Syrian rebels were advancing across Damascus on Thursday, gradually consolidating gains along the highway to the airport there, when internet service in the country suddenly went dead. A chief technology officer for the American network security firm Renesys told NPR‘s Tom Gjelten,
The domestic Internet of Syria disappeared from sight over the course of three or four minutes, very quickly. It really does look like a switch being thrown if you look at the data.
The natural supposition was that the Assad regime had shut down the country’s access to the global Web in a bid to sever lines of communication between opposition forces. Some activists within the country were able to maintain contact by using satellite phones to connect to the internet, but most of what took place over two days of the continuing struggle for the fate of Syria remains shrouded from a world increasingly dependent on the distributed and instantaneous flow of information across the Web.
For decades now, the internet has become increasingly central to the way we live, yet we continue to behave on a day-to-day basis as though it still qualified as the novelty it appeared to be when services like America Online and Prodigy popularized access. We now rely on the Web for much of our commerce, much of interpersonal communication, much of the news that reaches us from the outside world.
Where access is monolithic, funneling through a single service provider, those infrastructure needs can render a country’s internet access vulnerable to its own government. Stanford fellow and cybersecurity expert Andrew McLaughlin of the non-profit Code for America Commons told Gjelten, “what they want to do is consolidate the physical infrastructure of the network into a single company or a single facility so that there is one point of control that you can call on that dark day where you need to shut things down.”
But on a more fundamental level, blackouts are possible as a direct result of the complexity of the internet—simply because, that is to say, the internet is the sort of thing that relies on an infrastructure. That means, among other things, that control of, and access to, the internet must ultimately stand outside of the individual’s control. So long as we rely for service on some outside entity, be it a government, a corporation, or a market, we will remain at the mercy of those entities.
It is in order to combat those social vulnerabilities that non-profits like Internet Society have formed. Their goal is to maintain the internet as an open, extra-national platform for communication and collaboration. As Tom Gjelten said in another NPR segment, “The whole idea of the global Internet has always been that it’s an ungoverned space, where people around the world can share information freely.”
That is, at least, the vision of the internet that some people share. The Syria blackout reminds us that it is more aspirational than innate. Historically, it has grown on the strength of government investment and corporate profit. That origin makes it questionable whether or not a decentralized Web, less vulnerable to the institutional agendas, is even possible.
Writing for the Guardian about the Telecoms Reform Package voted on by the European Union several years ago, Cory Doctorow warned of the dangers inherent in giving ISPs too much control over public access to the internet. “[By] giving an ISP censorship powers,” he wrote, “we make the internet a less trustworthy and less useful place to be.” But if we’re honest with ourselves, it should be clear that the reform debate wasn’t about giving ISPs the power to censor. They already have that. Rather, the goal was to restrict their power with laws that would allow governments to penalize the ISPs for shaping access in ways that serve their interest better than the public interest. Such legal and civic battles are really about the potential of the internet to serve an interest abstracted from any one set of institutions.
Those battles will be interminable so long as we rely on for-profit companies as service providers. To prevent the biggest of them from exercising the sort of abuses that come with near-monopoly power, we turn to the legislative powers of government. At the same time, as Gjelten and McLaughlin point out, we rely on private industry to keep the government from accumulating control into its own kill switch, as happened in Syria. The basic idea is that a single pipeline for communications is easy to sever. By relying on multiple pipelines, we make it difficult for a monolithic institution, like the federal government, to sever contact the way the Assad regime presumably has in Syria.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been looking into an even less centralized system that would allow opposition forces in war zones to bypass a government kill switch. Billed as an “Internet in a suitcase,” the system is essentially a mesh network—a system of nodes with overlapping ranges that can be used to pass communications to and from the internet, each node acting as both a receiver and transmitter. One of the major benefits of a mesh network is its redundancy. Because signals are being transmitted from multiple nodes in the network, the loss of several nodes will not necessarily cause an outage for others.
Some have suggested mesh networking as a potential solution to the problem of reliance on a single, government-operated ISP or a few corporate-managed ISPs. For the present, though, the technology is currently only suitable for deployment as an emergency replacement. While home and business WiFi networks are widespread in developed nations, the infrastructure of the internet is still built around a handful of major pipelines and a network of costly data centers.
For now, at least, we remain dependent on a mixture of government and corporate interests for access. Finally, we rely on a balance of power between them to ensure that neither gains the upper hand. Until a better solution comes along, a ceaseless and conscientious maintenance of that balance of power remains our best hope for ensuring the sort of platform we envision. To the extent that it is open and free at all, the internet remains in single Web locked in a stand off between many spiders.