The price of throttling the Internet

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright August 11, 2013
In the Arab Spring, totalitarian rulers found the OFF switch for their country's Internet. Now it seems the US government has found the dimmer switch, but at what cost to the country?

Energy saving
During the beginnings of the Arab Spring a couple years back, I wanted to write a blog post about the impossibility of shutting down the Internet in our modern digital world.

All of the failing Arab dictatorships tried to suppress revolt by cutting off access to social media and foreign websites, in some cases by forcing their entire domestic Internet to go dark.

All quickly discovered the economic and operational penalties that immediately hit vital interests in their countries. The blackouts — which in any case had proven largely ineffective — were rapidly reversed and the revolts continued.

The message, I felt, was stark: If you want your nation to trade and prosper in today's global economy, you have to leave the digital switch flipped to ON. Even in fast-growing China, the 'Great Firewall' has an economic impact by restricting access to global resources and trade.

In the end, I never got around to writing that post. But of course it was at a time when the West — and the US in particular — was apt to crow about its Internet freedoms, decrying the snooping and curtailments that China and others imposed on their Internet users.

As we now know, that was all BS — Before Snowden.

Secret messages

This weekend I was suddenly reminded of those earlier thoughts when I read about the shutdown of two encrypted email providers in the US late last week, one of them having been PRISM leaker Edward Snowden's email provider. Both chose to stop operating rather than become complicit with the US government in snooping into their customers' email correspondence.

This saddened me because it seems to me that one of the marks of a civilized society is that it accepts its citizens having the freedom to exchange secret messages. By clamping down on encrypted email services, the US government is denying its citizens that digital freedom.

It's certainly not as drastic as flipping the digital switch to OFF like the Arab despots, but it's turning the dimmer switch in the same direction. And of course it's just as ineffective — people simply find other ways to keep their messages secret. In many cases, that will mean they'll move activities outside of US federal jurisdiction, and the US will lose the economic benefit of those activities.

Commercial interests

Perhaps you are wondering what economic benefits are those? Well, first of all let's realize that it's not only enemies of the state that exchange secret messages. Business people often have very good commercial reasons for protecting their correspondence from prying eyes. Innovators and entrepreneurs don't want their intellectual property stolen or misappropriated before they've had chance to finalize its development and patent protection. Businesses now have good reason to move those valuable activities out of US jurisdiction.

We can also imagine that corrupt practices and abuses of power are damaging to a country's economic interests. What sort of country is it that drives its whistleblowers into self-imposed digital exile as the only means of safeguarding themselves against premature detection?

The countries that will be most enheartened by these latest moves are historically no friends of Western capitalism. China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been among those leading moves at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to normalize government regulation and control of global Internet traffic. They will no doubt be delighted to see US government agencies undermining by their actions the vociferous opposition of its own delegation to the ITU, led by US Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell.

Dimmer switch

In my book, tolerating diversity and dissent are essential to the proper functioning not only of a liberal democracy but also of capitalism itself. By undermining Internet freedoms, a country undermines its ability to innovate and compete in a global, connected economy. Every notch you turn on the dimmer switch of Internet freedoms dims the vibrancy of your nation's economy.

Thus government should not be looking to treat all citizens as potential terrorists and curtailing freedoms accordingly. The quid quo pro is that all citizens then have to be on their guard against their government becoming a totalitarian state.

There is a balance to be struck that allows the forces of law, order and civil security to do their work while recognizing the rights of citizens to go about their lawful business without unnecessary surveillance and intrusion. That depends on a system of transparency, checks and balances — and the freedom of citizens to message in secret is one of the necessary checks on abuse of power.

Forgetting history

Back in the early 1990s, I once had dinner with an entrepreneur who had set up one of the UK's first direct mail businesses in the late 1940s after leaving the Army. I was surprised to see that he paid the bill in cash, but he explained to me that he didn't want anyone tracking what he spent his money on.

People of his generation, who witnessed the secret-state methods of totalitarian regimes that had existed across Europe throughout his adult life, needed no reminders of the benefits of keeping transactions private.

Today we are forgetting that history. We should not lightly allow our governments in this digital age to chip away at all of the civil liberties that his generation fought terrible wars to defend on our behalf.

Photo credit: © pogonici -