It’s no secret that America’s ARPANET, the direct precursor to today’s Internet, was created as part of America’s response to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War — and so geopolitics is in the genes of the “network of networks.” since its conception. It’s no secret, either, that three decades after its commercialization, the Internet has become an important—if not the most important—domain of geopolitical rivalry, competition, espionage, sabotage, and even war.
The main superpowers in the current geopolitical tensions on the internet – the US, the EU and China… closely followed by Russia and India – have been on display for more than a decade (and as for Russia versus the EU and the US, in our headlines of the past month.) Like the geopolitical rivalries and wars between European-based empires of past centuries, which have played out on the oceans, in Africa, Asia and the Americas, the major geopolitical superpowers are easy to identify, while among smaller ones internet powers shifting alliances and neutral states are common.
However, the goals of today’s internet superpowers are a mix of the 18e century notions of control over territories and populations and 21st century notions of control over dominant technologies and over the information economies of other countries. Nevertheless, Ukraine, Taiwan and even the Snowden revelations are a strong reminder that 18e Century notions of control over territory and population have never been far from the top.
The starting point in any examination of the geopolitics of the Internet must be its origins in the United States and the consequent fact that a 1,000-mile stretch from Seattle to San Diego encompasses almost all of the Internet’s core infrastructure, almost all of which is essentially orchestrated. by Americans. This clearly makes the US the internet superpower of superpowers. No great power can do any 21 . assertst or even 18e geopolitical goals of the century without taking this into account. And they do so in a variety of ways, ranging from regulating America’s Internet infrastructure giants to blocking them to replacing them with domestic substitutes.
From this international point of view—put aside US domestic concerns about regulating Internet infrastructure, ranging from economic fairness to privacy—it is obviously in America’s international interest to keep as little change as possible in Internet power relations. There are few likely scenarios where US dominance over this domain will increase from what it is today, which in theory would make the US the main proponent of the Internet status quo.
The other premise is the simple fact that of the roughly 4.5 billion global Internet users, about 6 percent (250 million) are American, while about 17 percent (760 million) are Chinese; about 9 percent (400 million) are European; about 9 percent (400 million) are Indian and about 2 percent (100 million) are Russian. Japan and Brazil are also in Russia’s league.
How each of these internet superpowers expresses its geopolitical rivalry with the dominant country, the United States, varies over time and between them. The oldest is probably Europe. Europe’s online rivalry with America probably has roots dating back half a century to the de Gaulle era decisions to create European alternatives to America’s effective monopolies in leading technologies such as commercial jet aircraft, atomic bombs, missiles and computers. This, among many others, led to European “computing” initiatives such as the French computer network of the 1980s, often referred to as Minitel.
When it became clear in the mid-1990s that America’s open Internet would displace any European closed computer network, European strategy shifted to accepting the inevitability of the Internet as a global domain and to regulating and ultimately taxing America’s Internet giants. At the same time, Europe has sought to nurture European alternatives to America’s internet giants, just as it had done in aerospace for decades.
China has chosen a different path. Developed quickly, especially during the 21st century, a decade after US dominance over the Internet was established — and with a historic distrust of American geopolitical motives — China’s path has been marked more by massive state-incentivized investment in Internet services and the exclusion of America’s Internet infrastructure giants than it has been by simple settlement. . As a result, with a few notable exceptions, few Chinese internet users today rely heavily on US internet companies for their internet experience. From that foundation, China has made it clear that it plans to expand its own Internet technologies and services to other countries and populations around the world.
Realizing that it lacked both the market size and the financial resources of the EU or China, Russia has sought to exploit internet technology niches where it had strengths and forge alliances with other countries with the aim of international cooperation to control, regulate and control America’s internet dominance. . Through international ties dating back to the Soviet Union and spurred on by suspicion of America’s political/military internet motives, bolstered by the Snowden revelations, Russia has vociferously sought to build international coalitions to reduce US geopolitical dominance, while quietly building internet drawbridges that could be lifted to reduce Russia’s dependence on America’s internet giants.
When, where and how exactly India will express its own geopolitical interests on the internet remains unclear – and is arguably the internet’s biggest unanswered geopolitical question.
Most countries have simply followed long-standing political alliances or customs. From time to time, some countries have deftly shifted their support to the approaches of Chinese, American, European and even Russian powerhouses, sometimes appearing to support several Internet powerhouses at once.
While these geopolitical struggles on the internet rarely get the media attention that political/military or even economic/financial struggles, they are no less important and can have a major impact on the daily lives of people everywhere. No matter how much publicity the internet geopolitics gets, because the stakes are so high, it is sure to get more tense in the near future.
Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C. He was a senior executive at Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 to 1994. He also led public Internet policy for IBM from 1994 to 2000 and later served as Senior Vice President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified numerous times on Internet policy issues, and has served on advisory committees for the FTC and several UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.
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