulators.
- China wants to establish cyber sovereignty together with other BRICS countries as a counter measure to the Western hegemony over the internet. However, India seems reluctant as it is intimately tied to western markets. In contrast, Russia lately seems interested in copying China’s internet governing infrastructure.
- ISPs in the United States are about to gain unprecedented control. Congress already voted that ISPs are allowed to sell customer data collected through their infrastructure. Moreover, ISPs will be further empowered with the current FCC administration, who has committed itself to rolling back net neutrality.
- Over the years, internet traffic has become more data intensive, mainly due to high-definition streaming video. As a result Content Delivery Networks have proliferated ($23.2 billion market in 2021) and are flattening the internet. Consequently, CDNs are increasingly becoming central points of control for companies and governments.
- Reportedly, Facebook’s CDN has been used by the NSA to collect data on Facebook users. Furthermore, Akamai has rejected Tor internet traffic through their CDNs.
Not only do we see centralization at the level of b2c online service platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook, Amazon) but also at the level of internet infrastructure. With the high business demand for advanced server-side solutions, ranging from high-capacity storage to distribution, we have seen the emergence of enterprise infrastructure-as-a-service (e.g. AWS, Akamai). However, this increased centralization also has some detrimental commercial consequences as exemplified by the multiple AWS blackouts. Also, when it comes to the broadband market we have seen considerable market concentration in countries such as the U.S. Combined with the deterioration of consumer protection laws, ISPs could gain considerable leverage in these situations.
Moreover, as exemplified by China’s cyber sovereignty initiative, governments are becoming increasingly aware that future hegemonic battles will be fought over our planetary network
From a governmental perspective, we also see that countries are trying to increase sovereignty by gaining control over strategic points within the infrastructure by enforcing control over autonomous systems such as ISPs or cloud infrastructure providers. Moreover, as exemplified by China’s cyber sovereignty initiative, governments are becoming increasingly aware that future hegemonic battles will be fought over our planetary network.
Lastly, there are also grassroots initiatives that attempt to give citizens more control at the network level. For example, we are seeing the formation of interest groups that are developing alternative internets. Another example can be found in Cuba, where citizens circumvented government internet control by creating their own secret internet; protesters in Hong Kong made use of Firechat, a communication app that makes use of wireless ad hoc mesh networking.
Going forward, we could expect that against the backdrop of Internet of Things and Smart City development these confrontations will further intensify. After all, these projects are infrastructure intensive and will involve all main stakeholders ranging from commercial interests, governments to individual citizens.