If you’re looking for something to ponder this weekend, let me recommend this piece in the Economist about the Internet in the modern age to you (via Melissa Clouthier’s Twitter feed). The article looks at the challenges of keeping the internet open in the face of obvious threats to national security such as WikiLeaks, reassertion of national sovereignty, and “powerful forces”.
I’m nowhere close to sure that the web is in danger of Balkinization as the authors are, though it’s clear that individual nations are going to have to exert more control over what goes into and out of their country electronically. In the end, though, I don’t see the final result as being very different from what we have today. Nations already limit content their citizens can see, both for good reasons and for despotic ones. For example, there are things I simply can’t buy for download here in the United States because either my government or the company who owns the material won’t allow me to do so, though I could buy the same things in Europe or Australia. That’s not Balkinization, or even the beginning of a “closed internet”. That’s just common business practice and we deal with that situation pretty much ever say, on the internet and elsewhere.
Similarly, I don’t see a big threat from corporate firewalling either. Apple has become the big dog when it comes to downloadable music and mobile platforms, but it is by no means the only player. The Android market is thriving (and far more open than the iPhone market) and Blackberry is still strong. Amazon has a good music service that shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon and the same goes for Rhapsody. People can still choose the mobile platform or music service they wish, or choose no platform at all.
It’s possible that we might see a more fractured cyberspace, though I find it difficult to imagine that most free countries or capitalist corporations will start slamming down “Great Walls” of the kind we see surrounding China or other nations ruled by tyrants. There is a long and deeply-held tradition of freedom in America, at least, that won’t allow such a thing to happen. Even if someone did try such a thing, creative individuals and small companies would quickly find ways around it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant against such an attempt, but it does mean that the attempt wouldn’t be very likely to succeed.
What we should avoid, at all costs, is giving the UN the power to enforce whatever rules it pleases on the Internet. As we’ve seen all across Africa, the former Yugoslavia, and the Middle East, the UN is woefully incompetent when it comes to ensuring freedom and safety. We don’t need an international internet police. We simply need to keep on exercising our choices as we see fit and fighting for our ability to do so.