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Geopolitics and the internet

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This March 19, 2021, photo composite shows leaders of the world’s three super powers (from left): Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s no secret that America’s ARPANET, the direct forbearer of today’s internet, was created as part of America’s response to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War — and, thus, geopolitics has been in the genes of the “network of networks” since its conception. Nor is it any secret that three decades after its commercialization, the internet has become a major — if not the major — domain of geopolitical rivalry, competition, espionage, sabotage and even war. 

The main superpowers in internet geopolitical tension today — the U.S., the EU and China… followed closely by Russia and India — have been on display for over a decade (and regarding Russia vs the EU and the U.S., in our headlines for the past month.) Not unlike the geopolitical rivalries and wars between European-based empires of past centuries, which played out on the oceans, in Africa, Asia and the Americas, the main geopolitical superpowers are easy to identify, while among lesser internet powers, shifting alliances and neutral states are common.

Today’s internet superpowers’ goals, however, are a blend of the 18th century notions of control over territories and populations and 21st century notions of control over commanding technologies and over other countries’ information economies. Nonetheless, Ukraine, Taiwan and even the Snowden disclosures are stark reminders that 18th century notions of control over territory and populations have never been far from the very top.

The starting point in any examination of the geopolitics of the internet must be its origins in the United States and the resulting fact that a 1,000-mile strip from Seattle to San Diego includes nearly all of the internet’s core infrastructure, almost all of which is essentially directed by Americans. This obviously makes the U.S. the internet superpower of superpowers. No great power can assert any 21st or even 18th century geopolitical goals without taking this fact into account. And they do so in different ways, ranging from regulating America’s internet infrastructure giants to blocking them to replacing them with domestic substitutes.

From this international starting point — putting aside for a moment American domestic concerns about regulating internet infrastructure, ranging from economic justice to privacy — it is obviously in America’s international interest to change as little in the internet balance of power as possible. There are few likely scenarios in which American dominance over this domain will increase over what it is today, which would theoretically make the U.S. the principal supporter of the internet status quo.

The other starting point is the simple fact that of the roughly 4.5 billion global internet users, around 6 percent (250 million) are American, while around 17 percent (760 million) are Chinese; around 9 percent (400 million) are European; around 9 percent (400 million) are Indian, and around 2 percent (100 million) are Russian. Japan and Brazil are also in Russia’s league.

How each of these internet great powers expresses its geopolitical rivalry with the dominant country, the United States, varies over time and among them. The oldest is probably Europe. European rivalry with America in the internet domain probably has roots that go back a half century to de Gaulle-era decisions to create European alternatives to America’s effective monopolies in such commanding technologies as commercial jetliners, atom bombs, rockets and computers. This led, among many others, to such European “informatics” initiatives as the 1980’s French computer network often called Minitel.

As it became clear in the mid-1990s that America’s open internet would supplant every European closed computer network, European strategy shifted towards accepting the inevitability of the internet as a global domain and towards regulating and eventually taxing America’s internet giants. Simultaneously, Europe has sought to nurture European alternatives to America’s internet giants, much as it had done in aerospace in past decades.

China has chosen a different path. Having rapidly developed mainly during the 21st century, a decade after American dominance over the internet had been established — and with a historic suspicion of American geopolitical motives — China’s path has been characterized more by enormous state-encouraged investments in internet services and the exclusion of America’s internet infrastructure giants than it has been by simple regulation. As a result, with a few notable exceptions, today few Chinese internet users rely heavily on American internet companies for their internet experience. From that base, China has made clear that it intends 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 either the EU or China, Russia has sought to exploit internet technology niches where it has had strengths and to forge alliances with other countries with the goal of an international collaboration to limit, restrict, regulate and control America’s internet dominance. Through international ties that date back to the Soviet Union and spurred by suspicion of America’s internet political/military motives intensified by the Snowden disclosures, Russia has loudly sought to develop international coalitions to diminish American internet geopolitical dominance while quietly building internet drawbridges that could be raised to diminish Russian reliance on America’s internet giants.

Exactly when, where and how India will express its own geopolitical interests on the internet remains unclear — and is perhaps the internet’s largest unanswered geopolitical question.

Most countries have simply followed longstanding political alliances or habits. Periodically, some nations have deftly shifted their support among Chinese, American, European and even Russian superpowers’ approaches, sometimes appearing to support several different internet superpowers at the same time. 

While these internet geopolitical struggles rarely get the media attention that political/military or even economic/financial struggles do, they are no less important and can have a great impact on the daily lives of people everywhere. Regardless of how much publicity the geopolitics of the internet gets, because the stakes are so high, it is certain to get more tense for the foreseeable future.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C.  He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 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 on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.

Tags China China internet Cultural globalization Digital technology European Union geopolitical risks Great power competition India Information and communications technology Internet internet regulation Political geography Russia Russian cyberattacks Technology

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