The hippy ethos that birthed early management of the internet is beginning to look quaint. Even as a military project, the core internet concept was a decentralized network of unlimited nodes that could reroute itself around danger and destruction. No one could control it because no one could truly manage it. And that was the primary feature, not a bug.
Well, not anymore.
I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that the forces insisting on dominating their societies are generally opposed to an open internet where all information can be free. Dictators gonna dictate.
Beginning July 17, 2019, the government of Kazakhstan began intercepting all HTTPS internet traffic inside its borders. Local Kazakh ISPs must force their users to install a government-issued certificate into all devices to allow local government agents to decrypt users’ HTTPS traffic, examine its content, re-encrypt with a government certificate and send it on to its intended destination. This is the electronic equivalent of opening every envelope, photocopying the material inside, stuffing that material in a government envelope and (sometimes) sending it to the expected recipient. Except with web sites.
According to ZDNet, the Kazakh government, unsurprisingly, said the measure was “aimed at enhancing the protection of citizens, government bodies and private companies from hacker attacks, Internet fraudsters and other types of cyber threats.” As Robin Hood could have told you, the Sheriff’s actions taken to protect travelers and control brigands can easily result in government control of all traffic and information, especially when that was the plan all along. Security Boulevard reports that “Since Wednesday, all internet users in Kazakhstan have been redirected to a page instructing users to download and install the new certificate.
This is not the first time that Kazakhstan has attempted to force its citizens to install root certificate, and in 2015 the Kazakhs even applied with Mozilla to have Kazakh root certificate included in Firefox (Mozilla politely declined).
Despite creative technical solutions, we all know that Kazakhstan is not alone in restricting the internet access of its citizens. For one (gargantuan) example, China’s population of 800 million has deeply restricted internet access, and, according to the Washington Post, the Chinese citizenry can’t access Google, Facebook, YouTube or the New York Times, among many, many, many others. The Great Firewall of China, which involves legislation, government monitoring action, technology limitations and cooperation from internet and telecommunications companies. China recently clamped down on WhatsApp and VPNs, which had returned a modicum of control and privacy to the people. And China has taken these efforts two steps beyond nearly anyone else in the world by building a culture of investigation and shame, where its citizens could find their pictures on a local billboard for boorish traffic or internet behavior, or in jail for questioning the ruling party on the internet. All this is well documented.
23 countries in Asia and 7 in Africa restrict torrents, pornography, political media, and social media. The only two European nations that have the same restrictions are Turkey and Belarus. Politicians in the U.S. and Europe had hoped that the internet would serve as a force for freedom, knowledge and unlimited communications. Countries like Russia, Cuba, and Nigeria also see the internet’s potential, but they prefer to throttle the net to choke off this potential threat to their one-party rule governments.
For these countries, there is no such thing as private. They think of privacy in context – you may keep thoughts or actions private from companies, but not the government. On the micro-level, it reminds me of family dynamics –When your teenagers talk about privacy, they mean keeping information private from the adults in their lives, not friends, strangers, or even companies. Controlling governments sing the song of privacy, as long as the information is not kept from them, it can be hidden from others.
The promise of Internet freedom is slipping further away from more people each year as dictators and real-life versions of movie villains figure out how to use the technology for surveillance of everyday people and how to limit access to “dangerous” ideas of liberty. ICANN, the internet control organization set up by the U.S. two decades ago, has proven itself bloated and ineffective to protect the interests of private internet users. In fact, it would be surprising if the current leaders of ICANN even felt that such protections were within its purview.
The internet is truly a global phenomenon, but it is managed at local levels, leaving certain populations vulnerable to spying and manipulation by their own governments. Those running the system seem to have resigned themselves to allowing national governments to greatly restrict the human rights of their own citizens.
A tool can be used in many different ways. A hammer can help build a beautiful home or can be the implement of torture and murder. The internet can be a tool for freedom of thought and expression, where everyone has a publishing and communication platform. Or it can be a tool for repression. We have come to accept more of the latter than I believed possible.
Post Script —
Also, after a harrowing last 2-5 years where freedom to speak on the internet (and social media) has exploded into horrible real-life consequences, large and small, even the most libertarian and laissez-faire of First World residents is slapping the screen to find some way to moderate the flow of ignorance, evil, insanity, inanity and stupidity. This is the other side of the story and fodder for a different post.
And it is also probably time to run an updated discussion of ICANN and its role in internet management. We heard a great deal about internet leadership in 2016, but not so much lately. Stay Tuned.