Cyberspace has an off switch

For all the fanciful talk of the internet as a means for the free flow of information – the open society 21st century style – it is easy to overlook the fact that electronic networks are based on physical machines over which state and other corporate elites have ultimate control.

With the UK’s signal intelligence agency GCHQ tapping into the transatlantic fibre-optic cables which plug the British Isles into the global network, that physical reality is all too evident. GCHQ’s Tempora programme allows the state to store and at least statistically analyse every bit of information that comes into or leaves these shores.

International physical links, as well as the various levels of network nodes within Britain, can be manipulated or shut down with relative ease. Engineering redundancy aside, internet infrastructure is hierarchical, and only mesh networking provides a degree of true data autonomy for individuals and communities, albeit on a restricted scale.

When it comes to NSA, GCHQ, Prism and Tempora, the information coming into the public domain is on a technical level hardly revelatory, but the political consequences of the disclosures are potentially huge. It all depends on how states and the private corporations responsible for managing the internet react to the scandals.

Also relevant is how end users of communications technologies respond when it comes to personal data management and security. Still, I suspect that relatively few care about such things, thinking that they have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. Convenience trumps everything.

The current data snooping scandals centre on the US and UK, with other states expressing concern and exploiting the situation for their own political ends. An interesting example of the latter comes from Russia, with a senior member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party arguing that Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks should prompt Russia to engineer and control its own part of the internet, quarantining it from the global network, and rendering it subject to domestic political control.

This is a big deal, and I’m surprised that Sergei Zheleznyak’s article has attracted so little attention outside of Russia. Information flow in quasi-democratic Russia has to date been freer than in China. If Russia follows China down the path of information control, it will severely restrict the freedom and autonomy of another 143 million souls within the global human community.