Four hundred million people gained access to the Internet last year, bringing the wired world to 2.7 billion, or about 38 percent of the global population. As more and more people connect to the Web, the next wave of netizens increasingly will come from poor and isolated corners of the world, often areas under authoritarian governments, and turbulence may well follow, said Google Inc’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt at a summit this week.
What disruptive impact will global connectivity for billions more people have on politics, power relationships, and the social compact? How will connectivity feed conflict, and what role is there for freedom of information and expression?
Exploring the challenges and opportunities presented by the Internet as a disruptive technology was the focus of the Google Ideas Summit on Conflict in a Connected World, held in New York this week, and attended by technology experts, defense specialists, academics, journalists and business people.
Already the spread of digital technologies has fostered unexpected change. Online activists have challenged repressive regimes in the Arab Spring. Massive data dumps by whistleblowers Bradley “Chelsea” Manning and Edward Snowden have exposed U.S. government war operations and its secret surveillance techniques. New data tools are allowing journalists to expose transnational criminal networks and their links to political and financial elites that facilitate them.
Governments are starting to fight back ever more aggressively, experts at the summit said. Nation states not only are hacking into each other’s websites to gain security and corporate information, or blocking citizens’ access to certain sites. They are adopting more subtle citizen surveillance and propaganda programmes, and governments are joining in the raucous marketplace of electronic voices in a fight to control the debate.
For example, the Syrian Electronic Army, a collection of computer hackers aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, slows access to the Internet to a crawl creating self-censorship by frustrated users; it diverts email traffic to government servers for surveillance; it hacks sites to post its own messages such as the fake tweet on the Associated Press Twitter account of explosions at the White House; and it analyses computer traffic to locate, arrest and even kill activists, speakers at the conference said.
In Tunisia, activists caught the government off guard and were able to foment a revolution by providing a trusted alternative voice via social media that challenged a corrupt government’s narrative, said Slim Amamou, a blogger and activist in Tunisia. But Syria has learned these lessons and the government is controlling the Internet to suppress dissent, he said: “We were controlling our revolution, which is not the case in Syria. Those who made the first steps in Syria have lost control of the process.”
In Thailand, a pernicious confluence of social repression and government influence combine to quash free expression, said Thaweeporn Am Kummetha, a researcher at Thai Netizen Network. Thailand blocks 70,000 websites and its citizens reinforce this censorship. She cited the case of a young woman subject to severe online bullying for criticising the Thai royal family, a forbidden act in Thailand. Three universities withdrew offers of a seat to study at their institutions in face of a ferocious Internet campaign against her, and the harassment was so severe that the student had to withdraw from the fourth university, Kummetha said.
There were no answers for how to navigate this fast-morphing and turbulent landscape, where citizens scapegoat each other and governments suppress dissent. There was a smorgasbord of ideas for tools to protect freedom of information, association and expression as Internet connectivity expands:
* Regulating the Internet: Do we need a global Code of Conduct for how citizens engage in respectful debate? What rights do governments have to intervene in this free-wheeling space? Google’s Schmidt said: “We need a new social contract for the digital age.” He called for a conversation about what people can expect from the creative commons, copyright licenses that are given free of charge to the public, what are one’s duties and responsibilities in the digital space and how one should behave.
* Cyber Military: Cyber attacks sponsored by governments are influencing kinetic warfare on the ground and vice versa, and they are used to attack dissident groups and sovereign states, opening a totally new arena of warfare for which the military is unprepared, said retired Admiral James Stavridis, now a dean at Tufts University. Just as the invention the aircraft led to the formation of the air force, the United States needs to create a dedicated cyber force, staffed with specialists in digital technologies, he said.
* Cyber Security: In Cuba, blogger Yoani Sanchez said she faces usurious connection fees, equivalent to a year’s salary, which effectively blocks access to the Internet. But she has a relatively low-tech way to circumvent it - a USB stick. One person goes to a library and downloads Web pages and then circulates the USB stick amongst hundreds of users, she said. Google Ideas meanwhile is working on high-tech ways to improve access. It unveiled Project Shield, free protection for websites against "distributed denial of service" attacks, which flood websites with junk traffic to block access. It also announced uProxy, which allows a group of users to have safer and more secure connections.
* Individual identity and freedoms: Most Internet activity leaves digital footprints that allow governments to track citizens’ moves and writings in an increasingly invasive manner. What rights do governments have to regulate, monitor and control these activities in the name of state security and stability? Ali Abdulemam, a blogger who fled Bahrain and was sentenced to 15 years in absentia for treason, said he is unwilling to sacrifice his freedom of expression for security. But should netizens be required to use a single Online Passport to travel around the virtual world, just as citizens today must carry passports to cross physical borders and get visas to enter some countries? Or should netizens have the right to travel incognito, as Chris Poole, founder of 4chan, a chat room to discuss issues anonymously, prefers?
The democratic nature of the Internet, meanwhile, levels the playing field in new and unexpected ways. It allows anyone with technical know-how to build websites and applications that can serve humanitarian ends. Here are some examples from the summit:
* Scud Missile Alert: In Syria, citizens can upload photos to a website real time tracking the trajectory of a just-fired scud missile, an algorithm calculates its likely target and sends SMS and email alerts to people in that community before it hits.
* Global Weapons Expert: Brown Moses, aka Eliot Higgins, had no knowledge of warfare, Arabic or Syria and began a blog from his armchair in England examining YouTube videos of Syrian weapons. By careful examination of material uploaded by combatants, he tracked down new sources of rebel weaponry and reconstructed the chemical weapon attack in Damascus, which he says showed it came from the Syrian government.
* Russian Arms Trade: Farley Masco, chief operating officer of the open-source analytics group C4ADS which focuses on conflict and security, trawled public records on shipping routes and company ownership structures to ultimately reveal that two businessmen - one an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin - control an intricate worldwide network of companies that deliver heavy grade weapons to battle zones, including Syria.
* Organised Crime and Media: OCCRP, a non-profit investigative reporting group in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has developed an expertise in tracking corporate ownership structures and has built public databases and a research desk to help others do the same. Its own investigation into media companies in Eastern Europe revealed how organised crime bosses with links to politicians are buying up media outlets, gaining influence over public debate.